September 21, 2018

Lent III: The Ultimate Thin Place

Evening Spring. Photo by FranceBluebird Photography

Sermon: Lent 3
The Ultimate Thin Place

JOHN 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

The Lord be with you.

One of my favorite people I’ve ever met as a hospice chaplain was man I will call George. His wife was Mildred, and she had Alzheimers disease. Mildred loved music, and used to play the organ in church. Upon occasion, when I visited, she would sing and “dance,” her body swaying to a melody in her mind the rest of us could not hear.

Her husband George, wheelchair bound, had health problems of his own. He also had the most positive, sunny spirit of anyone I’ve met, despite having faced challenges I could not imagine. After two solid years of war zone action, hopping from island to island in the Pacific in WWII, seeing the majority of his companions killed, witnessing untold horrors, he came home to Mildred a broken man. It took him three years to stop having vivid nightmares, to be able to think, to be able to plan their future. With faith and sheer force of will he went into business for himself and became successful. They raised a family and experienced the post-war prosperity of middle America.
At one point, his business burned down. George turned to the insurance company, who called the fire suspicious and never did pay off. Somehow, George and Mildred survived, rebuilt their lives, and went on. They had each other, loving children, a spirit of optimism, and Mildred’s music. Sometimes they had little more than that music to carry them through.

As they grew older, it became clear that Mildred had dementia. The songs in her mind were the only sounds that made sense. George was heartbroken. The two of them had been through so much together, and now she seemed far away. He could touch her, see her, talk to her, but Mildred was somewhere else. And so it it was George in his chair and Mildred swaying back and forth, along with a caregiver supporting them in their final season of life together.

After Mildred died, I continued to visit George and his family. Even did a wedding for one of his grandkids. On every visit George amazed and inspired me with his optimism and encouraging spirit. But one day George had a question. He had been having visions of Mildred. Lying in bed, he would look over at the bathroom door, and she would be standing there, dressed nicely, smiling. When he sat up to get a closer look, she faded away. One time she was lying next to him in bed. He wondered what it meant. I asked him how it made him feel to see her. It made him feel good, he said, when she was there. He was a little bit confused about why she did not stay.

“George,” I said, “I think there may be something more here. Most of us have been taught to think that ‘heaven’ is a place far, far away, out there somewhere. My understanding is that it is more like another dimension all around us, right here. There’s another reality surrounding us that we can’t see, but it’s here and it’s just as real as the things we can touch. That’s God’s realm, and we call it heaven. He and our loved ones are with us, they are close to us even when we can’t see them. And for some reason, at some times, it seems like God opens the curtain a little bit and gives us a glimpse into that unseen world.

“The Irish Christians talk about what they call ‘the thin places,’” I continued, “sacred spots here on earth where it seems like the veil between heaven and this world is thin, where God makes himself and his love known to us. George, maybe you are a man who lives constantly near the ‘thin places’.”

I tell this story today because for the Jewish people in the time of Jesus there was one special “thin place” — and that was the Temple in Jerusalem. That was where God met them, where God revealed himself to them, where they received God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. In our Gospel story today, Jesus goes into that sacred place and turns it upside down. Why did he do that?

Some have suggested that Jesus was protesting the economic activity that was going on. People came from all over to the Passover feast, and it was necessary for them to have clean animals to sacrifice, so a system had developed where they could buy their animals at the Temple rather than having to herd them all the way there. Because the Romans ruled, it also meant they need to exchange their Roman money for Temple currency, because they considered it unclean to use foreign money to buy Temple goods. There was a level of extortion that went on, and usually the poor paid the price.

However, I don’t think Jesus action was a commercial protest. This wasn’t about social justice. I don’t think he just got angry one day when he saw the shady economic activity that was going on. I think Jesus was actually saying something about the Temple itself and its purpose. When Jesus drove the traders out of the Temple, he actually stopped the sacrificial activity there for a short time. I think he did that as a prophetic action. Symbolically stopping the regular sacrificial system in such a striking way Jesus was saying saying, “This whole system is under judgment; and one day, before long, this system will stop completely, because the Temple will be destroyed.”

And then, you will notice, he started talking about himself. You see, the Temple was designed to point to Jesus. The Temple was the place where God met with his people. The Temple was the ultimate “thin place” — the place in the world where heaven and earth intersected and God himself met them, inviting them to receive forgiveness and renewal. Jesus was telling them that the Temple would no longer be that place, but rather that he himself would be the One where God would meet people. Jesus would provide the Sacrifice and become the location of forgiveness and cleansing. The Temple would be destroyed forever, but Jesus would be raised up in three days and become our new Temple.

Now we don’t travel to a particular place like the Temple and buy animals and sacrifice them. We come to the Word of the Gospel and to the font of baptism and to Lord’s Table to feast on Jesus’ body and blood. This is where we meet God. This is where God meets us. Jesus is the ultimate “thin place.” He is Emmanuel, God with us. And he invites each and every one of us, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden; and I will give you rest.” Amen.

• • •

Photo by FranceBluebird Photography at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Comments

  1. Rick Ro. says:

    Excellent, CM. I love your angle on the Temple-cleansing, that Jesus was putting the whole system under judgment. It also makes me wonder which church practices he’d put under judgment nowadays (all churches have some, I’m guessing).

    One additional thought: Jesus is not only the Sacrifice and the Temple, but the High Priest, too. EVERYTHING necessary for getting right with Go is fulfilled through him.

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    “Thin places”…
    Sounds similar to the paranormal idea of “window areas”.
    http://freakyphenomena.com/article/what-window-area

  3. Christiane says:

    Chaplain Mike, that photograph . . .
    it evokes a portion of a poem with the phrase ‘the light of setting suns’ by William Wordsworth from his ‘Tintern Abbey’, these lines:

    ” And I have felt
    A presence that disturbs me with the joy
    Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused,
    Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
    And the round ocean and the living air,
    And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
    A motion and a spirit, that impels
    All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
    And rolls through all things”
    (Wm. Wordsworth)

    I found my own ‘thin place’ in Flagstaff, Arizona during my twenties. We had traveled a long way that day and the mountains rose before us and that night, we stopped at a place in Flagstaff. It had a heated pool, so when the children were fed and cared for and settled in, and my husband watching telly, I went to the pool for a swim. It must have been something about being ‘uprooted’ and journeying to another military posting, or maybe it was a matter of some unresolved sadness, or just the exhaustion of the long-distance drive;
    but there in that warmed pool, in the cold night air, alone as no other fool would have come out in that chill, I looked up at stars as large as I had ever seen them in the crisp night air. The mountains, that place. . . . . I felt ‘blessed’ not just the words or the thought, but really, really changed, renewed in spirit.

    Years later, I shared this experience with a friend who was from the Flagstaff area herself. I told her I thought I had experienced a holy moment. She told me something interesting: that those mountains were considered a sacred place by the Indians and they also had gone there to pray long ago . . .

    We left the West Coast after my husband completed his military schooling in San Diego and traveled back through Flagstaff. We stayed at the same place. I went out to the pool, but I could not find again that ‘portal’ or experience again what had happened the year before. So I took the original experience as ‘blessing’ and have remained thankful for it these many years.

    I think everyone must, at some moment in their lives, have such a healing experience somewhere at their own ‘thin’ place. To ‘return’ to it spiritually during times of grief and at moments of discouragement . . . to ‘remember’ that it really happened. I hope this is true.

  4. Ronald Avra says:

    Thanks for my weekly fix.

  5. Robert F says:

    in the crazy wind
    ragged white clouds fly away
    like frightened birds