Not too long ago, I was flying home from a working trip to Scotland when I caught a bit of the conversation from the row just in front of me.
I’m not an eavesdropper by any means, but we were in that somewhat undefined time at the beginning of a long flight…those few minutes before take off when the main cabin door has been closed, and everything has been stowed, and the aisles are clear, and you’ve found your reading glasses and untangled your earphones, and you are ready to go, but you have not started going just yet.
If you’re a seasoned traveller, then you know that it’s usually at this moment at the start of a flight when you risk taking a gander at the person traveling next to you, and decide if you are going to risk making contact or if you’re just going to blow up your traveling neck pillow and put on that little mask and pretend you’re asleep until they get the message.
Well, the man in seat 31B must have felt safe with engaging the person he saw in seat 31A.
Now, since all I saw was the back of their heads, all I can say is that the man in 31B had salt and pepper hair, and the woman in 31A had long red hair that she kept back with an artsy looking silver clip, with an intricate Celtic knot design.
“What brought you over to the U.K.?” asked the man pleasantly.
And the woman opened right up and said, “Oh…I have been over here for three weeks making a documentary, mostly in Ireland, about the Celtic idea of ‘thin places.’”
You see, according to Celtic spirituality, a “thin place” is one where the veil separating heaven and earth becomes especially opaque…especially, well, thin…and it seems as if we can sense God’s presence more easily.
The term has been around in the Celtic world since before Christianity, but it has been part of the Christian experience there for over 1500 years, so it very much names a sense that Christians have had, too.
It speaks to that sense we have of some places as holy ground—and not because something particularly happened there, but just because some places have a mystical quality about them, a spirit or an energy that makes them different than other places.
A thin place isn’t necessarily breath taking or even beautiful…but nevertheless, there is something about it.
All of which is to say, the woman in seat 31A had been over in Ireland, trying to figure out what that “something” was.
I was really delighted to be overhearing all this.
But you know how these things go. The flight attendants started on the pre-flight safety demonstration, and everyone stopped talking, and to my great disappointment, the conversation on thin places never resumed.
Even so, ever since then, I have been thinking about this whole idea of “thin places.”
Because like many of you, I’m sure, I have known places like that…places where it does not seem remotely crazy to say that the veil between heaven and earth has become extremely thin. Places where the crazy thing would be in trying to deny it.
The concept is not unique to Ireland or to Celtic Christianity, by any means.
Within Scripture, and particularly the Gospels, there is a real awareness of those moments when, somehow, the Kingdom of God draws near…those moments when the veil between heaven and earth seems to be pulled back…and there is a kind of unity within Creation that any of us might know, might feel, or might even touch.
The Hebrew Scriptures talk about the midbar, the wilderness, the place outside civilization where anything might happen…and where revelations from God are decidedly more likely to occur.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus instructs 70 of his followers to go throughout the surrounding towns and preach the Gospel. He tells them, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘the kingdom of God has come near you.’”
Likewise, Jesus explains to his followers, when they are turned away, they should wipe even the dust from that town from their feet and keep walking, but over their shoulders as they go, they should say to the people of that town, “Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” (Luke 10:8-9, 11)
The veil was parted, but you chose not to see.
And yet, I can’t help but be sorry that Jesus wasn’t the man sitting in seat 31B on that airplane, because I think he would have had a lot of questions about thin places for that filmmaker.
It’s interesting to reflect on what it is that seems to qualify as a “thin place” in our world, isn’t it?
Are the thin places really all emerald green and covered with craggy rocks and shrouded in mist?
Do you really need to get on a plane to find one?
Surely Jesus would say no.
He seemed most interested in a very different kind of “thin place.”
He points to that in this morning’s Gospel from Mark.
Mark tells us that out on the road to Capernaum, Jesus overhears a conversation among his followers about who is the greatest—who is the most spiritual—or maybe it’s who has been to Ireland the most.
He responds to that by taking a child and putting it among them, then holding the child and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9: 36-37).
The thinness that interests him is not so much the quality of a place, but the quality of human character…or the quality of a life.
What pulls back the veil is when we enter into the mystery and the vulnerability of one another.
It’s when we recognize that we can choose to be “servant of all” and that the very disposition toward service, even the smallest act of holding a child, can help us enter that mystery.
It’s when we hear the voices of the voiceless, and see the invisible, and hold on to those who are so weak that their lives seem almost to run through our fingers like water.
The thin places Jesus cares about are surely places like Afghanistan and Iraq, or among the refugees from Syria, or in too many places we might name…so many places that, frankly, we should be naming a lot more often than we do. Of course he knows those thin places.
But the claim of the Gospel is actually bigger than that.
The claim of the Gospel is that Jesus also cares about the thin places close to us…the thin place where a single dad heads off to work, expecting to be laid off from his job this week…the thin place we experience on the anniversary of a parent’s death…the thin place we perceive when a happy child seems to have withdrawn and grown dark and closed.
He cares about the thin places where we don’t know what to do, and about the thin where we do know what to do but we don’t know how.
And yet part of the challenge of being in those kinds of thin places is that because we’re in our own “thin place,” we don’t feel much sense of connection to others in their thin places, wherever those might be, near or far.
That’s understandable, I suppose, and yet the Gospel is here to remind us that to get wrapped up in that kind of inner focus can be quite precarious for us.
Our reading this morning from the Epistle of James gets at that, I think.
He writes, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)
And to James, this involves a fair amount self-examination because our own motives, our preoccupations can be so murky.
James reminds us, for example, that we can fall so easily into praying for what we want, without really asking ourselves if we want the right things…or if we’re trying to discern what it is that God wants and coming to terms with the larger wisdom of that.
James is tough on us in this regard, and yet, I know that in my own prayer life, when I find myself in a thin place, it is easy for me to start telling God how to fix things instead of listening for God’s word.
Instead of trying to bring myself closer to God, I too often pray that God will do what I want.
When that happens, it’s important to try to remember the more fundamental affirmation of our faith, which is that in prayer, the veil can be been parted…that God is closer than we think…that we aren’t called to go hunting high and low for God so much as look for he is standing in plain sight.
“Draw near to God,” says James, “and he will draw near to you.”
Sometimes in the moment when the thin place is most frightening, most wild, most strange, it is possible to perceive God more deeply and more clearly: the hospital bedside can become a green hill with craggy rocks of Ireland—a place where the beauty is not physical but nonetheless washes over us…a place where we experience the nearness of God.
It is that nearness of God that defines the thin place.
If the documentary filmmaker on the airplane could visit our church, I think each of us would have a story to tell that would belong in her film.
Notice the thin places around you, the precariousness of life for so many of us, and you will find God present there. Abundant there. Life-giving there.
That’s what it is to live the Gospel.
Don’t get me wrong: someday I’d love to go on a trip to Ireland in search of those thin-places, where the wild landscape meets the passionate sky, and the fog of mystery rolls in, right on cue, and the veil that separates earth and heaven will be miraculously thin.
But this morning, we’re reminded that, as Christians, we look to the one who parted the veil in all times, and all places, and in the name of reaching every human heart.
Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be first must be the last of all and servant of all,” (Mark 9:35).
He reminds us that as we enter the thin places of this world, seeking to serve one another with love and a commitment to the greater good, there he is in the midst of us, the veil is parted, and his Kingdom is come.