Family Photos

All Saints Sunday A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Today, we see family photos, keepsakes, and candles arrayed before us. Each one is a reminder of someone we have known and loved who has died. Perhaps they inspired us or encouraged us or nurtured us in faith. These ancestors gave shape to our values and to our bodies. We carry forward a connection to them with our talents and interests, in our passions and in our DNA.

I chose a photo of my dad and me riding a horse together. I must have been about three years old. It’s curious, some people look and comment how much I remind them of my dad. Others notice how much I looked like my son, Sam, when he was little. Others assume it’s a photo of Sam and me. Three generations, the living and the not yet born, are linked together in a snapshot taken in 1965. Old photos tell the story of family traits, passed from generation to generation –family traits by which we recognize relatives –and by which others recognize us. Today we honor those that have loved us, taught, bathed, and toiled for us who are now together with all the saints in light.

The Sermon on the Mount stands out as among the very first written records of Jesus’ preaching and teaching. It predates the gospels and even the letters of St. Paul. It is, therefore, among the most direct, life-like samples of what it was like to sit and listen to Jesus. The beatitudes offer a glimpse of the family traits we share with each other and with people of faith of every time and place. Prayer and contemplation centered on the beatitudes lead toward a disarmed heart, nonviolence, and love. The Sermon is a kind of portrait drawn to reveal the family traits of those who dwell the upside-down world that is in, with, and under the world which Jesus called the kingdom of God.

The first four beatitudes point to those whom God’s heart goes out to. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.’ (Matthew 5: 3-6). Jesus directs our attention to the dispossessed and abandoned people of the world. These four blessings are a song of lament. These are not qualities and conditions for living that God desires for us. Rather, these are undesirable conditions that characterize no one when God’s will is finally done. God suffers with the poor and so do we when, by God’s grace, we begin to take on the family traits that are our birthright as children of God.

The second stanza of blessings in Jesus’ Sermon (Matthew 5:7-10) point us toward those champions of God’s love who usher in God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The people whom Jesus declares blessed in the end of his Sermon (Matthew 5:7-10) are those who help to make real the blessings promised to others mentioned at the beginning of his Sermon (Matthew 5:3-6). (Mark Allan Powell, God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew’s Gospel, Fortress, 1995, p. 130)

The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted and reviled for striving to do God’s work, these are God’s champions. Ironically, those who seek to bring fairness and hope to those without it can find themselves in the position of lacking it. Jesus’ own life is a good example: he proclaimed justice to those deprived of justice, and he became one who was unjustly executed. Yet, by his example, Jesus also showed us where such sacrifice in pursuit of the greater good leads. It leads into glory and eternal life.

The final blessing of Jesus’s Sermon suddenly shifts to the first-person pronoun, ‘you.’ “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (5:11). Up to now Jesus has not directly addressed us. Jesus has pointed toward the poor. He has pointed at the virtuous souls working for a better life for all. He has pronounced blessings upon them both. Now suddenly, Jesus points at each of us. He directly involves his listeners. Jesus calls us to embrace our legacy and take our place in the family business that is our birthright as children of God.

People searching for Jesus came from everywhere. On an arid dusty mountain in the rolling hills of northern Israel, somewhere near the Sea of Galilee, Jesus sat down among a great crowd. Some came because they were curious. Others came because they were desperate. They came on behalf of friends or family. They came daring to hope Jesus could be the beginning of the good news, the end of capricious power, the repairer of the breach, the restorer of cities and streets to live in (Isaiah 58:12). Some had left everything behind to follow him.

They were a great crowd, trudging, clanging, and banging their way through the wilderness, lugging bags, supplies, and the infirm up a mountain behind Jesus. They came hoping for hope. They gathered amidst the dust hanging in the air, covering their bodies, catching in their eyes, choking their throats and Jesus taught them to see themselves. He taught them to reclaim the dignity endowed to each of them as children of the living God.

He taught them as the prophet Jeremiah of old had proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord: I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24). He taught them as St. Paul would later write, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will or God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2). See, even now, all creation groans as if in labor pains towards a new creation in Christ.

We can see this new birth of freedom in each other. We recognize each another among those struggling for God’s shalom to be born again in us, in our families, and in our world. Our ancestors in faith passed these precious traits down to us from generation to generation. They left their mark on us in the shape of the cross we bear on our foreheads. Theirs is a legacy of love and caring, both for themselves and for us. These are the family traits we share with all the people of God. This is the life’s work to which we are called. This is how we honor our beloved dead until that day when there breaks a yet more glorious day, when we with the saints triumphant rise in bright array singing Alleluia! Alleluia! Thanks be to God.