While I was on internship a few years ago, I was called on to assist with or to conduct a number of funerals in the congregation I served and in the community. I learned then how important it was to pay close attention to all the stories that were told about the deceased – in order that I might allow the scriptures to reflect on the true nature of the person who had died when it came time for me to speak and to proclaim the good news of God’s grace.
Then last month, I was called to conduct a funeral for someone I didn’t know when a pastor-friend of mine in Wilmington was out of town and Cecilia, the sister of a member of his parish, passed away. The death was unexpected. Shock and grief were profound. And I found myself needing to prepare, from afar, listening to stories and planning this funeral over the phone. Finally the day of the funeral came, and several members of the family spoke their remembrances of Cecilia. She had lived a difficult life, shared selflessly with others, sacrificed greatly for her extended family, and as the family put it, “never said “no” to anyone who was in need.”
While listening to these family members speak, I was reminded of why it was so important to have those earnest conversations during the planning. I remembered why it was important to collect as many stories of the person who had died as possible. As often happens, the family shared all of Cecilia’s wonderful attributes and heroic actions as they told the assembly what it was about Cecilia that made her so special to them. Hearing their tributes, it was clear that she was truly a wonderful, loving woman. Hearing their remembrances, one could easily say that Cecilia was a saint. And you know what? She truly was. But not for the reasons we might think.
Because the rest of the story, was what we all needed to be reminded of. So, while her loved ones were able to speak about the goodness of this woman and what she meant to them, I was able to share with them what was real about Cecilia. Not that the other part was false, but it wasn’t complete. On her own, this woman was not perfect, she had flaws, foibles, eccentricities and blemishes, but on that day, it did not matter. The blemishes in her story revealed a fully fleshed-out, fully human being, complex, broken, and as we phrase it in the Lutheran church, simultaneously saint and sinner, and in God’s eyes, she was beautiful all the same.
Cecilia’s saintedness came not from the generosity, love, and compassion she might have shared with others, which she did, but because God had claimed her and at the moment of her baptism had promised that while she would be a work in progress for her entire life, she would be perfected only on that day when God would welcome her into the eternal community of saints in the light; and on that day last month, when we gathered together to celebrate God’s love for Cecilia, the promise had been fulfilled.
On that day, when we stood together and remembered Cecilia and commended her into God’s care, she already rested at the bosom of Jesus not because of anything that she had done, but because of everything God had done for her in the person of Jesus Christ, in whom she had believed. And it was that light which had shone through Cecilia’s loving countenance. That is the way of saints. And what we needed to hear on that day, was that it was okay to acknowledge the imperfections and even embrace them, because they, too, were evidence of a life well-lived.
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, a day in the church when we remember all the saints who have gone before us. At the beginning of the service we named just a few of those, the ones known to us and remembered by us, who have recently died. We do not remember them or name them for their individual accomplishments, rather we remember how in the fullness of their lives and now in death God has revealed God’s own glory; we acknowledge that though the names of all the saints and their individual stories might be unknown to us, together they form the great cloud of witnesses, telling God’s story, through whom God has shown light into the world for the sake of God’s son, Jesus the Christ. And God’s story is our story.
What makes Cecilia, or Martha, or Bud, or Naomi, Sarah or Natalie, or any of those others whose names we lifted up today blessed, is that God makes it so. They all had their flaws, their foibles, their eccentricities, and blemishes. So, while remembering the ways in which they reflected God’s own light in their lives, it is important to remember those other parts of them, too, the parts that reflected the same sinfulness that is within each of us. It is only when we see the whole story that we can truly appreciate the work that God is doing in each of us, all the time, making us saints despite our frailties, despite our weaknesses, inconsistencies, and failures.
We don’t attain sainthood because of our good works, wonderful personalities and the shining examples of faithfulness we are. We are granted sainthood by God’s grace because God alone is faithful, God alone is good, and God alone shines forth in the darkness of our sin and suffering by sending Jesus, the incarnated one, who teaches us, heals us, models for us what blessed living truly looks like, and then forgives us for the times we fail in blessed living, through his own death and resurrection.
In our gospel text for this All Saints Sunday, Jesus the Messiah announces the law he will fulfill, and of course, as we have come to expect, this law flies in the face of the prevailing law of the culture and the world around him and disciples and apostles. Jesus promises that those whose lives are ruled by God and not by the people around them, not by the dominant culture surrounding them, not by wealth or power or satisfaction with life, will live by a different standard.
For Jesus, blessedness is not “just reward” for the righteous, for those who have fulfilled all manner of law; Jesus is turning those previously held expectations upside down. Blessedness is a way of living. Being blessed means acknowledging that your whole life depends on God, and is ruled by God, and that even your flaws, foibles, eccentricities, and blemishes are embraced by God. Being blessed means that even your failures, your brokenness and your sin are claimed by God for use in your story.
The kingdom of God is populated by the destitute, the famished, and the weeping, wailing ones, the forgotten ones, the ones who follow Christ’s preference for peace sometimes at great personal cost, who model their lives after the one who brings light and life into the world through his incarnation. This kingdom of God that Jesus speaks about is ruled by God, who calls all those under his rule to be witnesses and recipients of God’s great, unbounded, immeasurable love and mercy and grace.
We participate in the kingdom ruled by God by loving what God loves, caring for those God cares for, and in so doing, being transformed into this community of saints in life, in death and in life beyond death.
While the culture around us may tell us that we are “blessed” when our bank accounts are large, our clothing stylish, our children successful and perfect, Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Jesus tells those that are following him that despite their poverty, they are blessed, that theirs is the kingdom of God. For the disciples to whom Jesus is speaking, their poverty comes from having given away everything they had, and having left their homes, their jobs and their families in order to follow Jesus, trusting that God in God’s providence would care for them. And these are hard words for us to hear today because we can’t do that.
But the good news of the gospel for us this day, is that we have to do that. However, when God rules over our lives, it is no longer our bank accounts that we rely on, it is no longer the dominant culture that we follow, it is no longer our property or our jobs or our families that determine our worth, it is no longer external forces that control our actions or decisions; rather, it is the heart beating within our breast, transformed by the love, mercy and grace of God that urges us with each step we take to create a story that reflects the Word of God.
Of course, there is some not-so-good news that we acknowledge as well, also highlighted by this text. Because living as God’s disciples, following God’s rule and reflecting Christ’s light with our lives means that we will live in ways that contradict the dominant culture around us.
Observance of this day as All Saints Sunday invites us to identify our common bond with the saints of God of every time and every place who are ruled in this kingdom by God. We join with all those, living and dead, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor, young and old, people of all ethnicities and races, from all walks of life, and all the corners of the earth who together form one united Body solely because of who Christ is and what he has done.
As we reflect on the saints today, as well as on our own stories, we are reminded of our baptisms and the promise that we received then, that God would write God’s own story on our hearts, and that God would then accompany us, work on us, and bless us through God’s grace and mercy throughout our lives. You’ve noticed I’m sure, that the baptismal font has been moved to the front this morning. In a little while, we will gather around this table where we will share in this meal that is a foretaste of the feast to come, when all of God’s sainted children will be reunited at the eternal banquet of joy and delight, swapping their stories in the presence of the Most High God. As you come forward to the table I invite you to dip your hand into the bowl; then, making the sign of the cross, be reminded of those promises made to you, saints of God. Then, fed at the altar of Jesus Christ, may your stories be blessed and strengthened in God’s love. Thanks be to God!