(Open by singing the first verse of “I’ve got that joy down in my heart”)
One pastor tells this story about a family that wanted to baptize their five-year-old son. The family had a tradition of doing baptisms at a lake in the summer. So Pastor Sherry was invited out to the lake with them for the baptisms of some of the youngest members of their family.
They gathered at the edge of the lake and set up a picnic table for communion. Pastor Sherry spoke with the five-year-old about what was going to happen. She explained to him that baptism was a very special thing we did that made us all members of God’s family, and that by joining this family, we all become saints. This five-year-old was sweet, loving, and trusting. He was also a special needs child. As he looked at the water, and he looked at his family, he decided flatly and resolutely that he was NOT going to get baptized in the lake.
So Pastor Sherry told him he could watch as they baptized his young cousin. His cousin came forward and stepped into the lake, as Pastor Sherry said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The family celebrated that through baptism, his cousin was claimed by God—claimed as a saint for all eternity.
But still the boy did not want to get into the water.
So they continued with the worship service.
Pastor Sherry read Scripture. She talked about the legacy of faith, passed down from generation to generation.
Now, the family’s grandfather had died just a few weeks earlier. And so, when Pastor Sherry preached, she talked about how, through the sacramental acts they participated in together – the Holy Eucharist, Baptism – they were still connected – that we are surrounded by the saints. Not just the saints like the ones you see in pictures with halos over their heads – but all the members of God’s family who have gone before us, including their grandfather.
The five-year-old piped up: “You mean Papa is here with us now… ‘cause of the water of Jesus?”
And the preacher replied, “Yes.”
The boy ripped his shirt off. He grabbed the preacher’s hand.
He pulled at her as he ran into the lake. He yelled, “Put my Jesus water all over me now!”
So she did…again and again… And he said, over and over, “Jesus knows I love my Papa, he does! I know he does…and he loves me too.”
There is a Celtic tradition that speaks of “thin places” – places and moments where the veil between heaven and earth is transparent, where the spiritual world and the natural world seem to intersect, where we see heaven and earth meet and we experience a deep sense of God’s presence in our everyday world.*
Maybe for you, that is the ocean, or a piece of NYC architecture, or the view out of the window of an airplane, or a moment of overwhelming love for your child, or forgiveness from someone when you didn’t deserve to be forgiven, or your grandmother’s house, or a church on a mountaintop halfway across the world. Thin places are where the separation between God and this world dissipates.
Sometimes, those thin places come at moments of solitude and contemplation. Sometimes they come when we’re in the midst of a bustling city. Sometimes they come at serious or somber moments. And sometimes, thin places are encountered at times of great laughter and joy, when the spirit of God touches a young child who immediately insists on being splashed with “Jesus water.”
In fact, I want to suggest that joy is a necessary component to experiencing thin places.
I want to talk about joy for a moment.
It’s the core value we’re focusing on today.
In the story of that little boy wanting to be doused in “Jesus water” so that his Papa could be near, it’s not hard to imagine the laughter, the happiness, and the joy his family felt in that moment. There might even have been a tear or two rolling down his parents’ cheeks as their sweet little boy grasped the essence of the mystery of our faith with a profundity and enthusiasm surpassing that of many adults.
Baptism is one of the more joyful sacraments we celebrate in the Episcopal church, and we have the privilege of baptizing some new members into the family of God today. We’ll splash some “Jesus water” on them and claim them as our sisters and brothers in Christ.
These are happy moments, and they create happy memories. This whole room will be smiling as people you may or may not know are received into the household of God.
But I don’t want to confuse the happiness of the moment with the “thin place” that the little boy found at the lake. There is a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is all about how you feel in the moment. Joy is rooted in how that moment connects you to something greater, outside yourself. Joy is that deep-down knowing that what you’re doing or experiencing is connected to the divine. When you’re light in spirit and grounded in purpose.
When Zaccheus the rich tax collector heard Jesus was coming, he wanted to get a good look. The man he was so desperate to see that he climbed a tree to get a glimpse – that man saw him and called him by name and invited himself over for dinner. And the Scripture says he “hurried down and was happy to welcome Jesus.” I mean, he must have been ecstatic. Jesus was the talk of the town; Zaccheus wasn’t even sure he’d be able to catch a glimpse of him. He probably wasn’t sure Jesus would think well of him. He certainly wasn’t expecting to receive a dinner invitation. Of course he was happy to welcome Jesus. Finally, some validation for this miserable sinner! Tax collectors were hated – not unlike the IRS today! (Not much has changed in 2000 years!)
And of course, the people start to grumble. “Look at this low-life, how could Jesus even think about sharing a meal and standing under the same roof with him?”
Of course, Zaccheus did what any of us would do. He scrambles to justify himself to Jesus in front of all these naysayers. “Look, man, I do good things! I give more than the minimum, I’m a generous guy! I more than make up for any of the bad stuff I’ve done.”
Interestingly, the version we read puts this in the future tense: “I will do this, I will do that, I will give money to the poor,” but the Greek verb is in the present tense, stated as an ongoing and future action. It’s a statement of Zaccheus’ reality, the present and future state of his heart and soul. There’s simply the before Jesus and the after Jesus. Who he was before, and who he was from that moment onward.
I think it’s worth noting that Jesus responds to Zaccheus by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.” There’s no need for repentance and penance and groveling and shame. There’s simply Jesus, seeing Zaccheus not for what he is, but for who he is, and reminding him that he is God’s beloved child. Not as a new creation, but restoring the truth that had become hidden underneath the veil of societal labeling and social ills.
And in that moment, I suspect, Zaccheus must have felt immense joy. Happy to have this guest at his house, but joyful to have been seen as more than just a tax collector, more than a loathed miserable sinner, more than any labels or societal definitions.
I wonder if the sycamore tree or the dinner table became Zaccheus’ thin places. If he walked by that tree and remembered the way its branches both held him up and connected him to God. I wonder if he saw people with God’s loving eyes whenever he broke bread with them.
I wonder what your thin places are. Those places where deep joy opens you up to the presence of God. Thin places are everywhere – even, and especially, in church.
I think one of the reasons sacraments so often and easily become thin places – why that little boy was able to know the presence of Jesus in the waters of baptism – is because they take the things of this world to connect us to the reality of God’s world. The waters of baptism, the oils of blessing at a death or at an ordination, the bread and the wine at the Eucharist: these elements beckon us beyond their earthly matter and into the divine reality they represent. The God who calls us each by name is there, if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear.
The classic children’s hymn is “I’ve got that joy joy joy joy down in my heart… I’m so happy, I’ve got the love of Jesus in my heart.” They get it right. We can be happy about the love of Jesus, but the joy of it goes way down deep in our hearts.
Beyond the veil. Deep down to the place where we get a glimpse of Jesus, even from a tree branch way up high or in the depths of a lake. Where heaven and earth meet, and something stirs in our spirit to hear Jesus calling us each by name. What joy indeed.
opening story courtesy of Rev. Diane Kenaston