A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, November 2, 2014
ONCE I WAS A SKELETON
A Homily for Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls
Cathy sings into our hearts the mystery of the great cycles of life. She reminds us of how different cultures take these things we see going on around us, and within us, and celebrate them, in all our different ways. For us, as children, mostly, of the west, we have inherited the observation of this turning of our planet between autumn and winter within an amazing collection of opportunities to notice. But these days it's mostly that triple holiday of Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls.
We Unitarian Universalists tend to join them into one celebration. Which, I like. What it is all about, as I see it, is how in the rhythms of life and death, it is at this particular moment when the membrane between the worlds thins, and even tears here and there. So, we see those who have passed before, and those who are yet to come, all walking with us, those great clouds of witnesses.
And so, if we're lucky, if we think to do it, we stop. And we notice. Maybe we come to a church, like this lovely ancient Meeting House. Perhaps we even celebrate this moment with some of the world's great music. Thank you, Fred, and the choir. You point to the mystery of our lives, and this moment, replete with joys and sorrows.
Or, we wear costumes.
And, I admit it. I've always liked costumes. As a kid at different times I was a doctor, a pirate, a cowboy, superman, or was it batman, I don't really remember for sure. And once I was a skeleton. There's something magical about pretend. No doubt. I'm sure some of my friends think my love of costumes is why I became a minister. Lovely robe, don't you think? And you should see what I wear at Zen shindigs.
Nothing like Halloween to let it all hang out. In our imagination we can be just about anything at all. When you're a kid that's particularly good, because at that time of life, where everything lies as a possibility, its good to just try it on. See how it fits. Play with it. What we think about might well lead to what we become.
Me, pretty much every Halloween, as those monsters and goblins, heroes, and princesses parade around, I think of that term “masks of God.” The phrase, “masks of God,” was, best I can tell, coined by the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. For Campbell “God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought, even the categories of being and nonbeing.” For me God becomes a hole in the language, into which we place all our treasured hopes and fears. It is the holy ground on which we stand, and the mystery from which we take our being, and to which, in the end, we return.
That phrase “masks of God,” however, reminds us, what it is that joins us together, what in the last moment, is the truth of our being, what is revealed when the mask slips, what we find, when the time comes to take the costume off.
What is so powerful for me is how it shows that we are connected, how even our personal dreams inform each other's dreams and, in fact, helps to weave each other's lives. Of course this week we stand at the edge of momentous decisions for the people in a republic. What our congress will be, what our state houses will look like, and the actions that will follow all are in play. So, it's not a bad time to remember the deep connections.
I think of all the people who have been a part of my life, and of those who just by coming into this place, I've found so quickly so important to me. I think of the founders of this congregation. I think of those plaques for the dead recalled placed at the back of this Meeting House. I think of all of you, and the dreams you enter this place carrying. I think of our fears and hopes for this city and state and nation, and for the world itself. So, much, so much it can break the heart.
I think of all of us like children in costume, trying it on, and I think of those masks of God, and what is behind and under, and how we are all of us in this together in ways we mostly only notice in part, like seeing through a glass darkly.
I think particularly of that place where we are connected, where everyone and where everything is joined. In this special time, the season of death's feast, of a celebration of saints, and a celebration of just people, don't forget the all souls, and that one more thing, of this nation's roil of elections, and I know I find myself thinking of children's costumes.
Try this on. Try that on. I think of hope and loss. I think of life and of death each in ten thousand guises, and of that hole in our language, where our hopes and fears dream, how it all seeps together and becomes my dreams.
And, maybe, yours?
If we do this, maybe as we step out into the world, as we leave this Meeting House, we will do so with bliss bestowing hands.
Wouldn't that be wonderful?