(Thanks to Kevin Kempf for the great picture!)
Have you heard of “thin
places?”” I’ve heard it described as places where the veil
between this world and the next is thinner – or where God’s
presence can be especially felt. Ideologically, thin places don’t
make any sense to me. I believe that God is all-present, so God
isn’t any more or less present anywhere.
And yet… I have experienced
thin places. I don’t understand them, but I know them. You may be
needing some examples. Mountaintops are commonly thin places, which
I suspect has less to do with the altitude and more to do with the
effort to get to them and the views they offer. Things just feel
different at the top of a mountain, and many people have experienced
them to be thin places. Sanctuaries are another common choice –
ones in churches or ones at camps. I have often wondered if places
where many people have prayed are changed in some way by the
pervasiveness of the prayers – and thus made more holy. (Again,
this doesn’t fit my understanding, but it fits my experience.)
Sometimes, I think, thin places are not places even, they are
moments. I once had a chance to ask a church about when they’d most
strongly experienced God and a whole lot of them mentioned the births
of their children. It is also very common (but not universal) for a
death to be a thin place.
also suspect thin places might have a lot more to do with us being
open to the presence of God that is always with us than a change in
the amount of presence, but however it is, I think they ARE. And,
further, one of those moments that has often been a thin place for me
is All Saints Sunday. Over the course of my ministry, more years
than not, this has been the holiest worship service I’ve led.
This year, like every year, the
names we are about to read lie heavy on my heart. Oh friends, the
saints who have gone on ahead of us taught us so much! We are who we
are because of them! It is an honor to read their names and remember
their lives, but it is also heavy to live without them. One of our
traditions, in this church, is to also name the saints whose loss is
still especially heavy on our hearts, even if their departure was
more than a year ago. The list of those names is also dear – and
beautiful and sad and heavy.
Today conjures in my mind that
simple line “the great cloud of witnesses” from Hebrews 12, which
is an incredibly comforting image. Life can feel overwhelming at
times, and sometimes I have no idea where to turn, but remembering
that those who taught me, and loved me, and guided me – guide me
still and show us the way – is very powerful. It is even better to
notice how many of there are!
So, indeed, All Saints Sunday
is, for me, a thin place, and the names we are about to read and the
lives they represent are an honor to remember and name.
the gospel passage may not seem terribly well connected to all of
that, perhaps because of the terrible Sunday School song that too
many of us learned about Zacchaeus. (If you don’t know it, I beg
you, stay ignorant.) The story itself, however, is not as trite as
the song. There are surprises all over this story, if you pay
attention to them. One is that a wealthy and powerful man was
particularly interested in Jesus, who aimed his ministry particularly
at people who were living in poverty and disempowered. The second is
that the wealthy and powerful man was willing to forgo his dignity to
try to see Jesus, which seems to want to remind us just how exciting
Jesus was in real life and how worthy of seeking out he was (is).
Then there is the amazing turn in the story when Jesus decides to
focus his attention on Zaccheaus, this wealthy and powerful man,
which I think absolutely no one expected. Zaccheaus, however, was
happy and gracious. Then there is the unsurprising grumbling of the
crowd, who are peeved that Jesus is hanging out with this guy (tax
collectors being about as popular then as border patrol agents are
today). And then there is the turn around where Zaccheaus, having
had this experience with Jesus, commits to a moral and fair life.
(I’m going to disregard my assumptions that he probably couldn’t
afford to pay back 4 times as much as he’d over taken…. that’s not
the point.) It seems that being with Jesus was a thin place for
Zaccheaus, where he could access love, hope, and wonder, and be
changed by it.
The beautiful thing about the
Zaccheaus story is that sometimes we are ALL Zaccheaus, and the story
seems to say that’s OK. Sometimes we have power, and sometimes we
use it wrong, but we’re still TRYING our hardest to know what’s right
and do it, and when we figure what what we’ve done wrong, there is a
chance to change it.
that’s where this fits in with our Saints today. Because none of the
Saints we celebrate today were actually perfect in their lives. Not
a single one. Our memories may get fuzzy around that, but all the
people we are remembering were fallible. All of them, as well,
sometimes had power and sometimes used it wrong. That’s human life.
What’s WONDERFUL is when people realize what they’ve done and seek to
change it. That’s why they are our saints – because of their
willingness to grow, learn, and change.
Friends, this is an interesting
reminder for those of us trying to follow in their footsteps. And it
is a two-fold reminder: (1) we are not expected to be perfect.
Really. We can’t be, and trying just makes it all worse. (2) And,
when we discover how we’ve erred, if we are willing and able to
change, it makes all the difference. This is, often, a cycle we have
to keep on living. I see it clearly in myself in working towards
anti-racism, a goal I yearn for. However, every time I learn
something new, I have to realize how much I’ve erred in the past, and
change it. AND THEN, you know what, the next thing I learn shows
that I’ve still been erring and I still need to change, and I’m not
there yet. It feels AWFUL, and yet it would feel way worse to keep
messing up once I know what I’m doing.
Habbakuk passage feels a little bit too on point for a while, doesn’t
it? It is bemoaning the injustices of the world, and THEN it totally
changes!! The prophet’s concerns are met by GOD’s response, and God
says, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner
may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it
speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for
it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their
spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”
Oh. My. So our work is to dream, and vision, and make the vision
for God’s goodness clear and visible to others. A commentator
writes, “At at time when the wicked are in control, when the vision
describing God’s intention to reestablish justice has not yet become
a reality, Habakkuk is called in the interim to trust God’s
assurances and to remain faithful.”1
Not to lose hope, not to give up, not even to keep on bemoaning
reality, but to trust and share the vision.
And the vision that has been
shared with all of us is why we are here. We want to be part of
building God’s vision in the world into everyone’s reality. And the
saints taught us it was possible and showed us the vision. And their
lives have made this a thin place, where we are able to see, a little
more clearly, the beauty of the vision of God and the hope that is
the world for the present and the future. Thanks be to God. Amen
Sermon Talkback Guiding
I talked about “thin”
places in the beginning, does that idea make sense to you and if so,
where have you found some?
How are “Saints” related to
learn, growing, changing – and admitting erring?
What else do you see in the
story of Zaccheaus that I didn’t bring out?
Did the Habbakkuk reading
switch too fast for you? (Or not fast enough)
How do you name God’s vision
that we’re working on?
Of the saints we celebrated
today, or have celebrated previously, how did they teach you of
God’s vision for the kindom?
What helps you remember that
you don’t have to be perfect?
What helps you have the courage
to change when you’ve erred?
Hiebert, “Habbakkuk” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume
VII, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abindon Press, 1996), p.
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
November 3, 2019