Glimpsing Heaven in Thin Places

The Rev. Dr. Nora Tubbs Tisdale, PCUSA

Yale Divinity School

Revelation 7:9-17

All Saints' Day - Year A

November 02, 2008

On the coasts of Scotland and Ireland there are certain sites that the locals call "thin places." Thin places are not so named because the altitude is any higher or the air any thinner there. Rather, they are called "thin" because it is believed that in these places the distance between heaven and earth shrinks, and the veil between the two worlds is so "thin" you can actually perceive something of heaven itself.

The ancient Celts--sensing the deep spirituality of these sites--built many of their worship places on them, some still marked today by circles of stone. Later Christians also built churches and monasteries and cemeteries there. And people who visit these sites today sometimes say they lose all track of time and space while there, and they know--deep down inside--they are on holy ground. For in thin places, boundaries of time and space fade away. There is no yesterday, today or tomorrow--only eternity stretching forth in a timeless continuum.

On a weekend like this one--a weekend when many Christian churches around the world are celebrating All Saints Day and All Souls Day--it is good to visit the thin places, as we think about our loved ones who now dwell in the world beyond this one. And what better guide to take us there than the author of the book of Revelation?

Tradition, of course, attributes the writing of Revelation to the apostle John who, in his later life, dreamed dreams and saw visions on the Isle of Patmos and recorded them for a church suffering persecution and martyrdom. But whether this book was actually written by that John, or by another, the author must have been someone who frequented the thin places of the ancient world. For his writings are full of the mystery and wonder that come from glimpsing things too holy to be contained by words.

Such is certainly the case in our scripture reading today from Revelation 7, where the author invites us to join in peeking through the gossamer veil and glimpsing something of heaven itself!

The view here is different than in later chapters of this book where we behold a city whose streets are paved with gold, whose walls are made of jasper, and where a river, bright as crystal, flows from the throne of God in its midst. Here we glimpse not so much the physical attributes of the city, but its tenor, its vibrancy, its inner life.

I have often heard people say that we are going to be surprised by the people we meet in heaven, and if John's vision is an accurate one, it will definitely be so. John begins this chapter (the portion that was not a part of our reading today) by talking about all the people from the twelve tribes of Israel who will be there--some 144,000 of them--a perfect number symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel times 12 times 1000. That's a whole lot of Jews--and it reminds us Christians that, as Paul puts it in Romans, we are the branches who have been grafted onto this tree of faith that extends back far further than we!

And then John broadens the vision even further, saying that in heaven there will be people gathered from every single nation and tribe and language on earth, all giving praise to the Lamb who sits on the throne. And I'm guessing that included in that crowd, too, are going to be a lot of people who surprise us by their presence there.

My maternal grandfather, a lifelong Presbyterian minister, died some years ago at the ripe old age of 98. There were many things I loved about my grandfather--his integrity, his intellect, his deep faith in Jesus Christ. But we regularly disagreed on a host of social, political and church issues, including the ordination of women to ministry. Sadly, my beloved grandfather never came to terms with what I did with my life and always thought that I was forsaking my true calling by going into ministry.

My husband, however, made me smile through my tears on the morning of my grandfather's death--which just happened to take place early on World Communion Sunday. "Nora," he said, "Who do you suppose is serving your grandfather communion in heaven this morning? Clergy women perhaps???"

If truth be told, we all have our blind spots, our prejudices. And, consequently, I have a feeling that we're all going to be surprised by who is sitting at the Lamb's eternal banquet table with us in heaven. Surely we will see people there we considered unforgivable, unredeemable. People against whom we have long held grudges or prejudices. People from nations we branded with the label "enemy" or people we failed to even see in this life because of their poverty, disease, or station in life. They will all be there. For no matter how inclusive we think we are in our embrace of others, heaven--according to John's vision--will be far more so.

But inclusivity will not be the only surprise awaiting us in heaven. I think we're also going to be surprised by what people are DOING in heaven.

When heaven is depicted in romantic art, what we often see are a group of cherubs playing their harps, while people lounge around on clouds of ease, as if on a perpetual vacation.

But when we peer through John's veil, what we see is that heaven is actually a very active place. And what is it people are busy doing? They are worshiping and serving God and others--doing those very same things that gave them the greatest joy, the greatest meaning, in their life here on earth.

