I remember when I was in fourth grade, and a holocaust survivor came to visit our class, he was a grandparent of one of my classmates. He did not go into the gruesome details of the holocaust, telling the story on a fourth grade level, but one of the interesting things that he said has always stuck with me:
We are products of everyone and everything that came before us, and we will be part of everything that comes after. This means that we have to learn what was wrong and evil so we never inflict it again.
Wise words from someone who knew more than I ever would about the cruelty of humankind, at least I hope to never have to witness something like the Holocaust. I worry sometimes, though, about how much we listen to the past and learn from it. We all know the famous quote attributed to Edmund Burke and used at the start of many a high school history class: “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” It is an ominous statement, but very true. We have learned through many struggles just how easy it is to fall back into previous patterns.
Along with being forced to live the past over and over by not understanding the past, we do not have respect for where and how we got where we are. It is not hard to think of that fact in the Silicon Valley. I would venture to guess that most of the jobs and economy that is present in the valley is a direct result of people building upon the work of others who came before; just think, a programmer needs a computer, and while some of the pioneers of personal computing are still around, a lot of the advancements that we have are based on how people took the established knowledge and expanded upon it.
This is to say that not only do we have to learn from our past so that we can create a civil society, we also have to honor our past, because it is the past that we build on for the future and those who come before us have to be remembered and respected for their contribution.
In the Hebrew texts the concept of an afterlife is a bit dubious. Some of the later prophets allude to it. What is more important than an afterlife is the ancestor worship. Often we read that when someone dies they go to sheol. Sheol is the place of the dead, and while in sheol one will continue to exist as long as they are remembered. Many Jewish theologians would say that this is not the same as an afterlife as the Christian tradition would understand; rather it is the memories are a life unto themselves and as long as someone is remembered they will always exist.
So here we come to the scripture and celebration this Sunday of All Saints Day. In 1 Thessalonians 2:9–13, Paul reminds the now established community in Thessalonica the founders were both examples of how to follow the faith, but also how their ability to worship was based on their pioneering the way. It is not that much different than today. We think of our church and recognize that there are certain things that change based on the needs of those who are here, but the future of our congregation is around because of those who have come before us. And therefore, remembering them, good and bad, is central to understanding how we might be a healthy community in the future, just as the Thessalonians could learn from their forefathers on how they could be a healthy community of believers.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen