Religious Inheritance: Blessing or Curse (Tammy Martens) 8.11.19

Psalm 16: 5-9, Romans 8:28

Being from the very German Sheboygan County, on the east side of Wisconsin, I grew up on polkas. My parents met at a polka dance in Johnsonville. Most all the weddings I attended as a kid had polka bands play at the reception. And in our home the most common music my parents listened to on the radio or tv was polka music. As a teenager this drove me nuts but my parents didn’t care about my opinion—it’s what they loved. Both sides of my ancestry came from Germany and settled in the Johnsonville area somewhere around the 1850’s and brought their love of polka music with them. And who knows, maybe they brought over the special recipe that is used to make Johnsonville brats?

Little did I know when our family traveled to Germany last summer that the polka gene in me which had been dormant for decades would be awakened and I would delight in hearing polka music played in different places. On our first full day in Munich, we went downtown and one of our stops for lunch was the famous Hoffbraus House. As we sat there, I noticed in me a sense of aliveness as I thought of my ancestors. So in their honor I ordered a stein of beer! I don’t usually drink beer so I was grateful it took a long time for our food to come because it was going to take a very long time for me to drink that beer. There in the Hoffbraus House I did three very essential German things: I ate sausage, drank beer, and listened to polka music. Quite the day!

This gift of making a connection with my ancestry also happened in regards to my religious inheritance—another connection I didn’t see coming. When we arrived in Munich, we learned quickly that Munich is a predominantly Catholic city because on the day we landed, August 15, most of the businesses, restaurants, grocery stores were closed because of a Catholic holiday. Does anyone know what holy day of obligation it was? The Assumption of Mary.

On the next day we toured downtown. The town plaza is called Marionplatz which is named after the Virgin Mary. In the center of the plaza, at the top of a very tall column is a golden statue of the Virgin Mary. Sculpted in 1590, it was a rallying point in the religious wars of the Reformation. Back then, Munich was a bastion of southern-German Catholicism against the heresies of Martin Luther to the north. At the four corners of the statue are cherubs fighting the four great biblical enemies of civilization:  the dragon of war, the lion of hunger, the rooster-headed monster of plague and disease, and the serpent. The serpent represents heresy—namely, Protestants.

We did a walking tour of downtown Munich which included Catholic cathedrals–all stunningly beautiful and ornate. The first cathedral we visited was St. Peter’s. It would take someone weeks to thoroughly tour through this church to capture all the beauty and meaning of the art, the architecture, sculptures, and details in this church.

After our stay in Munich we traveled to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. Every day we would pass a church which I think was the only church in Lauterbrunnen. This church looked very different than the cathedrals in Munich. On our third day we investigated more closely and noticed at the entrance this sign: Evangelical Reformed Kirche.  And a rush of excitement came over me! For I knew that the United Church of Christ had its roots in the Evangelical Reformed Church. We went inside and immediately another wave of emotion hit me. And the best way to describe that feeling is to say that as soon as we came into the sanctuary I felt at home. Now I didn’t orchestrate that to happen. The feelings flooded me before I could put thought to it. It was a wonderful experience.

The sanctuary was simple and small. The design shouted out “Protestantism” with the communion table moved off to the side and the pipe organ in the center. Here was more of my religious inheritance.

I love Psalm 16 and in particular the psalmist’s expression that the boundary lines have fallen for him in pleasant places—he welcomes the heritage that is his. He describes what he has received as something that is “fallen” to him, acknowledging that it came to him as a gift of grace that he can neither claim credit for nor take for granted. And he will pass this on to generations that follow him.

As we think of our own lives, can we consider this idea that the boundary lines have fallen for us in pleasant places? That we can welcome the heritage that is ours?

We all have some sort of religious inheritance. What I’d like for you to do right now is something a little unconventional but it’s sort of an unconventional day.  Please turn to someone sitting close to you (preferably not your partner/spouse) and share with them what religion you were raised in and what religion you are now. For most of us, we are part of a Christian religious inheritance so if that is the case, get more specific and share what denomination you were raised in and if you are part of the UCC now and how long you’ve been part of the UCC. I’ll use this chime to call us back.

Kathleen Norris explores the idea of religious inheritance in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary Faith. She shares that she spent 20 some years of her adult life claiming to be “spiritual but not religious” not wanting anything to do with organized religion and in some ways wanting to deny her religious inheritance. She shares this: (slide) “It is the teenager in all of us who resists this aspect of inheritance, imagining herself to be free of all that stuff…To the adolescent, inheritance can seem a simple matter of the ‘nothing’ family, the ‘nothing’ town we’re stuck in…In religious development, as in psychological development, we must become our own person. But denial of our inheritance doesn’t work, nor does simply castigating it as ‘nothing.’” She realized this only after her return to church and explored more fully both the beauty and the not so beautiful pieces of her religious inheritance.

And isn’t this true for all of us? As we look back on our inheritance, hopefully we can find saints who helped to form us—a beloved grandmother, a wise great uncle as well as going further back and seeing the influence of Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assisi.  We all have people in our religious history who have brought us to this place of song and worship. Who are they for you?

But, Kathleen Norris continues, “it’s far less pleasant—it can feel like a curse—to include in my welcome the difficult ancestors: the insane, the suicides, the alcoholics, the religiously self-righteous who literally scared the bejesus out of me when I was little, or who murdered my spirit with words of condemnation. Abel is welcome in my family tree, but I’d just as soon leave Cain out. Yet God has given me both, reminding me that the line in Psalm 16, “welcome indeed the heritage that falls to me,” can be a tough one to live with. If, as Paul says, “all things work together for good for those love God” (Romans 8:28) then in giving me a mixed inheritance, both blessing and curse, God expects me to make something of it. Redeem the bad and turn it into something good. And I must start with my roots, with where I have been placed in my family, my marriage, culture, and religious tradition. But the urge for denial is strong. And when something feels like a curse, when it doesn’t correspond to who I’d like to be, it is tempting to try to simply toss it out.”

It’s a balancing act: to recognize the blessings, those who have been role models for us in our faith development.  And it means naming and exorcising the curses—not cursing the people themselves, who may have left you stranded with a boogeyman God but cleansing oneself of the damage that was done. The temptation to simply reject what we can’t handle is always there; but it means becoming stuck in a perpetual adolescence, a perpetual seeking for something, anything, that doesn’t lead us back to where we came from.”

As we gather as a church, one of the many beautiful blessings we can experience is to be able to hear each of our stories—to hear of our religious inheritance, to share of the saints in our particular history who helped to form and shape us. We also are here for each other to share the parts of our history we might consider curses. And in our sharing and through the gift of listening, we can open ourselves up to healing and redemption. And as we claim our religious inheritance and share with one another, we, too, can say “Truly the boundary places have fallen for us in pleasant places.” Amen.

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