It’s not an easy drive down the single-track road across Mull from Craignure to Fionnphort, especially when you’re in a minibus full of teenagers. And after a 5 hour drive and a choppy ferry crossing from Oban we are all a little weary. But for the final few miles I insist on some temporary rules – phones away, speakers off, no headphones, limit the chat – just look. Take in the extraordinary beauty of this place. Broadly speaking they comply. As we round the final bend, suddenly it comes into view – Iona, this small, low-lying island sitting at what feels like the edge of the world. We pull over to the side of the road and I read them these words, attributed to St Columba –
A blessing on each eye that seeth it!
He who does a good for others,
Here, will find his own redoubled many-fold!’
We spend the next 48 hours exploring this remarkable place, and learning about why so many thousands have made the difficult journey here over the centuries. And I tell them about George McLeod, founder of the Iona Community in the 1930s, who described Iona as ‘a thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual’. And despite the inevitable arguments and dramas that you might expect on a school trip, I think, I hope that those young people came away from that place two days later with a sense of what George McLeod meant.
If our three readings today are anything to go by, the concept of thin places is one we can find in the Bible. In particular, it seems, mountains in the Bible are a place of encounter. I have not climbed as many mountains as Jon and Hil, but I can certainly see the appeal. I remember from the rare occasions that I have laced-up my walking boots and trudged up a Lakeland fell, the unique experience of seeing the landscape gradually open up beneath you.
The giddying exhilaration that comes with just looking at the scree slopes and gullies all around. And the curious experience of suddenly getting to the top and realising there’s no further you can go.
Yes, I can well understand that those in biblical times felt that a mountain-top was a place to meet God. If you believe, as people did back then, that God is literally up above us, then I suppose getting as physically high as possible makes sense, especially if the top of the mountain is where the clouds gather and all the forces of nature seem most obviously present.
I don’t believe in a God who literally lives ‘up in the clouds’, but I do still like the notion of a mountain-top as a thin place. To climb a mountain is to withdraw, temporarily, from the busyness of life and if you’re lucky enough to have a clear day to look down upon the towns and villages below where that busyness continues. I think all of us, from time-to-time need that opportunity to take time-out from our busy lives to reflect and recharge before we walk back down the mountain, metaphorical or otherwise.
For Peter, James and John, the mount of transfiguration was most certainly a thin place. In that brief and mysterious moment the veil between the material and the spiritual, between heaven and earth was blown away. Peter, true to form, gets over excited and misunderstands what’s going on. What went through their minds, I wonder, as they walked back down the mountain?
They had seen some remarkable things, it’s true, since they first started following Jesus. But this?
Yes, it seems from our readings that mountains can be thin places, places of encounter with God. And yet I want to suggest that our gospel today also hints at something different, something apparently contradictory. And I want to suggest that two apparently different things can be true at the same time.
Yes, Peter, James and John have an experience of the divine on a mountain-top, and many of us here I am sure can relate to the idea that God might somehow ‘feel’ more present in wild, lonely places such as mountains or remote islands or sacred places such as great churches and cathedrals. But the remarkable things about the transfiguration, the extraordinary thing which Peter, James and John caught a glimpse of was that in Jesus there is no veil.
His whole life, death and resurrection tells a story for us of a God who is here among us now in the real, painful, fragility of human experience. From his humble birth at Bethlehem, to the mount of transfiguration, to the curtain of the temple being ripped in two and the stone in front of the tomb being rolled away – this is the story of God with us, and it’s a story that is still unfolding.
So while I love the idea of Iona as a ‘thin place’, and I love Iona itself, I also think it’s kind-of unnecessary. Yes, it might feel easier to encounter God when we take time-out from our busy lives, and when we travel to inspiring, beautiful places. We mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking there is some magic about such places. We mustn’t be tempted, like Peter, to set-up camp there. And I, still relatively young, with physical health and other privileges on my side need to remember that not everyone can make their way to remote islands or up mountains. We mustn’t accidentally miss our God who meets us where we are.
The good news is that we can meet God in every ordinary moment of our everyday lives. In Jesus, God came among us as a very ordinary tradesman, with ordinary friends, from ordinary town that had a bad reputation.
Yes, Peter, James and John caught a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity up the mountain, but when they walked back down the mountain he walked back down with them.
The poet Elizabeth Barrett-Browning famously wrote:
‘Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes’.
The good news is that God isn’t hidden in a cloud on top of a mountain as some once thought. God isn’t locked away in the sanctuary of an ancient church or hidden in the pages of dusty theology books.
Our everyday God is here, for you and with you this morning. And God will continue to be with you when you leave this place. God will be with each one of us when you do whatever it is that we will do in this coming week. We have only to open our eyes and to notice.
Where will you meet God, I wonder?
Maybe, in this wonderful landscape in which we live, you might see something of the beauty and splendour of God. Maybe, as the wind and the rain rattles the window, you will sense something of the power of God. Maybe you will notice signs of spring, perhaps even hear a curlew, and you might get a sense of the hope of God. Maybe, through friendship and warmth of this community, you will know the comfort of God. Maybe in lighter moments with friends, you will enjoy the humour and joy of God.
But if this is a week that brings more suffering than joy, then maybe you might find, even in the hardest of moments, the compassion of God. God who in Jesus took flesh that he might share in all that it means to be human.
For Peter, James and John, the most amazing thing about their day on the mountain was not that they were lifted up to witness Christ’s glory, it’s that he came back down with them. Amen.