“We have to stop and get Gran some ice cream.”
That was the memory that pressed in most strongly as I looked down at the rough map of my family that I had drawn. It was for a class, this map, and I wasn’t at all happy that I had to do it. We were to draw out the relational and emotional map of our families 3 generations back so that we could examine together the dynamics and the forces that are at play; so we could see what had formed us, and what has power over us.
I looked down at my map, all colored boxes and tiny dates and squiggly lines. “We have to stop and get Gran some Ice cream”, I heard my mom say, and my dad, and my uncle Hugh, my Uncle Ralph, my cousin James, my cousin Helen.
You see, when we gathered at my Gran’s house with family, everyone knew that someone had to stop at the corner shop right below her apartment and grab a little tub of the soft serve ice cream they sold there.
Now all these years later, it is this thing that I remember, so fondly. So much more happened in my family as shown by the rough contours of my map. Rough times, and happier times. People, regular, complex people trying to do the best they could, struggling with hurt passed down over the generations. Family gatherings could get difficult, old patterns kicked in. But she would always look forward to ice cream, and she would laugh when we brought it, and she would sit with her grandkids, while the other adults did their thing, she would sit and share a little ice cream.
I look at this map. And I am blessed to remember her and the way she was, this saint, and I give thanks for the ways she shaped me and called to me to be who I am, but not just her – all of these on this map who have impacted me, in rough times and good, these complex people, these saints, every single one.
All Saints day was first celebrated on November 1st in 865 CE. In the years before this, in the early Christian tradition, saints’ days began as a way to mark the anniversary of a martyr’s death — his or her “birthday” as a saint. By the middle of the church’s first millennium All Saints’ Day was established as an opportunity to honor the saints, all on one day, instead of one by one – there were a lot of them. All Saints Day would honor all the saints, known and unknown, who died defending their faith.
We have been talking about the reformation these past weeks. That period 500 years ago when some traditions of the church were questioned and ultimately rejected by what was to become the reformed church. In the pre-reformation church Saints held a powerful place and people would pray to the saints for God’s intercession. The reformers took issue with the idea that any intermediary was needed, priest or saint, and were suspicious of any behavior that looked like worship for anyone other than the triune God.
So the idea of venerating an individual as worthy of more praise and glory than others was rejected and the notion of saint was been reclaimed for the whole people of God. All of those that Christ has called as his beloved. And so All Saints day has in the modern reformed church become a time to stop and give thanks for the lives of people from the past and from more recent times who are dear to us. It’s a time when we might also be well served to reflect on the notion of sainthood. If the saints are the people of God – just who does that include? And what are the implications for us – the church: those who claim to move in the way of God?
Well the beatitudes can help here. I am compelled by the suggestion that the beatitudes are less a prescription for the behaviors necessary for entry to the Kingdom of God at some later time, and are actually a poem that makes clear who is included now within the context of God’s love and desire, who are claimed and loved by God. These verses are a poem carefully constructed in 2 stanzas maybe seeks to expand our notion of who the saints are, and how those who claim to follow Jesus are to respond.
The first stanza comprises the first 4 sentences. In our translation it reads:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
It is argued that a better way of understanding this first stanza might actually be:
Blessed are the dispossessed, the despondent; blessed are those who are grieving for lost loves; blessed are those who are powerless, humiliated; blessed are those who yearn for justice, who need things to be made right. In God’s economy, God’s reign, those who are lost, scared, torn from what they had, despairing, grieving, without power, looking for justice - these are the people who find what they need, who are made whole, who are claimed and included in God’s kingdom.
The human states described in these stanzas are not to be emulated by those who want to be included in God’s kingdom, but rather this verse is a statement of God’s deep love and claim right here and now for all who are hurting and feeling loss, all who do not have what they need, and who yearn for things to be set right. Even, I would suggest, if in their pain they hurt others – they are still loved, still claimed by God. This doesn’t make the hurt caused go away, or not need to be set right, but they are not cast aside, forgotten, forsaken by God.
And then the second stanza. Well in the second stanza blessed are those who respond to the needs of the first. Blessed are the peacemakers, the merciful, the whole hearted (perhaps another name for the brave) and those who act for justice. These people – those who use what power they have to listen to what is behind the hurt and pain of others and who respond with love and mercy; who work for a peace with justice- they are claimed by God just like the first group.
Now if I am not mistaken I think this poem covers just about everyone. No matter how we carry the attributes described, no matter how we act out, how we display our hurt or sadness, how we process our loss, we fall into one of those two categories – those in deep need and those who try to respond to that need. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that both of these ways of being in the world can and often do exist in all of us much of the time. I know they do in me and I see it in my family. Perhaps you can see it in yours too. I see it in the world around us, people in pain, people trying to work out how to help, people carrying both at the same time. All loved by God, claimed by God. Saints.
So what does this mean for us the church? Well that last sentence is directed at those who would claim to be Jesus disciple. This last sentence is an imperative, a call to us.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” If we, his disciples, remember that we are acting on his account then we will act out of and in response to God’s love and God’s claim for all of these people. And we will act in the way of Jesus, with love and for justice for Jesus sake. Now we will forget whose we are and what this means, I know I forget all the time, and we will act out of our human pain and insecurities and that is OK, we are still claimed. But when we remember, we will choose to love sacrificially, directly, without violence, mercifully, and justly just because we know God’s love for us and for everyone else. And people may not understand, they might think you are strange, dangerous even, when you act in the struggles of today’s world like you believe that all are loved, like you believe a peace with justice is possible, but do it anyway. Do it anyway, and rejoice and be glad – for the kingdom has come near for all the people – for all the saints.
So today we will light a candle for the saints. Those who have gone before. Those who struggled, and those who have shown us most clearly what it looks like to love God’s people. I will light a candle for my Gran – Helen Fisher - and in that also for those she loved: my family. And I’ll pray that I can remember my call to go the way she so often showed me – the way of peace, and courage, and mercy. The way of God. I invite you to take a minute – remember your saints - and come light a candle as a way of honoring them, and perhaps also remembering their call, God’s call, on your life.