When John looks through the veil what he sees are people of every tongue and tribe and nation gathered around the throne of the Lamb, singing, "Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and might be to our God forever and ever!" Heaven is a worshiping kind of place! And if you like singing hymns here on earth, just wait until you get to heaven. It's going to be one perpetual Hallelujah chorus!

But the Greek word that is used here for "worship" can also refer to work, to labor that is performed for wages. This worship, then, is not the kind that ends in the throne room. It is the kind that extends into those streets, as the saints of heaven also serve one another as God in Christ has served them.

One of the saints I always think of on All Saints Day is Sandy Hammond, a young mother who provided care for our children when they were small. Sandy had a deep faith and a big heart; and when she died at the age of 39 of breast cancer, it broke our hearts.

Several years later, when one of our children's elementary-aged school friends--a little boy named Travis--suffered a tragic death, our daughter, Leonora, asked me if I thought that Sandy would be there to take care of Travis when he got to heaven. "Oh, yes, child," I said. "Yes." For I cannot imagine anything that would give Sandy any greater joy than doing in heaven what she loved most to do on earth--serving God by caring for God's children.

Finally, I think we're going to be surprised in heaven by the scope of healing we will encounter there. I know that most of us already think of heaven as a place of personal healing. And what a comfort it is to know that our loved ones, many of whom have suffered great physical or mental or emotional illness in this life, will be completely whole in the life to come.

But when John lifts up the veil and lets us have a glimpse into heaven, we see that the healing that will go on there is far broader than that of our own personal lives and the lives of our loved ones. For heaven is also a place where all the injustices of this world will finally be made right, where the lowly will be lifted up, the mighty brought low--as Mary foretold in her "Magnificat"--and where God's vision of a community of justice and peace and equality will finally hold sway.

I love the fact that the Gospel lectionary reading assigned for All Saints Day is the Beatitudes in Matthew. For these words call to mind not only those saints who have suffered physical or emotional illness in this life, but also all the martyrs and saints through the centuries who have suffered great evil or injustice for righteousness' sake. Listen again to these words and see what faces come to your mind as you hear them:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3-10)

The healing that goes on in heaven will be a healing not only of body, mind, and spirit, but a healing of the entire social order, as the Lamb who is seated upon the throne takes on the role of gentle shepherd, leading his beloved sheep to springs of water where God wipes away every tear from their eyes.

I wonder: do you have any thin places in your own life? Places where the veil between heaven and earth seems gossamer thin, places where you have the sure sense that you are standing on holy ground, communing with the saints who have gone before you?

For me the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina--a place I have gone with extended family nearly every summer of my life--is one such thin place. Whenever I gaze out upon those mountains--ever changing, yet ever constant--I sense that I am communing with those who have gone before me in a mystical way.

But I also find that you don't have to travel far to find such thin places. Indeed, there are times in worship itself when I feel like I am standing on holy ground, and the veil between heaven and earth grows strangely thin. Like on World Communion Sunday the day my grandfather died. Or while attending Sandy Hammond's funeral in the small Baptist Church in Virginia, located on the banks of the river where she had been baptized. Or, while worshiping under a huge yellow and white striped circus tent in Vancouver, British Columbia, on a day when Christians from all over the world gathered for the 6th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, and people literally came from North and South and East and West and sat together at table in the realm of God's reign. When I wrote an article about that experience later, I actually titled it "A Taste of Heaven."

Today is a day for the thin places. So wherever you are, whatever you are doing, take off your shoes. For the ground upon which you are standing may well be holy. And if you will but open yourself to the Spirit--the same Spirit who allowed John a glimpse into heaven itself--you may find yourself transported to a place where the boundaries between this world and the world to come fade away, and where you sense your unity not only with God, but with all the saints who dwell with God in glory.

Will you join me in prayer?

We give you grateful thanks, O God, for all the saints who have gone before us and who now dwell eternally with you. We thank you for their witness in our midst, their faithfulness to you, and their courage in the face of adversity. And we thank you that for them, there is now no more crying or pain, no more heartbreak or injustice, but only the great joy of worshiping you and serving you with all the hosts of heaven. Lead us, we pray, to those thin places where we may sense their presence anew here on earth, and prepare us for that great day when we will be reunited with all the saints of heaven, giving blessing and honor and glory to you forevermore. Amen.


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