The labor organizer Mother Jones used to say, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
This morning we are observing All Souls and All Saints Days, a time to remember the dead but also a time to reaffirm our commitment to life.
On All Saints Day we remember the saints and in my book Mother Jones is a saint. She may not be canonized by any church-but she is canonized in the hearts of everyone who works for justice in the world for her tireless efforts on behalf of the living.
One of the ways we remember the saints is by building statues of them. A few weeks ago I was in Boston walking down an unfamiliar street when I came across a statue of Abigail Adams. The statue included words that she wrote to her husband John Adams when he was in Philadelphia with others in 1776 preparing to sign the Declaration of Independence.
“I desire you would remember the ladies,” she wrote, “and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Of course, her husband John did not remember the ladies nor did any of the other Founding Fathers as the Declaration would clearly states, “all men are created equal.” I posted the picture of the statue of Abigail Adams on my Facebook and my friend Pam Preston commented, “What?!?!?!? A woman memorialized?!?!? Who is She?”
I think we can better understand Pam’s reaction (as well as the number of exclamation marks and question marks in her post) when we realize how often men are memorialized and how infrequently women are. For instance there is no statue to Mother Jones anywhere although there is a campaign to put one up in Chicago. And the statue to Abigail Adams went up in 2003, over 200 years after she died. So on All Souls and All Saints days let’s remember the ladies and how their words and work continue to empower us today.
On Friday I went to see the new movie about Harriet Tubman. The audience broke out in applause at the end of the film. It’s a great film even if it is part history and part Hollywood. The film does faithfully convey the personality and the spirituality of Tubman. Recently, I found out that there is an effort to build a statue of her in Beaufort, SC, close to where she led Union soldiers on a raid that freed many slaves. I look forward to seeing when they are finished.
At the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 activists rewrote the words of the Declaration of Independence and declared that “all men and women are created equal” because as Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed, “The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.”
That’s a powerful statement- And that is an important point for All Souls and All Saints Day for when we follow Abigail Adam’s advice and remember the mothers, sisters cousins, grandmothers and great grandmothers, we help we reclaim the fountain at it source. We help everyone to reconnect with the “wellspring of the joy of living” within each one of us.
Today, transgender activists wisely urge us to revise the Declaration of Independence further to say simply that, “all are created equal” for we all proceed from a common source. We all come from the “font of every blessing” and when we work for equality we unleash the powers of that source and make justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
Recently, I’ve been reading a book about Stanley Ann Dunham, which is to say I’ve been reading a book about Obama’s mama. I am not reading it for partisan reasons. I’m reading to learn a little bit of Unitarian Universalist history. You may not know this but Stanley Ann Dunham used to attend the Unitarian church in Belllevue, Washington, a church so committed to the civil rights movement in the age of McCarthyism it became known as “the red church on the hill.” Ann participated in the Sunday School class called Church Across the Street, where you learn about different religions and visit their houses of worship. She would later become a cultural anthropologist who was very comfortable entering into different cultures and learning from different customs and she taught both of her children how to do the same. She did not live to see her son become president but her influence clearly continues to have ramifications today.
Now Obama wrote a book about his absent father called Dreams of My Father however, he has said on more than one occasion that if he’d known his mom would die so young, at the age of 52, he would have written less about the absent father and more about the present mother.
So I mention this simply to say, “Whoever you are, whatever your politics– remember those who came before us who helped us along the way, gave us some wisdom and perspective, remember the ones who fed us. Western religion is obsessed with the idea of an absentee father, “our father who are in heaven,” and tends to forget the work of women even though more often than not it is, “by her hands we all were fed, she gave us all our daily bread.” That’s the way it worked in my family, I don’t know about yours.
Of course, perhaps my perspective is influenced by the fact that it is my mother who is absent and my father that is still present. My mom died at the age of 72 whereas we just held a big birthday party for my Dad this past summer. So I am not remembering my Dad on All Souls yet and I know he is happy about that.
