Friday, November 13, 2015

A Sermon for Ancestors' Sunday

This is the crest of the Clan Innes, one line of my own ancestors.
The motto, "Be traist," is Gaelic and means, "Be Faithful."
I am Erik.  Husband of Mary.  Father of Theodore and Lester.  Brother of Patrick and Paul.  Son of Walter and Nancy.  Grandson of Frank and Johanna, and Gladys and William.  Thanks to my finding on the internet someone who'd done all the work, following one line on my mother's side I could go all the way back to 12th century Scotland and Berowald, first Laird of Innes.  But I won't.  My point isn't about genealogical details.  It's that my identity is grounded in my relationships.  And not just my family relationships now -- husband, father, brother -- but my ancestral relationships as well.  Even old Berowald.  In a real sense, naming myself means naming my ancestors as well.

Except ... that it doesn't.  Like the vast majority of folks in the United States -- at least the majority of us with European ancestry -- our arrival in American led to assimilation, and assimilation meant losing our ties to our ancestors.  It hasn't always been a "thing" to be a "hyphenated American."  In some places it still isn't.  So my father's parents, Frank and Johanna, wanted their children to be "Americans."  Dad grew up with no working knowledge of Swedish, and when asked had to admit that he really wasn't quite sure where in Sweden his folks had come from.  And it wasn't long before the descendants of James Innes, who came to Virginia from Scotland in the early 1600s, had buried their Scottish identity in the Appalachian soil they now called home.

To be sure, there are plenty of folks who have developed an avid interest in their genealogical history -- and with's helpful little leaves, and even more so with a simple cheek swab for DNA and a couple of hundred bucks, it's easier than ever to know where we came from.  And, of course, there are some communities and some cultures in which it has always been important, always been necessary, to ground oneself in a sense of tribe.  Last week I mentioned some of the differences between so-called I Cultures and We Cultures.  This is another one.  It's not just about the "we" who are currently around us.  It's about the colossally collective "we" -- the "we" that extends back in time and the "we" yet to come.  And to the extent that a generalized distinction can be drawn -- that it's the white, dominant culture that tends toward an "I" orientation and the cultures of people of color that tend toward the "we" -- it's interesting to note that the cultures that are today most strongly We Cultures are the ones for whom assimilation was never an option.

This month the question we're exploring is, "What does it mean to be a person of ancestry?"  There are, of course, a number of ways to look at this.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith gives us ancestors we can relate to and connect with.  Margaret Fuller and her friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Henry David Thoreau, and the other Transcendentalists, for instance.  We are descendants of their experiments with liberal religion.  And there's Dorothea Dix, who fought for the rights of people with mental illness.  And Susan B. Anthony, who was one of the prime movers of the 19th century women’s suffrage movement.  Even Phineas Taylor Barnum, who may be known best for his emporium of (largely fake) wonders and his contribution to the creation of Ringling Brothers, and Barnum and Bailey Circus – yet was also an entrepreneur, urban developer, community benefactor, philanthropist, abolitionist, author, Connecticut legislature and mayor of the city of Bridgeport (where he is credited with having, “assisted in ushering in an epic of unprecedented industrial growth in Connecticut and on an American landscape”).  Being a person of ancestry -- being a Unitarian Universalist person of ancestry -- could mean learning from and emulating the examples of our religious ancestors.

Yet today, in the season when "the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest" (as it's said), I think we should focus more on our own familial ancestors.  Whether it's the Celtic Samhain, Christianity's All Saints and All Souls Days, the Hispanic Dia de los Muertos, Japan's Bon Festival, or the Chinese Yu Lan Jie, all across the globe and throughout all time we humans have created festivals and rituals for remembering and honoring those who have come before us. Some were designed to protect us from supposedly scary spirits who would want to do harm to the living.  Others were more like a family reunion, sharing together the joy of the ongoing bonds of love in often (often with really awesome parties!).  Still others are respectful demonstrations of appreciation and gratitude for the many ways one's ancestors have made life, today, possible.  Very different attitudes toward what it means to be in continuing relationship with our ancestors, yet each, in their own way, is built on the understanding that, to paraphrase Faulkner, "The dead are not gone; they’re not even dead."

How many people here this morning have grown up knowing one or more of their grandparents?  Great-grandparents?  Has anyone known their great-great-grandparents?  How many people know at least their great-great-grandparents' names?  This could be something we all do during this month of "ancestry" -- look into our family's history, learning more than we already know.  Of course, family is more than bloodlines; even those of us who are not genetically related to others in our family are part of each other’s histories and herstories.  It could be interesting to spend at least part of this month learning all that we can.

It could also be a good time to find ways to honor these ancestors.  Maybe you could make a small shrine, like our Ancestors’ Altar here, onto which you could place photos and mementos to call these people to mind.  My younger son once made a mobile on which he put the name of every one of his relatives.  You could do something like that with the names of deceased relatives as well.
In a moment we are going to have an opportunity to call out or, perhaps, call into, this place the names of those we would recognize as our ancestors.

A little earlier you received materials with which you can make a paper marigold.  (Some of you may remember doing this last year, so next year it will be a tradition!)  The marigold is a flower that plays a large part in Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos celebrations.  It is said that its bright colors and sweet scent help to guide the dead back to visit the living.  Take some time to think of people you’ve loved who have died, and even those who died before you knew them.  Remember that microbial DNA is not the only determinant of family – so anyone who touched your life in such a way that you would remember them now “counts.”  As you think of these people, make small tears around the edge of the circle – you could make a tear for each person, or for each memory that comes to mind.  When you’re finished, after we’ve called forth the names, you are invited to take your marigolds and place them on the altar.


This is the sermon I delivered to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, November 1, 2015.  (I'm only now getting around to posting it, which I usually do on the Monday immediately following its preaching.  Lo siento.)  As always, you can listen to it if you prefer.

Print this post

No comments: