A sermon for All Saints Sunday

When I was a kid, I liked to sit very quietly in the shadows when my parents got together with aunts and uncles for the holidays, just listening to their stories, hoping they wouldn’t even notice I was there, so they’d tell the real stories, with all the details.

They talked about relatives I would never know, and others I had met but could barely remember, because they died when I was still very young, and somehow I sensed that all those little bits of information about who they were was also part of who I am.

Lately I’ve been working on my family tree again, trying to flesh out those stories, connecting individuals and tracing those connections back to ancestors I’d never even heard of. In one part of family now I can go back seven or eight generations, to the 1600s.

That’s the line that includes the sixth-great-grandfather who owned a thousand slaves and who also was a pillar of the Anglican Church in colonial Virginia.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand how he was able to reconcile faith on the one hand, and holding and working other human beings against their will on the other hand, but one lesson I take from it is to be aware that there might be values we accept because they seem normal in our culture, when in fact if we really think about it, we realize they actually contradict our faith.

I found out some things I didn’t know about other family members, as well. There’s something fascinating about piecing all of this together.

It’s like being on a treasure hunt where each discovery that you make leads to another if you’re lucky, until finally you’ve woven together this web of ordinary people, living their lives just as best they could, sometimes in the face of great hardship.

I learned for example that my grandfather’s father died several months before my grandfather was born. My grandfather was raised in his grandfather’s home. So I picture his mother, my great-grandmother, who married into this family, raising two children without a partner in a household that included several maiden aunts and her in-laws. And it’s only a few years later that she dies, too, and one of those aunts takes over raising the kids.

And then there’s my great-grandfather on the other side of the family, Patrick Henry Burns, who came from Ireland in 1867, when he was about 17. His had a younger brother named James who came, too, and the census records show that at least for a while, the two of them lived together in a household in Baltimore – the brothers, my great-grandfather Patrick’s wife and three of his children, and his wife’s brother, too.

I brought something of Patrick’s here today–his prayer book. He died in 1918, so he was someone I never met, but he must have been quite a character, because I have a number of stories about him. When we were cleaning out my mother’s house after she died, we found his prayer book. He’s written his name in pencil–P.H. Burns, and his address in Baltimore–inside the front cover.

It tells me some things about this man I never met. For one thing, it tells me that people in those days must have had really good eyesight, because the type is incredibly small.

It tells me more importantly that he was a man of faith–not the same denomination as the Virginia planters on the other side of the family, because it’s not the Book of Common Prayer–but a man for whom faith and prayer were important parts of daily life.

Faith was an important part of the lives of so many of the people going back in my family. One of the men back on my father’s side was said to have been a Presbyterian minister. His father’s sister was the driving force behind the founding of a little Anglican church up in Canada.

There’s a distant cousin who was a Roman Catholic priest. And my godfather, my great-uncle, who worked as a grocer but started every day by going to church.

So many people of faith, and faith has come down through this web of connections to me.

Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. We remember those who have gone before us and serve now as examples for us to follow. We lift up the saints of the church, the famous ones, like Saint Peter or Saint Francis, but most of us can probably also name unsung saints, unknown to the rest of the world, but who were people who inspired us and guided us in our faith.

Ordinary people, mostly, and not one of them perfect. But they are people who heard the Gospel, and give us a glimpse of what it looks like when you bring the Gospel to life.

All through the Gospels, Jesus keeps showing us what things would look like if we did truly live what he was teaching. He calls it the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven–the world as God wants it to be.

Sometimes Jesus describes this world through stories like the one about the Good Samaritan,[1] the despised foreigner who was the only one who stopped to care for the man who was robbed and beaten by thieves, after a series of his own people passed him by. And the Samaritans were so despised by the Jews, that that story would have stirred up a lot of uncomfortable emotion for people who heard it from Jesus.

And sometimes these lessons come in the form of vivid images like those in the Sermon on the Mount:[2] You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

And our Gospel today is the very first words of the Sermon on the Mount, the passage we call the Beatitudes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says. “Blessed are they who mourn.” And so on.

It’s a strange collection–not exactly a list of commands for how would-be saints are supposed live. It’s more like a picture of what the good life might look like in that upside-down and backwards world Jesus calls the kingdom. You could call the Beatitudes a statement or protest against the world as it is, against false values like the ones my slave-holding sixth great-grandfather so vividly embodied.

That word we heard translated as blessed this morning has layers of meaning. It could also be translated as happy, or fortunate, or greatly to be honored. This is not a shallow, ephemeral kind of happiness. It’s the kind of happiness that comes from living your whole life out of a deep and sustaining relationship with God.

It would take some time to unpack the meaning of each beatitude, because they all have meaning that isn’t immediately obvious. To be poor in spirit isn’t about how much money you have or dream of having, for example; it’s about being open to receive the gifts and grace of God.

And being being pure in heart has nothing to do with impure thoughts, as we might suspect, but is more about being whole-heartedly in relationship with the one who made us out of love, for love.

So this morning I wanted to focus on just one of those beatitudes, the fourth in the series: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

This quality of mercy is so desperately needed in our world, and yet of all of these blessed characteristics, it’s one of the hardest for us not just to achieve, but even to to aspire to.

The truth is that we live in an angry world, a world where we hear about shocking acts of violence in the news and witness smaller examples all around us. When I’m driving, for example, I don’t want to ever be perceived as getting in anyone’s way on the highway, for fear of becoming a victim of road rage.

There isn’t much mercy in the way we treat the marginalized in our society, though there are some saints among us who do labor on their behalf.

I hardly have to tell you that the world we live in is not the kingdom of God.

That shooter in Las Vegas showed no mercy. The driver who ran down pedestrians and bicyclists on a New York bike path last week showed no mercy–but also, those voices who were quick to call for his execution showed no mercy, either.

The very idea of showing mercy to a terrorist–that’s hard to wrap your head around, isn’t it?

That kind of mercy is outrageous. It makes people mad. It always has.

Because where is justice if we show mercy to violent criminals? Why should anyone else get what we think of as ours? Why should anyone else get a break when we’ve worked hard to get what we have?

Jesus knew that mercy in those cases would strike us as outrageous. When he told the story about the master who paid the laborers who’d been at work all day in the vineyard the same wage he gave to those who came at the eleventh hour,[3] he knew most of us would sympathize with those workers who started their day early, and who surely did not appreciate the master’s generosity.

The only mercy we really long for in this world is that mercy we would wish to be shown to us, if we’re ever caught in a bind.

Showing mercy doesn’t come easy. It’s not a natural reaction. It’s about as counter-cultural as you can get. But Jesus suggests that we’re supposed to be merciful, to show to others–and yes, we should be clear that it’s all of us he’s talking to.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. They shall receive mercy from each other, because God’s mercy is not contingent. We don’t have to do anything to earn it. We have God’s mercy in the person of Jesus himself. It doesn’t depend on what we do first.

You could say that God can hardly not be merciful. While for us it’s mostly the other way around.

And this famine of mercy in our world threatens to be the end of us, as we must fear when we hear world leaders trade insults back and forth as they threaten annihilation.

When I look back at my family, as far as I can see, I find good people in every generation trying to live the faith that is ours.

And when I look forward, I see my little granddaughter, the growing edge of our family tree, a new branch reaching for the sky.

And I wonder, what will things be like when she grows up?

What kind of world will we leave her if we don’t manage to learn this lesson of mercy?

Who in our generation will those who come after us look back to as examples worthy of being imitated?

Will you be one of those saints? Speaking for myself, I know I’m going to try.


[1] Luke 10:25

[2] Matthew 5:2ff

[3] Matthew 20:1-16