But I am remembering Mom – and it is possible that in remembering Mother Jones and Abigail Adams and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Stanley Ann Dunham I am also remembering my mom, and recognizing her continuing influence on my life and my ministry. I may even have her to thank for my ministry here.
You may not know this but my two immediate predecessors Lynn Thomas Strauss and Joan Kahn Schneider were women. Apparently during the congregational meeting when the church was trying to decide whether to call me to be minister someone said, “I’m not sure I am comfortable with a male minister,” and someone shouted out, “He has a wonderful mother!” So as much as I’d like to pretend I’m a self made man, my presence her at this pulpit may be a sign of her continuing influence on my life.
My mother lost a son, my brother Bill, who died when we were both teenagers. One of the things I have on the altar is a small statuette I inherited from my mother of Mary holding her son Jesus after he has been taken down from the cross. Mary is one of the Saints most often remembered on All Saints Day, but the statuette reminds me of the grief of my own mother over the loss of her son, and the grief every parent feels for the loss of a child.
My brother Bill may be another reason I am your minister. He died when we were both teenagers and his death taught me an important lesson – what I learned after many people visited our family in the aftermath of his death is that sometimes it is the least religious people who are the most helpful. When someone dies, most people do not want to hear platitudes like “Your brother’s in a better place,” or “God called him home,” or “It was his time to go,” I don’t actually remember any of the platitudes I heard after my brother died but I do remember than none of them seemed helpful.
The people who helped the most were not people who went to church or practiced any religion. This surprised me because at the time I was very active in the Episcopal Church. However, when it came to visitors after my brother died, the less religion the better. The people who helped were just people who showed up. After this experience I realized something I’ve tried to practice ever since that time. After someone dies it’s not about what you do or what you say. It’s about who you are and how you are present.
Since the least religious people were helpful I began to look for a church that had the least religious people in it. I’m joking. (Or at least I am kind of joking.) Another way to say this is – after my brother’s death I felt the need to find a totally different way to be religious.
Of course, Unitarian Universalists are not the only ones to understand that traumatic circumstances require more than platitudes. When Pope Francis was asked how he helped others after a traumatic loss he replied, “I stay silent. The only thing that occurs to me is to remain quiet and, depending on the trust they have in me, to take their hand. And pray for them, because both physical and spiritual pain are borne from within, where no one can enter: it entails a great deal of solitude. What people need to know is that someone is with them, loves them, respects their silence.”
Those are the words of the Pope. What you may not know is that my nickname in high school was “The Pope.” How I got the nickname is a long story, one for another Sunday. However, I mention it because after my brother died, I got a card from my World History Class with a cartoon picture of me as the Pope signed by all the members of the class and a kind of Hallmark poem in it.
This note of consolation could never event start
To tell the thoughts and feelings this brings you from the heart
But if you read between the lines perhaps somehow you’ll see
How much you’re being thought of now in loving sympathy
Well I’ve save this card for 30 years now but it wasn’t really the poem I fond special. It was what was written between the lines. So now I am a minister, not a pope, not yet, but a minister, and one of the things I know is that most ministry is not done by the clergy. Most ministry is done by whoever is closest at the time, whoever can be present in the midst of the pain, whoever can convey all that is written in between the lines.
Sometimes when we lose a loved one we are broken apart. At other times we are broken open. When we are broken apart we are devastated beyond repair. When we are broken open we are more compassionate, loving, kind and considerate because of our loss not in spite of it. In so much as this is true then death can lead to new life and the Psalmist words can have genuine meaning, “Despair may last for a night but joy comes in the morning.” In the midst of our deepest grief we may not feel joy today or expect it tomorrow. In the meantime we can pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living in the hope that in the fullness of time a new day will dawn.
(This sermon was preached at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church by Rev. Chris Buice on Sunday, November 3, 2019)