Thin Places - Isaiah 25, John 11
If you have traveled in Ireland or Scotland, you might have heard of something called ‘a thin place’. Tour sites on the web list over 40 such places. A thin place is a location where the boundary between heaven and earth seems to blur, a place where people sense the divine more readily. Tourism websites named things like “Celtic Glory” list more than 40 such places.
I recognize the marketing of these sacred locations. People want a sense of mystery, a connection to the divine. But I think there is more to it than selling mysticism. Some places really do seem hallowed by the prayers of the faithful over the centuries. Some spaces, indoor and outdoor, create a sense of holy awe. And sometimes the events of our lives serve as a portal, a kind of hinge between two worlds, when we feel unusually connected to unseen realities.
I had an such experience when my son Joel was born. In the weeks leading up to his birth, I was visiting Wayne in the hospital regularly. Wayne was the parish worker at our church.
He had become like a second father to me, welcoming me into his home for meals, encouraging me as I started out in ministry, reminding me to take time for myself and my relationships. Wayne had been sick with cancer for over a year, and it was getting pretty bad. I was there when the oncologist told Wayne that there was nothing more that they could do. I remember going home and getting on my knees to pray for him, pleading for a different answer. And I heard inside my head the words, “even Lazarus died.” It was a reference to the story in our Gospel lesson today: that even Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, eventually died.
I went into labor three weeks early, in the wee hours of a Saturday night. As the contractions strengthened, I kept envisioning a door, my cervix expanding to usher in new life, praying with the words of Pete Townshend “let my love open the door.” Joel was born healthy and well at 10:02am.-- just in time to announce the good news in Sunday worship.
But a few hours later I heard the second announcement made in church that day: Wayne had died. The crazy thing was that Wayne died and Joel was born within minutes of each other. It was as if the door of heaven had swung twice, Joel coming out, and Wayne going in. It was a thin place – when the veil between life and death was momentarily pulled back,
And God’s presence and mystery was palpable.
Isaiah speaks of a day when that veil of separation will be removed completely. Our OT lesson says that God “will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, he will swallow up death forever. It is the end of the sorrow and death and fear that covers the earth and its people. People will no longer experience God as being far from the people, but close at hand, tenderly wiping away tears from faces.
All nations and people join in celebration of this reunion in a great banquet in a classically thin place: on God’s holy mountain— for mountains are always a place to meet God.
The vision is not yet a reality. We still experience separation from God and those we love.
However, we do have these glimpses of greater reality, these experiences of thin places where for an instant we feel connected. Worship is one of these thin places. At the altar in the sacrament of Communion, we gather with believers of all times and places, proclaiming, “So with all the choirs of angels, with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven, we praise your name and join the heavenly hymn, Holy Holy Holy Lord God of power and might
Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!” It is a vision of the same banquet proclaimed by Isaiah and lived out by Jesus who ate with sinners and saints alike.
Week by week we get a foretaste of this feast and live in the doorway between heaven and earth. Baptism is a doorway, as we go down into the water and are raised to new life on the other side. Death is a doorway to the next life, and we celebrate Jesus’ resurrected life that in our baptism has become our—a life that knows no separation or tears.
And here, on All Saints’ Day, as we lovingly remember our dead and celebrate the baptized,
the veil between life and death becomes thin we recognize that the separation and sadness we feel at the loss of our loved ones will not last forever. Death is just a stop along the way in a journey that begins in baptism and continues with God in the life to come. And so we celebrate that baptismal life with our newest members of the church: Emilia, Sloan, Perry and Evan, and those whom we lovingly returned to God: Ruth, Rik, Lilah, Cheryl, Jim, and Eleanor.
We know ourselves to be on this journey. That God has heard our borning cry and is with us in all the stages of life, and will one day welcome us home, as the famous hymns says:
“When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes/I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.”
You don’t have to travel to experience a thin place. God is right here, in your midst, with you day to day. The thin places are there as a reminder that God is always with us, that God desires us to know him, and to cultivate the things in our lives that help us connect to the earth, to other people, to creativity— to all the places where we see God.
Pastor Julie, 11/7/21