Sermon: “Listening to the Elders: All Saints” by The Rev. Kaji Douša, Nov. 6, 2016
One day, my nana decided to take a different approach with us kids. From what I can remember of the day, we had just wrapped up a long day of travel and we must’ve been obnoxiously loud. As we sat down for a long-awaited meal, she said to us:
“children should be seen and not heard.”
It was the first time I’d heard this, and I was incensed. How dare she not want to hear what I have to say?
Now that I have a child, maybe a little, tiny piece of me understands. In general, of course this is a problematic teaching for those of us who want to teach our children to believe in their voice. But still, I understand, and perhaps there is something I can learn from what nana was after.
Because here’s the truth: my nana felt this heavy weight, this somber responsibility to transfer information, mores, practices, standards to us children. She wanted us to know everything that she did so that we could avoid traps and missteps. She desperately felt the responsibility of conveying the knowledge of the ancestors to these new generations and she needed the time to do it. We had to stop talking so much in order to get it.
My nana had such a fascinating story to tell. She was a brilliant scholar and practitioner. And she was giving, loving. I couldn’t walk the streets of New Haven, particularly in the poverty-stricken, Black neighborhood of Newhallville, without running into people she had taught to read when others had given up on them. When you teach someone that they are worth the time, that you will never give up on them, and not only will they never forget, they will never be the same. Time after time, in time with my nana, I would hear stories of this. Beyond this, though, she had teachings for our family she wanted to be sure that we would carry forward. Ways to make it through white supremacy. Methods of prayer and spiritual discipline that would push through enemy-level resistance and evil. Nana wanted us to stop talking and to listen so that we could make it through everything she knew we would encounter. If we talked too much, we might miss what she had to say. And what she had to say would help.
As we drove the gently rolling plains of North Dakota this week, I had the sense that this was a time for me to be seen and not heard. This isn’t intuitive. I like the sound of my own voice and I’m unafraid of spotlights, though, as a spiritual practice, I don’t seek them out for myself.
So many traditions teach the lifeline between the Elders and the rest of us. It’s even in our church, where the spiritual life of the community is entrusted to the Elders, who are ordained and anointed for the enormous task at hand.
My brief time at Standing Rock this week was a time to be quiet, to listen for the wisdom of the Elders without prompting or agenda, to learn and to amplify, not to supplant or teach, myself.
I am not familiar with plain planes, unmarked territory, vast expanses. So as my colleague and I drove the route to and through the reservation, I was lost on a map I could only partly read, with markers that don’t catch the eye of modern cartographers. It was my first time, ever, seeing space without delineation or structures.
My first reaction was to think that it was a whole lot of nothing. Very quickly, something told me to temper my confusion and discomfort. There’s a bigger story here, I knew.
While Moses was keeping the flock, he came to the mountain of the Lord and as the angel appeared to him in a burning bush it told him to take the sandals from his feet, because he was standing on holy ground. I remember in my earliest days reading these texts and wondering how Moses didn’t already know that he was there, standing on ground that was holy. Of course I would’ve known to take off my shoes, I’ve thought.
But as we drove these planes in North Dakota, it occurred to me that I, too was on holy ground, rolling through land with a Spirit that had a story to tell. And as I started to meet people and to learn, I came to meet a people connected to Elders who knew how to read the slightest hills and connect them to the stories of the ancestors.
This is a universal need, I’d imagine. The desire for one generation to do better than the next requires some means for connecting past stories to the future without letting the times to come be dictated by the past. There must be some measure of freedom for the Spirit to move. But a future uninformed by the past is doomed.
And yet. And yet that is exactly what some of us are asked to do. We are asked to forget the stories of the ancestors, to ignore the teachings of the Elders because, quite frankly, their contributions might give us too much power. Instead, our histories are erased.
My beloved can trace his history and ancestry at least through the Middle Ages. In the land that is now known as the Czech Republic, records have been maintained and history is valued enough to keep it, despite the troubles they’ve faced over the years. Still, they get to know their Elders and ancestors by name. I am so grateful to have this for our daughter, since I do not come from lineages that share this privilege.
Instead, my ancestry includes enslaved Africans whose records included made-up names and information, if we’re lucky, like their height, weight and “picking rate” – how many sacks of cotton they could pick to be weighed at end of day, their earning potential, rather than their tribal affiliation, the names of the land from which they were stolen. This systematic erasure makes Family Tree Day at school especially awkward and traumatic, and it explains much of what made my childhood…complex. Not difficult, just complex. Because this basic human need, to know where I came from, was taken from me by economic pressures and even church doctrines that said that such a thing was ok, the divine right of the conquerors.
