Psalm 141 (VU 863 with sung response); Hebrews 11:29—12:2
This is always a bit of a tricky day for preachers. It is, of course, Mothers’ Day – and we want to pray for mothers a special blessing on their day. It’s also Christian Family Sunday – a day to celebrate families who share faith together, as well as lift up the church as the family of Christ. Then there are the Scripture passages, which generally have nothing whatsoever to do with either of those things. This week when I did a little search for Christian Family Sunday, I found this service recognizing our ancestors in the tradition of Asian religions and philosophy. Because Canada and the U.S. are still quite young countries, we don’t often pay all that much attention to what has come before us – what has shaped our history and what has made us the people we are today. But Scripture definitely affirms that who we are as Christians – whatever part of the world we live in – we are shaped by those who have come before us, those who have raised us, those who live on as “that great cloud of witnesses” Paul mentioned in this letter to the Hebrews.
The apostle Paul testified that he had been raised in a devout Jewish home. The evangelist and pastor Timothy was raised as a Christian by his mother and grandmother. Many people became Christians under the loving care of a woman named Dorcas (Tabitha), according to the Acts of the Apostles. We are who we are because of the people who raised us, who raised our parents, who mentored us and challenged us and sometimes because of the people who did not love or nurture us. Our ancestors are a part of who we are.
As a teaching ground for respect for the people who shaped us, Asia is a gift. Asia is the most religiously pluralistic place in the world – but you would be hard-pressed to find an Asian tradition that did not advocate respect for the ancestors. One of the ways this is done in many faiths is through the burning of incense. This practice is common in many streams of Christianity, and also belongs to the rites of many religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. Indigenous spirituality honours smudging as a way of cleansing and blessing. Personally, while I can appreciate the way incense or sage invites our senses into worship, I’m not a fan. The smell gives me a nasty headache!
Psalm 141, which we just heard read, names “incense” as prayer. Judaism has a long tradition of incense use, going back to the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 30:8, 34). Incense, according to Jewish faith tradition, is a symbol of prayer. Burning invokes the Spirit. The smoke in the air symbolizes and connects the dead and the living, the mundane and the sacred. While there are many and different reasons why and how incense is used as prayer in worship, burning incense can be considered as an intercessory way to honour ancestors, saints, and the dead, as well as to carry our prayers to God.
Some people of Asian background still continue to use incense as a way of honouring ancestors. Remembering those who went before us is a way to recognize that our life is not ours alone. While we cannot see those who have gone before, we know that we are connected with them. Many traditions teach that once we leave this material life, we are not cut off from our children either, because we will watch over them when we join our ancestors, as part of a cloud of witnesses. The practice of seeking the help of our ancestors has made its way into Christianity through the belief that those who have passed on become guardian angels, watching over us and guiding our steps. While there is no Scriptural basis for the belief, the letter to the Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded and upheld by those who have walked through life ahead of us, who have lived by faith before us.
Scholars agree that the letter to the Hebrews reads like a sermon: the message of a pastor who deeply cares for a group of people under their care who have been suffering as Jewish Christians. As a minority, they faced isolation, discrimination, even persecution. That is why the preacher makes a call to persevere (10:19–39). Some of those who heard this message of hope and comfort, knew that they might die soon without seeing the coming of Jesus, a new world. That is why the sermon talks about faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things “not seen.” (11:1). In this context, the passage we read in chapter 11 makes a list of faithful ancestors who have gone before. I would want to add a lot of names that are left out, especially with it being Mothers’ Day. I would want to add Sarai, who travelled with her husband Abraham to a new land at the behest of a God who was then unknown. I would want to add Rachel and Leah, the beloved and the unloved, who became mothers to the nation of Israel. I would name Miriam and her mother Jochobed and the Egyptian princess and the midwives Shiprah and Puah – all five who togetherrescued baby Moses and preserved his life so that he could lead his people. I would name Hulda the prophetess and brave Ruth and Naomi, ancestors of David. I would name Hannah the mother of Solomon, Mary the mother of Jesus, and all the women who travelled along with Jesus: the Marys, Salome, Susannah, the wife of Cleopas, his dear friends Mary and Martha. I would name Lydia and Dorcas and Junia and Prisca and so many others who shaped Christianity in its earliest stages. This great cloud of witnesses surrounds us all, and we can add our own names of women and men who have influenced and sustained us.
As this passage continues, Jesus is confessed as the perfecter of faith. In this community, Jesus was understood to have been made perfect, not because he was sinless, but because he suffered and endured, just like us, fully human. In this way he became a source of eternal salvation (5:9). It was his humanity that led to divine salvation.
Many Asian Canadian Christians can identify with the community of faith spoken of in Hebrews, because they were also minorities who suffered from discrimination, being different and looking different since they came to Canada. In many cases they may have also come from countries where Christians are not accepted or are even actively persecuted, like China or Indonesia. They could see, touch, and feel the pain and the struggle of this early Christian community as they also see, touch, and feel the pain of their own immigrant experiences of isolation, discrimination, and sacrifice. Then they know that they are not alone. Through the act of burning incense, they see, touch, and feel the love and the care of their ancestors. Like the people of Israel remember their Passover story, the story of Joshua and Rahab, and many more brave and painful stories of their ancestors, we in The United Church of Canada remember many of our own ancestors in faith who faced hardships and overcame them. Most of all, we remember the life of Jesus, as human as you and I, who went through terrible suffering in order to redeem human life.
We are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1). Our journey ahead is set with joy. As we remember them, we embody their tears in pouring water, and burn paper with their names on it. This embodied act is a commitment. This is an affirmation of ancient practices both strange to us and yet part of our past that can become new to us again..
Newness does not come from nothing. As we celebrate Easter, new life is inseparably connected with the old and the past. As a new leaf is only alive and well as long as it is connected with the old root and branches, let us honour our ancestors of faith and our own ancestors of our family and our church. We come to this place with different stories to tell, different experiences to share, different songs to sing, and different gifts to offer.
Let us continue to gather as the United church of the worldwide body of Christ and seek out ways of wisdom! And may our mothers and our fathers guide us on our way. Amen.