“Carry dem Bones” or “Call on the Ancestors”

Keith A. Menhinick | CPBC | 8.16.2020

Yall remember that old Vacation Bible School song? Dem bones dem bones dem… dry bones. My title for today’s sermon is “Carry dem Bones.” And like a good Baptist I also have a second title, “Call on the Ancestors.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own ancestors ever since my Grandfather died this past September. John Wesley Nix—in his name alone my Grandfather carried a theological legacy. Even after his death, I can count the multiple ways that Granddad is still teaching me little lessons like “always speak to strangers” and “don’t take yourself so seriously, be mischievous.” 

What stirs my theological questioning and what brings me to the Book today are the prayers and grief of my Grandmother. I was on the phone with her the other day, and she said to me, “Keith, you might tell me this is not Biblical and you might think I’m crazy, but I still pray for your Granddad every night before I go to bed. I pray that Granddad doesn’t feel any more pain, that he has everything he ever wanted, that he watches over our family and that he even talks to the Lord about us.”

This is a sermon for my Grandmother as well as my departed Granddad. In this wild year of 2020, where our country has experienced over 170,000 deaths due to Covid-19, this is also a sermon for them, for all of our departed loved ones, and for us who remain and who grieve.

At the start of our text in Matthew today, Jesus is facing his own grief as he confronts a multiplicity of oppressive systems. Already, Jesus has overcome temptations in the desert, called a rag-tag team of disciples, preached the highlight sermon of his life on the mount, healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed storms, and fed the five thousand. Jesus has been on the move. And now he is about to journey to Jerusalem, where he will speak hard truths to power and be murdered by the state.

Can you imagine Jesus’ fear and grief knowing that he has to do this prophetic task even though it will kill him? Our first lesson is that Jesus retreats from the crowds and the busyness of life. Following social distance protocols, Jesus prioritizes an outdoor space and brings only three people with him, three of his closest disciples, and together they hike deep into the woods to the top of a quiet, still mountain.

If you have read the Hebrew Scriptures, then perhaps you already see the significance. Many, many, generations before Jesus, his ancestor Moses also went up to the mountain-top to meet with God and he brought with him three witnesses.

In his time of fear, when Jesus needs some encouragement and guidance, Jesus follows the example of his ancestor Moses. Up on that high, quiet mountain, all by themselves, Jesus is suddenly transfigured—literally, metamorphoō—where we get the word metamorphosis, meaning to “change or transition into another form.” And Jesus’s clothes become as bright as light.

Verse 3: “Just then Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus.” In his time of deep trouble, Jesus talked with his ancestors.

Can you hear the good news? Death is not final. The ancestors are not dead. Yes, they are deceased, their earthly bodies burned or buried, but they are not gone. When Jesus needs them most, his ancestors Moses and Elijah show up and talk with him! They teach him insight from their own lives about the cost and joy of following God’s mission in the world. 

And if you permit me for a moment to use my creative, feminist, theological imagination, I would like to believe that it was not just Moses and Elijah who showed up in Jesus’ time of need. Perhaps, the male disciples who reported this story only had patriarchal eyes, could only see the male ancestors on that day. But I imagine talking with Jesus were not only Moses and Elijah but also the women ancestors too—Miriam, Hagar, Deborah, Rahab, Ruth, Esther. 

Maybe, when the spirits of Moses and Elijah show up for Jesus, they bring with them their own ancestors too. We know that in Exodus 13, before Moses fled Egypt and led the Israelites out of slavery to freedom, Moses went and gathered the bones of his ancestor Joseph, and he carried dem bones with them through the wilderness. In fact, many Rabbis declare that Moses carried Joseph’s bones in a second ark.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Natan wrote that, “All those years that the Jewish people were in the wilderness, these two arks, one a casket of a dead man, Joseph, and one the Ark of the Divine Presence, i.e., the Ark of the Covenant, were traveling together.” Rabbi Rashi wrote that they carried more than just Joseph’s bones in that ark.

An ark for the tablets, for the presence of God! And traveling beside it, an ark for the bones of the ancestors.

Since you let me do it before, can I use my creative, feminist, theological imagination again? In Linda Herzer’s book, The Bible and the Transgender Experience, she points out that we know about Joseph’s famous coat of many colors—the ketonet passim. However, what many of us don’t know is that the only other time that this phrase is used in our Scriptures is to describe the clothing of a virgin princess. In 2 Samuel 13, the ketonet passim is the garment worn by the King’s virginal daughter.

Joseph is wearing a princess dress. Which might mean that Joseph may very well have been a trans kid simply trying to live their truth. Now jump forward a handful of years. As Moses and the Israelites flee slavery and journey through the wilderness to freedom, they carry with them the bones of their trans-ancestor, in a holy ark, right beside the ark of the divine presence.

