Thin Places

Year B, Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 34:29-35  •  Psalm 99    

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2                         

Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)

I’ll tell you how the sun rose ––––           But how he set I know not.

A ribbon at a time.                                   There seemed a purple stile

The steeples swam in amethyst,             Which little yellow boys and girls

The news like squirrels ran.                    Were climbing all the while


The hills untied their bonnets,                 Till when they reached the other side,

The bobolinks begun.                              A dominie in gray

Then I said softly to myself,                     Put gently up the evening bars,

“That must have been the sun!”              And led the flock away.

Emily Dickinson ( )

Our texts this week lead us into “thin places” – places where the physical, tangible world and the spiritual, less tangible world intersect or overlap in ways that catch our attention. DSC_0350The veil is lifted between the worlds. Two everyday places that this happens are Dawn and Twilight. These two times of day can be “thin places” if we stop to notice, to pay attention to life in both realms, as Emily Dickinson did. One of my favorite children’s picture books would be good to use with very young children this week to invite the experience of “thin places.” Look for Barbara Berger’s Grandfather Twilight. It is available at Amazon (and on Prime) if you cannot find it in your local library.

One could say that there is always a complete overlap of the “two” worlds – the physical and the spiritual. That they are not separate at all. And I would not argue. Yet we do not always notice when the less tangible world shines through the brightness of the physical world of our lives, in nature, in our relationships, in our faith communities. We get stuck in our ruts of tasks and accomplishments, of industry, commerce, and politics. All necessary endeavors but we have to pay attention if we want to stay in touch with the way in which God’s spirit enthuses everything with meaning. To quote another 19th century poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed.” Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

( )

In Exodus 34, Moses encounters the very face of God in order to bring God’s law to the people. His face is transfigured into such shining glory that the people cannot look upon him without a veil. There must be a space of mediation for the message of the “thin place” to be transmitted through the numinous to the physical. And there must be a medium for transmission. Moses was the medium, shining with the message of God. The poet/mystic, Rumi, writes that this is not only the way thin places work, but the way story works as well.

“A story is like water

That you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire and your skin.

It lets them meet, and it cleans you!”

( )

When the disciples in Luke 9 experience the glory of God shining in Jesus upon the mountain, they are overcome almost to the point of passing out, “weighed down with sleep”. Somehow they manage to stay awake and witness the appearance of Moses and Elijah. They are in a “thin place”. Peter’s impulse is to build a shrine and stay there in the glory. This is not God’s plan. God simply wants the disciples to hear the message, “This is my Son. Pay Attention!” After the glory passes Luke tells us that Peter and his friends cannot speak of the experience for a time. Yet we know that eventually they do tell the story. Perhaps it is easier to tell once all the disciples have experienced Jesus’ healing of the boy from the demon of convulsions after their descent. Think back on the “thin places” you have experienced. It is hard to describe what has happened. A story, a poem, a song are often the best mediums.

Psalm 99 and 2 Corinthians 3 encourage us to pay attention to “thin places” as they are made manifest in the world. The psalm reminds us of another “thin place” that God spoke to God’s people, in the pillar of cloud in the wilderness. It assures us that God will answer the cries of God’s people, will avenge their wrongdoing and will forgive them. Paul writes that we do not have to worry about having a medium such as Moses or the pillar of cloud anymore because Jesus the Christ came in flesh to give us direct experience of God. We have direct access to God’s glory through Christ.

I invite you to use creative retellings of the texts as invitations into “thin places” in worship this week. As you prepare ask yourself:

  • What are the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures in the stories in Exodus and Luke? If these sense images are not on the surface of the texts, dig deeper. What is the foggy smell of the cloud that covers the mountain in Luke? How does it feel on your skin? What are the sounds and smells of the desert when the Israelites see Moses coming down from the mount, his face shining in a way they have never seen? Is it evening, daytime, dawn or twilight? Continue asking questions about sensory experiences as you put yourself in the texts?
  • Do you want to tell the story you have chosen from the standpoint of one of the characters? Moses or Aaron? An unnamed Israelite? And if so, how old are you? Male, female? Are you related to Moses and Aaron, a family member? Which one of the disciples might you be in Luke? One of the three on the mountain or one waiting below? Could you tell the story as Elijah or Moses? Moses could be intriguing given the Exodus story. Would you consider telling it from the standpoint of Jesus? That seems daunting, but it could definitely be revealing as you imagine Jesus’ hopes, dreams, concerns, anxieties as he heads to Jerusalem.
  • There are a few more challenging options:
    • Tell the Exodus story from the standpoint of the psalmist that wrote Psalm 99 looking back on the impact of the wilderness story of Moses giving the law after several centuries. Start with deciding if you are you male or female, old or young? Why do you write psalms? What is your station in the community? Be sure to ground your story in a physical life for yourself as this anonymous psalmist full of sense imagery. How might the writing of the psalm come out of a “thin place” experience you have had as the psalmist?
    • Tell the story of hearing Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth from the perspective of a church member. What is happening in the faith community that prompts Paul to write this exhortation? (Perhaps there is something similar going on in your own faith community.) How is Paul’s message an answer to the situation or conflict? Are you male or female, old or young, slave, lower class or upper class? Do you know the story of Moses from Exodus 34 and/or the story of the Transfiguration? How do these stories impact your hearing of Paul’s message? Or does his message make you reflect on those stories and understand them better? When have you experienced a thin place in your faith journey?
    • Tell a story from the perspective of Paul who is writing the to Corinthian church with a particular situation or issue in mind, wrestling as a pastor with what the church needs to hear in order to follow the ways of Jesus Christ more faithfully. How are your thoughts shaped by the story from Exodus and the story of the Transfiguration (which may not even be written yet; you may have heard it told by Peter himself!)? Where are you as you are writing? Are you traveling, in prison, in ministry with another fledging community? What “thin place” experience informs your writing?

Blessings on your story journey this week! May the “thin places” find you and remind you that “the Holy Ghost [is always] over the bent World brood[ing] with warm breast and with ah! bright wings!”

Jane Anne

©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2016. Commentary and photos reprinted with permission only.

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