Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thin Places

Sermon, November 8, 2009
by Katie Mulligan

First Scripture Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9
Second Scripture Reading: Revelation 21:1-6

I confess to you this morning that I am feeling rather thin. In this last month I have taken on too much, said yes to too many things, and too many circumstances spun out of my control, so that I am stretched thin. I can always tell this is true because things start to go wrong—little things that pile upon each other until it seems like nothing can go right. Things like misplacing the bulletins and then plugging in the microphone and it doesn’t work. Thin, stretched thin. Worn down. I bet I’m not the only one here that feels that way this time of year. Kids are in school, winter is upon us. The holidays and relatives are days away from descending upon our homes. And still there is more to be done.

After three weeks of children home sick from school, I somewhat foolishly got in my car and drove to Cleveland on Thursday for a conference. I could not afford the time, and yet I wanted to be there—there were people I wished to see at that conference. And the topic of discussion was the full inclusion of gay and lesbian sisters and brothers in the church (Quick aside: There was not much discussion regarding bisexual and trans folks; this silence is problematic). Our national denomination is divided bitterly, and although our little church does not have much to do with denominational politics, I have been following the discussion closely. By Saturday afternoon I was stretched thinner still, with a long drive ahead of me. The Pennsylvania Turnpike may be the longest road on earth (or so it seemed).

But as I drove along the Turnpike, the muted colors of late autumn washed over me. Not the bright colors of summer turned fall, the brilliant reds and yellows mixed with still present greens, but the pale golden orange of late autumn. Only a few of the leaves left on the trees, but not all the way grey...And as I drove, the amber color of late afternoon sun mixed into the beauty of autumn. As night fell, my soul came to rest, and the world became timeless. The Turnpike became a “thin place.”

These thin places in life are glimpses, I think, into the Kingdom of God—those moments where we see what might be possible. Our stretched thin souls find restoration and hope in the possibilities, and for a little while the new creation breaks in to our tired existence. I get into trouble with my colleagues with scriptures like this—when a Presbyterian calls you a “universalist”, it’s a four-letter-word. But look at these words “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food...” Our future hope rests in the fulfillment of such promises—forgive me if my heart yearns for the time when all will feast together. A twitter friend of mine asked me after the conference where I see hope. And I couldn’t really answer until after I’d driven along the Turnpike a while, until I’d spent some time in that thin place, and glimpsed the possibilities.

I get in trouble some too for my love of all things celtic. A white chick I am—there is no getting around that, but still there is some sort of ancestral remembrance and yearning for old ways. There was a time when people knew that one needed to leave food for the house brownies and sprites, lest they become angry and destructive. Ever lose something important? Or the food spoiled before it should have? Or your spaghetti sauce failed to stick to the noodles? Probably you did not feed your house brownie. Who knows what spirit took off with the bulletins (Let the record reflect that this was said in humorous jest; please do not bring me up on charges for believing in fairies)...One thing that has survived of that tradition is the sense that thin places are all around us—places where the Divine, the Other can be sensed, felt, understood. One does not need a big church or tall steeple or magnificent ring of standing stones—thin places can be found in the ordinary spaces of our lives. And when we perceive them, for a moment we see visions of hope and promise. Visions like that in Isaiah and Revelation. Visions of all of us gathered at the feast with well-aged wines. The old passes away, the new life is here. And to the thirsty, water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Perhaps this is what the Reformers were up to when they simplified our church buildings, stripping them of decorations, symbols, distractions. Perhaps if we strip away enough of the outside trappings, we can thin it out enough to find God. This works, sometimes, doesn’t it? Stripped down to bare essentials, the simple beauty of a place opens us sometimes to sit in the presence of God.

But I have nothing against decorations! I’ve told you before about the youth retreat program I worked with for several years. We had a sacred space too, a camp on a mountain. It was a rustic place, and not always well-kept. The first thing we always had to do was scrub it clean, so that our guests (the new students) would have a place to call home for a few days. But more than that it was very plain. The floors were chipped tile, so we brought carpets, rolling them out on the floor, taping them down, vacuuming them because they had been stored in a shed for 6 months. Then up went the banners from previous retreats, and photos of students from 20 years of retreats. A communion table in the center next to a handmade wooden cross. A couch we brought from the church that had been signed by students—their name, the date, what they said in their talks to fellow students. By the time the new students arrived, the camp had been transformed, and they walked into this thin place and saw only the possibilities. They had no idea how much work went into making that space, but it spoke of love and care and God.

On Saturday night, while we worshiped together and shared the Lord’s Supper, alumni from the program drove up the mountain—45 minutes up a winding road. They set up tables in the shape of a cross and covered it with foil. Then they set out hundreds of dishes and goblets filled with chocolate and fruit and cheese and sparkling cider. Christmas lights and tea lights ran all around the tables. After worship, the student leaders brought their guests into the dining hall and told them to open their eyes. And the students gasped with delight and joy, for before them was a feast: a feast of love and care and God. They danced and sang and fed one another, and time slipped away unnoticed. They had no idea how much work went into that feast or how much would go into cleaning it up later. But for the moment it was a thin place, where the Kingdom of God broke through, and all were welcome, no matter where they came from or who they were. A thin place.