Jump forward some thousand years. The Nazarene Jesus calls on those same ancestors to guide him in his moment of trouble. Notice what the text says: Jesus is transfigured on the mountain-top at the same time that he is brought more fully into relationship with his ancestry.

Currently, our country is finally doing some deep communal wrestling with the problematic choices and systems built by white ancestors. Those of us who are white must exercise a lot more humility and responsibility for the ways that dominant Christianity has historically cut people off from their ancestors. Communing with the ancestors is a part of almost every indigenous spirituality on the planet—rooting back to Jesus in the Middle East, Moses in Egypt, and all the way back to Black ancestors all across Africa. What indigenous religion has been telling us all along is affirmed here in our Gospel text today: that the ancestors are not dead; they are right here with us.

There’s a debate in Psychology about the efficacy of Disney movies to convey to children the reality of death. One group of psychologists say that Disney movies convey an unrealistic picture of death. Children struggle with understanding that death is final and cannot be fixed or reversed. Disney movies are thus psychically counterproductive to children’s development, because they depict death as impermanent and show images of departed ancestors returning.

Simba’s father Mufasa appears in the clouds and talks to him. Pocahontas frequently talks with her Grandmother who takes the form of an old willow tree. Moana talks with her Grandmother who returns to her as a silvery manta ray. Mulan talks with all her ancestors at their family’s shrine. Miguel talks with all of his ancestors by literally entering his family’s altar during el Día de Muertos.

Some psychologists say this is harmful messaging, because it isn’t realistic about the finality of death. However, a whole other group of psychologists—many of whom are Black and Brown psychologists—say that Disney is retelling an age-old truth. Our ancestors are not gone from our lives. Children and adults can cope with grief and life’s struggles by talking with their ancestors. In fact, many of these Black and Brown psychologists say that long before Disney was a phenomenon, generations of ancestors passed down similar stories about listening to those who came before us. 

When we feel afraid, hopeless, lost, alone—our ancestors come to us with wisdom, strength, and comfort… like Simba looking at his reflection in a pool of water and gazing at the clouds, like Pocahontas sitting under the willow tree, like Moana drifting in the middle of the ocean, like Mulan praying at her ancestor’s shrine, like Miguel singing and strumming his guitar, like Jesus praying at the top of the mountain. We can welcome in the wisdom, strength, and comfort of our ancestors.

Some Disney movies, like Frozen 2, are even helping us reflect on what to do with problematic ancestors, our ancestors who caused harm. I heard an episode on the podcast Hope and Hard Pills about a pastor in NC named Rob Lee, the descendent of Robert E. Lee. After the white supremacist march in Charlottesville a few years ago, Rob Lee began wrestling with his own legacy as a descendent of Robert E. Lee.

In the podcast, Rob Lee discusses his fight to get every statue of his ancestor torn down. He was even forced to resign from his church for the good trouble he was causing. He continues to preach, publish, and do the labor of confronting his racist ancestors and working for racial justice.

Some of us are being called to change our ancestry. As we discern the truths of our Scripture and Jesus’ transfiguration, some of us are being called to transfigure our own family patterns and legacies. Gratefully, no matter who we are, when we join the Christian community of faith we are invited to enter into a new legacy and a new ancestry. Our Scriptures call it “the great cloud of witnesses.” Like Jesus who called on Elijah and Moses, like Moses who called on Joseph, we too are invited to call on our biological and spiritual ancestors of our faith.

I don’t know what your mountain-top is right now. I don’t know what specific struggles, worries, and fears are driving you to step away to the mountain-top. But there are ancestors, biological and spiritual, who journey with you. Will you talk with them? Just as Jesus talked with Moses and the prophet Elijah, will you talk with Jesus and with the ancestors that he brings to your mountain-tops?

There is wisdom, strength, and comfort in the ancestors that have come before us. Our Gospel text tells to call on it.

When you are rejected for your gender identity and expression, call on the authenticity of Joseph.

When you feel inadequate to the task of liberation, call on the bravery of Moses.

When you are discredited and outnumbered, call on the steadfast faith of Elijah. 

There is wisdom, strength, and comfort in the ancestors.

When you feel discouraged and weary, call on the joy of Miriam and lead your tribe with dancing.

When you are afraid to confront the violence of the Empire, call on the conviction of Esther and say to them, “I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish.”

When you mess up, I mean all the way get it wrong, call on the dogged stubbornness of those disciples, who failed Jesus over and over, but who also kept showing up.

I’m reminded of my Grandmother praying on her knees talking to my deceased Granddad every night. And I too can talk with Granddad and ask him for wisdom, strength, and comfort, just like I can call on all of the biological and spiritual ancestors of our faith.

This is the good news!

We are not alone!

Death is not final!

Our ancestors have carried us all our lives even up unto this very hour, and we too can carry dem bones with us, we too can call on the wisdom, strength, and comfort of our ancestors—

Amen and Amen.