Monday, November 1, 2010

Sermon - "Remembering the Good Things"

“Remembering the Good Things”

All this talk of altars and being visited by spirits may seem a little odd in our UU church. But, it’s not completely outside of our own history. In the 1800s a handful of Universalists called spiritualists, were holding séances to commune with the dead. Spiritualism offered an incredibly strong attraction for some people for several different reasons. But people were especially attracted to it, because for them, communicating with the dead was a way of proving immortality.
Spiritualism sounds pretty out there, even on Halloween. But in a fascinating way, many practitioners understood spiritualism as a continuation of scientific discovery. Spiritualism coincided with the growing belief in the power of science to uncover all truths. And that’s how Spiritualism became a part of our history. It sought broader ways to understand the natural laws of the universe.
So we have our very own history of believing in the continued presence of the spirits of the dead. I’m not so keen on Spiritualism and séances. But, I will stand solid and say with all the conviction in my being that they are still with us. The dead are still with us in a profound way.
I call them the “Great Cloud of Witnesses.” You can call them what you will. But the fact remains that our lives are profoundly influence by those who have come before us. As we sang earlier, we are a grandmothers’ prayers and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings. We are the breath of the ancestors, and they are still with us.

I think I like calling them the “Great Cloud of Witnesses,” because it’s, well it’s foggy. Like naming shapes of the clouds in the sky, having a relationship with our ancestors can mean different things to different people. Undoubtedly as we have named out loved ones who have died, their continued presence in our lives means different things to different people in this room. It’s foggy, but their continued presence is real.

I also like the concepts of a great cloud of witnesses because it’s sort of a mysterious mass. There are those amazing historical figures that we know about, some whose dreams we hope to live up to. There are the saints, the heroes and heroines that inspire us. And then there are the real regular old folks who have touched and shaped our lives. They were inspiring, they are inspiring, but they are not perfect. Perhaps we learn most of all from their flaws.

As we celebrate those good things about our loved ones who have died, it’s not to say they were all perfect. They weren’t; no one is. That is after all why in Catholic tradition they split the two different days. One is for remembering the Saints, in all their inspiring perfection. And the second day, All Souls Day, is for remembering all the real people in our lives that we have loved.

We celebrate both here today, and both have a place in our hearts. But personally, I have to say more interested in real people than I am in saints. Saints are perfect, they are washed clean of any complexity or any challenge. Saints are pious and pure. They are something that we will never be.

We know saints through books, and marble and stone. I’m more interested in the messiness of real men and women, who have lived real lives of struggle and love, real lives that offer us hope, not a perfect future, but hope that we too will live on in the hearts of humanity.
That’s the way I remember the people I have lost, as complete souls. My grandmother was a deeply compassionate person. She was also a real person. When upset, she could let flow a string of obscenities that would make a sailor blush. And she was always, always fun. She taught me to roller-skate on my parents’ hard-wood floors. Round and round the house I would go, of course only when my parents were gone and grandma was babysitting.
And my grandfather was a good man to his family. He was kind, and funny. Unfortunately, his world-view was defined by his Southern background. His bigotry was ugly and undoubtedly hurtful. But he was a man who cared so deeply for his own children, and grandchildren. They were beautiful people, not saints by any means, but beautiful people that inspire my life.

There are so many euphemisms, so many artistic expressions, and different cultural celebrations and explanations to deal with the final mystery of death. As critical thinkers, we Unitarian Universalists have an unfortunate tendency to squash mysteries. We label them, and dissect them, and explain them as clearly as possible.

But, death is one mystery that we uphold well. If you have been around this church for long, you know that as Unitarian Universalists we perform memorial services, not funerals. We set aside special time for the community to come together to celebrate a life and share stories. We also share our pain and comfort one another as best as we can. Naming ten good things is a wonderful way to remember a cat or a person. On the one hand, and certainly in the beginning, it’s a time to say what you will miss, a time of loss. But remembering the good things is also a time to celebrate that person. Remembering the good things is a time to give thanks for having him or her in our lives.

For Unitarian Universalists, there is no one answer given in the face of death. No one answer is enough. However each of us, through sharing with one another come to make our own meaning out of death. In time we parse out what final gifts we have received and in turn pass them on to the world.

We, the living, carry out the tremendous task of lifting up the souls of those we have loved. We remember their names, and their lives. And we carry on our way with what we have learned from them.
Our faith tradition answers the question of mortality not with quick reassurance of an after-life. Certainly we hold the possibility open. But always the focus is on life, this life, the life that we are certain of. For Unitarian Universalists, accepting death is a part of what makes life more beautiful. Life is not a given – not something to be taken for granted, or transcended after death. Life is a gift, an undeserved and unexpected, holy, awesome and mysterious gift.

It is our task, as people of faith to appreciate that gift for the awesome thing that it is, and to appreciate the gift of other lives that interweave with our own. The gift, you see, is not only in our own lives, but in the brilliant tapestry of lives that interweave to inform each other. Today, as we remember the great gift of so many lives that have come and gone, that touched our hearts, let us be reminded of the holy gift of our own lives.
After all, the best way to remember the dead, is for us to live our lives well, always know that a great cloud of witnesses accompanies us on the journey.

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