Sunday, November 5, 2017
The last time my in-laws were in town, Pastor Rich and I used the free two-week subscription to Ancestry.com to ask his parents lots of questions about his side of the family. We felt it was particularly important to do this as his dad is almost 87 years old, and we don’t know much about the Sheridan side of the family. We made some interesting discoveries including finding a Dutch line of the family that goes back to ancestors who settled in New Jersey in the 1600s – when Pastor Rich says he’s from New Jersey, he’s REALLY from New Jersey. Probably the most valuable piece, though, of our time spent researching and talking about Rich’s family, were the stories his dad and mom shared with us about what they remembered and knew from their childhood about their family. For me, it is quite exotic to imagine what it must’ve been like for my father-in-law to have grown up in Newark during the Depression with ghettoized neighborhoods of Italian, Irish, Jewish and Puerto Rican immigrants. It was a time when kids played marbles in the streets, took the bus or walked pretty much everywhere, used a party-line phone, a time where milk and ice were delivered to your front door and vendors sold produce in carts outside shouting “Sweet-tay, sweet-tay!” It was a very different time, and yet many of the struggles Rich’s family dealt with remain struggles of many families today.
What we talked about were not just the good memories, but also the bad – the not-so-secret and sometimes covered-up stories that ALL families have, including my own as well. So in my family of origin and the one I married into, I know who were the black sheep of the family, the ones who were alcoholics and abusive, the ones who were estranged from the family because they were born out of wedlock or had a child out of wedlock, the ones who were forgotten because they had some kind of disability or mental illness and were institutionalized. I’m pretty sure you all know what I’m talking about – most families have these stories, whether they’re talked about openly or not. We live in a broken, sinful world where no one is perfect. Our families are not perfect. As much as we are taught to speak well of the dead, there are things we can learn from our imperfect family histories that help us understand better who we are and where we’ve come from. Church families, too, are no different. When we get together for a funeral or memorial service we strive to point out someone’s best qualities and lift up who they were in a positive way, but we also acknowledge that those who have died are sinners in need of a savior. We strive to remember the whole person.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday. And when we talk about saints, as Lutherans, THESE are the people we’re talking about—not just the really good and holy people of the Bible or of the church, but people in our own family – the alcoholics, the abusers and the abused, the matriarchs and patriarchs, the black sheep and everyone in between. Today we hear an incredible reminder from God in the Beatitudes this morning of what it really means to be a part of God’s family, to be a “saint,” in God’s eyes. Notice that Jesus does not say, “Blessed are you who have lived long and well. Blessed are you who are rich in spirit or in material wealth. Blessed are you when all speak well of you. Blessed are you when you are popular and have many friends.” Jesus’ blessings to us ignore or even contradict many of our cultural assumptions of who is blessed, who is deserving of praise in our historical memory and family life. Instead, Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who are persecuted. Blessed are you when people revile you.” God in Jesus Christ did not come into the world to reward people who are already saints because of their goodness. God in Jesus Christ died for us sinners to make us saints. After all, Jesus’ own family history includes King David’s son born out of an adulterous relationship with an already married woman, Bathsheba, descendants of a “mixed marriage” between the Moabite Ruth and Boaz, the prostitute Rahab, and of course Jesus’ own birth to an unmarried teenager named Mary. If God can work in mysterious and counter-cultural ways like this to redeem the world, then certainly God can work through us and see us as children of God worth redeeming, too, warts, family-secrets, personality flaws, and all.
As we commemorated the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this past week, we remembered Martin Luther, a person who was phenomenal in many ways in successfully moving the church into a new era of mission and ministry with Jesus at the center. Luther, like any other human being, also was a flawed and complicated character. Most notably, of course, are Luther’s anti-Semitic writings which we as Lutherans have condemned. Deeply flawed as he was, Luther gave us this radical notion that ordinary people are saints as well as sinners. You don’t have to be some kind of special holy person to be welcomed into God’s kingdom and serve God here on earth. God works wonders through ordinary, complex and sinful people. God loves and redeems ordinary sinful people, not just the best of us, but the worst of us. Martin Luther encouraged us to be honest with ourselves and with each other that we are sinners in need of a savior. We are not holier-than-thou saints who have this Christian thing all figured out. We have been called by God to live out kingdom values as sinner-saints.
I would like to challenge us when we remember all the saints who have gone before us to think not only of the beloved grandparents, siblings, friends, and church members who come first to mind but also of those easily forgotten, ignored, or even reviled in our memories. These are ones for whom Christ also died. These are also blessed. I think it is fair to admit or confess to God where you’re at with some people in your family, living or dead, that you’re not able to see as both sinner AND saint, that you’re not able to forgive or speak well of. Can we take assurance in the promise that God’s imagination of the kingdom of heaven, of redemption and forgiveness, of saints gathered around the throne worshipping the lamb, is bigger than ours? I think it is a bigger testament to the awesome power and grace of God to say that we have a God who is able not only to save good people but to save ones whom everyone else would condemn. Rejoice and be glad, sinner-saints of God, because God in Jesus meets us in the midst of the mess of dysfunctional families and churches and works with and through imperfect people like us. God doesn’t wait for us to work out our own salvation or earn our own beatification, God meets us here and now, gathers us around the Lord’s table to tell us once again, Blessed are you. Amen.