“Pass the Steak Sauce” by Tracy Johnson
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Reading – “The Ancestors” by Gretchen Sentry
They form two lines behind me, women on the left; men on the right.
The grandmothers reach back in undulating lines. They bend and straighten, bend and straighten. The grandfathers sway, moving side to side, like upright reeds. They come into focus, then fade. They ripple out from me like angel wings.
Bits of light follow me on this dark night like a diaphanous cape clinging to my shoulders. The grandmothers and grandfathers whisper in my ears as I move through the short day and into dusk. For just this moment I am in front of the parade. Soon I will join them in their haunting dance, moving in and out of the shadows, step, dip, turnabout.
See the lineage, the multiplication of souls weaving in and out, glowing. There are Dutchmen building towns, the Irish and Indian great-grandmothers beating rugs and scattering corn. The dreamers on both sides, the workers and traveling men. All moving on. Moving back. Their soul force beating on the veil like a black-winged bird trying to be free.
I move on, just out in front, singing a wordless dirge. Behind me the steady beat, beat of raven’s wing, and the hushed and luminescent glow of moving souls. They are my family, my prototypes, my dead.
The generations wait to move to the front – my children, my grandchildren. And I will be the bridge from ancestor to progeny. I will listen to the ancestors. I will listen closely, bear witness to their stories, pass along the words of comfort and warning. I will practice their dance.
Sermon – “Pass the Steak Sauce” by Tracy Johnson
Fifty-seven years ago this coming Tuesday – in 1957 – Nancy and Tom brought forth into this world their first born child – a girl – and named her Tracy! Yes – me!! Fifty-seven years! And do you know what this makes me think of?
That’s right! Steak sauce! Heinz 57 Steak Sauce! All those amazing secret ingredients blended together to create something wonderfully delicious – something that would enhance the flavor of whatever it was poured over. I think of it because, well, all those 57’s and that’s just where my mind went next. But I think of it because I know that I am also made up of blend of ingredients. All the experiences of this life have colored my making; shaped me in so many ways. And all of the people who have touched my life have added their part. I carry those people and events with me, deep inside.
And it’s not just the life I have lived over these 57 years. It is the lives of my parents; the ways that they were formed affect me too. And so it goes, on and on back through the generations. On the wall in my office hangs a framed, 18 x 22 diploma from Branford High School dated 1894, its gold and white silk rosettes a little faded under the glass. The name on it, in lovely roman script, is Annie Cecelia Meaney. Annie was my great grandmother on my mother’s side of the family. Her parents came over from Ireland, I found out – through a friend who was into genealogy and offered her skills as a service auction item one year. Annie’s mother worked as a caretaker in someone’s home; a not so uncommon trade for the times. But I’m thinking that this high school graduation must have been a pretty big deal, given the size of the diploma and the way it is all done up! And I wonder if I don’t get some of my penchant for knowledge and education from Annie herself. Has it been passed down to me somehow even though I was only two years old when she passed from this life?
Do I carry within me the seeds of my mother’s stoicism and grace? Sometimes I recognize her face in my expressions; in my gestures. Did I learn resilience from watching her through a life cut too short by our standards – and from where did she derive such power? From how many generations back does the urge to feel the moist brown earth in my hands each spring come to me like clockwork? I can recount two before my own, but where did it originate? Do I get my mystic sensibilities from the Celtic Christian tradition; carried forward somehow in my DNA; a sense of eternity as present here and now; of life as a continuum connected always to what has come before – in relationship with all that surrounds me now, and a sense of the Holy as a constant throughout.
All of us are a melded reality – a term I borrow from a Brazilian Sister of Notre Dame who shared her philosophy about changing perceptions of God one intensive summer week gleaned from her own experiences of life and ministry among the poorest of women in her country. A melded reality. We are the sum of all that we encounter. She was certainly changed as she entered the villages removed from the city to which she was accustomed; changed as she learned the importance of truly knowing people before you try to help them. And I was changed in that week, too; exposed to the journey of another; my view of God and justice altered. Every new face; each conversation; in all that we touch and all that touches us; we are moved this way and that. It is not perceptible, but it is an ongoing process. We are never completely formed.
