The Old South Church in Boston

A Thin Place

A Sermon by Rev. Quinn G. Caldwell

Matthew 5:1-12, I Thessalonians 4:13-18
November 6, 2005

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Emily Dickinson writes:
This world is not conclusion
A sequel stands beyond
Invisible, as music,
But positive, as sound.
It beckons and it baffles,
Philosophies don’t know,
And through a riddle, at the last,
Sagacity must go.
To guess it puzzles scholars,
To gain it, men have shown
Contempt of generations,
And crucifixion known. 1

Listen, my sisters and brothers, and I will tell you of a mystery:

My father died of throat cancer when I was in college.  By the time he died, in a hospital bed encircled by his children, the sickness and its treatments had taken their toll.  He’d had a tracheotomy and could not talk.  There was a hole in the side of his neck where the tumor had been removed.  His cheeks were sunken, his breathing barely detectable.  Consciousness, except for the most tenuous sort, was gone.  We stood vigil, my sisters and I, and held his hands and smoothed his hair and assured him that he was not alone, and counted death a blessing when it came.

Some four or five years later, much of my grieving for my father was done.  The sense of his absence had diminished until it was, most days, not much stronger than the sense of his presence in memories and the sacred things and places of our relationship.  I had even gotten to the place where I could be honest about his faults and humanness rather than insisting on only remembering his goodness, where I could admit how difficult it was to have an alcoholic for a father, as well as how very proud of him I was that he had quit drinking for the last decade of his life.  I had been in seminary for a couple of years and was working as a student chaplain in a hospital in Manhattan.  It was not going well.  I had all but decided that my call to ministry was bogus, that I in fact had no business at all seeking ordination to pastoral ministry.

One night I was beeped while on call at the hospital.  There was a woman who lay dying in the hospice unit, and those with her wanted to meet with a chaplain.  Halfheartedly, pretty sure that if my presence in the dying woman’s room didn’t actually hurt anything, it probably wasn’t going to help much, either, I walked into the room the nurse at the nurses’ station pointed out.

A woman met me at the door and asked me who I was.  When I told her, she looked confused, turned to a motley, completely unmatched group of people standing behind her, and asked if anybody had called a chaplain.  No one had.  Awkwardly, I asked if they’d like to pray together anyway.  Awkwardly, they said that would be fine.

So I stepped into the room, as I had stepped into so many others in the time I’d been at the hospital.  But this time, unlike all those others, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the energy I felt in that room.  Now, I’m no mystic and don’t normally talk much about being able to feel energy, but that day, it washed over me and took my breath away.  It felt very, very familiar in that room, though I didn’t know why.  To buy time to recover myself, I asked how those present were connected to the patient.  They looked at each other uncomfortably and said, “We’re her, uh, family, I guess.”  Obviously to change the subject, the woman invited me to come in and meet the patient, Mary—not her real name.  She couldn’t talk, the woman told me, and she wasn’t really conscious any more.  I stepped further into the room and finally got my first glimpse of Mary—and second breath-stealing shock of the day.  She was old and white-haired, a rather small and frail-looking lady with sunken cheeks.  Her breath barely moved the sheet draped over her.  And she had had a tracheotomy.  And there was a hole in the side of neck where a tumor had been removed.  “Throat cancer,” said the woman standing beside me.  And I remembered where I had felt the energy of that room before.

So I said, “Let us pray”—for what else could I do, with an important task at hand and visions of my father’s death close upon me?  We made our motley circle around the bed, eight or nine of us plus Mary, with me holding her hand on one side and the woman on her other, and we began to pray.  After the amen, we stood in silence for a moment, and then let go of one another’s hands and talked for a few moments.  The people still refused to talk about who they were or their relationship to Mary, but they all sang her praises as if she were a saint.  They thanked me for coming, and I fled, feeling like I had I-don’t-know-what on my heels.

A few days later, my phone rang at home.  It was the woman from Mary’s room.  She’d called to tell me that Mary had died.  I offered my condolences.  Then she told me there was another reason for her call.  After I’d left the other night, she and those gathered at Mary’s bedside had talked and decided that I should know what their relationship to her was.  There was a pregnant pause on the other end of the line, and then, “We’re alcoholics,” she blurted.  “We’re recovering alcoholics.  Mary was, too.  Over the years, she’d been a sponsor to every one of us in that room.  That woman saved our lives.  We just wanted you to know that because, because we wanted you to know that alcoholics aren’t bad people.”  It was my turn to pause—in shock, in my case—and then I did my best to reassure her that I knew very well that alcoholics were as good as any other people, being the son of one myself.  The relief in her voice was palpable as she thanked me for saying so.  Then, unbidden, she told me, me, who was contemplating quitting seminary, that surely God had called me to the work I was doing.  I stammered out a thank you and a goodbye, then, just as we were about to hang up, remembered to ask her if she ever found out who had called me.  She said she’d talked to every person who’d visited Mary that day.  No one had called for a chaplain.

Listen, and I will tell you a mystery: this world is not conclusion/ a sequel stands beyond.

