All Saints. A Sermon by Nathan Kirkpatrick, Pastor-in-Residence

All Saints’ Sunday |November 2, 2014
Nathan Kirkpatrick, Pastor-In-Residence
One Sunday, soon after I had graduated from seminary,
while I was serving my first churches,
            I included in the sermon
                        quotations from both
the 5th century bishop Augustine
and the 20th century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
At the end of the liturgy that morning,
one woman in the congregation met me at the back door,
            thanked me for the sermon, and then asked,
                        “Augustine, Bonhoeffer … whose kin are they?”
                                    It was her rural North Carolina way of asking
                                                whose family Augustine and Bonhoeffer belonged to.
                                    It was her way to figure out whether they were worth listening to at all.
                                                I think she expected me to say
“Oh you remember lil’ Auggie – he’s a Johnson from over in Boonville” – or
                                                            “Oh, Dietrich – he’s Nellie’s boy.
                                                                        Pure Casstevens.
You know, his sister went to the prom
with your cousin.”
                                                Instead, I told her exactly what I told you –
                                                            Augustine was a fifth century bishop in North Africa,
                                                            And Bonhoeffer was martyred during World War II.
                                                She told me that she didn’t know their people.
“Augustine, Bonhoeffer … whose kin are they?”
Whose family do they belong to?
Today I have a better answer for her.
Poor woman. She had to wait more than a decade
            for me to have a better answer for her
than a fifth century bishop and a twentieth-century German pastor.
But today I have a better answer for her.
Because today answers her question beautifully.
            Whose kin? Whose family?
                        All Saints’ Sunday tells us.
They’re yours, and they’re mine.
                                    They belong to us. And we belong to them.
Together, we a part of a single family —
 a family that spans chronology and geography,
                                                a family made up of Revelation’s
                                                 vision of that great multitude
                                    from every nation, tribe, people and language.
            See, today, on All Saints’ Sunday,
                        we acknowledge that part of what happens in the waters of baptism
is that we are made part of a great extended family.
As St John put it, “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
                        In baptism, we are given our place in a family tree that includes
                                    seekers and servants, poets and prophets,
                                                mystics and medics, lawyers and lovers,
contemplatives and charismatics.
                                    And in the waters of baptism, under the Name of God,
we take our place in that family
                                                that seeks to live in love and to love in peace.
                                    In baptism, we are incorporated into that family that has sought to live
                                                with God’s priorities as its own, with God’s dream as its own,
                                                            that family that depends on grace, relies on mercy,
                                                                        and is guided by the Spirit.
In baptism, we become part of a family
That reaches farther back than human memory,
            Part of a family that embodies a promise
that extends into the future beyond even time itself.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
Augustine, Bonhoeffer.
Whose kin are they? Well, they’re yours, and they’re mine. And we are theirs.
Today, we gather to celebrate the connectedness of our Christian family.
            Today, we come together to remember how we are bound together.
That is foundational to our identity as the Body of Christ,
     to our being the family of God in the world.
Now, like every family,
Ours has known loss and grief.
            We’ve said some goodbyes too early –
                        And we have stood beside gravesides and wondered where the years went.
We’ve loved and lost, not entirely convinced that we believe the poet
that that’s better than never having loved at all.
And so if today is, in part, a day to celebrate the connectedness
of the family born in baptism,
            then it is also a day to remember
                        All those who have taught us and shown us
what it means to belong to this family.
Today, we remember them,
     and remember that the bonds which hold this family together reach beyond the grave.
Some of their pictures decorate this place –
            Each one is a memory. Each one represents a story that is worth telling and worth sharing.
                        Each one is a person we celebrate today.
                                    Each one is of blessed memory.
                                                Each one is a saint of God.
Now, some of you may chafe at my use of the word saint to describe them.
            You may object: “She was just grandma.” “He was just my brother.”
               “She just taught me middle school English.”
So often when we use the word saint
We use it to mean the self-sacrificing or the perfect.
            We use it to refer to those of heroic virtue or astonishing faith.
Why wouldn’t we?
            Most of the time that we see saints in our society
                        They peer out at us from the painter’s canvas
                                    Or the sculptor’s marble.
                         In art, they are their perfect selves.
            And they look as comfortable under their haloes
as I feel in a baseball cap.
So, when we think about grandma or our brother or our child or our teacher or our friend,
            The word saint may sit awkwardly on their lives.
                        We knew them in their complexity, in their humanity.
We knew that her love had rough edges,
that he could be snarky or sarcastic.
Of course, the complexity of their lives helps us to nuance what we mean by saint.
We do not mean the perfect.
            We do not mean only the heroic.
                        We do not mean just the self-sacrificing or the extraordinary.
When we speak of the saints we mean the people who
who have taught us something of the way of Jesus,
who have shown us in their lives what justice and joy;
what redemption and reconciliation look like.
We mean all those people who have reminded us
            at our best and at our worst –
                        “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
They are a complicated, human lot.
            Remember the story of Teresa of Avila?
                        One day as she was riding along, her horse threw her to the ground.
                                    There, as she looked up, she saw Jesus.
                                                And he said to her, “This is how I treat my friends.”
                                                She retorted, “Lord, perhaps this is why you have so few.”
All but the most talented of artists flatten her into a pious postcard,
when in truth, she’s a feisty saint who said that, if God picks on you, you pick back.
That’s the image I want of a saint –
Something human, something honest.
The saints of this place decorate these walls …
            And they are human and honest and playful and wondrous.
                        They taught us something of the way of Jesus.
                                    They reminded us that “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that she understand her vocation as a priest
To be one of “recognizing the holiness of things and holding them up to God.”
It’s a nice definition for a priest, but it’s a better definition of a saint.
A saint is a person who recognizes “beloved, we are God’s children now”
and holds us up to God as part of the family.
Now, there is a caveat in all of this, a word of caution –
And some of you will quarrel with me at this point, and I welcome that conversation.
There are some whom we have lost
that we might be tempted canonize – that we might be tempted to paint into saints –
            not because of who they were but because of our guilt or fear or shame.
I will never forget the courage of a woman in my first parish
Who came up to me after my first funeral there and said,
            “Nathan, do you have to say the nice things?”
                        “What do you mean,” I asked.
“I go to these funerals,” she said, “and everything is always about how wonderful the dead person was. So what I’m wondering is, if my dad dies while you’re my pastor, do you have to say nice things about him because none of them would be true?”
On All Saints’ Sunday,
In the midst of our celebration of all of those members of the family
who have taught us the way of Jesus,
            It is perfectly legitimate to remember
a few whose memories we should let go of –
            the ones whom we have lost
who didn’t teach us about grace or love or peace
who didn’t show us the shape of mercy or forgiveness or gentleness.
                        There are a few whose voices we should no longer heed,
                        Whose example we should not seek to follow,
                                    Whose witness in our life is counterproductive to our own growth and healing.
Like every family,
there are those in this one whose memory is a source of pain not peace.
     It is okay today to trust them to God and to let them go.
“Augustine, Bonhoeffer … whose kin are they?”
            They’re yours, and they’re mine.
               And I am grateful that we are family together.