On All Saints’ Sunday, I can’t help but think about all the blessed saints who gather around me in my memories. And believe me, there were plenty of characters in my family and in my life. Looking back, I see they were saints indeed. Not officially entered into sainthood, but saints nonetheless—people who were set apart by God to make a difference in the world, as they did in my life.
I grew up in West Virginia as a PK—a preacher’s kid and grandkid. Sunday dinner was always a big affair for my family, and more often than not Grandmother and Granddaddy Yoak would join us for pot roast as my parents, two brothers and sister and I gathered around the big dining room table. My Granddaddy, Dr. J.B.F. Yoak, Jr., was a beloved Methodist minister, as was my dad; in fact Granddaddy is the one who encouraged my father to pursue ordained ministry—as well as to pursue his daughter, my mother!
Granddaddy would tell knee-slapping stories about his experiences growing up, or as a young, horseback circuit-riding preacher in the hills and valleys of West Virginia—stories he collected later in a book I treasure. And of course my folks and my grandparents would have to catch up on the Methodist conference gossip. Granddaddy would often bring the latest issue of The West Virginia Hillbilly weekly newspaper—I was enamored of that eccentric, fascinating, unique tabloid—so much so that after I graduated from college I was thrilled to go work there—but that’s a whole other story.
Also visiting us occasionally was Aunt Grace, Granddaddy’s sister, a very opinionated widow who rarely smiled, as I recall—though when she did you felt it; her deep, commanding voice often kept me behaving myself.
And Aunt Maude, who I have to say was my favorite great aunt, a sweet spinster, retired teacher, she loved to read stories to my sister and me. I prize a copy of A. A. Milne’s book, When We Were Six, which she gave me when I was, yep, six years old.
When I preached on Day1 in July, I talked about my family’s Sunken Meadow beach vacations—and every summer we would see Dad’s side of the family nearby in Hopewell, Virginia. I never knew my dad’s father, who had passed away. Dad’s mother, my other grandmother, we called Nana.
We kids were fascinated by Nana’s oddly crossed toes and her lush, haunted back yard with an algae-tinged goldfish pond and heavy vines of fragrant muscadine grapes. Like many Virginians of the time, Nana smoked—and consequently had a gruff voice. She was a wonderful Southern cook, and she would not let you leave the table in any way hungry. “Have some more,” she would urge gruffly, and if you hesitated, “What’s the matter, don’t you like it?” Only because she loved us.
Then there was Aunt Ida, who had worked in a chemical plant whose odors Hopewell was well known for; Ida was somewhat mystical, loved cooking, reading mysteries, and telling ghost stories in her syrupy Tidewater accent.
And Aunt Martha—she too was a widow who had worked in the plant. My sister and I would usually stay a night or two with her and cousin Billy; we’d watch old horror movies, go to the store to get comic books and candy. She spoiled us lovingly.
Many other beloved family members come to my mind, but another saint in my life was Mrs. Robinette, a dear soul who was a member of the church I grew up in, where my dad was pastor. When I was in elementary school she taught Vacation Bible School. She seemed ancient to me then, but was sweet and full of life. And she had a big impact on my life.
One of the VBS projects she had us do was to create a newspaper as though it were published during the time of the Apostle Paul. I relished that assignment—creating news stories about Paul’s latest ruckus, ads for chariot dealers, even a comic strip. I count that experience as planting the seeds that set me on the path to study journalism in college, to fall in love with writing, and to discover a calling to communicating the faith.
All these saints, and so many more, come to my mind. I share them with you to prod your own memory of the dear saints who have blessed your life. Maybe there are some you’ve forgotten, or realize you need to be in touch with to tell them you love them.
Of course, I look back and acknowledge these saints’ flaws, peccadillos, and occasional mistakes, and I realize they were just ordinary human people like you and me. But there was something more about them. When I was a kid, they were giants to me. They truly believed and loved God, and tried to live as followers of Jesus. Salt of the earth. When I look back, I see them as saints. Saints of God.
So, who are your saints? Who comes to your heart and mind on All Saints Sunday?
All Saints Sunday gives us a very personal way to talk about the present and future by talking about the past. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Those saints from our past give us a way to talk about where we are and where we are headed.
One huge thing I miss in our pandemic worship is coming to the communion table with the family of faith and together eating the bread and drinking the wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. When I go to the altar rail—and we will again someday—I always sense that the saints are with me, singing and praying, praising God; these compassionate souls who nurtured me in the faith and set me on the path of the way of love. Think about the dear saints in your life—your family members, Sunday school teachers, mentors, those you honor today in your heart.