On All Saints’ Day, we celebrate the lives and the loves of all those who have gone on before us to whatever the sequel—whatever Heaven—is.  We remember, and honor, and draw close to those who, as Paul says, have fallen asleep, and we do so in the sure and certain hope that they will wake up again, even as did our Jesus.  In the church, we remind ourselves that, while the Spirit of God is surely present in the midst of those gathered here, the body of Christ, the Church Universal, is not complete if it is made up only of the living, that both the living saints and the dead ones are needed to embody the fullness of our Christ.  We pause, and we reflect intentionally on those things, and places, and events that bring us close in heart and thought and mind to those who have died.  That is, we seek out the thin places.

“Thin places” is a term used by Celtic Christians to describe deep and sacred sites, places where holiness is palpable and the other world, the sequel world, is almost tangible.  Places where you can feel the saints walking beside you and the breath of God blowing on your soul.  The kinds of places where you feel as if, should you whirl around quickly, you might just glimpse an angel.  Where the veil that separates this world and its sequel feels especially thin, where dreams and visions come naturally and heaven feels like it might just be breaking through.  Thin places.  There are those that feel like thin places to almost anybody who enters them.  Some churches, holy springs and glades, circles of standing stones, ancient burial places, sites hallowed and made thin by the work or lives or deaths or prayers of those that have come before us.

Have you been to a place like that?  The kind of place where silence feels like the mother tongue?  Where for just a moment you have no doubt that this world is not conclusion, where for just a moment the crossing and recrossing of the veil, where death and resurrection, feel as natural and as easy as breathing?  Have  you been to a place like that?

Listen, and I will tell you a mystery: this world is not conclusion/ a sequel stands beyond

Some thin places are intensely personal, linked to the lives, the very souls of individuals.  The places where the greatest events or the quietest, dearest moments happened.  Where a first kiss was shared or a last goodbye made.  A place where a triumph was achieved or the deepest defeat endured.  Where for no reason easy to explain, one finds one’s soul lifted to a higher place and God feels very near indeed.  The kind of place that always reminds you of someone in your life who has died, but that makes you feel so close, so very close to the person on the other side of the veil that you find yourself mourning not as one who has no hope, but mourning in the sure and certain, the powerful and rugged hope of life together on the other side of the veil, in the kingdom of heaven, just like Jesus, and Paul, and John promised.  I’m willing to bet you have a thin place or two you that you go to from time to time.  Where’s yours?  Is it a mountain, a book?  A place where you met someone special, or buried them?  A mountain, or a room in your house?  Is it church?  Where do you go to see visions and dream dreams, to feel God and see God’s realm, the sequel world, as through a glass darkly and feel like you can do everything, even mourn, as one who has hope?  Where are your thin places?

Listen, and I will tell you a mystery: this world is not conclusion/ a sequel stands beyond

Some thin places aren’t places at all, they’re more like moments.  Like the moment when a young kid walks into a sick old woman’s room, and suddenly knows his dead father and his God’s call nearer to him than his own skin.  Like good worship or powerful songs.  Like turning to share a joke with your longtime spouse, only to remember he died some years ago.  Like dreaming of a friend long gone, or catching an impossible glimpse of her face on a bus.  The kind of moment when, though you don’t really know what’s on the other side of the veil, whether Jesus is right and it’s like a righteous kingdom, or if Paul is right and it’s people flying up into the sky with Jesus, or if John is right and it’s a celestial chorus in a heavenly throne room, where, though you don’t know what’s over on the other side, you know that there is another side, that it is very near indeed, and that your saints, your loved ones, your beloved dead are right there, very very close, with a great multitude, so many that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, singing songs of salvation to our God and through the veil to us.  Have you had a moment, a thin place in time, like that?

Listen, and I will tell you a mystery: this world is not conclusion/ a sequel stands beyond

Church, it’s All Saints’ Sunday, a day for a thin place if ever there was one.  Paul tells us we should encourage one another with the truth of what we know about the dead.  So on this day we spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that Christ has died, that Christ is risen, that Christ comes again, that one has passed through a thin place into God’s realm and come back again bearing tidings of great joy to we mourners on this side, just so that we might grieve as ones who have hope.  And to make those truths real, we witness to that which we have seen and known.  I shared with you the story of a thin place I stumbled upon in my life, the story of my dad and old Mary, two of my saints, and a place where I felt the kingdom of God very near indeed.

What stories of thin places do you have to share, and whose face do you see among the multitude praising God?  Whose names do you whisper across the veil?  When have you felt them draw near?  What did you learn of sequels and God when it happened?  Today of all days, I hope you will share your stories with someone, proclaim the mystery and the good news, the Christ news, that with our God, death is not the end of the story.  That with our God, new life, resurrection life is always possible, is in fact the order of things.  That in what happened with Jesus Christ, with what we experience in the thin places, we become people who grieve in bold hope.

Today of all days, I hope you will take time to remember the saints who have gone before you, to pray their names in thanksgiving and joy.  To remember who and what they were in this life, to light a candle or say a prayer or tell the stories of their lives, and so create a thin place in this day, one in which you might know as surely as you know anything that they—and you—will be with our God forever and ever, even until the end of the age.

Listen, and I will tell you a mystery: this world is not conclusion/ a sequel stands beyond.  Praise God.  Amen.

1.   Dickinson, Emily.  The Complete Poems.  (Boston: Little, Brown, 1924), #83.  (  New York:, 2000)

Copyright © 2005, Old South Church and by author.
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Boston, MA 02116
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