The Graveyard Gets a Vote

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;

female oransthere is nothing new under the sun

Ecclesiastes 1:9


Leisurely Saturday morning breakfast gave rise to conversation about scary stories and Beetlejuice, last night’s movie for the three of us.   The dante's inferno roomtopic evolved into ideas and images of hell, in the way that sometimes happens when the pastor geek mom  was involved.    Dante’s Inferno came up.  Kind of.  It was a special project of mine in Christ College days.  A lot of our ideas about heaven and hell actually came from Dante’s fertile imaginative storytelling and caustic political views.  “Oh!”  my daughter exclaims.  “He got that from Beetlejuice, didn’t he?”   I saw her mathematical wheels clicking in her brain when I informed her that Dante lived in the 14th century,  we live in the 21st century, and the movie was made in the 20th century.   It became a lively conversation until her 11 year old eyes glazed over and I realized that my enthusiasm for the subject had just overshot the target.

“The Things Kids Say” humor columns are filled with moments like this.  The child has no points of reference beyond one’s own time frame in history. The decades before she entered the world are  ancient history.  Her parents’  existence in the world before she entered it is downright primordial.     Until we know history, and which history matters in our present, we are all babes.   History makes us grow up.

History is important.  Even exciting.  I didn’t learn that from the people who taught me history, however. Well, yes,    I learned that it is important if I wanted to get a good grade.  It didn’t become exciting until those  thrilling moments when I knew enough history to challenge the veracity of the history teacher’s interpretation.   My love for history grew out of my own explorations, not memorizing names, dates and battles.  Those explorations taught me to culture a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion in my intellectual petri dishes.    [ from Greek;hermeneutikos, interpretation]   Who tells the story?  What reason do they have for telling the story in the way it is told?  Who else tells this story?  How is the way the story is told shaped by the assumptions, values and priorities of the person telling it?   Make way for another flight of imagination:  How would another person involved in this story tell it?   Some scathingly call this “revisionist history” because the results  challenge the history they fell asleep to in high school or college.

I doubt that the venerable Dante would have ever imagined that his epic masterpiece Inferno would becomebeetlejuice graveyard the stuff of an Amusement Park Fright Fest in our century.   I doubt that there are many who are shelling out so much good money to go to the Amusement Park Fright Fest who  have any idea that what they are about to experience began in Dante’s imagination, or that reading Dante’s epic poetry could give them an even more horrifying thrill.   I wonder if that guy hollering on a loudspeaker on Friday nights at the streetcorner with a bible in his hand surrounded by modestly dressed women carrying billboards…does he know how much of his religious imagination about hell, its landscape and population comes from Dante’s imagination–not the bible?

The only reason to return to the past is to learn from it.   I paid someone serious money to tell me that, and I offer it to you for free.   I think it’s true, but not if you take it to mean that the past can be safely ignored.   The promise in being able to return to the past is that there is a good harvest ripening there, and the produce is not all picked even now.  The good harvest is what we can learn from it without being held captive by it.  (Hint: that’s the power of Resurrection at work!)  The graveyard gets a vote in the present.  Every time someone patriotically testifies that American Freedom isn’t free, that it was won by the blood and sacrifice of our armed forces, they are giving the graveyard a vote.  What we have in the present didn’t materialize from nothing.  That’s not the only vote the graveyard gets.  The silenced voices in mass and unmarked graves expose the ongoing violence and cruelty of our kind.  Their voices continue to plead for justice, for an end to killing, slavery, and the degradation of human life.  The victims in our past plea for their suffering and death to not be in vain, to have no power to change our future.  That’s a rather shocking assertion.  Not even the boundaries of death have enough power to contain the one who works redemption and can bring life out of a hole in the ground?   They may be silenced, but the sheer fact of their existence, haplessly unearthed, is strong testimony even without their words.   The graveyard’s vote challenges our egocentric and strategic optimism:  That would never happen here…again….with us.  

theodora episcopa

St. Theodora on left, with title “Episcopas” (female gender) changed to “Episcopa” (male)” Square halo indicates she was still living at time the art was created. To her right is St. Praxedes Ninth Century

The residents of the graveyard   have another kind of wisdom to offer.   If indeed, there is nothing new under the sun as Ecclesiastes suggests, the wisdom of the graveyard offers a past to which to turn.   Other saints have gone before us.  Others have struggled mightily in ways that we struggle now.  Technology may have changed, but deep in the wisdom of the earth and life of all that walks , swims, flies, or crawls on it, there is truth.

paul and praxedes

Paul and St. Praxedes, 4th century, depicted as equals.

It is not safe to brush aside this truth, or the stories of those who lived it.  We skew our present understandings in ways that are harmful, if not brutal.   A certain church history professor in my academic experience tended to be dismissive of non-Western, non-male history.  Teresa of Avilla was summed up as “a nun who went barefoot.”  The assigned textbook was a legal narcotic.  He wasn’t unkindly bent.  It’s just the way he had been taught.  If I  accepted his strategy of interpretation  (there’s that hermeneutic word again) I would not have known that there has never been a time when women were not in ministry or that there was a time when neither men or women were ordained in the way we do now.   There is a sarcophagus in Ireland with a carving of a bishop on its stone lid.  A bishop with breasts.   It predates my denomination’s recent election of female presiding bishop by many years….more than a thousand of them. Christianity happened differently outside the purview of Rome and Constantinople it seems.  Strangely, it is the housing of a graveyard resident that gives us the testimony.  It’s not the veracity of the past that makes the helpful point here.   It’s that a past that has veracity opens up a new way for us to live in the present and hope in the future.   Not every voice from the graveyard is spooky or tells a cautionary tale!

This week Reformation.  Next week All Saints.  Together, they challenge us to examine how we receive the gifts of the past, and harvest their newly ripening produce to feed us into the future where Paradisio, not Inferno, has the final word.

See  too see more about St. Theodora in the picture above.


About Pastor Betsy Williams

I am a mom. And a wife. And a Friend. And a homeowner. And a dog ...uh....owner? Actually make that two dogs. Two kids. One husband. I'm an ELCA Lutheran pastor of a beautiful downtown church. I am the third senior pastor in a century, so my 10-12 years here may feel like an interim to some of the folks here. Recently I have had no spare time. In my spare time in the future, my imagination inhabits a novel I am writing, The Funeral Preacher. My primary blog is a personal reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary...mostly: "Not All Who Wander are Lost." A few years ago I was on a team of writers who produced a little book for Augsburg Fortress in the Washed and Welcome series called "Living the Promises." It's 101 ideas for helping parents and godparents nurture their children in the faith of their baptism. I am developing another blog, more about worship at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Newark, Ohio and including a summary of the past week's preaching. Otherwise, I imagine myself to be a musician, liturgical artist, cook in a five star restaurant where the patrons keep ordering chicken nuggets, but never a bottle washer. I know how to delegate and share.
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