A Sermon for 26 August 2018
A reading of Psalm 84. Listen for God’s word to us in this beautiful Psalm believed to be inspired by pilgrims’ annual journeys to Jerusalem for Temple festivals. Listen.
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! 2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. 3 Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. 4 Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. 5 Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. 6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. 7 They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. 8 O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! 9 Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed. 10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. 11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield; God bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. 12 O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
I’ve been told that Ireland is beautiful! Some of you likely have been there. I never have. . . . Rolling hills along rugged coasts. Green everywhere you look. Wild weather often blows in off the Atlantic. And ancient stones sit all over the land. For those unwilling to appreciate the beauty of nature, it might just seem like a country filled with piles of old rocks. Others find the land palpable with Presence. Hallowed spaces where it feels as if heaven and earth meet. The Ancient Celts called such spots thin places. In fact, a Celtic saying proclaims that “heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter” (quoted on https://www.irishamericanmom.com/irelands-thin-places/). From stone circles in places like County Cork to the massive Grianan Stone Ring Fort in County Donegal, thin places teach us that some locations on earth are closer to the spiritual. Thin places are where God’s Presence is more accessible.
Listen to one passionate Irish American describe her experience of Ireland’s thin places: “These places bring feelings and emotions, realizations and awareness to the fore. It is as if the line between all that is sacred and human meet for just a moment. There is something otherworldly in the atmosphere, transcendent, even divine. Other dimensions seem closer than usual. There is a tangible stillness to the silence” (Ibid.). She continues: “In a thin place something beyond words causes our spines to tingle, as if awakening our souls. Even our thoughts seem to be swept away in the moment, and something deep within our beings touches a luminous seat of knowledge. . . . Returning from a thin place is marked by a feeling of refreshment and renewal. Our awareness of the world around us becomes heightened” (Ibid.). She also writes about the lasting effects of being in a thin place. “In days, weeks, and years to come;” she writes, “memories of sacred landscapes help us see glimpses of nature and the Divine in the chaotic world around our urban existences. The prayerfulness of these little corners of earth urge us to return to them in our imagination when we cannot physically visit them again. When overwhelmed by the monotony of daily life, the tedious details of work and living” she writes; “we can listen to our hearts and hear the silent music of thin places. Our souls guide us back to the peaceful presence of those ancient stones and help us draw strength from the peace and serenity of our thin place experiences” (Ibid.).
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts,” the Psalmist writes (Ps. 84:1). “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD!” (Ps. 84:2a). Psalm 84 might be one of the most beautiful scriptural descriptions of a pilgrim’s experience of a thin place. It’s unlikely that most of us consider the Temple in Jerusalem as a thin place. But what else do we think the people of God had been describing? Since the days of Moses and the wandering Israelites dwelling with the tabernacle of God among them, Scripture is filled with stories of the people of God experiencing the palpable Presence of Heaven coming ever so close to earth. Of course, the Presence was on the move in the Ark of the Covenant until King Solomon finally had the go ahead to have massive stones moved together on Mount Zion. The Temple was raised on the mount in Jerusalem for the Sacred to fill the atmosphere. To bring the other dimension of the Divine closer to human beings. To cause our spines to tingle. To awaken our souls and be swept up beyond all rational thought for something deep within ourselves to be touched by the Luminous. That we might know, truly know, that the One who is beyond us also is among us. The thin place of the Temple had that kind of effect – not only because the of grandeur of the structure. But also because it was there worshippers had experienced the wonder-filled meeting of heaven and earth.
A few years ago, when I arrived in the Holy Land with a group of fellow pilgrims; we were told to suspend suspicion over sites we would see being factually in the actual spot where the events might have taken place. I think I’ve told you this before. We were reminded that everywhere we were going in that land was where Jesus of Nazareth had walked. For people of faith, it all was hallowed ground. And it was hallowed not just by his previous physical presence. Part of what makes the Holy Land holy is the power of the prayers pilgrims have brought to each spot for thousands of years – from our earliest Israelite ancestors in the faith right up to the worldwide Christian visitors of today. The land pulses with a Presence – an energy – a Living Presence that feels like an intersection, a thinner veil between heaven and earth. The Holy Land is full of such spots – though the hustle and bustle of busloads of other pilgrims can make it difficult to notice. Tough to be quiet in order to hear the silent music of God. Our hearts and our flesh able to join the Psalmist in singing for joy to the living God (Ps. 84:2b). It’s just easier to experience God there – for emotions and realizations and awareness to bubble up to the surface so that we want to remain right there forever.
The destruction the of Temple a few decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection might have brought an end to the glory of that building. But it did not bring an end to the mystical quality of that space. The stones of the remaining Western Wall – also known as the Wailing Wall – still hold the power of the Divine Presence. Millions flock there annually to make their wishes as they touch the ancient rock and shove their little prayer papers into whatever crevice they can find in the wall. Scores of observant Jews (watched by curious spiritual seekers) gather late each Friday afternoon. Men on one side, women on the other. They begin the beautiful ritual of preparing for the Sabbath with prayers and songs and joyous dances. I remember being there, watching one Friday. And seeing that even the birds were gathered. Right over the heads of worshippers sparrows and holy pigeons joined with their happy sounds.
I realize this spot (this sanctuary) isn’t anywhere as ancient as the holy spots of Jerusalem or the stone circles of Ireland, but I wonder if any of us notice the palpable Presence here? So that we long to be here – in this sanctuary – ever singing God’s praise? When we gather here together, we are saturated by the prayers of the generations. Their hopes and fears and celebrations. We are surrounded by the power of ancient ritual. The sprinkling of water as a sign and seal. The breaking of bread. The cup poured out in reminder that our own life-force is to be as freely given for life in the world today. Hearts attuned. Voices lifted up. Hands folded or outstretched. For years. The Presence awakening our souls in this thin place that we might go forth refreshed. Renewed. Dare I say: for us to remember that the lovely place in which God dwells is here and is within every last one of us too. Who long to be together in the Presence of the Living God – like batteries recharged – so that we spread out into homes and neighborhoods and places of daily work to be like walking thin places. People in whom heaven and earth – Spirit and flesh – intersect. Creating an atmosphere – not on our own accord but because we’ve gotten ourselves out of the way enough for the Spirit of God, the Light of Christ to shine right through us. That palpable Presence going forth from us to renew the hearts of those who cross our paths. Refreshing toilsome souls that long for a taste of the Light. . . . Thin places – walking all over the earth for God’s Presence to be a little more accessible to all.
May our lives proclaim how lovely is God’s dwelling place! May our hearts sing for joy for the palpable Presence of the Living God!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)