Let me tell you what happened on Sundays at my house during my growing up years
Sundays were a drag. “Can’t we stay home today, just once? Why do we have to go to Sunday school?” My brother and I would whine. And yet, we went, every single Sunday. That is because my mother was a Sunday school teacher. She had to be there, and by golly if she had to be there, we had to be there too! It was up to my mother to get my brother and me fed and dressed, out the front door and into the car. She drove us to church. We were a sad and by the time we arrived at church, an exhausted family—not always, but at least some Sundays.
And where was our father on Sunday mornings? He slept in. When I was little I wondered why my father was allowed to stay home. I decided it was because he couldn’t sing. I knew he must be embarrassed. My mother could sing. She had a lovely voice. But my father? Why couldn’t he make his voice go up when it was supposed to go up, and down when it was supposed to go down? Standing next to him in church one Easter while we sang a hymn, it occurred to me that my perfect father, might actually have a flaw. I wouldn’t discover all his many OTHER flaws until I was a teenager. Then, the man I thought could do no wrong, became for a time, the man who could do no right. Ah the teen years!
For sure, my father was more good than bad, as an adult I know that. I am certain he deserves a place in heaven. However, if Revelations is right; If my father is now before the throne of God worshiping him day and night, he is one unhappy angel. If he is being made to sing before the throne, he is probably wishing he had gone the other way. My father’s fellow angels are probably wishing the same thing!
No, our loved ones who have passed on, were not perfect or angelic, or saintly. They sang off key, they slept in on Sundays, and sometimes they committed crimes even, if not of the law, then at least of the heart. Like those of us on THIS side of the grave, they too sinned. In our grief, though, we sometimes forget that. Instead, we venerate them. Which is fine, unless, down the road, we find evidence to knock them from the pedestals that in our memories, we have lovingly constructed for them.
I have a dear, long-time friend, Nancy. After the death of her father, she was helping her mother with the tortuous but necessary process of clearing out. She and her mom cleared out her dad’s clothes and they went through her dad’s papers. They found it, in her dad’s desk, way in the back in the bottom drawer, She and her mother discovered a cache of letters. They were love letters to her father from a woman named Jean. My, the hurt, the anger, the disappointment! And no where to direct those emotions! We can imagine Nancy’s mother figuratively, maybe literally, boxing at air, and screaming to the wall. The questions, I suspect, weighed on Nancy’s mother, heavier than any funeral pall.
That was maybe, twelve years ago? My friend’s mother is still alive. I suspect that in those intervening years she has achieved some resolution. Let’s hope so. I know she is a faithful woman. Maybe, after considerable internal study and prayer, she was able to accept it—the fact that her husband, like all of us, was once a flesh and blood human being—not a saint. Maybe, that time of internal study and prayer was an opportunity for Nancy’s mother to grow her faith more; to empathize more, to be less quick to judge and more eager to forgive. We believe, right, that God can use even our most sinful of sins and our most traumatic life events for his own purposes.
This week Protestants are remembering the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Martin Luther had studied sin—in fact those theses had everything to do with sin. The Roman Catholic Church was in the forgiveness business, selling forgiveness for sins at churches like vendors selling hotdogs at football games. Martin knew, though, because he had studied scripture, that churches don’t forgive. Popes and priests don’t forgive. Only God can forgive sins against God. Martin’s 95 theses, then, was a charge of corruption aimed at the Roman Catholic Church. His brave pronouncements almost got him burned at the stake. Martin’s legacy was the Protestant Reformation. We are here today, worshiping in this space because of Martin Luther’s courage.
But even Martin Luther was no saint. If you doubt that, look up the Peasant’s Rebellion some time. Also deeply troubling was his anti-Semitism sentiments. Sadly, his anti-Semitic writings helped fuel Nazism which of course, led to the holocaust. Christopher Columbus maimed, tortured and stole from indigenous peoples. He did that in the name of God! Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and he may have even raped at least one of his female slaves. Yes, our heroes tumble from their pedestals. They come crashing down. We may want to smash them to smithereens for disappointing us. But It’s not ALL their fault. We were wrong to put them on those pedestals in the first place. People sin-even extraordinarily good people sin. Sometimes extraordinarily good people sin extraordinarily. Our hope is that God can use even the egregious sins of a Luther or a Thomas Jefferson to good purpose. I’ve got one more story for you for today—on this All Saints Sunday, when we are honoring our deceased loved ones—it’s a story about how God may use sin to good purpose.