Keep in mind that those we remember as saints were not perfect, and often far from it—but we can relate to them because we, like they, are flawed human beings. For instance….
Mother Teresa was known for her kindness, her generosity, her monumental work on behalf of the poor, but she was also known for her sharp temper, and her personal journals reveal a woman tortured by decades of inner spiritual conflict and doubt.
The desert fathers and mothers, revered for their spiritual depth, in many cases fled to the wilderness not because they were saints but because they were so plagued by gremlins of temptation that they had to go be by themselves, and even then, alone in the wild, they still wrestled with gremlins of anger, pride, dejection, and depression. Even so, they were saints. Full of life and love, full of God.
Vietnamese monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh explains that, in Buddhism, the energy that helps us “touch life deeply” is known as smrti, it’s the energy of mindfulness. Jesus is full of smrti. Because Jesus knows himself. Jesus is mindful of his feelings and expresses them clearly and directly. He allows his emotions to empower his life positively. And, he invites us to join him in this authentic way of living.
Jesus began his teaching ministry, as we see in our gospel reading today, on a hill surrounded by hungry, wounded people who yearned for meaning and fullness in their impoverished lives. They may not have even had a glimmer of understanding why he came and what he was about to do. Yet, they were drawn to him, and he connected directly and intimately with them as he shared the blessings of God.
In contrast to Moses, who brought the law down the mountain from on high to the people, here is Jesus, beginning his teaching ministry by bringing blessings up the mountain, to the people, where he sits down with his disciples and teaches.
“Blessed are you,” he says to the poor in spirit, to those who were mourning, to the meek who would inherit the earth, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for the merciful, peacemakers, and others. They were all saints! Blessed saints.
These blessings, the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, focus on our emotional life—our mourning, our passion, our fear, our suffering. All the grief and fear and pain and anger we are feeling even now in our country and in our world. In the midst of all that, we hear Jesus speak to us: “Blessed are you.”
Roman Catholic priest and author Richard Rohr writes, “Suffering is the necessary deep feeling of the human situation. If we don’t feel pain, suffering, human failure, and weakness, we stand antiseptically apart from it, and remain numb and small.”
Sometimes it seems the most saintly among us are those who have suffered the most—right?
Jesus, however, refuses to numb himself from human emotions. And so should we.
As Rohr goes on: “The irony is not that God should feel so fiercely; it’s that his creatures feel so feebly. If there is nothing in your life to cry about, if there is nothing in your life to yell about, you must be out of touch. We must all feel and know the immense pain of this global humanity. Then we are no longer isolated, but a true member of the universal Body of Christ. Then we know God not only from the outside but from the inside.”
So, those we remember lovingly as the saints in our lives? I think they got this. They lived their lives knowing they were beloved children of God, called to love and serve God, no matter how they struggled, no matter what pains they strove to overcome. And as a result, they made their mark on our lives and no doubt on many others.
And while you’re at it, consider others in our society and history who have also made an impact on your life. For instance, the great Civil Rights icon and United States Congressman, John Lewis, passed away this summer at age 80. He served the district I live in, and where we at Day1 work. He continues to beckon us to get into “good trouble,” as he would put it, and that’s my goal. He was a hero to me and to so many others for all his good work and strong faith.
Blessed are these saints in our lives. Blessed are you. Blessed am I. Jesus himself gave these Beatitude blessings abundantly to anyone who would receive them, anyone who would open themselves up to risk experiencing them.
But, once those blessings are received, they are ours to do something with—we are blessed to be a blessing in this hurting, divided, terrifying world. One day—who knows—maybe we will be the saints remembered and honored by others, because we took the blessings we received and gave them away just as extravagantly as did Jesus, and as did all the saints who followed him.
So dear friends, I invite you to live today unafraid to honor those dear souls who helped make you who you are. Remember those who have come before us as a way of considering prayerfully who we are, and who we want to be.
And one day, may we be remembered for the positive influence we left in others’ lives. As impossible as it may seem to us now, may we ourselves be remembered as unlikely saints. Let’s live every day in a way that will make it so, in the power of our loving Lord.
Paul Tellstrom, “Bring Her, Bring Him,” Day1 radio program, November 5, 2017
Peter Wallace, The Passionate Jesus (Conclusion)
Lisa Cressman, Backstory Preaching, “What Not to Preach on All Saints’ Day,” October 23, 2017
See also Peter Wallace, Comstock & Me: My Brief But Unforgettable Career with The West Virginia Hillbilly, 2020 (Amazon.com)
Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, "Suffering," March 27, 2012, adapted from Rohr, Radical Grace, 209.