7/17/2011 sermon: This is a thin place

Location: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Burke, VA
Text: Genesis 28:10-19a
Proper 11, Year A

This is a thin place

If you have ever visited the great Christian monastery at Iona in Scotland, you might have heard of the Celtic Christian belief that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, as a rule. At Iona—I am told—you will learn that there are “thin places,” places where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and we are able to glimpse the holy. Iona counts itself as a “thin place,” a place where people can come to have a close, personal encounter with God.

If there are, indeed, thin places …(and I assert that there are, and that you are sitting in one right now)… then Jacob must have discovered such a place when he lay down to sleep on his journey toward Haran. Using a stone for a pillow, Jacob slept and dreamed an amazing dream. He saw something like a ladder, with angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. And as Jacob stared in wonder at the angels, he became aware that the Lord was standing next to him—not ON the ladder but right there next to him.

Talk about a thin place!

Now when Jacob lay down he was not a likely candidate to encounter God, at least not a likely candidate by our standards. Perhaps you noticed in tonight’s lesson that Jacob was traveling all alone. This is because—as you might recall from last week—Jacob had just cheated his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and out of his father’s blessing—cheated Esau out of inheriting the Covenant that God made with their grandfather and with their father. Jacob apparently desired the blessing and the birthright a whole lot more than his Esau did. And hadn’t God told the twins’ mother before they were born that the “elder would serve the younger’? Jacob’s story affirms the saying, “God does not call those who are fit; he makes fit those he calls.”

We know that God had chosen Jacob over Esau before they were born, but Jacob and Esau apparently did not. And when Esau realized just what he had given away he was furious, so angry with Jacob that he wanted to kill his own twin brother. Things were so tense in the family that Jacob’s parents suggested that he go away for awhile and live with his mother’s brother. So, here is Jacob, running for his life. He has his desire and the blessing and the birthright, but he have much else at the moment.

I hope that each of you take as much comfort as I do in this story. Our tradition tells us that God is everywhere—that God is utterly accessible—and God is. If the Celts are right, at most God is ever only three feet away. But the reality is that we seem to perceive God more often when we are desperate and running for our lives. Perhaps that’s what it takes for us to take our eyes off the things of this life that blind us and make us unable to sense God standing right there with us, … right here with us all the time…. And at that moment the veil is lifted and the place where we are physically located becomes a thin place, a place where we perceive God.

It’s also very comforting to know that we don’t have to be perfect—we don’t have to be holy already—to experience a close encounter with God. God seeks us out and finds us where we are at: whether we are worshiping in church or sleeping on the ground with a stone for a pillow. God  lets us feel his presence; he makes himself known to us, even when we are literally at rock bottom, especially when we are at rock bottom. We don’t have to be brilliant or rich or young or old or powerful. We don’t have to be saint already. We don’t even have to be skinny. All it takes to have a close encounter with God is for us to notice that God is already … right here with us. … All it takes is for us to notice that there are angels coming and going from heaven and that God himself is at our side.

When God had finally gotten Jacob’s attention God told Jacob what God wanted him to know, what God wants you and I to know today. God said,
I am the LORD, the God of Abraham-your-father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth,
and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…

In this era of church downsizing and shrinking budgets, don’t let anybody tell you that our church or our parish is dying; are we not the inheritors of this promise?

When Jacob awoke he immediately decided that the place he was in was holy—that he was in a thin place. And do you remember Jacob’s reaction? He was afraid, and he said, … “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”…  Jacob turned his pillow on its side, poured oil upon it, and named the place Beth-El, a name which means “house of God.” This “house of God” is a place to which Jacob later returned upon instruction from God, making it his home and building an altar there, a temple to the Lord.

I wonder: did the men and women from St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Springfield who founded St. Andrew’s 39 years ago on the First Sunday in Advent, 1972, look for a “thin place” in Burke in which to worship? We know that our founders came to this place bearing an altar. Yes, they brought an altar with them, one that founding member Lee Overston had made. This original altar doubled as a storage container during the week ready to be carried to whatever school the fledgling congregation would use on Sunday. This original altar, by the way, is still in use here today in the chapel; feel free to check it out on your way out of the service today. It is ingeniously made, and those who have worshiped at it attest that it is a thin place.

So our founders brought an altar with them to this place. Did they build THIS altar to the Lord here in this very spot because they had encountered God here, or because they had brought their “thin place” with them? Perhaps this question is like inquiring which came first, the chicken or the egg. Well over 700,000 people have attended worship here in this facility, so I suspect that if THIS altar wasn’t a thin place when St. Andrew’s was first built, surely it has become a thin place by now?

I submit to you that St. Andrew’s is … a gateway to heaven as surely as the ladder Jacob saw in his dream. … And at these altars both saints and scoundrels approach the Lord our God every week—and usually the saints and scoundrels are inhabiting the same physical body. God visiting Jacob as he lay sleeping should give each of us tremendous hope.

We—you and I—we each are inheritors of this promise that God gave to Jacob. Let me translate God’s promise into our language today. God says to us, “I am the Lord, the God of your ancestors and the God of all who shall inherit this promise. The land on which you sit right this minute I have given to you and to your offspring—BE THEY YOUR CHILDREN-BY-BLOOD OR HEIRS-BY-ADOPTION; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you through this interim period and beyond; I will never leave you or forsake you.”
“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

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