Monday, October 31, 2011

Sermon - "A Great Cloud of Witnesses"

Great Cloud of Witnesses
For the past year, Unitarian Universalist ministers have been wrestling with the question “Whose are we?” It sounds simple at first, but it actually leads to some pretty deep theological discussion. Whose are we? To whom are we ultimately accountable? One reasonable answer seems to be, that we are accountable to our ancestors. We are accountable to those people who have shaped the world we live in and who have made our lives possible.

Obviously I don’t mean that we are responsible for living our lives exactly how they would have lived theirs. You know that whole saying about history and being DOOMED to repeat it. We’re not dooming ourselves to repeat the lives of those who have gone before. But I do think we are called to live with a sense of gratitude for the way that has been paved for us, and for the way these people helped to mold us when they were in our lives. Each one of us, young and old, has been shaped by a group of people who are no longer alive. They were our parents, and grand-parents, our partners, our friends, in some cases maybe even children. They have all shaped our lives, a great cloud of witnesses who lived and died have made us who we each are today. And we honor them all today.

This expression, “the great cloud of witnesses” comes straight out of the Bible. Hebrews 12 says “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,”

This is all about early Christians having the courage to pursue their faith in the face of persecution. The cloud of witnesses here are the saints who had been martyred for their Christian faith. They were tortured to death. And the other Christians were to look to them to find courage in appreciating the sacrifices that had been made for them, and for their religious community.

Getting tortured to death is heavy stuff. And frankly I find it gruesome more than inspiring. It seems like sainthood may not be all that helpful a source of inspiration in the twenty first century. What is inspiring though, is being grateful for the lives of real people. Real complicated lives, just like our own, lives that were filled with challenges and learning and tough choices are what we celebrate today. Those are the ones we are accountable to. Along with all the heroes of history, the people we know and remember, the ones we knew and loved, form a great cloud of witnesses that inspire our own lives.

I first became familiar with these words from Rev. John Wolf, the minister I grew up with. I had no idea these words came from the bible, but I knew that he had, and we should have, a sense of respect for those people who have died that inspire our lives. Living with a sense of gratitude is one of the most important, and simplest lessons we learn in church. And it’s something we all can practice, from the youngest here today, to the oldest: gratitude for the lives we live and the world we enjoy.

I don’t know what Rev. John’s religious background was. He famously refused to tell the church when he interviewed at the church if he was a theist or an atheist. He told them, “If you are a theistic congregation, then I am and atheist, and if you are an atheist congregation, then I am a theist.” We didn’t know exactly what he thought about God, we knew what he meant about the Great Cloud of Witnesses. You don’t have to believe that Peter is at the pearly gates with a long scroll of names to celebrate the lives of people who have formed the world we live in. It’s a perfectly vague reference to a reality that we all can relate to.

Most of all, I love this phrase because it speaks of the multitude of people who make up the community of the dead. It speaks of not just one or two people that we may have known and loved. It speaks of a vast and thick body of numerous people to whom we owe respect. Today we invoke their names and their memories, all of them, a multitude of loved ones, a great cloud that blesses us.

Some might call Halloween the season for conjuring up ghosts. I suppose it is. But Halloween is quickly followed by holidays that for many of us bring us much, much closer to our departed loved ones. Memories of people we have loved and lost flood Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, sometimes in wonderful ways, sometimes in painful ways. Of course time makes a huge difference in the way we feel about those memories.

For me, memories of grandparents are most pronounced when we sit down for a holiday dinner. To begin with, we still sit at the dining table that my grandmother had made for their home, probably 65 years ago. And my uncle, the rambunxious youngest child of the family tells about grandma chasing him around that very table trying to catch up to spank him. Then, without fail, we recount the recount the story about how one Christmas dinner my grandfather caught the napkin of the dinner rolls on fire as he passed the basket over a candle. Someone quickly grabbed them and threw them outside in the snow. That was one of the few White Chirstmasses in Oklahoma. Even the recipes that we make during the holidays remind us of who would have made them decades ago. Some of you have eaten the Banana Nut Bread that was my great grandmother’s recipe. She was the famed baker of the family.

For me the holidays are packed with memories of people who are no longer in my life. And I know the same is true for many of you. It’s only natural that we remember those people who were pieces of us.

Remembering the dead isn’t morbid or ghoulish or anything negative at all. It’s something that people have always done in one way or another. Every religious tradition has some sort of recognition of the dead. Whether it’s through funerals or specific holidays. Some of our kids may have seen the Disney movie Mulan, about a Chinese girl who wants to be a warrior. Part of the tension in her family and in the village is about what the ancestors would have wanted. In that movie, they were probably Taoists. That’s a religion where paying respects to ancestors is one of the most important things you can do.

We celebrate our ancestors and deceased loved ones in a huge variety of ways. Today we borrow from the Latin American tradition of Dia Des Los Muertos. It’s probably not a custom that most of us do outside of church. I don’t think many of us have altars set up in our home. We visit graves sites, or maybe if you have scattered ashes, we remember fondly when we look out at the Ocean. Some people talk to their loved ones in private moments, especially immediately after their death. In my family, remembering folks is mostly about funny stories. We remember our loved ones and celebrate the great cloud of witnesses in a huge variety of ways.

And for us as Unitarian Universalists, one of the most important ways has to be living meaningful lives that reflect gratitude for our loved ones. We show our love and respect through actions that give life to the aspirations of the great cloud of witnesses. As we celebrate Halloween, All Saints Day, and Dia Des Los Muertos let us celebrate the lives of those we have lost, by living more fully ourselves, by living lives that honor the countless gifts we have each been given.


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