blessed are the thin places

Sermon, Fulton United Church of Christ — November 2, 2014

Fall is a time for paying attention – for paying attention to the rhythms of the world around us.

I have been noticing how many people say that fall, that this season is their favorite time of the year. The trees turn colors and drop their leaves; frost starts to coat the grass in the mornings. The air becomes crisp and cold. The season tastes like apple cider and pumpkin spice. Our senses tune themselves to the transitional rhythms of the world. And we see and feel the way life changes around us.

I work at a non-profit agency here in Mid-Missouri, and the other day we began a staff meeting by sharing our favorite thing about this season: apple picking; deer hunting; corn mazes; family gatherings; Halloween.

It wasn’t until our first break that one of my co-workers and I had a side conversation about the topic. B- is a gardener. His flowers had mostly stopped their blooming. He had just pulled out his tomatoes and put his garden to rest for the winter. And he leaned over and said to me: “I didn’t want to spoil anyone else’s fun, but I hate this time of year.”

I wondered why. He said, “Everything is dying.”

I have been noticing signs of this too. The relentless summer brightness has been tempered as the sun’s arc across the sky sinks lower and lower each day, and tonight the sun will set well before 6 p.m. with the time change. The brilliant oranges and rich reds of autumn are replaced by crackly, shriveled brown leaves and bare tree limbs. Creation goes dormant, and sometimes we humans do too, settling in to lower moods and longer sleep.

But it’s not just the natural rhythms that move through death this time of year. The liturgical rhythms do too.

This weekend we observe one of the lesser known portions of the church year, the trio of days known as All Hallows Eve (Halloween), All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.

These holy days can partly be traced back to the very earliest centuries of our Christian faith. The early Christians were a persecuted people, a people subject to violence and even death because of their faith in the risen Jesus. For its first three centuries after Jesus’ death, there were no Christian nations. Governments did not protect freedom of religion. And year after year martyrs were executed because of their faith.

To honor these martyrs and to keep their stories alive, special days were set aside to remember the “saints.” By the late 300s, there were so many martyrs, that one special day was created to honor them all together.

Then things start to get a little fuzzy in the history books. At first All Saints Day happened in the spring. And then somewhere along the way it switched to the fall.

Here’s what some people think happened: October was a sacred time for early pre-Christian religions. The ancient Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain (pronounce sah-win) to mark the end of harvest and the beginning of winter — the time of year when the seasons shift. The ancient ones believed that at that time of the year, the doors of the other world opened and the souls of the dead come to visit our world again. It’s easier to communicate with the spirits at certain times, in certain places, they believed.

And so over time, some historians think that  the Roman Catholic Church’s All Saints Day festival, merged with the Celtic harvest celebrations. Today Halloween, or All Hallows Eve is October 31, and Catholics celebrate their Saints on November 1, and all other souls on November 2. As Protestants, we don’t have saints per se, but we combine these ideas to remember and honor those who have passed away. In life we remember death.

The liturgical rhythms align us with the rhythms of the season, and we enter into a space where we are reminded that life and death are connected.

But in our world today it sometimes seems that we fear death above all else. Advertising dollars and marketing messages would have us believe we need to stay as young as possible for as long as possible. Successful beauty products are “age-defying.” And contrary to our New Testament scripture, those who are blessed are not the poor, the meek, and those who mourn. Today’s reality, says those who are blessed and the strong, the powerful, the wealthy, the happy, the young.

But Jesus words, the words we heard today from Matthew’s Gospel, are not about this Kingdom of Earth alone. They are about the Kingdom of Heaven. And as I’ve preached in other sermons over the past months, in Matthew’s gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven was not necessarily some other world. The Kingdom of Heaven is not only in the future; it touches our present. The kingdom of heaven is not only out there; it is here among us, seen in images like yeast and pearls and fishing nets and landowners.

The Kingdom of Heaven is that place where life and death intermingle. It reminds me of the Celts again, and the idea of they have of thin places. Thin places are spaces where we see through the barriers we build between heaven and earth, the separation we often perceive between life and death is worn thin.

There’s an old Celtic saying that goes something like this: “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” In these thin places we are able to catch extra glimpses of the divine.

One poet (Sharlande Sledge) describes them:

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,

Both seen and unseen,

Where the door between the world

And the next is cracked open for a moment

And the light is not all on the other side.

God shaped space. Holy.

Sound a bit like the Kingdom of Heaven.

Last fall, last year about this time I planted two sticks in my backyard. Well, they weren’t only sticks. They were the beginnings of trees. Less than waist-high, no branches or leaves, attached to a dirty ball of roots. The nursery that sent them promised me that these were in fact apple trees, and within five years I’d have my own fruit to pick. It seemed suspect at the time, last November when I stuck them in the ground.

Last week when I put my garden to rest for the winter, I walked by the sticks. They’d become what was promised, now trees with branch after branch, leaf after leaf. They are both taller now than my head.

In God’s reality, in the Kingdom of Heaven, the dead and the living are connected. Sticks are also apple trees. Dry bulbs hold flowers, and in every end there is a beginning. In this space, in God’s space, on this All Saints weekend, death and life are connected and close together.

One of the traditions of the church on this weekend is to remember the names of those who have been saints for you, those who have passed on whom you want to lift up today. In a spirit of prayer, I invite you all to say aloud these names in worship…

This day we remember these and so many others. We remember, we are reminded that the dead and the living are connected. We are part of those who walked before us, and we are part of those who are to come. Perhaps fall should be one of our favorite times of year. Everything is dying. Everything is coming to life. Pay attention, and you’ll see. Thanks be to God.

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