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On Calling Out To Our Ancestors


Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

Bigfork Community United Methodist Church

April 26, 2019 –Third Sunday of Easter

In the movie Amistad, slaves on a slave ship rebel against the crew and overpower them. When they are taken into custody for their act of rebellion, they are put on trial.

A young Matthew McConaughey plays Roger Sherman Baldwin, the trial lawyer who countersues for their release and their freedom… and they win. But the United States government appeals that decision to the Supreme Court.

That’s when an old Anthony Hopkins steps in as ex-President John Quincy Adams to handle the appeal. He explains to Cinque, the lead Defendant, that the course ahead of them is very difficult and the outcome is likely against them.

Cinque, played by Djimon (jai-mon) Hounsou, says he is at peace with it all because they will not be alone. Adams agrees emphatically. They have rights and the law on their side.

Cinque says, “I meant my ancestors. I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me. And they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.”

It sounds at first like a nice sentimental way to look at life…organic but not at all intellectual. We smile at the innocence of the man, but Adams understands that his client understands the situation better than he does as his lawyer.

I got to thinking about that this week, in the midst of the pandemic we are trying to navigate ourselves and our society…and civilization-as-we-know-it…through. It is an unprecedented situation and there is more than one way to look at it.

If we do this right, we might keep the losses…from both an economic and public health point of view…at a lower level than we would otherwise.

If we are not wise enough in these circumstances, the very serious consequences we have already suffered…to our economy and ourselves…will be but the opening chapter of a sad, sad tale that will be told about us for generations.

One day, we will be the ancestors that our descendants living in another world…one we cannot now see…will call unto themselves… whether for good or ill. What did those people (speaking of us) do to find their way through to the other side? How did they manage?

John Wesley had a way of contemplating the theological and existential questions that confronted him in a way that gave him insight and wisdom…and hope. His biographer, Albert Outler gave it the name “Wesley Quadrilateral.”

The four corners of this method are Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason. When a problem vexed him and there was no clear answer …or answers both ways, he consulted the Scriptures first. If that didn’t resolve the issue, he looked at Tradition, the way we have done it for centuries…that have given us the success we enjoy today.

Still no answer? Then he consulted his own experience. How had he seen the truth of the scriptures come to life in his life? What was his witness? If you have not seen the scriptures reenacted in everyday life, you need to think about that. If you have, what has it taught you?

Finally, he applied Reason to the task. What is true? He was not into magical thinking. This is not a child’s game we are playing…a cutout puzzle we are putting together. Life beckons us to meaning…and a growing understanding.

What was John Wesley doing to find divine guidance in his life? He was calling upon his ancestors: their Scriptures, their Traditions, their Experience, and their Reason.

Maybe had a more elegant intellectual framework to help him organize his ideas. And maybe not. But it was in all of these ways and in this same way he came to see his life as a gift to be spent as wisely and as well as it could be.

Like Cinque, he had times when all lay in ruins around him. He struggled to find a genuine faith in himself. He was nearly caught in a fire in the upstairs of his father’s parsonage when he was four.

But one night, attending a meeting at a house on Aldersgate Street in London, while someone was reading Luther’s Preface to the Romans, he felt his heart strangely warmed…and he had the joy of knowing that he believed in a true and powerful and good God, and in God’s own son, Jesus Christ.

He had called upon the ancestors while he zigged and zagged to find salvation before he relaxed…took a few deep breaths…listened with an open heart…and realized that his salvation wasn’t something he was going to find out in the world and possess one day. It was inside him. It was the life he had been given.

It possessed him…embraced him…sought him…had found him…and he enjoyed an unshakable assurance in that fact. After all that had happened to him, and after all the mistakes he had made, God still loved him. Well… it was a miracle…it was a blessing.

He had finally called upon the ancestors and they had come to him, because they had to. That night on Aldersgate Street, he was the only reason they had ever existed.

And he was going to do his best to honor them for the rest of his life.

The stories we read today retell how our ancestors found their way from one end to the other of a terrible, terrible time. They proceed from a triumphal entry into Jerusalem to hiding behind locked doors, and now…in our reading from Acts, here they are proclaiming the crucified Jesus of Nazareth to be the Christ…the Messiah.

After Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he went back and read the scriptures and reflected on what he knew of Jesus. He called upon Isaiah and Jeremiah and Moses and Joel to help him see the truth in a problem so vexing that it had blinded him.

He…and the other Apostles… called upon their ancestors and they came to him and them…and look what happened after that: It’s called Christianity. And here we are, two or more gathered in his name…two thousand years later.

Peter writes to us today that Christ came to lead us to have faith in God and God honored him in a glorious way. That’s why, he tells us, we have put our faith and hope in God. We have called upon the ancestors… even the ancestor of us all – God – and asked them to come be with us.

If we hope to be connected to Jesus and through him to God, surely we must know how important it is to be connected to our ancestors…and to call out to them not about what they did wrong or didn’t do right…but for their wisdom and strength in this time of great need.

They knew hard times. What they never did know was the good times that we have live through now. Rich folks back then were poorer than poor people today…and they had to think out of the box… because they lived out their lives before there was a box to think in.

They had to get it right or it would kill them, right off. A rich man can believe whatever he wants to believe and be on his merry way. But a poor man has to see what is true and what isn’t true…or it will kill him.

I don’t care how poor you think you are, but we are richer than our great grandparents were, just because of the time we have been living in… not because we are brilliant, but because of when we came along.

A couple of years ago, I did the Ancestry.com DNA test and I was shocked to learn that I was over half Norwegian. One of my great grandfather’s was off the boat…as they say…from County Wexford in Ireland. How can I be that Norwegian.

An Irish friend of mine helped me make sense of it, though. He told me that it was like this: first the Vikings invaded Ireland, then the Irish invaded New York…or Chicago, in James Albert McDonald’s case…and that’s why we are all Irish.

We all call upon our ancestors…we are our ancestors…so look what happens at the hinge of our Gospel reading today. A stranger joins two men as they walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It is just after the crucifixion and resurrection.

They begin to talk about what has just happened. They can’t figure it out. How could that happen to the Messiah? That’s not the way it was supposed to turn out.

That’s when Jesus…still unrecognized…says, “Didn’t you know the Messiah had to suffer before he was given his glory?”

Now, listen to Cinque’s call to the ancestor’s in this next verse: “Jesus then explained everything written about himself in the Scriptures, beginning with the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets.”

But they still don’t recognize Jesus until their faith becomes experiential to them…until they feel it…until Jesus breaks the bread. Then they say…as well as John Wesley ever said it, “When he explained the scriptures, didn’t it warm our hearts?”

You know what I have found out about myself in life? That I do my best thinking when I don’t have any good options and I am just trying to pick the least bad option.

That’s when I call upon the ancestors and they come and walk me through the scriptures, show me how the world works at a time like this, remind me where I have experienced them in my own life, then ask me to use my reason to understand them fully.

No magical thinking, please. No judgment, please. Think. What is good and what is true ad what is just? What is the least bad way… the best way…for us to live our lives?

That’s why we instinctively come to prayer at terrible times…and that’s how our ancestors brought us to life one day, and showered us with more technology and more information in a day than Cornelius Vanderbilt ever imagined could be found in the universe.

We think we are rich so we can believe whatever we want to believe and be on our merry way. But here’s the bad news: we are all poor…as poor as the field workers who tended the grounds of the Biltmore Estate.

They even made human progress through their hard times.

So we, too, need to use our wits…know what is true and what isn’t true…or we will be in jeopardy …and so will our neighbors and our descendants.

But if we call upon our ancestors, if we gather all the information we can with our senses…if we consult the wisdom of the ages about how our actions will affect us, our neighbors and loved ones…and our planet…and we apply our reason to the present day…we might become the wise ancestors someone remembers some day ages from now.

It is analytical, I suppose, but it is organic, too. So we keep in touch with each other, we help each other, we are kind to strangers…for we are often the stranger… and we find our hearts are strangely warmed…and then we know we are ready for what is to come.

O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us…through me…this day? Amen.

COMMUNITY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

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