Thin Places (7/5/15)

Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown didn’t go over very well. Sometimes familiarity can make it difficult for us to see how God is at work in new ways.

Today’s reading comes from the book of Mark 6:1-13.


Get other sermons from First UMC at SoundCloud.


In case you weren’t here last week, the sermon was really awesome. I share that in all humility.

Actually, our District Superintendent, Dennis Miller gave me some really good advice before my first Sunday here. He said, “You’re going to want to give them your best stuff right away.” So that’s what you’re getting but I make no promises by the time we get to August.

Seriously though, we preachers want to make a good first impression in a new appointment. You have certainly made a good first impression on Penny and me. Thank you for your kind words, your warm welcome, and for making us feel right at home here in Athens. We really appreciate it!

A couple of years ago, they changed the date for a preacher’s first Sunday from the first Sunday in July to the last Sunday in June. I guess they figured that a July 4th holiday weekend isn’t the best Sunday to begin at your new church.

I think it’s kind of funny that the lectionary includes this Gospel reading from Mark, chapter six. It’s the story of when Jesus came to preach his first sermon in his home synagogue. Mark tells us that they took offense at him.

One translation uses the word, “repulsed.” When Dennis asked me how my first Sunday went with you, I’m glad that I didn’t have to say that you were “repulsed.”

Mark goes on to tell us that after Jesus’ delivered his unwelcomed sermon, that he was unable to do any miracles there except heal a few people here and there.

I know of a lot of pastors who would call that a successful beginning to a new appointment, but for Jesus, it was just another day at the office. If I healed a couple of people on my first Sunday with you, that probably would have made the headlines in the Athens newspapers!

Now, of course the reason the people didn’t respond to Jesus was because this was his hometown. They couldn’t imagine that someone from their hometown had the right to speak with such conviction. What’s that quote? “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Jesus’ sermon wasn’t the typical nice message of doing good and saying your prayers at night. Jesus’ sermon was announcing the surprising news that God’s kingdom was finally at hand and it was now time for people to get on board. The people just weren’t ready for this kind of message even if it was good news.

In hindsight, maybe Jesus should have waited to preach this type of explosive sermon for a later date. Maybe if he would have eased into this talk about God’s kingdom breaking into our lives, that he would have received a more positive reaction from his home town.

I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. I think that Jesus knew that the time was right, regardless of how the people might respond.

Mark is clear to point out that the reason the people didn’t welcome Jesus’ message was because they didn’t expect to hear such good news from one of their own. When they thought about God’s kingdom breaking into their lives, their hometown of Nazareth was the last place they thought something like this would happen.

Mark is trying to help us see that it can be easy for us to miss out on the signs of God’s kingdom that are happening all around us. I find this to be true in my own life. Even though I know that God is at work through the ordinary routine of my day to day living, I can easily miss out on signs of God’s presence that are all around me.

Celtic Christianity has a wonderful name for these times when God’s inbreaking kingdom is being made visible in the here and now. They have called these holy moments, “Thin Places.” “This places”

They are “thin places” because there is often just a razor thin separation between heaven and earth in any given moment. A lot of people believe that heaven is way out there somewhere, a long way from our time and space of everyday living.

Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom and his miracles of healing people help to remind us that heaven and earth are a lot closer than we can imagine. Here are some examples of some thin places I have experienced in my own life.

Last Sunday, I mentioned that I responded to a calling to become a pastor through a college ministry at Temple University in Philadelphia. During that time, I had gone on a weekend retreat for a time of spiritual renewal.

The retreat leader asked each of us to take our bible, find a secluded place, and listen for God’s voice. And so, I remember taking my bible and sitting down by a tree.

I flipped open my bible and it opened to the first page of the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament. As I read about how the Lord called Jeremiah to become a prophet, it sounded a lot like my story.

After the Lord tells Jeremiah that he wants him to be a prophet, Jeremiah comes up with the excuse that he was only a youth and wouldn’t know what to tell the people.

The Lord responds by telling Jeremiah, “Don’t say that you’re just a youth, for you shall go to I to whom I send. Don’t be afraid. I’ll be with you.” A few verses later, it says that the Lord touched Jeremiah’s mouth and said, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.”

That moment became a “thin place” for me because those were just the words and the reassurance that I needed to hear in that moment. I could have opened my bible to who knows where, like a passage that lists genealogies and all of those begats, but it happened to open to that particular page.

That holy moment led me to finally say, “yes” to God, because I knew that God would be with me and would give me the words to speak.

Here’s another “thin place” holy moment that comes to mind.

My mother passed away back in June of 2012.  Several months before she passed away, my brother, sisters, and I decided that it was time for our mom to move from her farmhouse where she has lived all her life.

All four of us were raised there and we all have strong emotional ties to the house and the farm. But we knew that it was time for our mom to move to a place where she would get much better care.

We had a big task in front of us.  The four of us met at the farmhouse in November of that previous year to prepare mom’s belongings for an estate sale.

Because of all the memories in the home we grew up in, the four of us had an agreement that we wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time reminiscing since we only had a week to get things ready for the sale.  For the most part, we kept to our agreement.

In the attic were several large pieces of furniture, boxes and loose items that needed to be carried down two flights of stairs, and then sorted, and tagged.  The cellar which had experienced flooding from a lot of rain that year needed to be emptied and aired out.  The farm buildings needed to be cleaned and organized.

Things that we didn’t want to keep or think would sell, needed to be thrown into a large dumpster that we had rented.  At the end of each day, I noticed that all four of us were limping from all of the carrying, lifting, and cleaning we had been doing non-stop.  We were quite a sorry sight to see.

Toward the end of the afternoon of the last day that I was in for the trip, we had finished all our work.  My one sister and I were standing in front of the barn when my brother and my other sister drove up in dad’s old pick-up truck.

My brother said, “Let’s make one final trip out to the pines.”  The pines referred to a place on our farm where our dad would go to chop down a Christmas tree each year.  Dad had died in 1989 and so his memory was constantly with us throughout that week.

The pines was that place that served as a pet cemetery for our several dogs over the years.  The pines was that place where we would go as kids just to be quiet and be out in nature.

We drove back to the pines on the same path that our dad would often take on his tractor, a path that was between two cornfields along the sloping farmland of south central Pennsylvania.

When we made it out to the pines, we got out of the pick-up truck.  The sun was just beginning to set, providing a glow over the recently picked golden cornfields. It was an unusually warm and calm November day.

We remarked on how beautiful it was to be back at the pines.  I took a short walk through the woods where dad and I had hunted many years; so many memories of that beautiful farm.

We felt like kids again as we remembered stories from our childhood.  A large graceful deer interrupted our conversation as it came out of the woods and darted through the cornfield toward the pines, as if on cue.

And then we were silent, not saying a word, as we savored that holy moment.  I thought about dad and how much I missed him.  And then I thought about mom and how she would soon be leaving the home where she had lived all her life.

Just at the right time, as my heart was feeling the ache of the pain of transition, one of us offered to say a prayer.  And the four of us, joined hands and made a little prayer circle.

We thanked God for giving us parents who loved each of us and passed the faith on to us.  We thanked God for giving us the farm as a great place to be raised and that we had these beautiful shared memories that would stay with us forever.

That holy moment of prayer became one of those thin places for us in a surprising and mysterious way. Heaven and earth are not that far apart in any given moment.

Let me offer one more “thin place” moment.

A couple of years ago, I attended a funeral service that was held during a late afternoon at the church I was serving. The sanctuary was filled and I was seated in one of the back pews.

During the service, the song, “Out of the Dark” by Gloria Estefan was played. It had been cloudy for most of the day and just before this song was played, the sun began to shine brightly through the beautiful stained glass windows of that sanctuary.

As I listened to this beautiful song and saw heaven’s rays just streaming through those windows, I felt God’s presence even in the midst of our deep sadness and grief. The words of that song seemed to be speaking to each person in that Sanctuary.

     Why be afraid if I’m not alone
     Though life is never easy the rest is unknown
     Up to now for me it’s been hands against stone
     Spent each and every moment
     Searching for what to believe
     Coming out of the dark, I finally see the light now
     It’s shining on me
     Coming out of the dark, I know the love that saved me
     You’re sharing with me.

I didn’t expect God to use a pop song from the early 90s and the perfect timing of the clouds giving way to the sun, to ease our grief, but that’s exactly what happened. God is present with us throughout the ordinary events of our day.

Now, I know that it’s possible to take things a little too far like seeing the outline of Jesus’ face in the swirl of your guacamole dip.

I recently read about a woman named Kelly Ramey in Missouri who says that she found Jesus in a bag of Cheetos. When she opened a bag of Cheetos, she noticed a mini orange sculpture that resembled Jesus. She has even given it a name. She calls it… “Cheesus” not with the letter “J” but with the letters, “CH.” “Cheesus.”

But who am I to judge? I would rather us err on the side of seeing “Cheesus” than on the side of not seeing “Cheesus.” If we believe that God is present everywhere than why wouldn’t we have more of these God sightings throughout our day to day living, even while eating snacks.

These thin places often catch us off guard. They sneak up on us. And sometimes, we don’t even recognize them until after they happened.

Do you know what excites me the most about being your pastor? I CAN’T WAIT for the many ways that we will experience God’s “thin places” together. I can’t wait to celebrate those holy moments of God’s presence that are all around us in any given moment.

It’s interesting to me that immediately after Jesus got a cold response from his hometown, that he didn’t give up. He paired up his disciples and sent them into the surrounding villages to actually live out the sermon he just gave. They went out and announced the good news that God’s kingdom was at hand.

God is calling us to be on the look out for these holy moments and to share them with each other and with those around us. This is what it means for us to live out our faith.

Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown might not have gone over very well, but his message of the good news of God’s in breaking kingdom didn’t stop there.

Where do you see God’s presence at work in your life? What are those “thin places” where heaven and earth have come together in a mysterious and holy way for you?

They will sneak up on us in many different ways;

When you flip through your bible, when you’re by an empty cornfield, when the sun all of the sudden shines brightly through some church windows, and especially when we come forward to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion and we hear the words, “This is the body of Christ broken for you. This is the blood of Christ shed for you.”