When I was in Connecticut this past week clearing out the garage and basement at my family’s house I came across books, letters, papers, other documents and photos that I had never seen before. One photo, in particular stood out. It was a group shot, a family reunion, taken in the 1880s on the lawn of a summer house, all those ladies with their lace blouses and parasols, the gentlemen with striped jackets, stiff collars and straw boaters. It seems so long ago, and yet as I looked at the picture more closely, I recognized some people – from other family photos, or I saw facial characteristics that my siblings and cousins still carry. Some names I knew, and others were strangers to me.
And yet I knew the stories of so many, because the stories had been told and retold at family gatherings: Aunt Mamie and Uncle Fred never had children because Fred had mumps as a child; William was a guest at a party and laid eyes on his host’s daughter Louisa for the first time and he said: “That’s the woman I’m going to marry” – and he did; David, Aunt Belle’s son, became a Grand Prix-winning race car driver and then died in a training crash; their identity as faithful members of a variety of Episcopal parishes.
All of the stories from my family shaped me, just as surely as the genes they passed down. Families are this way – whether you embrace the values and the stories that have been conveyed to you, or you have put as much distance between yourself and your family as you can, or eventually come to the place where you take your inherited values and traits and do something quite different with them; we all have a heritage that comes to us from the past – recent past or long past.
In many ways you could say that the Feast of All Saints’ is like a big family reunion. We gather with our own parish, mindful of the fact that millions of Christians throughout the world are also gathered for worship on this day, with the same intention, and we gather with the saints who have gone before us – to remember that we are all one family, the family of Christ, and that we worship God as one fellowship, one Body.
Some of the saints are known to us, either because they are our direct relatives - people we knew and loved in this life – or because their stories have been lifted up in Christian history, and told over and over again. These are the people we usually think of as Saints with a capital “S”, and most of us have our favorites: who is your favorite saint?
But then there are all those saints whose name and story we will never know – those who have lived faithful, good lives for Jesus’ sake, but our knowledge of them has been lost. And yet, we are all one family, we all follow Christ, we all bear the same
spiritual DNA of those who have been baptized. What does that DNA look like? Jesus lays it out pretty clearly in the Gospel we have just heard, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. He saw that his ministry had been drawing quite a crowd, and he went up onto a hillside to teach the disciples, the committed ones who were following him, and made it very plain what sort of characteristics of faith and life those who apprenticed themselves to him would have.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he said. Not: “Try hard to give up all your possessions or have a low opinion of yourselves,” but “When you value God and following me before everything else, you will change your value system, and the kingdom of heaven – rather than the kingdoms of earth – will be open to you.”
Blessed are…. those who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for justice, who are merciful, who are pure in heart…for they will be comforted, inherit the earth, be filled, receive mercy, see God. These are family traits, the result of knowing and loving God, following Jesus, living in and with the family of the baptized – all the saints.
And there are other traits, as well: peacemakers, suffering persecution for doing what is right, being ridiculed and derided for making God’s truth and goodness your priority. The last two may not sound much like states of blessedness, but they are all a result of living deeply in Christ’s family; they are the traits of Christian faith that come up again and again, and which we share with all the saints.
So think again about your favorite saint – famous or not – and consider how one or more of these traits is manifested in his or her life: poor in spirit, has the capacity to mourn, meek, hungering for justice, pure in heart, peacemaker, persecuted, reviled. What in that person’s life and faith appeals to you, draws you, helps you to see God more clearly and completely?
And then, think about the ways your life and faith might be an inspiration to someone else. That is not an invitation to being conceited, nor are you or the Church well-served by false humility. We each have our own relationship with Christ, our own experience of God; the light of the Holy Spirit shines through each one of us in a particular way. Most of the time we don’t notice it, but others do – and your particular light, your special way of being a follower of Jesus, your own brand of faithfulness may be just exactly what someone else needs to see and hear in order to draw closer to God, in order to reach for greater faithfulness themselves.
So, we are all one family of saints – the saints, the holy ones, the beloved of God; we need the prayers and example of those who have gone before us in the faith; and we need to stand ready for our lives to give testimony to someone else for the love of Christ, to take our place in God’s family, the whole Communion of Saints.
"O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia! Amen." ~ Hymn 287
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
All Saints’ Sunday
November 2, 2014