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“Forming Clouds” — Rev. Chris Mereschuk — All Saints Sunday — November 5, 2017

“Forming Clouds”

Hebrews 12:1-2 (VOICE Translation)

Rev. Chris Mereschuk

All Saints Sunday

November 5, 2017

Prayer…

All Saints Day is a time when we are called to reflect on those that came before us: those people who by nature or nurture helped form who we are. It is a time for us to consider and honor those who made the way for us, those who we look to as models and pioneers. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews refers to these people as a great “Cloud of Witnesses” gathered around us and above us. I sometimes imagine it as a floating, cosmic theater balcony with all of my ancestors perched on the edge of their seats, just waiting to see what I’ll do next.

I think often about my ancestors — everyone that came before me and made my existence possible. Sometimes I can get a little lost in thought about it, and I get curious about what my great-great-great maternal grandmother’s great-great-great paternal grandfather was like.

What traits carry through generations? Are there certain values or perspectives, skills, talents, or interests that my ancestors possessed that I now carry forward and have passed on to my child? And what of the other descendants of common ancestors? What are they like, and how similar am I to them?

Modern technology allows us to catch a glimpse of some of this. Several years ago I took one of those Ancestry DNA tests. It’s fascinating stuff. Connected to that, there’s this app where you can look at your family tree and find all the historical figures and present day celebrities who you might be related to. In many cases these noteworthy people are distant cousins many times removed, with common ancestors dating back to the 1500s and 1600s.

Without solid genealogical research, it’s really just entertainment. But of course I had to take a look. I wanted to see if my genetic Cloud of Witnesses is made up of some noble gathering of cousin-saints.

Let’s see who might be floating around in that Cloud:

John Brown

Abraham Lincoln

Julia Child

Walt Whitman

Lucille Ball

Janis Joplin

Mark Twain

Not bad!

And who are some of the distant cousins the saints in my personal Cloud of Witnesses are also currently surrounding?

Bill Gates

Dolly Parton

Michael Moore

Kelly Clarkson

Carrie Underwood

Stephen King

John Kerry

Sarah Palin…

Ann Coulter…

George W. Bush…

Well, we all have one of those cousins…

But the point is this:

We are the result of countless generations of pioneers that came before us. We are at once our own unique creation, yet comprised of innumerable parts. It’s just like what my cousin Wally — that’s my 5th cousin 6 times removed, Walt Whitman — said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

But we are not simply the sum total of the biology that brought us into being. We are also formed and shaped consciously and subconsciously, in ways known and unknown by an infinite number of other saints, pioneers, and models throughout history and geography.  We are formed by all who came before us, plus all with whom we come in contact. These are our spiritual ancestors, both living and deceased. We are our unique selves, yet also not only ourselves.

Or in the words of the hymn “We Are Not Our Own” by Brian Wren:

“We are not our own. Earth forms us, human leaves on nature’s growing vine, fruit of many generations, seeds of life divine.”

“We are not alone. Earth names us: past and present, peoples near and far, family and friends and strangers show us who we are.”

The growing vine bearing fruit of generations, peoples near and far, family, friends, strangers all form our Cloud of Witnesses. Our Cloud of Witnesses made us who we are and continues to shape who we are becoming. Those saints in the Cloud of Witnesses are an active gathering, present to us even in death, if only we attune ourselves to their influence. We can call upon our Cloud of Witnesses in times of trial and turmoil, despair and fear, and give thanks for the comfort and hope they provide. As the author of Hebrews writes:

“…since we are surrounded by so great a Cloud of Witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”

I love this encouraging and empowering image. It’s like wherever we go we have this big team of cheerleaders at all times — pushing us onward, wanting us to succeed. Sometimes it’s that whole cloud crowd, sometimes it’s just one person.

For me, my maternal grandfather, Guy Farrar, has been quite an active member of the Cloud Crowd, both during his life and in these months since his earthly life ended. And I can trace his influence through generations.

Recently, my daughter Izzy has been thinking a lot about my Grandpa Guy (her great-grandfather), who passed away April. She has been feeling both his absence and his presence. Grandpa Guy was a self taught jazz guitarist and harmonica player who kept playing tunes right up until a few days before his death. He would always play for Izzy whenever she and I would go to visit him, and Izzy would sometimes dance. Just last week, Izzy was doing one of her dance performances for me in our living room, and after taking a bow she paused and told me that she believes that Grandpa Guy is now a ghost that follows her around everywhere playing his harmonica for her so she can dance. This image of her great grandfather brings her comfort and a lot of joy, and it does for me as well. Grandpa Guy is in Izzy’s Cloud of Witnesses, encouraging her to dance and play and express herself. His presence in the Cloud has a soundtrack of melodies spanning generations.

It was his mother — my great-grandmother — that gave him her old harmonica and sparked in him a love of music, which was then passed down through my grandfather to my mother. I then grew up listening to my mom sing along to Steely Dan, Luther Vandross, Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie, and Stevie Wonder, and I learned to love music. My love of music led me to find my place and much of my identity in the independent underground music scene when I was a teenager and to become a musician myself. I began to play harmonica because my grandfather played. I’d play for Izzy, and she became curious about it and now plays as well. And when she’s older, I’ll give her the harmonica that my grandfather gave me, the harmonica that was given to him by his mother, so that when Izzy joins her descendants’ Cloud of Witnesses, they can all dance to her playing a tune on her great-great-grandmother’s instrument.

While that enduring and endearing family trait warms my heart, it has not thus far changed the world or the course of history. For that, I think of the persevering pioneers who have broken the way or laid the groundwork for so many people who have upturned generations of injustice and discrimination. What comes to mind are those people who history has recorded as the “first” to be something or accomplish one thing or another. Those people who because of their race, ethnicity, gender identity, physical ability, sexual orientation, class or education level stared down monumental barriers and with dignity and strength turned those walls into pebbles, pushed aside the debris, and made the path just that much more clear for others to follow.

Those saints in the Cloud of Witnesses cheer on thousands upon thousands of descendants who, now themselves, continue to dismantle barriers. But even they had someone in their Cloud of Witnesses who was cheering them on: a parent who wouldn’t let them quit, a teacher who never gave up on them, a grandmother who let them know they were loved no matter what, a mentor, a friend, a stranger — someone somewhere somehow helped them cast aside the weight bearing down on them and pushed them along on the race set before them.

Which is where we come in. Friends, I believe that each one of us is in somebody’s Cloud of Witnesses. And so we must recognize the vast interconnectedness of our world and the impact we have on others. We might not know it, but we have influenced, are influencing, and will influence someone. We are clearing the path for someone. We are cheering them on, encouraging and empowering them. We are modeling how to get through the barriers and obstacles, how to push beyond the opposition, the despair, the fear and run the race with perseverance. I believe we do this daily, and when I pause to recognize and consider that, it calls me to live my life more mindfully, to be more prayerful and compassionate in my actions, to cast aside my own burdens and turn away from the sins that disconnect me from myself, others, God, and creation. I want to be a respectable saint in whosever Cloud of Witnesses I’m floating around, and I want to honor the saints in mine.

So on this All Saints Sunday — not just on this All Saints Sunday, but everyday — take some time to pause, recognize, and reflect on your Cloud of Witnesses. Who has shaped and formed you? Who has made the way possible for you? And who are you helping to shape and form? Whose way have you made clear or a little more clear? Consider the great gathering of saints, the Cloud of Witnesses, that is around you and above you. And:

“…since we are surrounded by so great a Cloud of Witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”

Amen.

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