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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Abriendo Nuestros Puertas, Mentes, y Corazones

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Noel Monardes, Worship Associate and the Choir

Abriendo Nuestras Puertas, Mentes, y Corozones

Opening our Doors, Minds, and Hearts

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

November 3, 2013


It is fitting to pause in this dying time of year to honor our departed loved ones.  Thursday was Samhain (sah-win), the pagan precedent for Halloween and also for All Saints Day which was Friday and All Soul’s Day yesterday, in the Anglican and Catholic traditions respectively.

But, here, today, we honor Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican and Mexican-American observance.  It is believed that the spirits of the dead return to earth on this day to party with their loved ones. To welcome them, people make altars somewhat like ours today, ofrendas, in their homes and gather in cemeteries to picnic, enjoying the favorite foods of the deceased, remembering, visiting, and partying.

Compared to the American way of death, which makes it seem like the opposite of life rather than a part of life, Dia de los Muertos, with its Aztec roots and its adaptations to Catholicism, offers a less serious, more accepting way to acknowledge death. It’s the way of laughter. 

Rather than fear death, this Mexican tradition teaches us to laugh at it, to have fun with it.  The skulls and skeletons on the ofrenda are meant to be zany and humorous, not to frighten, like on Halloween. 

During Day of the Dead festivities, when the calacas, grinning skeletons, dance with the children, it’s not about being led off by the Grim Reaper.  It’s a fun and crazy dance, making fun of death, taunting it, saying that life itself is a dance with death. 

All our lives, we are courted by death-- death by accident, illness, random (or not) act of violence.  It’s a crazy dance we do with death, all of our lives susceptible to it.

In keeping with Dia de los Muertos, as evidenced by our festive, even zany ofrenda, let this not be a time of mourning, but rather a time of festive celebrating the departed, the things and food they loved, their attributes—good and not so good—that are now a part of who we are, as well.

Now I invite you to call their first names out into our shared silence. “Blackie our cat.” “Aunt Alice.” “My Grandpa Joe.”  When it seems there are no more names to be said, and the silence has gathered again, I will call out “Presente!” (Spanish for “present”) and you are invited to call out in response, “Presente!”


            “Presente!” “Presente!”

I like for us to honor Dia de los Muertos because it teaches a different way of death. It teaches, most importantly to me, that death is a part of life, not life’s opposite.

It also teaches that our loved ones are not gone from us completely. Its festivities bring them back to life, in a sense--in the imaginations of the living, in families coming together to share their fond memories and to enjoy the deceased’s favorite foods, in singing and in laughing, in love.

Dia de los Muertos affirms what I believe, and say more than once in every memorial or graveside service I officiate – that love is stronger than death.

Here are my usual closing words for such services, “May love, which overcomes all difference, which heals all wounds, which puts to flight all fears, which reconciles all who are separated, be in us, among us now and always. Outliving death, love lasts forever, passed from generation to generation, lover to lover, friend to friend. May it sustain us all in the days and years to come.”

            In contrast to Dia de los Muertos, the predominant American way of death makes death seem like the opposite of life, rather than a part of life, and tends to insulate people from death. If someone dies in the hospital, their body is usually whisked away rather than allowing family members to sit with it for a time, or to wash it in preparation for burial or cremation. Children are often kept away from their dying pet or grandparent, and some are not allowed to attend wakes, funerals or burials.

At the graveside, demonstrations of grief are kept to a minimum. And, usually the cemetery staff does the actual burial after the ceremony when the family has gone, denying the mourners the benefits of the physical actions. The finality of death is so much more real when we lower the casket or urn or scatter the ashes ourselves. The sense of closure is embodied, and we are reminded of our own mortality – “someday my loved ones will be doing this with my body...” And, finally – the proverbial nail on the casket – few caskets are biodegradable, a last insulation from the reality of death.

So, as I became familiar with Dia de los Muertos, I felt enriched and changed. It’s not that I became Mexican, or Mexican-American, of course, but something important was added that had been missing. A new understanding had been added that corrected an imbalance I’d felt, but not recognized. I became more whole.

Similarly, when I learned about Jewish traditions around death, my understanding of life was enriched. The body of the deceased is not left alone, the casket is to be made of wood with no metal parts, there is no embalming, burial takes place within a day or two with the mourners helping to lower the casket and shovel in the dirt, and for the next seven days, the family “sits shiva” or remains in their home, with extended family and friends gathering and providing the repast.