It is not.
Luxuriating is derived from the privilege to be seen and to hear, to retract and to listen. Conquest erases any number of these values, teaching us that we should not expect to know who we are and from whence we have come, while the victors hail their own histories as part of their superiority and legacy.
Listening to the ancestors we learn the most basic of truths: we are always standing on holy ground. There is no place that does not have the weight of the holy, the presence of the divine, the complexities of a history whose contours we cannot quite know. We listen to the ancestors and we learn that there is no place that is nothing, there are no gently rolling plains that are expendable, that the entire earth has been a battleground with skirmishes fought for the sake of generations to come who might never know the sacrifices laid for them. This is the truth of what it means to walk this earth. But we forget.
Our liturgical calendar asks us, if only for one day (but in hope that this one day carries through the rest of our years and lives) to look to the wisdom of the ancestors and receive a blessing. It’s possible to examine history and to walk away embittered and ready for blood. That is not the teaching of All Saints Day, however. At All Saints, we honor the goodness that came from every life that lived and we acknowledge them. And we remember, as best we can. We do well to remember while sweeping aside the bias of dominance, honoring not the stories of conquest but the times of radical love and giving, the times when life was honored above everything else, the times that gave way to a yield of land that could allow for human flourishing for the likes of us today. They are saints because there was something in their lives that gave and gave abundantly, by the grace of God. That’s the historical learning we need to do, the listening we might need to keep silence to hear.
We pulled onto the fertile land of centuries of conflict, inches from the lifeline of the relatively unpolluted Missouri River and we learned that several tribes had called this place home. Some of these tribes were not friends, and battles were fought. Just on that hill over there. Just next to the river there. There were no (or few) markers, but the Elders knew. What kind of shift would be required for us, culturally, to listen to these Elders rather than land documents and treaties (that we conveniently choose to ignore)?
Oceti Sakowin camp at the northernmost end of Standing Rock Reservation on the banks of the Missouri River. I took this photo before a group of 527 registered clergy protested in solidarity with the First Nations people gathered at this site.
If we are to listen to and to honor all of the saints in light, perhaps we would do well to listen to the ones who are closest to this sainthood, to keep silence and to hear what they have to say. They won’t necessarily determine our future, but if they don’t inform it, God help us all.
This week, I lost a distant friend, someone I recently chastised for visiting San Diego last summer without reaching out, even though I understood. We hadn’t been in touch in quite some time and had been drawn close through a mutual friend rather than on our own. But, unbeknownst to him, I listened to his teachings on church and music with the attentiveness of a disciple. If you were to ask me the way to do church music, you would hear me cite this Harry Lyn Huff, Minister of Music at Old South Church, whose nuanced understanding of how to point to the divine inspires every bit of my own liturgical instincts.
And as I stood on the banks of the Missouri, which, if we’re honest, echo the ancestors’ songs at the banks of the Jordan and the banks of every precious source of the water of life that sustains us, I thought of the music Harry planned for an Earth Day liturgy at Old South that changed my life. It included this song:
My Lord, said unto me:
Do you like this garden so fair/so pure/so free?
You may live in this garden
If you keep the grasses green/waters clean/people free.
And I’ll return in the cool of the day.
Now is the cool of the day.
Oh this earth it is a garden, the garden of our Lord.
Who walks this garden
In the cool of the day.
Blessed are you.
Blessed are you who mourn, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you who were told to release the stories of your ancestors, for you shall be filled with their wisdom and infused with their power.
Blessed are you who were instructed to hate who you are, who were sent to Boarding Schools to erase your history, because your truth can never be erased.
Blessed are you who weep, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who feel that injustice is king and your prayers will not be answered, for the Lord your God knows your prayers and has not forgotten.
Blessed are you who are persecuted, who are harassed and grabbed, who are told that your bodies are not your own, who are instructed to change who you are in order to be loved, valued and protected: this is not the Way of God who loves you just as you were made, beloved.
You are the garden, as is this earth, as are these waters pure.
And God will return at the cool of the day.
Look to the ancestors for the markers that point to God, show you that God is here, remind you and promise to you that you are not removed from their truth or of God’s. You are God’s beloved and nothing, nothing can shake you of this.
This ground is holy and it is all of ours. Keep the garden green, for blessed are you. And blessed is our God, who turns all of our mourning into dancing.