Cemeteries are usually silent places, aren’t they? Not always – sometimes bands and speakers and Scouts appear in cemeteries, to celebrate Memorial Day, or another significant event – but on the whole, cemeteries are silent. Quiet places, places in which we go to visit our dead, to remember them, to speak with them. Silent places in which we commune with both God and with our beloved departed, as we do on this particular day of the church year.
Thin places. It was the Celts, those tribes who covered much of western Europe centuries ago, who are most closely associated today with Scotland and Ireland, who coined the term ”thin places” to describe those sacred places in which it seems that heaven and earth almost kiss one another. Places in which it seems that God is especially close. Places often wild and remote, deserts and heaths and tundra, where God’s presence seems particularly compelling.
Some thin places are recognized the world around: the Isle of Iona, off the coast of Scotland is one. The labyrinth, a hundreds-years-old stone walking path in Chartres Cathedral in France. Ghost Ranch, a retreat center in New Mexico. Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
Others might be personal to each of us. Perhaps some special place that has come to have significant meaning for us as a locale and which we and God have found one another. Perhaps a place like a cemetery. A place in which the connection to God and to the next life, the life in which all is re-created and healed, seems especially intense.
For the prophet Elijah, the thin place is just outside a cave on Mount Horeb. The Israelites whom we’ve been following for several weeks are settled in their Promised Land, but conflict is not at an end for them – especially not conflict with those who worship other gods. And so we catch up with Elijah on the run; he has destroyed – literally – the prophets who have served the gods of Queen Jezebel, and she has vowed revenge upon him, and he has hightailed it for the wilderness. Scared and all alone, he has consigned himself to death, when an angel of the Lord appears and provides him with food and drink for the journey ahead. And then, after he spends another night on his own, this time in a cave, he hears God’s instructions: Go outside; I am about to pass by.
God does not, however, come in the way in which Elijah expects. Not in the wild wind, not in an earthquake, and not in fire – not in all the signs of power and majesty that might be expected. No – God comes in the sound of silence. A sound of sheer silence; a sound of thin silence.
We know, from our 2,000 years of Christian history, that God often speaks to us in the silence. We remember that Jesus often went aside to pray, alone and in the silence, especially as he faced major decisions and events. We know that men and women in the early centuries of Christianity headed out to the desert, to listen for God in the thin silence. And as Father Martin Laird, author of that most wonderful book on prayer entitled Into the Silent Land reminds us, we encounter God in the stillness, where we see “that there is something utterly vast and sacred within is,” a silent land in which God awaits our attentiveness.
Today, as we celebrate All Saints’ Day, that day of the church year on which we pause to honor all those who have followed Jesus from this world into the next, we celebrate first in silence. We remember the many who have led the way for us: parents and grandparents, those who first exemplified the Christian life for us. We remember many who have accompanied us: brothers and sisters and friends, those with whom we have shared our lives of faith, those with whom we have shared our questions and our hopes, our doubts and our convictions. We remember many who left us too soon: children and others whose lives seem to have been incomplete, those with whom we had expected to share much more of God’s bounty and abundance.
And most particularly, we recall those who died in this past year. Members and friends of this church and of our community, some of whom we knew well, and others who touched our lives through relatives and neighbors. Today, not in a cemetery but here in church, we will light a candle for each of them, remembering them in the silence in which God speaks so profoundly.
And then – then we will remember and share a communion meal with them. Every time we gather at the communion table, we encounter a thin place and we feast with those already feasting with God, already healed and whole and experiencing joy through the Spirit in the presence of our Creator and Savior.
So let us honor our saints, those we name today and those whose names we carry in our hearts, first in silence and with candlelight, and then in joyful praise, thanksgiving , and song, as we share in the meal served to all by Jesus Christ. Amen.