November 1, 2020

Democracy of the Dead

Passage: Hebrews 12:1–2, 12–14

Therefore, 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 let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.

Hubbard Woods, my neighborhood, is terrifying just now. When I took the dog out for his last walk of the day at 10:00 on All Hallow’s Eve under the spectral light of a Blue Moon, there was a creepy straw man with a featureless face sitting on a bale of hay at the corner, staring us down even though he had no eyes.

A few houses down from that unsettling presence, I had to duck to avoid a skeleton dressed in a black-hooded shroud hanging from a tree directly over the sidewalk.

Then in the next block, there is a yard with two, lifelike, fire-breathing, seven-foot dragons straight out of Game of Thrones; a whole graveyard of tombstones and skeletons and body parts; and the pièce de résistance: dry ice belching realistic smoke to the sidewalk and beyond.

When I take those late, dark walks past such fearsome phantoms, I pray the old Scottish prayer: “From ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us.”

It’s no coincidence that the air this weekend is thick with ghosts, goblins, ghoulies, and the spirits of the departed. The secular world is taking its cue from the Christian Church, because with a trinity of high holy days this weekend, the Church is celebrating the ghosts of its departed heroes. There are malevolent and benevolent ghosts everywhere.

October 31 is All Hallow’s Eve, contracted in the vernacular to Halloween. Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day, and tomorrow, November 2, is All Souls’ Day.

During this Triple Play of high holy days, we remind ourselves that the Christian Church is comprised of two parts—the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant.  The Saints in the Church Triumphant have fought the good fight, finished their race, and now rest from their labors. But they are still an integral part of our community.

“Since then we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness...” writes the anonymous author of the Letter to the Hebrews. He wants us to know that our departed heroes are not really gone at all. They surround us as a great “cloud” of observers.

“Since then we are surrounded by so great a ‘cloud’ of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” In a single sentence the author seems to veer from a celestial image—“cloud”—to an athletic image—“running a race.”

But those celestial and athletic images actually belong in the same metaphor. The author of Hebrews wants us the living to pretend that we are running the steeplechase in the Greek Olympics, and we’re running this steeplechase—the race of life, the race of faith—in the original Olympic Stadium on the Peloponnese Peninsula in Greece, and we steeplechasers are surrounded by a great “cloud” of cheering fans who crowd the bleachers from field level to the nose-bleed seats, urging us on to victory with loud acclamation and standing ovation. It’s as if we’re engulfed, we’re immersed, in a great cloud of a crowd. It’s Soldier Field when the Packers are in town.

Congratulations to the Spartans, Congratulations to the Dodgers, Congratulations to the Bears. I’m glad they’re winning or have won, but it’s a little melancholy, right? How can you play baseball or football without fans? Such is not our fate in life; we have a great cloud, a great crowd, of cheering fans, goading us on to a faster, higher, stronger finish with loud hurrahs.

This is so important to me right now, because I’ve been burying many of my saints—Charley and Patsy Barrow, Doug Petrie, Jack Mills, Jane Beard, Stu Schuldt, Richard Yamada.

You see what’s happening, right? When Gil Bowen came to Kenilworth Union in 1970, 50 years ago, this church had 400 members.  During Gil’s ministry, the Church had 3,200 members at its peak. Gil was the Joel Osteen of the North Shore.

He was so faithful and so successful and so magnetic that when he was young, all these great people from the North Shore couldn’t resist the temptation to join Kenilworth Union Church. But Gil’s, I think, 88 years old, so all his age peers are reaching the end of their lives.

That would be sad and almost intolerable for this church if we’d had to say goodbye to all these towering saints, but we don’t. They continue to participate in our family of faith as a great cloud of witnesses, as a great crowd in the Olympic Stadium.

You remember what Morrie says to Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie, right?  “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”[1]   Yes?

So on All Saints’ Day, we celebrate “the democracy of the dead.” That’s a phrase from the English raconteur Gilbert Keith Chesterton.[2] What he means is that wise congregations and successful businesses and clever governments with long institutional memories give to the dead a seat at the table where communal decisions are made.  Even though they are gone, the lives they lived and the long shadows they cast continue to shape our common life in profound ways.

It’s not just the Christian Church that has saints. There are secular saints too. There are national heroes. Think of the 56 then colonists who signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, or August 2, or whatever it was. That was an act of extraordinary courage and allegiance.

In August of 1776, 700 British ships landed 34,000 seasoned troops in New York. Those volunteer, poorly armed militiamen had only a vanishing chance of defeating the world’s most muscular superpower at the time.

It is often pointed out that if the colonies had gone down to defeat in the War for Independence—an almost certain likelihood—every one of those 56 signers would have been hanged for treason. They are part of that great cloud of witnesses too.

In her memoir, Michelle Obama tells of visiting wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She’d make her rounds visiting these wounded Americans who had been treated first in the MASH units of Afghanistan, and then in a hospital in Germany, and then finally to Walter Reed for their third stop on the journey to recovery.

One time when she was there, she noticed a bright tangerine sign taped over a doorway. It had been posted by a severely injured Navy Seal: "Attention to all who enter here,” it read. “If you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received I got in a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery.”[3]

Some of those wounded warriors at Walter Reed left their limbs and their mental health in the mountains of Afghanistan. Others never made it that far; they left their lives there. They are part of that great cloud of witnesses too, that great crowd of cheering fans in the Olympic Stadium.

So today we celebrate the democracy of the dead, and then on Tuesday we mark the democracy of the living, and when I put it that way I notice that this Trinity of high holy days becomes a quaternity, a quartet of four sacred days in a row: All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and Election Day.

So vote. And get everyone you know to vote too, even if they disagree with you. Voter suppression is unseemly and un-American.  Practice the democracy of the living. That great cloud of witnesses expects nothing less of you and will be extremely disappointed in your apathy or indifference or sloth.

Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Pursue peace with everyone. Let no root of bitterness spring up to cleave you from your fellow Americans. There are too many who want us to hate each other.  Don’t fall for it.

Remember what Patsy Barrow or Jack Mills taught you in third-grade Sunday School:  Tell the truth; lies are shabby and mendacity beneath you. Slander no one’s good character with mockery or contempt. Show respect to all people, especially the other and the different and the stranger and the alien. Abhor the unkind word and the divisive, unfounded conspiracy theory.

And do not be afraid. We have weathered worse before and flourished despite. Washington’s Continental Army fleeing New York to escape annihilation, just barely, in 1776; 250 years of slavery and the Civil War that ended it; Black Americans lynched for trying to vote; Hitler’s Blitzkrieg; Hirohito’s treacherous raid across the Pacific; Khrushchev’s missiles; 9/11. We’re still here, and we will be for a long time. Because we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, and we will run with perseverance the race that is before us.

[1]Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie (Doubleday Publishing, 1997), 174.

[2]G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Thomas More, 1985), originally pub. 1908, 58–59.

[3]Michelle Obama, Becoming (New York: Crown Publishing, 2018), p. 345.  Supporting detail comes from Hollie McKay, “Spotlight on Walter Reed Medical Center Brings Back Powerful Memories for US Wounded Warriors,” Fox News, October 5, 2020.  Ms. Obama’s account of the text on the sign is slightly different from that of Fox News.