Thin Places

March 3, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert


This is the last Sunday of the Season of Epiphany; we know that  Lent begins this week on Ash Wednesday.  For Luke, the Transfiguration is in many ways the greatest of all of the epiphany stories.  You may remember that the word “epiphany” means “showing forth.”  Far different from the readings in recent weeks, where we saw Jesus coming down to the people on the Plain as he spoke to them.  Today, we find Jesus with three of his disciples up on the top of a mountain as this most unusual scene unfolds.  For his followers, it must have seemed like a dream as Jesus is revealed as a great prophet and as God’s chosen, God’s beloved child.  Let us pray, May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O God.  Amen.

In the verses which are found right before this passage, Jesus has just shared what is arguably his most disturbing, difficult teaching of all: that he must suffer, die, and rise again – and that anyone who wishes to follow him must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).  For his listeners, this has to be very disturbing because by this point, they have been traveling together and forming a close bond with Jesus.  He has gained their trust as he has traveled from place to place, healing people from serious illness, bringing hope to those who are hopeless.  They are invested in his message; they are finding the meaning of their own lives deepened by this Jesus, who has called them in a special way to follow him and now he is predicting that he will die soon, that he will leave them. Imagine how upsetting that must have seemed? Imagine the fear that crept into their hearts as they heard those words and thought about a future without him.

If you watched the Academy Awards last week, perhaps you saw that a documentary called Free Solo won best documentary.  You may have seen some footage about this film on the news in recent months.  I have not seen the film but I have seen interviews with the directors and the film’s focus, Alex Honnold, who climbed the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without any support of ropes, or pitons or other climbers.  His sport is called free soloing and it clearly appeals to extreme sports enthusiasts.  In 2015, he had published a book titled “Alone on the Wall.” In it, he describes how as a kid, it was easier for him to climb without a partner — meaning without a rope — than to ask someone to be his partner.  Apparently as a child he suffered from a number of fears, afraid to hug others or to eat vegetables, and so it seems that in an effort to conquer fear’s hold on his life, he chose an extreme sport as his goal.  As a piece in the NYT reported, “He has always seemed to know how to embrace a rock face, to jam fingers and toes into the tiniest of cracks and scamper upward with near-mystical ease. Rejecting company, ropes or pitons (except the occasional strays left behind by more conventional climbers), he has completed more than 1,000 solitary ascents and is reputed to be the greatest surviving free-soloist. In a sport where a rogue wind or a single, startled bird can send you hurtling to your death, not too many practitioners live long enough to earn a tribute like this one.”  (NYT)

I have to admit that while I am in awe of what he has accomplished, I don’t get it.  Too many young climbers have fallen to their death practicing this approach to climbing.  On some level, it seems incredibly selfish if you have family and a partner and he does.  In any case, there is clearly a lure for certain types of people to climb mountains and any of us who have had the opportunity to do some climbing can attest to that amazing feeling of satisfaction when one reaches the summit.  I know we have some climbers in this church.  Obviously, people spend a great deal of money to climb Mt Everest every year and others embark upon the Appalachian Trail or the High Sierra Tail out west.  There is something very special about climbing that challenges people in all sorts of ways, physically, emotionally, mentally, and that enables people to work through fear and gain confidence in who they are and what they can achieve.

There is something about a mountaintop that helps us feel that we are closer to God, at least in a figurative sense.  Even for those of us who believe that the Transcendent is everywhere or to be found in nature or deep within ourselves, it is part of our common understanding that the heavens are where God resides.  In Celtic Spirituality, there is a phrase called “thin places” and that speaks to the places in our lives where we feel closer to God’s Spirit. The ancient pagan Celts, and later, Christians, used the term to describe mesmerizing places like the wind-swept isle of Iona (now part of Scotland) or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick. Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. (NYT, Travel)  It’s part of our mythos if you will to believe that God is to be found on top of mountains.  Moreover, important things do happen on the tops of mountains throughout the Bible.  Certainly, Moses encounters God on the top of Mount Sinai and receives the Ten Commandments.  And so, it is no surprise that Jesus invites his close friends to accompany him up the mountain where they will see Jesus encounter Moses, and Elijah, and will hear the voice of God speak forth and see the blinding light surrounding these three.

The Transfiguration’s light may serve as a kind of reassurance for Peter, John, and James (and for the rest of us!).  It’s as if Luke is saying: We’re now making the turn toward Golgotha, and that means descending into the valley of the shadow of death.  But fear not! Keep this astonishing, mysterious mountaintop story in mind as we go. Carry it like a torch, for it can help show the way – and because it gives us a glimpse of where all this is headed…

By the time the Gospel of Luke was composed, many Jews considered the prophet Elijah to be a kind of what we call eschatological figure whose return would signal the imminent end of the age (see Malachi 4:5-6); and so, Elijah was considered one of  the most important of  the prophets.  And Moses, of course, was thought to be the author of the Torah. Together, then, Moses and Elijah personified “the law and the prophets,” the beautiful and sacred scriptural tradition the risen Jesus will later interpret for the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27).

We may wish to think of this passage today as a high “mountain” in the midst of Luke’s Gospel.  On one side, we climb up through stories of Jesus’ healing, liberating ministry. And on the other side, we’ll descend down to Jerusalem where he will meet his death.  Today, we arrive at a clearing on the mountaintop – and from here we can survey both how far we’ve come and the Lenten journey ahead. Epiphany concludes today: Jesus has “shown forth” to be a healer and a liberator; a teacher and a shining prophet.  Peter has just called him “the Messiah” (Luke 9:20).  But most importantly, he is God’s chosen, God’s beloved child. He was sent to bring God’s important message to the people of his time and to all who would follow.  His path of love will lead down into the valley, through the dry cinders of Ash Wednesday and the tears of what is called the Via Delorosa, the Way of Sorrow.  But this week, from here on the mountaintop, we can survey the 40 days ahead, take a deep breath – and remember that the journey through ashes and sorrow is never for its own sake.  It’s for the sake of what comes next. In a word, it’s for the sake of transfiguration: a radiant new life and a dazzling new world.   (SALT)