In this regard, I share with you now a story about my own grandmother, Grandmother Gammon, Lora Gammon, for whom I will be lighting a candle today.
Grandmother Gammon. Hands down, the best grandmother a child could call her own. When my family visited, once a year in the summer, forget everyone else. For my grandmother, it was all about my brother and me. We picked blackberries together. Back home, we would wash those berries. Then we would roll out the dough for the crust. Of course, we ate the finished product. All that was an every summer ritual. She was an elementary school teacher, but in retirement, she became a water-color artist. So on our summer visits, my brother and I and our grandmother would retreat to her covered porch, a separate building out back of the house. She called it her studio. Away from grownup chatter, she taught us to paint. Finally, Grandmother Gammon was a storyteller, a wonderful storyteller. Her mother, my great grandmother, was Irish, and my grandmother retained an Irish lilt that was most prominent when she told stories.
One of her stories was about Bathsheba Blackhawk. Bathsheba Blackhawk was an American Indian princess. During Andrew Jackson’s presidency, she and some 4000 other Cherokees left their homes in the East. It was a forced mass exodus referred to as the Trail of Tears. Bathsheba gave birth along that Trail of Tears—to a baby boy. Sadly Bathsheba died in childbirth. Her son was adopted by a white family whom they named Eli.
Eli Jones was my grandmother’s grandfather. And so, my brother and I are descended from the Cherokee Nation. I am proud to have an American Indian princess as part of my lineage. There have been times in my life, when, overstressed, I have leaned on her. My life might be challenging, but look at what happened to Bathsheba! To this day, she gives me inspiration. I imagine her to have been a strong woman.
Two Christmases ago, my brother’s “in-laws” gave him a subscription to 23 and Me. Do you know 23 and Me? It’s a company that does genetic testing. My brother spit into a little tube and then sent the tube off, so that his spit could be tested. Guess what? NO Native American genetic links. Nada, zip! 99% Western European with a strong Irish component. So, of course, I told my brother, “Now we know. You really ARE adopted!” Which prompted my brother to give ME a subscription to 23 and Me’s competitor, Ancestry.com. So, early this year, I spit into a little tube for my own genetic analysis. Turns out my brother and I are both adopted! I guess. At any rate, no American Indian lineage.
What’s up with that?! Sadly, my Grandmother Gammon has passed on. Virtually all our relations have passed on-except an uncle, Grandmother Gammon’s other son, or my father’s brother. I phoned uncle Keith to let him know-no Bathsheba Blackhawk. His answer gives me a clue as to what may have happened. “What do you mean no Bathsheba Blackhawk! Your grandmother and I visited Bathsheba Blackhawk’s statue when I was little boy!” Yes, somewhere in Illinois, there is a statue to Bathsheba Blackhawk. And that statue, (pause) perhaps, provided the seed for Grandmother Gammon’s tall tale.
So here are my thoughts, six months into dealing with the curious truth of my own heritage. Lying is a sin. Thou shalt not bear false witness, says God in Exodus. My grandmother lied. But I have looked back at my dad’s life, my uncle’s life. My grandfather was a coal miner. He began mining when he was twelve. His education ended some time before that, so to be kind, let’s say eleven.
Their whole lives my grandparents were exceedingly poor. My grandmother wanted better for her two boys. No coal mining for them—no sir-ee. Their school day did not end when they came home from school. She taught them at home, too. And true to her promise to herself, her boys went to college—for my dad, on the GI bill, and for my uncle, with the military.
I am guessing, that in their young lives, my grandmother felt her boys needed a hero—someone outside the poor coal mining community they lived in. Bathsheba Blackhawk was romantic enough, heroic enough to fit the bill.
But of course, my grandmother was wrong. She was wrong to lie. Actually she was twice wrong. Because to my eyes, anyway, my grandparents, with all their warts and wrinkles, and tall tales about Bathsheba Blackhawk, sinful people like the rest of us--WERE heroes none-the-less. Not saints,for sure, but good enough.
May it be so for you and yours, too. Amen