Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Catching fire

Exodus 3: 1-15 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
August 31, 2014

Normally we think of ‘thin places’—places where the line between heaven and earth is liminal—as beautiful, awe-inspiring, peaceful places. Places like the Isle of Iona off the western coast of Scotland, the Grand Canyon, Montmartre in Paris, the tomb of the poet Rumi in Konya, Turkey, and the whole of the Himalayan nation, Bhutan, are some of the many thin places on earth.

But then there are the rarified few who have seen this earth, this tiny blue marble from space, and have known themselves to be at once in heaven and on earth. A thin place is where we feel juxtaposed between knowing that we are tiny and insignificant yet also rare and precious. We may experience a sense of oneness, a feeling of transcendence, a deeper connection to God, or as author Eric Weiner puts it, “the Infinite Whatever”. We feel at peace.

Where have you experienced a thin place?

But not every place we feel relaxed or that we experience as beautiful is a thin place. Eric Weiner writes, “Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”

Moses found a thin place, a piece of holy ground when he encountered the burning bush. God was calling him to be his more essential self, although I don’t think he was all that relaxed. This is a prequel scene to Jesus calling fishermen to be disciples: “Moses, now you herd sheep. Soon I’ll teach you to herd cats…uh, that is, people.” Often God calls out to us in a thin place to lead us to other thin places; more often places we’d rather not go or wouldn’t think of going to in order to become our more essential selves. 

One of the thinnest places I’ve ever been was in a dump. And not just any dump but the Oaxaca city dump in Oaxaca, Mexico, about 20 miles outside the city limits. Eight years ago I went on a mission trip with 12 other adults to Casa Hogar, an orphanage of about 80 children, many with disabilities.

It was Wednesday, the middle of our trip; it became the spiritual pivot upon which our week turned. The kids and staff had prepared over 100 ham and cheese sandwiches plus a huge container of punch for us to take to the workers and residents of the Oaxaca city dump. There are 40 or so families who live and work in the dump, culling recyclable plastic bottles from the mountains of garbage. They bundle up the plastic, load it on trucks, and it is then sold to a Mexican mafia who pays them about 400 pesos (40 dollars) for the week's work: 10 pesos (1 dollar) per family. Some of their food they scavenge from their findings. They work from sunrise to sunset, in 80⁰+ heat, surrounded and permeated by the stench of rotting garbage. Imagine some of the worst stuff they could find, and they have found it and probably worse: medical waste, including syringes; dead animals; smells so bad they could be seen escaping from the just-ripped plastic bags.

Jesus of the dump - Oaxaca, Mexico

This task of delivering lunches to these resident workers twice a week had become a recent mission of the orphanage; the children would argue over who got to make the sandwiches and then deliver them to the folks at the dump. Those who are the recipients of mission also need to have the opportunity to serve and give to others so they see themselves as having something to contribute and so to share with others. But this week the children were grounded because of misbehaving, so it was up to our group and a group of college kids that had also been working at Casa Hogar that week to deliver lunch.

We had been told that these people, upon introduction, might offer us their arms instead of their hands because of how dirty and bacteria-ridden they are. We were urged to shake their hands anyway. For Jesus there were no 'untouchables'; only people in need of human connection. We stopped on the way to buy a huge sack of oranges to augment the meal. The trip took about 30 minutes, the dump announcing itself in its usual way. We passed by corrugated tin shacks that housed these families and others; there was no running water, no electricity. We pulled into an abandoned sorting station that gave us and the workers some shade to visit in. As they noticed the bus, they would come in a few at a time, hesitant at first, then slowly they would lower their guard and smile. We were humbled by their hospitality as they opened their home to us.

I helped dole out the cold drinks in plastic cups, giving a smile to substitute for a greeting in my crude Spanish. Then we grabbed the bags of sandwiches and oranges and handed these out. Soon everyone was digging in. I went and sat with a young girl, maybe 5 or 6, and her little sister, who seemed to be about 2 or 3. I figured the little one's Spanish was about the same as mine, so I thought I would be in good company. The little one took her sandwich apart and handed the half with ham to her big sister; she then proceeded to take pieces of the string cheese off the bread and eat them. Like any mother, I suppose, I made yummy sounds and rubbed my tummy as if to say "that must taste good." Instead she interpreted my gestures as signs of hunger, peeled off a piece of cheese and handed it to me.

Her hands were filthy and so were mine. I hesitated for only a split second; what could I say...no, thank you? I took the cheese in my fingers and put it in my mouth, smiling at her, careful not to let the tears rise. A bit later she offered me another piece of cheese. I ripped the piece in half and gave half back to her but she shook her head ‘no’. She gave another piece of cheese to a young woman, even though this was the best lunch she would have for a few days.

I have had Communion in more ways than I can count. I have served, and been served by, all kinds of people: men, women, children, teenagers, priests, ministers, laypeople, many colors, from all walks of life. But it has never meant as much to me as it did that Wednesday afternoon in the Oaxaca city dump, served to me by a little girl with grimy hands and an open heart in a place ridden with decay. It was one of the purest moments of Communion I've ever experienced. Through that little girl, God was visible, incarnate, real. And me? I was on fire but not consumed. That’s what I call thin.

When Moses saw that burning bush, it was like he was doing some sacred rubbernecking at the scene of a car accident. Or a riot. Or a video of an execution. He was being present. “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” In the previous chapter Moses thought he had found one way to solve the oppression, the forced labor of his people. He witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked both ways, saw that the way was clear, and he killed the Egyptian. But rather than condemning Moses, God put Moses in charge of leading his people out of slavery in a different way.

We wouldn’t necessarily think of the burning that is Ferguson or Gaza or Syria or Ukraine as holy ground. And yet is that not the voice of God calling out to us, to stop, to see that something sacred is burning, that lives are at stake, that we need to unmask not each other but ourselves and be transformed. 

Tear gas raining down on a woman in Ferguson, MO

The great I AM can be whoever or whatever God needs to be, wherever God chooses to be, especially in those places where God’s people suffer. God pulls our attention to where there is suffering, to compel us to look within and see if we harbor anything, if we participate in systems that cause harm. Thin places are also places that force us to turn our attention and be present. And it can hurt to be present, especially when we must attend to pain, ours or someone else’s.

What is our burning bush, right here, close to home? How is God speaking to us with some attention-catching fire, causing us to be present? We have our own Ferguson, MO in Wilmington, DE, except that no one is protesting the highest rate of violent crime per 100,000 residents per year. 1,703 violent crimes in Wilmington in 2012. In 2013 there were 150 reported shootings.

The New Ark supports missions in Wilmington such as Friendship House, the clothing bank, and now
Bright Spot Ventures, an urban farming operation that employs teens and young adults who have aged out of the foster care system. They have gardens at the Rodney Reservoir Community Garden, greenhouses at the Delaware Psychiatric Center, and have a farmer’s market at Cool Spring Park.

Our protest could be driving out of our way to Cool Spring Park on a Thursday afternoon to buy some veggies, herbs, and flowers; becoming community or sponsor shareholders with the Delaware Food Bank’s CSA program; volunteering with these young urban farmers to spread compost, plant seedlings; finding other ways of partnering with these residents of West End Neighborhood House that they would know their more essential selves.

Indeed, this is a thin place, holy ground. Here we are, Lord. Unmask us. Set our hearts on fire with love for you and all your people, for your name’s sake. 



Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
- from the Desert Fathers


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