This past week in my reading I was introduced to a concept out of the Celtic spirituality referred to as “thin places.” Have you heard of it? Basically a thin place is some place where you find the veil between the spiritual and physical, between heaven and earth, between God and people has become especially thin, thus allowing us to see the spiritual, heaven, and God much easier and more clearly.
And I don’t know much about the whole idea about thin places aside from that one website that I looked at, but the concept is pretty interesting to me. I would think that thin places would be different for different people, depending on how they are inclined to see God. For some, a thin place might be in nature, perhaps in reaching the peak of a mountain and being able to look around at the beauty and wonder of creation before them. For others it might be in people, seeing the innocence of a baby or feeling the heart of a servant or hearing of the history of an elder. For some it might be in art, the expressions of emotion, feeling, and depth of another human that resonates and reverberates in us. And yet for others it might be in worship, the words of the liturgy, the reverence of the sacraments, the sound of my soothing and melodic voice. Whatever it may be for you, I think we all have these “thin places” where we might like to go to have our batteries recharged, our spirits lifted, to be reminded of who we are and whose we are, that we might find that strength to continue navigating through this world that has proved time and again to be just difficult.
From the little that I know of “thin places,” it seems to me that this is what I look for every week, in that when I prepare for a sermon I am looking specifically for those thin places where we can see God in the text and that informs us of how we can see God in the world. But this week, I was surprised in where that thin place was. I mean this is a pretty familiar story, Jesus cleansing the temple, exposing the corruption and ironic oppression running rampant in this, the place of worship, where all the great festivals and huge events happen. Jesus over turning the established order here at the temple always acts as the final straw for the antagonists of the narrative, and thus begins the journey to the cross. At least, this is the case in 3 out of the 4 gospel accounts, and so it becomes our go-to for our interpretive and sermonic purposes.
But this time is different. Today’s account of the story comes from the 1 out of 4 that doesn’t take that same slant. Rather, this story lands in the beginning of the gospel instead of near the end. Jesus just did one miracle and already he is flipping tables over. There hasn’t really been a chance yet for people to get what Jesus is about before they could change. There hasn’t been enough time for people to hear Jesus’ teachings for them to apply it to their lives. There hasn’t been enough exposure on Jesus’ ministry to shed light on what is happening at the core of our sinful selves before he really has the right to rouse up all that rabble and stir up all that stuff that everyone would rather leave unroused and unstirred. This is just the second chapter of this gospel, folks. So clearly this story serves a different purpose in the great grand story of Jesus working in our lives.
At this point, it seems to me (and the commentaries that I read) that the purpose of this story at this point in this gospel isn’t to stop the corruption and misuse of the temple, but rather to show the people that the temple isn’t what they thought it was before. See, the people saw the temple as simply the end all be all of places. It is where God resided. It was the only place where they could find forgiveness, community, and essentially, God’s favour. In fact, the people were so desperate for this that it was easy to take advantage of it, and taken advantage of they were. To them, the temple was life, the temple was love.
Don’t forget that this gospel account was written some 60-70 years after the fact, and that the people reading it have already experienced the destruction of the temple, and perhaps were feeling a little displaced and lost, in that their beacon, their guide, their compass to God which was the temple was destroyed. So in reading this, the gospel writer wanted to remind the people of the time of writing that it is ok that the temple has been destroyed because God isn’t found only in the temple, but in many the areas of life and community. The gospel writer wanted to show us those thin places aren’t confined just to places of worship and grandeur. The gospel writer is reminding us all that everything that the temple was meant to be, all that it stood for and represented, all that it was to do for us as God’s children is now found in Jesus, in the teachings and ministry, in the life and service, in the very being of the one in whom we put our faith and trust. So Jesus flipping these tables also flipped over their lives. Jesus driving out the corruption was also driving out our misconceptions. Jesus cleansing the temple was also cleansing us of our isolation, our insecurities, our separation from God and each other. This isn’t the angry Jesus of the other gospels, but the Jesus who embodied God’s grace, God’s truth, and God’s love.
Now you might be thinking, wait, so if these thin places are all over and God doesn’t reside only in the temple, does that mean we shouldn’t have worship every Sunday anymore? That we don’t need to keep up this building anymore? That we should just close our doors, sell everything, and maybe just worship in homes and/or just go our merry way? Well, I’m not saying that by any means. I think our worship every week is to provide a thin place in which we can see God, and hopefully will inform us for the rest of the week to help us pinpoint the other thin places in our lives. Having a building helps us with that mission in providing such a thin place for whoever might be in search of one. And us together, in community as a community, is an effective reminder of Jesus’ promise of being present whenever two or more are gathered in his name. But at the same time, should we ever get to the point where we cannot afford a pastor or a building and have to close our doors because of it, that does not mean that God has left us, but rather just that how we arrive at those thin places would be changed. For the “temple” isn’t the building that took so many years to build, but it is in effect in the body of Christ which is all of us, joined together by the grace of God through the sacraments, called together by the Spirit of community, and connected together by the thin places of our lives, seeing God working in and through all of us, calling us collectively sons and daughters, beloved and redeemed, lifted up and saved.
But then, what about those commandments? How do they play a role in this theme and ultimately in the season of Lent? They seem so out of place when we talk about God’s grace and forgiveness, when we talk about the freedom in Christ, when we talk about the liberating Spirit freeing us from oppression. Because aren’t rules just the exact opposite of all those things? Aren’t rules and having to follow them the opposite of grace, freedom, and liberation? Aren’t rules, especially the really overbearing ones, exactly what causes oppression?
Well, yes and no. Rules in general can, but we aren’t talking about just any rules. I can see how rules in general can seem restricting and oppressive, especially those rules around screens and bedtime. I understand why we shy away from rules and often live in fear of getting caught in breaking those rules. But these commandments were given by God as the people were delivered out of Egypt, slavery, the very hand of oppression and corruption. In fact, God prefaces the commandments with exactly that: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of slavery. These people that God was talking to through Moses didn’t know any other life. They didn’t know freedom. They didn’t know what it meant to not live under the rule of another, without any kind of freedom or liberty. And what God gave them to navigate through this crazy new world was a new way of living for them. God gave them a new way to look at life. Essentially, God liberated them from their previous and only worldview and taught them how things could be different and better.
God taught them relationship with God and each other. God taught them how to love and respect. God taught them how to see God in each other, through relationship and community, through service and worship, through regarding each other as God regards them: as beautifully created children of God, full of value and worth, filled with God’s blessing, and saved by grace and mercy. So you see, through these commandments we are taught to shed the ways of the world, the ways of putting too much value on material gain, the ways of lifting ourselves up on the backs of others, the ways of exploiting weakness and taking advantage of them, and accept the ways of God, the ways of love and respect, the ways of justice and peace, the ways to see those thin places not just in the world but in each other, knowing that truly where two or more of us are gathered that Jesus as to be there because God is present in every relationship, every act of service, every facet of community, where God hold us, loves us, and revives our very souls.
So the practice and discipline of Lent isn’t one that is oppressive and restrictive, but in helping us to imagine that new way of life, that new way of God and each other, that new way of living and being Christ in the world, free of all that holds us back from seeing those thin places in our lives and in the world that we might know and feel God’s love and presence all around us. This is God’s grace, God’s blessing, God’s gift to us both now and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.