Devotion for May 20, 2020
Based on a Christmas Eve Sermon preached by Bill on December 24, 2015
Our Christian calendar is structured around three pivotal events that are also mysteries – Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. In each of these God has come so close, or the separation between heaven and earth became so thin that they have become foundational for our faith. In these events God reveals God’s self to us and we are forever opening up the gift of this revealing.
So, as we approach Pentecost on May 31, I invite you today to think about Christmas; next Wednesday we’ll think about Easter, and by next Sunday we’ll be at Pentecost. Enjoy one of my favorite of Bill’s Christmas Eve messages, and there will be some reflections questions at the end. I hope you can enjoy a cup of coffee or tea and reflect on the beauty of Christmas on this rainy spring day. Blessings upon your musings for you are on holy ground….
Read Bill’s sermon….
Reflections after reading sermon……
- Call to mind some of your thin places…where the separation between heaven and earth seems very thin, places that bring you comfort and calm and peace. Take time to savor these places and thank God for them.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem God’s Grandeur penned “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Bill writes of the poem:
It was (Hopkins) way of saying we live in a world of theophanies – holiness wrapped in the ordinary – burning bushes all around us – hidden beauty waiting at every turn. Life is designed in such a way that when we pay attention, it leads us from the ordinary to God.
Take a look back to the day just past and call to mind ordinary things that revealed to you the grandeur of God. Using the language of Moses, did you see any burning bushes in the day just passed? Were there any encounters that seemed joyfully holy? Any sense of being on holy ground? If we trust that ordinary things can reveal God’s presence we begin to see simply things like a smile, a bird singing, the wind blowing, a seed pushing up from the ground, a letter from a friend, a song, a beautiful poem, or laughter as holy, joyful gifts from God. Whatever brings you joy, look there for God. As you reflect back over the past day can you say, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I didn’t know it?”
- I suggest we ask ourselves David Stendl-Rast’s question:
“Each evening I glance back over the day and ask myself – did I stop and allow myself to be surprised? Or did I trudge on in a daze?
As lovely as it is to look for and remember the best moments of the day past, it is also helpful to try to see the ways we missed God’s grandeur and love. Do we have the courage to look for those moments too? Do we really want to trudge on through our days in a daze? Try to identify the moments we missed God’s grandeur.
As you think of celebrating Christmas each year, what continues to surprise, delight and bring us hope every year? What about Christmas helps us to see God in the ordinary? Is it the shepherds, or the stable, or the star or the wise men, the beloved carols, or the cry of a helpless newborn babe? What about Christmas cracks our heart open to see the grandeur of God? Let us give thanks for those moments, those thin places.
We thank you O God, for your grandeur and your nearness to us. We thank you for your quiet presence, your quiet waiting for us to notice and respond to you. Open our hearts this day to the wonder of your love that comes to us and asks that we love in return, and that we love one another as you, O God, love us. Enfold us in the mystery of your love made tangible in the birth of your son, our Lord Jesus. Amen.
Luke 2:8-20 Exodus 3:1-6
A sermon by William M. Klein
24 December 2015
1 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Ex. 3:1-6 NRSV)
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. (Lk. 2:8-20 KJV)
I would wager that at some point all of you have had the sense you were in a “thin place?” I’m talking about what you may call a “holy” or “sacred” moment…a moment where, for a brief time, the separation between heaven and earth dissolves and you are able to glimpse the existence of a world that is beyond what you know through your five senses.[i] You may not have known what to call what you were experiencing, but you have had such moments.
If you have witnessed a birth…say a kitten or a calf or a child…you know the experience of standing in wonderment before the miracle of life. And there is a similar sense of awe one experiences standing beside someone the moment they die…a truly holy moment…a very, very thin place.
Or consider the wonder of forgiveness…real forgiveness…the type a wife grants her unfaithful husband that enables them to have a viable future as husband and wife. Such forgiveness is hard enough to conceive…and absolutely breathtaking when it really occurs.
There is a Celtic saying that “heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.”
Some of you know I have a special fondness for the Island of Iona in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.[ii] Known as a “holy” island, it is the place from which Christianity spread to the rest of Scotland…and the place Celtic Christians believe Jesus’ second coming will occur.
George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community, described Iona as just such a “thin place.”[iii] He said on that island only a tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual. I can appreciate how MacLeod made such an outlandish claim. I’ve often had the sense on Iona that the boundary line between the material and the spiritual was so thin that I wasn’t quite sure which was more real.
Despite all sorts of empirical evidence to the contrary, ours is a world that is inconceivably beautiful and good because of God…and because God is intimately involved in it. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”[iv] It was his way of saying we live in a world of theophanies – holiness wrapped in the ordinary – burning bushes all around us – hidden beauty waiting at every turn. Life is designed in such a way that when we pay attention, it leads us from the ordinary to God.[v]
Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth is crammed with heaven – each common bush aflame with God. Yet only those who see take off their shoes. The rest set round and pluck blackberries”[vi]…or polish their medals, or seek scapegoats, or glory in the past, or amass fortunes, or cover their tracks, or grumble and find fault, or whatever…
“Come no closer,” said God to Moses from the midst of a burning bush at the foot of Mt. Sinai. “Remove your sandals for you are standing on holy ground.”
Moses had been tending sheep in that region for forty years. How many times had he passed by that spot? How many times had he stood in that exact place? And now God tells him that bit of ground is holy? Had the ground been holy the whole time?
You and I walk on holy ground all the time, but most of us don’t notice because we are moving so fast and tapping out so many text messages and working through such long to-do lists that we miss it. Remember the story of Jacob’s ladder? When he woke from his dream remember what he realized? “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”[vii] It is an observation we could echo way too often.
Luke, the gospel writer, tells us shepherds were out keeping watch over their flock one ordinary night. All of a sudden an angel came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were…sore afraid!
“Fear not,” said the angel to the shepherds, “for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. Go find him.”
Did you notice that one shepherd, Moses, was told to come no closer to the burning bush…but other shepherds were told to come closer, to draw near, to get a better look? Which is it…take off your shoes because you are on holy ground or come take a closer look?
It is both. The ground where the shepherds stood “sore afraid” and the ground around Jesus’ crib…both were thin places, holy ground. A tissue paper separated the material from the spiritual. The difference is the shepherds and you and I are invited to draw near because the tissue paper has been removed and we may look upon the human face of God.
Those people who walked and talked with Jesus had the sense they were in a thin place. Endless dimensions of God were infinitesimally close. Every moment and every location were simply another experience of the divine reality…the divine reality that is all around us, through us, under and above us all the time.[viii]
We call it incarnation…the wonder and mystery of God becoming one of us. In the cold, in the dark, among the wrinkled hills of Bethlehem, the God for whom a thousand years is as an evening gone, entered time and space. The one who knew no boundaries took them on…the shocking confines of a baby’s skin, the ominous restraints of mortality. “He is the image of the invisible God,” an apostle would later say of him.[ix] But the few eyewitnesses Christmas night only saw an infant struggling to work never-before-used lungs.[x] Who would think that what was needed to transform the world was a child?[xi]
At the heart of the incarnation is the surprising truth that because of the birth of Jesus heaven and earth, that which is holy and that which is earthly, God and humanity, are intertwined. Every living moment is an opportunity for us to behold the glory of God.[xii]
David Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine monk from whose writings I’ve learned many things. He says, “Each evening I glance back over the day and ask myself – did I stop and allow myself to be surprised? Or did I trudge on in a daze?”[xiii]
Thin places and moments surprise us. They quicken the heart rate and jolt us to the quick. They also trouble us with the reality that “God was in this place and we did not know it.” I treasure such places and moments, I really do…even as they grieve me…for these thin places and moments make me realize the tissue paper separating the material from the spiritual really has been removed and too often I did not and do not notice.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was right. The world really is charged with the grandeur of God. God wants us to breath in the wonder of that grandeur, walk in gratitude, live in compassion, shine out his glory, and embody his love.[xiv]
Glory be to God for the gift of thin places, blessed moments like this brief time tonight when we remember we are on holy ground. These moments help us remember what we too easily forget…that God wants us to surround ourselves with his grace and favor, not sometimes, not just here and there…but with every breath we take. You and I are God’s beloved. Thanks be to God.
Lexington Presbyterian Church
120 South Main Street
Lexington, Virginia 24450
[i] See http://www.patheos.com/community/wildgoosefestival/2011/06/23/crafting-a-thin-place-karla-yaconelli/
[ii] See http://www.welcometoiona.com/
[iii] For information about the Iona Community, see: http://iona.org.uk/
[iv] See poem by Hopkins, God’s Grandeur.
[v] Wiederkehr, Macrina. 1988. A Tree Full of Angels. NY: HarperCollins Pub., xiii.
[vi] From Aurora Leigh.
[vii] Bell, Rob. 2005. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press, 91. See Genesis 28:16.
[viii] Bell, Rob. 2011. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Grand Rapids: HarperCollins e-books location 794-796.
[ix] See Colossians 1:15.
[x] Yancey, Philip. 2014. Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 407.
[xi] See the hymn, Who Would Think That What Was Needed, text by John Bell and Graham Maule.
[xii] Cherwien, Susan P. 2009. From Glory into Glory. St. Louis: Morning Star Music Publishers, 93.
[xiii] Steindl-Rast, David. 2010. David Steindl-Rast: Essential Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 60.
[xiv] Cherwien, 93.