I wonder if we have any idea how much work God has put into the creation of thin places? How often do we linger in them? Take a few minutes to greet one another and share stories of the thin places you have discovered. Maybe you don’t want to share yours? Then listen to someone else’s. Ready? Go.
(Some eye rolling by members of the congregation—yeah, I saw that. But people talked for a while with one another. If you cheated and weren’t talking about thin places, I forgive you. And I’m just glad you spent time talking and laughing, ‘cause I heard that. Thin places indeed where we come to know and love one another...)
 Mindie Burgoyne had this to say about thin places:
Thin places are ports in the storm of life, where the pilgrims can move closer to the God they seek, where one leaves that which is familiar and journeys into the Divine Presence. They are stopping places where men and women are given pause to wonder about what lies beyond the mundane rituals, the grief, trials and boredom of our day-to-day life. They probe to the core of the human heart and open the pathway that leads to satisfying the familiar hungers and yearnings common to all people on earth, the hunger to be connected, to be a part of something greater, to be loved, to find peace.
Thin places then are spaces where all are welcome and future possibilities are boundless—they are places where we catch a glimpse of the feast that God will make for all people. This here is the hope my friend was looking for—that we can catch a vision of God’s Kingdom and therefore strive to bring that vision to fruition, that all might one day come to feast at the table together. This has implications for our life together now, as we share the table of the feast of Jesus Christ: some bread, some wine, and some people--a thin place.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Isaiah 25:6-9)
 And may all of us who thirst receive water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Amen.


  1. If I ever find myself in New Jersey, I want to come to your church. I don't like church, but I think I would like your church.

  2. Hmm, makes me want to take a drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. My mind is craving a thin place right now. Maybe that's why I'm still up at 2:00 in the morning! Sometimes in the stillness of the middle of the night, I find the path to a thin place, where I feel an exceptional closeness to God. In the stillness, I find openings into the Divine, leaving me fresh and nourished as if I had slept for days.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts KT! Peace, AR

  3. P.S. Sorry the last weeks have been so hard. I wish I had checked in with you this week! And for what it's worth, at my CPM meeting last week, I think I was about an inch away from being labled a universalist, the four-letter word that scares conservative southern Presbies.

  4. @carlaIrene You are always welcome! We're an odd mix to be sure, but I like it there :-)

    @Ann Renee No driving at 2:00 on the Turnpike when you've been writing long papers, lady! But I know what you mean. And there's a lot of scripture to support the idea that God will restore all of creation.

  5. Thin places are where we have been as well. Sometimes I can't believe we have been through so much, because actually we are quite centered and happy. There is a zen that takes over when life seems to be whirling. You have moments, but quickly you forget about the "all" that's encompassing you, and focus on the sweet way your sick child holds onto you, or preciously hold onto the card your child penned. Now I understand what it means when people who seem to have it all talk about emptiness. My life may be thin, but its not empty.

  6. Thank you again for the great sermon, Katie!

    What you mentioned about bisexual and transgender folks being left out of the discussion reminds me of something I heard from a (very well meaning) person when I was volunteering with the YMCA many years ago. We had been talking about reasons why children became estranged from their families, and how coming out as gay or lesbian was often a cause for that. This person went on to say that trying to deny being homosexual to please the family wasn't much better, since he had seen several people develop substance abuse problems in part from not coming to terms with who they really were. This was quite insightful and compassionate, I thought. I then mentioned that this could be a problem for bisexuals as well. The person then responded: "bisexuals are just fooling around and can't make up their minds." It was a bit shocking to hear.

    I think that bisexual and transgender folk suffer from a problem of basic human thought: the tendency to simplify things into binary terms. "Us vs. them", "black vs. white", "male vs. female", "gay vs. straight". People and things that can't get put into one or the other category cause a kind of cognitive friction (for lack of a better term) that some people can't overcome (or don't want to overcome because of what it means for the rest of their beliefs.) Ignoring or belittling such things that challenge the binary categories seems to be a pretty common response.

    For example:
    Mention being a third-party voter to a die-hard Republican or Democrat sometime - it would probably be more acceptable to them to be a member of their (chosen) opposition party. Then they would know how to interact with you. A third party (i.e. outside the binary model) complicates things.

  7. @Digital Kahuna: Thank you, yes! The church has the potential to model life outside of narrow binary constraints, but we are often invested in maintaining binary systems (both monetarily and spiritually). Lots of soul searching and work to be done!

  8. Dearest Katie, Loved the reference to L.O.G. - we head up the mountain in 2 weeks! There is something sacred about that good ol' place..... Love ya lots, Lu

  9. Love ya tu, Lu! Miss you all very much!