“Borders” have been in the news a lot. As I read this week’s scripture passages, and drove around our community this week… visited people in their homes, met with people here at church, and at a local school… and showed up at for an interreligious vigil on Saturday at the Capitol, I kept thinking of all the borders we encounter each and every day.
Borders can be… places of energy… but borders can also feel threatening… disturbing… dangerous…
Thresholds. Places of crossing over. Spaces into which we go that are different than what was before. Doorways are one such demarcation between “out there” and “in here.” You and me. Us and them. Here and there. Heaven and earth.
Borders include that deeply human, borderline of our skin, which sometimes divides our inner and outer selves. Sometimes we put on that mask of happiness, or indifference, or silence, when inside our souls are gasping for help. Our minds can wander and play tricks on us, drawing us into unsettling places. Our “self-talk” can be encouraging—or disparaging. For some people, thin places arise between our waking and sleeping hours, and new messages emerge in dreams. There is that inner relationship with our self. With our God. There is that moment between womb and birth. And between life and death.
Reaching out in ever-widening circles, there are the deeply human, communal edges along which we gather with other people. Edges of joy. Edges of despair. Divisions in understanding. There are spaces of intimate conversations. Tears. Meals. We serve together. Work together. Learn together. Show up communally at big sporting events and theatrical venues. We rally. We sing. We worship.
The edges between God’s interaction with people – both as individuals and as community, can happen anywhere, anytime.
I believe that our sacraments, baptism and communion, also offer us opportunities to explore boundaries between heaven and earth. Here we have an chance to listen and live into the stories that our biblical ancestors have shared with us. These can be thin places, where the boundary between heaven and earth blurs. The first time that I heard about “thin places,” I had no idea what the speaker meant. I was at a conference at a Presbyterian retreat center, and that instant, that phrase, that “what?” moment is etched in my memory. Little did I know that in just a couple of days God would shatter my life in just such a “thin place,” and that I would TOTALLY—with my full mind, body, and spirit—understand concept of “thin places.”
Have any of you experienced such a “thin place?” A small glimpse, maybe goosebumps, maybe a dream, a sudden revelation, a Holy Moment? If you have, I would love to hear your story sometime. If you haven’t, don’t worry. This is not something you can shape, or do, or trigger on your own. It is more a space of “being alert”… even “unexpectedly alert.” And then… sometimes… Holy Happens. I like to think of myself as someone who is logical, into research and data, evidence based practices—if you would like to hear my call story someday, I am happy to share it. God’s “showing up” in my life is anything but logical. It is God. It is mystical. It was unexpected. It exploded my understanding of the boundary, the barrier, the threshold between heaven and earth.
Today we continue our transition into the new year by noticing these border places, those “thresholds” around us. Last week it was the magi, discerning the Holy in a star. Affirming the Holy in a child. Now the reading from Luke brings us into a desert place, along the banks of life changing water. Christine Valters Paintner writes that, “Thresholds are the space between, when we move from one time to another… (and) Thresholds are challenging because they demand that we step into the in-between place of letting go of what has been while awaiting what is still to come.”
We can encounter these in-between places anywhere, at any time, in any of the places I described above. Yet they aren’t anything we can fully anticipate. Paintner describes thresholds as “… the space between, when we move from one time to another, as in the threshold of dawn to day or of dusk to dark; one space to another, as in times of inner or outer journeying or pilgrimage; and one awareness to another, as in time when our old structures start to fall away and we begin to build something new. The Celts describe thresholds as ‘thin times or places’ where heaven and earth are closer together and the veil between worlds is thin…” (1)
So I will ask you again: Have you ever experienced that thin space between heaven and earth breaking forth in your own life? Remember, often it is not something that we anticipated. And again, if you have not experienced a “thin place” with the Holy, it is totally OK. Sometimes the inbreaking comes in small snippets. Other times, it is in Holy Torrents of Love. Sometimes the Spirit descends on one, as the author of Luke describes happening to Jesus following his baptism. Sometimes the Spirit descends on multitudes, as again the author of Luke writes in Acts, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability (Act 2:1-4, NRSV).”
These are thresholds. Border moments. Places where God rips forth. Renita Weems suggests that a “… life of faith is also a life of surprises… ‘You may just find yourself standing waist deep in waters with a stranger,’ she writes, hearing voices, seeing doves, feeling an odd glow within, and discovering things about others and about yourself your soul has yearned for years to know.’”
Boundaries. Borders. Edges. In-between places. Thin spaces. Letting go of what has been while awaiting what is still to come. I am intrigued by the intersection of Weems’ idea of “standing waist deep in waters with a stranger…” and Jesus’ baptism which occurs for Luke in community with others. In our own time, our own place, we are remembering our own baptisms and welcoming new members into the life of our congregation. Thus I love the image of this gathering of people along the river and the God moment that happens.
“..now when all the people were baptized, and Jesus was baptized…”
Welcome to baptism. Welcome to the opportunity to discover “things about others and about yourself.” Melissa, Kim, Joe, Barb, Alex, and Galina, welcome to Memorial United Church of Christ. And to all—members, friends, visitors… beloved—I challenge us as a faith community to anticipate that Holy Threshold moments DO HAPPEN.
I encourage each of us to think about the various boundaries and life edges we encounter each and every day Yes, the mystical ones. Yes, the relational ones. But also the systemic, man-made challenging ones.
I invite you to make time over the upcoming weeks to read about, and learn about… and talk about… the Doctrine of Discovery. There will be information and video links posted in the eNews and in your bulleting. This papal decree from 1452 led to a Supreme Court case in 1823, in which “Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held ‘that the principle discovery (of the Americas) gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.’ In essence, (Native Americans) had only the right of occupancy, which could be abolished… It is used to force (Native Americans) off native lands and be confined to reservations. It is the basis for assimilation… (and to) deny cultural expressions such as speaking native languages…”
And moved by our “ever-widening circles, my we listen to the many other border issues in our midst, and to not avoid those margins to which God calls us that may be uncomfortable. Let us, as Painter suggests, make time to attend to and witness the Holy, “… that wants to emerge, rather than what our rational minds want to make happen…” May Holy Torrents of Love flow into the thin spaces around us, immersed in God’s grace, and transform the brokenness around us. Through our listening to the Spirit, may old structures start to fall away, and may we begin to build something new.
Reflection on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 offered 1.13.19
 Paintner, Christine Valters. The Souls Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2018. Pgs 1, 3.
 Weems, Renita, from New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001, quoted by Matthews, Kathryn. “Sermon Seeds January 13, 2019.” United Church of Christ. Accessed January 11, 2019. http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_13_2019.
 “Doctrine of Discovery: Questions and Answers.” Accessed January 12, 2019. http://www.wcucc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Doctrine-of-Discovery-Questions-and-Answers-9-23-2018.pdf.
 Paintner, Christine Valters. The Souls Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2018. pg xv.