What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be?

Rev. Seth Patterson
May 23, 2021, Pentecost

Scripture: Acts 2:1–8

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”

What kind of ancestor do you want to be?

This is a question that has sat on my heart and soul for awhile now. I think about it almost every day, both for myself and as I observe the world around me. What kind of ancestor do you want to be? In another circumstance, I would simply ask this question and then want to hear you talk about it.

What kind of ancestor do you want to be? To be clear, this doesn’t mean who you would want to be in the time of yourancestors, sort of a time-traveling hypothetical: “Well, I would go back in time and be Frederick Douglass.” No, instead, I am gently reminding us all of our mortality and asking you how you want to be remembered, what reverberations of your life lived might be left behind? We are all future ancestors, so with the decision-making power that you have now, what kind of ancestor do you want to be?

Here are a few stories that were meaningful for me. They are not meant to be exemplary, but rather illustrations. Each of you could name your own stories.

I witnessed an 85-year-old future ancestor walk down Nicollet Avenue at one of Plymouth’s Tuesday afternoon racial justice vigils. This future ancestor was not able to carry a Black Lives Matter sign because of the two ski poles that were needed for stability, especially in the bitterly cold wind.

A future ancestor currently in elementary school told me that they were afraid of the pick-up time at school because they were being teased. An older kid was acting like a bully. This future ancestor told their friends how they were feeling, and one of those friends approached the bigger kid and asked them to stop. The bigger kid (another future ancestor) apologized and said they were only doing it because they were once picked on and wanted to feel tough themselves. Now all of these future ancestors are friends and play tag at pick-up time together.

A future ancestor who is the parent to young adult children described the ways that they have purposely changed the role of the parent in their family system. From their grandparent who was cold and distant to their parent who was active yet critical, this person has worked to be an engaged and present parent to their children in all stages of life. They have actively worked to change their family system.

Another future ancestor recently found out that their family had once been slave owners in the North before abolition. While they were already working on the subject of racial justice, they are now seeking out ways to be involved in the work of reparations and restoration.

A future ancestor friend of mine, when I explained the direction of this sermon, explained that while we were talking they were making a fresh dinner of chicken, rice and egg whites for their old dog with pancreatitis. They explained that this was what kind of ancestor they desired to be: someone who took the extra time to show love to another living being without anyone even knowing about it. This dog will not be able to tell others of the kindness it has received!

A small group of Plymouth future ancestors has begun to meet regularly to discuss the ways that they can practice being present in public spaces oriented towards accountability and justice. Calling themselves a Presence Team, they are wondering how a collection of white 70-year-olds being present and visible at rallies or vigils or protests could make a necessary and positive difference.

Another future ancestor, a 70ish-year-old Plymouthite, was asked to be a Confirmation mentor. After a few days of discernment, the response to me was: “This scares me. I will absolutely do it.”

What kind of ancestor do you want to be?

Today is Pentecost in the Christian tradition, a day when we leave the Easter season and commemorate the initiation of the spread of Jesus’ message and works to the wider world. This moment is remembered in the Acts of the Apostles by a description of violent wind and tongues of fire. This is symbolic, recalling Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by explicitly connecting the earlier prophecy of John the Baptist to this story of the Apostles being sent out to preach and teach to the larger world.

What is important about this story for our conversation today is that this is a story of a gift given and received. It is an illustration of the gift from God to communicate the life and loving deeds of Jesus to all people, no matter what language they may speak. It is from this gift that we now gather together and speak of Pentecost in English, while our neighbors may do so in Spanish or Oromo or Karen.

This gift from the Spirit is what eventually allowed Christianity to become a worldwide religion in all of its many forms and denominations. From the Jewish Rabbi Jesus came the disciples and apostles who brought forth new communities that eventually no longer identified with Judaism and instead called themselves Christians. These Christians begat more Christians and more institutions and more integrations and more disintegrations. On Pentecost, we remember the bursting forth of this movement onto the global stage.

And how have Christians over the centuries handled this gift of Pentecost? What choices have our faith forebearers made? We have a pretty mixed record, don’t we? This gift from the Spirit has certainly brought great love and care to the world but also deep sorrow, brokenness and pain. For every Christian Peacemaker at the scene of a conflict there has been a war in the name of Christianity. For every abolitionist Christian there was a slaveholder Christian. For every orphanage, hospital, food shelf and charity opened in the name of Jesus, there have been children forced out from their Christian families for being born queer or having a gender identity that doesn’t fit with their assigned sex at birth. For every this there is a that, and all of them are held in Christianity. All of them come from this gift on the day of Pentecost.

This is because we all have the ability to choose. We have the ability to choose how we use the gifts that are given to us. Christians have used this decision-making power in ways that run the spectrum. This gift has wrought love and destruction on people, on places, and on ideas.

And this is the case of each of our lives. Like the gift on Pentecost, we are all given this finite gift of life, so what do we do with it? We are each but one layer of our collective story. We arrive in a world created by our predecessors and then we get to shape the world that will be inherited by our descendants. We are given the chance to work for restoration and healing from the mistakes of before, while also working to set the stage for the work that is yet to come. Like the gift on Pentecost, we are given the gift of a life and the chance to become an ancestor. What kind of ancestor do you want to be?

I sat with a future ancestor in this sanctuary—and one who happens to not carry the privilege of whiteness—and through sobs they asked why it was that they had to carry on their shoulders all the problems that those who came before us refused to deal with. This person said, “I want to help heal from that and I don’t know how.”

What kind of ancestor do you want to be? I cannot tell you. Only you can decide this for yourself and make the choices to try and become it. The amazing Barbara A. Holmes may give us some direction here. She writes, “Although some folks use a very narrow definition of the word ancestor, I use the word as an indicator of legacy and interconnections. The ancestors are elders who pour their lives into the community as a libation of love and commitment. They live and die well, and when they transition, they do so in full connection with an engaged community.”[1]

Interconnection. Love. Commitment. Engaged community. These are the some of the ways that we can be the ancestors that we wish to be and the kind of ancestors that our descendants need us to be: to make choices out of love, to do so for yourself but especially in community with others, and to remember that what you do and who you are matters. The choices you make and the gifts you give make a difference in ways that extend beyond you and in ways that you may never realize.

I keep asking this question, and I truly hope you take the time to answer it. So in solidarity I will not just ask the question but try to answer it as well. What kind of ancestor do I want to be? For myself, I want to be one that helps others see the God-loved fullness of themselves and others; one who convenes spaces of authentic and vulnerable curiosity, dialogue and meaning-making; one who tried to love himself as much as he tried to love the other and who defaulted to compassion and not judgement, love and not indifference; that I was one who was a guide for my daughter to learn how to be a whole and integrated human and who can then pass that on to others. I want to be an ancestor who worked toward mutual thriving of living things, knowing I will never see it happen.

What kind of ancestor do you want to be? Sit in this question, please. Breathe in this question. Write something down and share it with someone around you. Share it with me if you feel comfortable doing so!

We don’t get to decide which of our decisions will eventually become meaningful. Instead, we can accept this gift of life by making choices that may ripple beyond ourselves in meaningful ways, in loving ways, in ways of interconnection and community. What kind of ancestor do you want to be?

[1] Barbara A. Holmes, Liberation and the Cosmos: Conversations with the Elders (Fortress Press: 2008), 3.

Beth Hoffman Faeth and Seth Patterson discuss the sermon: