“At the Edge of a Thin Place”

Scripture – Matthew 17:1-9

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, February 19, 2023


On several occasions, I have had the privilege of sitting beside the bed of someone the moment she breathed her final breath – leaving this life behind and setting sail for eternity. It’s an astonishing moment that defies precise description. The words sobering and sad describe the experience, but so do awe and wonder, humility and holy, penetrating and mysterious.

Have you heard music so sublime that your eyes turned to mist and a wave of joy washed over you? Have you witnessed the birth of a child and found yourself fumbling for words to express the miracle of a new life? Or have you gazed at the night sky and felt a rush of amazement over the vastness of God’s creation and wondered what the James Webb telescope is discovering?

Author Julian Stanz notes that if you have had such an experience “you have stood at the edge of a thin place, a place where God and humanity meet in a mysterious way. These moments open us to places of rawness and beauty. Something seems to break open inside us, and words are inadequate to describe what we are experiencing. We feel a sense of breakthrough as we break free of the ordinary and into the extraordinary.”1

What better depiction of today’s Scripture reading? At the edge of a thin place where God and humanity meet in a mysterious way.

Celtic Christianity bequeathed us the metaphor of “thin places.” These are the places and moments when the veil between the material world and the spiritual world – heaven and earth if you will – is uniquely slender. A thin place is where you find the world of the spirit closer at hand; where the presence of God is more palpable than usual.

A thin place can be a particular geographical location. Some of us have made pilgrimages to the tiny island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland because we experience it as a special place to discern God’s Spirit. Jews, Christians, and Muslims trek to Jerusalem because many experience the Old City as a thin place. A number of you sitting in our sanctuary have had such an experience. Many Christians find Rome and many Muslims find Mecca to be such places.

The natural world can become a thin place – a mountain, the wilderness, the ocean. For many, music is the mechanism that draws them into the presence of God. The purpose of prayer is to migrate to a thin place where we can pour out our thoughts and feelings, and listen for a divine word.

I hope worship often becomes a thin place for you – a time when your heart and mind are more open to God’s Spirit than usual and a word touches you deep inside.

Well-educated, type A Presbyterians – high achievers who are competitive and impatient – often have difficulty shifting from their minds to their hearts. We have elevated reason and logic to such a lofty pinnacle that we often overthink situations rather than simply allowing ourselves to sit in all their wonder.

Today’s Scripture reading – which appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – tells of a mountain that became a thin place. In the Bible, mountains are often the site of mysterious encounters with the Divine. It was on a mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments. It was on a mountain that the prophet Elijah heard the whispers of God.

In our passage, we read that Jesus led Peter, James, and John up a grueling mountain path; today there is a steep road with harrowing switch-backs. However, when they reached the top, things went sideways. Jesus began to shine like the sun. It was not as if he was reflecting brilliant sunlight, it was more like the sun was streaming out of him. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.

While the disciples struggled to comprehend what was happening, guess who showed up! Moses and Elijah. Two men who had been dead for centuries engaged Jesus in conversation. Struggling to fathom this surreal moment, Peter suggested they do something manly. He blurted out, “Let’s build something! How about a dwelling for each of you?”

Was Peter attempting to hang on to this mountaintop experience? Was he trying to nail down this mysterious, metaphysical moment to the solid rock of the mountain?

Jesus did not respond to his suggestion and, while Peter was babbling, a cloud enveloped them. A booming voice emanated from the center of the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” The same words as at the baptism of Jesus. But then, there is the addition of these crucial words: “Listen to him!”

We ought not criticize Peter for wanting to do what he could to hold onto the moment. In the same situation, many of us would whip out our phones and start taking photos. But as a colleague notes, God said, “This is my Son, put away your phone, stop looking at your watch, and listen to him.2

What do we make of this strange story? Was it eyewitness testimony? Was it simply a tall tale? Or could it be an attempt to describe an experience that words cannot capture? I find it helpful to remember that our vision is limited; not only by aging or out of focus eyes, but “by our brain’s selective interpretation of what we perceive.”3

I suspect many are tempted to brush this story aside as a first century fantasy because it does not fit with what we believe is possible. But recently I read a contemporary story that struck me as incredible.

Presbyterian minister, Rodger Nishioka remembers watching a nature television show. “This was before Animal Planet, the National Geographic channels, and the Nature Channel. One episode was about elephant seals, the largest of the seal family. They can weigh 8,000 pounds and grow to 20 feet long… The episode was following a large colony on South Georgia Island between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica. There were hundreds of huge females on the beach who were ready to give birth. They call them, ‘cows.’ Then it seems like, as if on cue, they all gave birth to their baby elephant seals called ‘pups.’ I know cows have pups. I don’t understand it either.”

“While these cow were in labor, over several days, they could not eat, so once they had their pups, they were famished. So one moment they gave birth, and the next moment, they waddled into the sea to feed. They leave hundreds of pups, who all look alike, screaming and scrambling around on the rocky shore frantically looking for their mothers. After the better part of the day, when the mothers have eaten, some signal tells them to all go back to the beach and a wave of elephant seals march onto the beach. The pups are screaming and probably terrified that they are going to get smashed by all these lumbering giants, but miraculously they do not. Then you wonder how these hundreds of mothers and these hundreds of babies will ever find each other.”

“Two cameras focus on one mother and her baby and they are both searching for each other and making seal noises. Amazingly, they find each other. It’s an enormous relief. Then the narrator explains that from the moment of birth, that little pup, when she heard her mother’s voice, it was imprinted on her soul forever. And when the mother heard her baby’s first cry, that voice was imprinted on her soul. So, of course they would find each other because they know each other’s voice. It is distinct from all the other voices around them.”4

I have no doubt that God knows our voice and seeks to comfort us when we grieve, calm us when we are anxious, sustain us when we are fragile, free us when we are guilt-ridden, enlighten us when we are perplexed, and boost our hope when we despair.

The question each of us must ask ourselves is: Are my ears tuned to the voice of Jesus? Like those baby seals who can decipher their mother’s voice amidst all those other voices, can I distinguish the voice of Jesus from the many others that clatter for my attention?

On Wednesday, we begin the liturgical season of Lent – 40 days of introspection to uncover the things that distract us from hearing the voice of Jesus. We do this so that we can better hear his call to follow him, to hear his encouragement to share love with others, and to hear his challenge to do everything in our power to nudge the world in the direction of compassion, in the direction of justice, and in the direction of peace. Listen. Jesus is calling you.



  1. Julianne Stanz, Braving the Thin Places: Celtic Wisdom to Create a Space for Grace, (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2021), p. ix.
  2. Peter Holmes, “Listen to Jesus,” Day1.org, February 19, 2023.
  3. Christine Chakoian, Everyday Connections: Reflections and Practices for Year A, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2022.
  4. Rodger Nishioka, “I am the Gate. I am the Good Shepherd,” January 22, 2023.