During shiva, traditionally, no greetings are exchanged and visitors wait for the mourners to initiate conversation, or remain silent if the mourners do not do so, out of respect for their bereavement. Once engaged in conversation by the mourners, it is appropriate for visitors to talk about the deceased, sharing stories of his or her life. Some mourners use the shiva as a distraction from their loss, other mourners prefer to openly experience their grief together with friends and family. I gather the paperwork and running around taking care of financial and legal matters associated with a death waits until after shiva. All of this seems healthy to me.

So, in my ministry over the years, I’ve encouraged some of these practices around death that may not be familiar to my congregants. I’ve witnessed the embracing of the ofrenda and Dia de los Muertos by my congregations because it meets previously-unmet needs, and when planning a memorial service with a family, I offer to meet to do so in their home rather than in my office, and hope the hospitality of the church seems home-like in the reception after the service. And, I arrange with the cemetery staff for the lowering of the urn or casket to be done by or with the assistance of the family.

But, I also remain true to the Unitarian Universalist traditions around death, especially with the memorial service. We mourn, for mourn we must, our loved one’s loss of life and our loss of him or her, but our UU services feel like a celebration of life. We hold tight the memories we cherish and let go of our regrets. And, the service is designed to be an expression of who the person was, telling the story of the life, sharing memories, with music, poetry or other arts that were important to the deceased. Where there is love, one feels it in the service.

Death is obviously just one part of life!  Many other parts of our lives can be similarly enriched, deepened, heightened, changed by our interactions across religious, cultural, racial and economic boundaries. The idea is not to denigrate the cultures of our individual heritages, nor to think that other cultures are better than our own… but to accept, affirm and be able to authentically thrive in varied cultural environments.

So I envy the people – such as Noel Monardes, our Worship Associate today – whose growing up years affirmatively introduced them to cultural differences – because I think it may have given them a set of skills and an outlook that I’ve long had to cultivate in myself, having grown up in a relatively mono-cultural setting. As a teen, I began the process with reading books, was profoundly influenced by an anti-racism training while in college, and since then have made choices about where to live and work, and watched documentaries and attended cultural events with this process in mind, like many of you.

I’m loving living and doing ministry in this diverse community of ours in the DC area, though I acknowledge there have been challenges for me and for us. There is a great and wonderful opportunity to be enriched, changed, and be made more whole – as individuals and as a congregation – by the traditions, beliefs, cultural arts and cuisines of those around us. In doing so, we affirm the principle of acculturation, rather than assimilation, for ourselves and for others.

Furthermore, in doing so, I commend to you the quote that has been featured this past week on the sign in front of the Hillandale Baptist Church just down the street, which I pass every day on my way to work: Never attribute to malice that which may be explained by ignorance.

So, today we are incorporating quite a bit of Spanish in our worship in honor of Dia de los Muertos and to recognize that in the communities around us many Latinos (but not many Mexicans) are living. I plan for us to sing “Spirit of Life” in both Spanish and English every Sunday as a gesture of hospitality and solidarity. I don’t plan for PBUUC to be bi-lingual, though I suppose it may happen, one never knows.

But, we are embarking on an effort to help our neighbors to become bi-lingual! Our tutoring program, recently renamed Community Learning Center, for which twenty of you have been trained as English as a Second Language teachers, will start up in January on Sunday afternoons. Today, you can stop by the table in the foyer to pick up flyers for distribution and posting in likely locations (grocery stores, apartment buildings, etc.). Also, if you can return calls in Spanish, French, Chinese or other languages, help with registration or administration of placement tests, you are needed. Sign up at the table today.

Even as we retain the best of the traditions, beliefs, and arts that have been our Unitarian Universalist hallmarks, we will grow and change. And, in the process, we will develop relationships across cultures and welcome into our midst those who are seeking our liberal religious tradition, of open minds, helping hands, loving hearts and radiant spirits.

So, as we open our doors, let us also open our minds and our hearts – and as we open our minds and hearts, let us also open our doors – but always, always, let us sing.

Let us sing, as the children sang earlier and as the adult choir is - heads up, choir! –  about to sing: let us all sing a lively song, as one voice of many voices. Amen.

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