I have learned a bit about melding since my move to Massachusetts – all those on ramps with the short run up to the highway – a yield sign at the end suggesting that I must cede the very thing I intend to do in favor of another. Surely the engineers who developed this system of roadways had an expectation that we were all good “melders” given the split second timing required to actually enter traffic. But it is not always the case that beautifully choreographed melding happens – it can get messy – angry – downright dangerous!
So too is the case with our personal melding. We are not always quick to incorporate some aspect of our familial or experiential past into our current reality. Sometimes it is painful or disconcerting. We fight it, without really knowing what the “it” is. Facing some aspect of our make-up that we don’t find likeable and yet can’t shake loose of. Take my stage fright, for example, rooted in the experience of my first grade Christmas pageant. There I was, a sugar plum fairy dancing onto the stage until I noticed my mother and grandmother in the front row! Suddenly I was immobilized! And the thought of the stage has troubled me ever since. It is really quite miraculous that I stand here before you today! But I have tried to embrace what I might have been feeling; to simply be with it and let it evolve as it melds with countless experiences since that day; changing over time; like pieces of tumbled sea glass, their sharp edges worn by the sand and the waves; made touchable once more, re-formed as the story continues.
Gretchen Sentry’s poem suggests that the ancestors are with us in a visceral way. She knows their presence in the multiple means by which they walked this earth. They are her family, she says, her prototypes. They provide the pattern upon which she has been formed. They are her exemplars; her life in some way analogous to theirs, yet different. But if you look deeply you see the indelible mark they have left. She sees herself as a bridge gathering into her soul their offerings; carrying them for a while; altering them just so much by her living; and passing them on into the generations to come. We, too, take what has been given to us in countless exchanges, mold it like potters at an invisible wheel, and present it to the world. While we are forever changing, we cannot know the affect we have on those around us; on our surroundings. We are part of creation; active in the creating with every step and word; in all of our expression; part of the process of life. To know this is to know the sacredness of our existence.
The Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah sees creation as an ongoing act. It is happening now and continues on into the future. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner suggests that God has no memory, no hopes for the future; that with God there is no such thing as time. The past, present and future are seen as one continuous present reality. So, too, is the case in African indigenous traditions. Time is only as important as the events to which it is connected; not compartmentalized like it is in our culture. There is no sense of the future, and the now is inextricably linked to the past. For them the departed are not gone, but instead their spirits have simply moved into another time very much connected to the now. In these ways the lives of our ancestors blend with our own; together we become the present reality; ever evolving. When I see my mother’s face in the mirror it is not just because I am getting older! There is something of her in me that I couldn’t conjure up if I had to and yet it shows itself from time to time and I recognize it. There was a time that it bothered me – I thought, “Oh no! I am turning into my mother!” But I don’t experience it like that now. Instead I count as blessings the tendencies that I encounter, some good, some not so much, but the link is what is important and what I do with it shapes what comes next.
The Hebrew Bible tells the story of Abraham who was faithful to God and was promised that many generations would spring from him. Abraham was prone to erecting altars at sacred sites; places where he believed he had encountered God. For him these were a form of worship; an expression of gratitude. He did it more than once, dotting the land with stone remembrances of holy interactions. These were not the fancy, detailed altars with prescribed dimensions and materials that we read about later. They were simply stones.
Throughout history, cairns have been erected as landmarks to indicate a path, to note a worthy point or location, to mark a personal passage. They, too, are used in memorial commemorations and as navigational guides. Even today we find them on trails pointing people in the right direction or celebrating a new climbing record.
This is Memorial Day weekend and today we celebrate our memories. For some it is a time to honor our service persons who give so much to affect the kind of life we have available to us. Their call to service becomes melded together with our living here at home without our ever being conscious of it. For me it is a time to look back in order to look forward. It is a day to honor my ancestors, both distant and not so distant; a day to consider what of them I hold within my spirit and to lift it up; to count it as blessed and to mark it as holy.
I invite you to take a few moments to think about those who have shaped your life and to honor them in this time of sharing. We will be building cairns to mark our memories; to mark the value of that special blend of ingredients that has enhanced our being and doing. I have brought a collection of stones, and shells and sea glass to use. You may add to a cairn already started or begin anew as you come forward to share.
I place this first stone in honor of Annie, whose presence I feel with me – and a second to honor my mother, Nancy, for the resilience and grace that she imparted.
Please come forward from the side aisles to share the name of the person you are honoring and the attribute they have given you, and return to your seats when you are done.