Like most of us, I have a lot of old photographs at home. Few of mine are particularly organized. Most of them are in boxes, not albums, and there are altogether too many of them: We’ve been a camera-crazy family for a long, long time.
This situation has been amplified in the last couple of years, as I inherited boxes of photos from both my father’s and mother’s families. Clearly, my duty is to sort through them, get the more significant or appealing ones scanned and digitized, share them with my brother and our children, and then get some of those boxes out of my basement.
So I’ve been spending a lot of time recently with the images of my relatives and their friends, their cats and dogs and horses, dating back to the late 19th century. Some of them are of people I know and remember: the elderly great-aunts of my childhood revealed as adorable children, the grandfather I recall as portly and bald shown as a slender, dapper youth with a full head of hair in his days as a medical student at St. Louis University. There are photos of my parents as young marrieds, and photos of my brother and me as we grew from infancy to adulthood.
Some of the photographs are of people who died long before I was born. Some of them are of relatives by marriage, or of close friends. Some of them were saintly; a few of them were scoundrels. (Those would all be relatives by marriage, of course.) All of them claim a place in the family archives and in the family memory.
The author of the Letter to the Ephesians writes of another kind of family, the family of God. We are all children in that family, chosen, adopted through faith and marked through baptism. Like any family, we’re prone to squabbles, but we usually at least acknowledge one another as relatives.
Different denominations define sainthood differently in terms of official recognition. Most agree that everyone in heaven qualifies as a saint, a vast “cloud of witnesses” that C.S. Lewis compared to an army, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity.” The saints are those who died for the faith or who worked conscientiously for God’s kingdom, the great teachers and the great examples, the leaders and the faithful followers.
The New Testament uses the word “saints” to include all baptized Christians. That would make just about everybody in this room a saint, by the standards of the early Church.
But are we saints by our faith and actions, as well as by baptism? We are God’s own children by adoption, but are we bringing credit to the family name?
Jesus makes pretty clear what’s expected of us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
This is a difficult task. When someone has injured us, it’s a lot easier to seek revenge, in ways overt or subtle, than to do them kindnesses. When someone curses us, our immediate impulse is usually to curse them back (rude hand gesture optional). If we pray for someone who has abused us, it’s too often phrased in terms of making them see and correct the error of their ways. And it’s too easy to translate the Golden Rule into a mandate to do what would suit us personally, rather than actually looking at things from the point of view of someone else.
Jesus was known for giving tough assignments – “If your right eye offends you, pluck it out” – but I suspect that he grades on a curve. If everyone were held to the standard that he sets forth in the gospels, Heaven would be full of wide open spaces, with very few occupants.
Fortunately, we know that even the greatest saints had great faults. Start with the apostles: Peter was forever shooting off his mouth and saying the wrong thing, and he denied Christ at the most crucial moment possible. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, angled for position, wanting to sit next to Jesus in his kingdom, trying to beat out their colleagues for the best spots at the table. Matthew worked as a tax collector, which was like being a bandit with a desk job, especially in that time and place. All of the disciples questioned and doubted Jesus, even though they’d witnessed his miracles; none of them stuck around when he was arrested.
Yet those flaws did not prevent them from spending the rest of their lives in witnessing to the fact of Jesus as Savior, from spreading the good news of the Resurrection, or from dying as martyrs for Christ’s faith. No one would ever question their right to be numbered in the company of the saints. That should give us hope.
Today’s bulletin contains a list of our family and friends who have gone on before us, our personal saints. Some of them were really saintly; a few of them were probably scoundrels.
But God is like a parent who loves us and forgives us in spite of our shortcomings and our failures, who assures of us of forgiveness and acceptance when we follow in faith. We are all children of God by adoption, secure in the knowledge that we have a place at the table, and a page in the family album.
O God, we thank you for the saints who went before us and those who surround us now, all those who faithfully strive, however imperfectly, to live your word. Grant us grace to continue in your truth, and bring us to your heavenly kingdom. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
– Sarah Bryan Miller