One Sunday, soon after I had graduated from seminary, while I was serving my first churches, I included quotations from both the 5th century bishop Augustine and the 20th century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the sermon. At the end of the service 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 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? Well 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.
I have a better answer for her, because All Saints Sunday 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're 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. 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, in the Name of God, 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. That family that lives with the Beatitudes as its values and its priorities.
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 even beyond time itself. St. John says it this way, "Beloved, we are all God's children now."
Augustine, Bonhoeffer. Whose kin are they? Well, they're yours, and they're mine. And we are theirs. On All Saints Sunday, we gather to celebrate the connectedness of our Christian family. Together, 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 much too early, we have stood beside gravesides and wondered where years went. We have 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 that is born through baptism, then it is also a day to remember all those who have taught us and shown us what it means to belong to that family.
Today, we remember them and remember that the bonds which hold this family together reach beyond the grave. We carry their names in our hearts, don't we? Each one is a story that is worth telling and worth sharing. Each one is a blessed memory. Each one is a saint of God.
Now, some people may chafe at my use of the word saint to describe them. They may say: "Well, she was just grandma;" or "He was just my brother." "She just taught me middle school English;" or "They were my Sunday School teacher." 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. They look as comfortable under their haloes as I feel in a baseball cap.
So, when we think about grandmother or 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, that they could be irreverent and impatient.
Of course, the complexity of their lives helps us to nuance what we mean by saint. We don't mean the perfect. We don't only mean the heroic. We don't only mean the self-sacrificing or the extraordinary. When we speak of the saints, we mean the people who have taught us something of what it means to follow Jesus, who have shown us in their lives what justice and joy, what redemption and reconciliation look like. We mean all those people, that great cloud of witnesses, who have reminded us that, at our best and at our worst, we are all 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." You know, all but the most talented of artists have flatten her into a pious postcard, when in truth, she is a feisty saint who said that, if God picks on you, you can pick back.
That's the image I want of a saint - something human, something honest. The saints of the church and the saints in our lives are human and honest and playful and wondrous. They taught us what it means to follow Jesus. They reminded us that we are all God's children now.
Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that she understands 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 looks at us and says, "we are all God's children" 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 may quarrel with me at this point, and that's alright. But, there are some people whom we have lost that we might be tempted to canonize, that we might be tempted to paint into saints - not because of who they were but because of our own sense of 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 offer forgiveness or practice gentleness. There are a few whose voices we should heed no longer, whose example we should not seek to follow, whose witness in our life is counterproductive or, at the very least, complicated to our growth and healing, to our own discipleship.
Like every family, there are those in this one whose memory is a source of pain and not peace. It's okay today to trust them to God and to let them go. They are part of who we have been, but perhaps God doesn't want them to shape who we are becoming. Hopefully, the number of those people in your life is few. But, today, I invite you to let them go so that you might hold on to all the others.
Augustine, Bonhoeffer ... whose kin are they? Well, with your grandmother, your high school English teacher, my Sunday School teacher, these folks belong to our family, they're your kin and mine. And I am grateful that we are family together. Amen.