My first position as a priest was serving four small congregations on the Rosebud Reservation in Southwestern South Dakota. It was a remarkable experience, and enriched my own life and faith in immeasurable ways. One of the most important things about Lakota culture is their understanding of family. In the first place, family is given the highest possible importance. While a lot of people in the wider American culture like to say family is their top priority, I’ve never known anyone who actually walks that talk more than the Lakota. Family activities, obligations, and needs take absolute precedence over anything else.
Family is also understood much more broadly than most of us are used to. So for example, your third cousin, twice removed by marriage, is simply your cousin. And a child’s grandparents aren’t just her parents’ parents, but all of their siblings and cousins as well. They’re all just known as “grandma” or “grandpa.” Family is critically important, and who counts as family is almost without limit.
During the summer months, a powwow is held somewhere almost every weekend. If you’ve never been to one, a powwow is essentially a family picnic with five hundred people, where there is singing, dancing, eating, honoring community leaders, celebrating accomplishments, mourning losses, and all kinds of similar activities. At one powwow, I was talking to an older woman who was sitting off by herself, and she told me that what she loved most about powwows was just sitting there, imagining all of her departed relatives that she was just certain were there celebrating with all the living ones.
Experiencing the Lakota understanding of family really shaped how I think about what Christians call the communion of saints. The communion of saints is our belief that, through baptism, we are brought into this huge family, which consists of our local congregation, but also all the other Christians in the world, and all the other Christians throughout history. The communion of saints reminds us that the bonds of this family transcend the boundaries of life and death, so that we continue to be in real relationship with all those who have gone before us, those we have known and those we have not know.
Today is the feast of All Saints, which is the day we’re invited to remember all of this, to remember that we belong to this vast family that spans time and geography and ethnicity and language, this family that cannot even be broken by death. It’s a day when we’re invited to remember and celebrate the larger than life and heroic saints we didn’t know: A St. Francis of Assisi who inspires with a vision of radical love and simple living, a Saint Julian of Norwich who comforts us with the mantra: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” But it’s also a day when we’re invited to remember and celebrate and give thanks for the more ordinary saints that we have known: a Jack Fricke, or Gloria Dunbar, a parent, or a child, or a grandparent, whoever in our lives has shown us something more of God’s endless love.
Our gospel lesson today reminds us that saints aren’t just the super holy, the overly pious and perfectly put together. Jesus tells a crowd of poor, discarded, broken, desperate people “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek. . .” All these are blessed because it is precisely in our weakness, when we have reached our limits, that God’s power and love can really be known. So the real saints aren’t those people who are perfect. The real saints are those people who in the depth of their brokenness, in the depth of their sickness, and grief, and suffering, and failings, have allowed the love of God to embrace them, have allowed the mercy of God to comfort them, have allowed the power of God to transform them.
This communion of saints, this vast family that we’re a part of, isn’t a family of people who are perfectly polished. It’s a family of people who allowed God’s love to shine through their brokenness. It’s a family of people who know, who know, that God’s love can forgive the worst we do, God’s power can overcome our most crippling weakness, God’s life can overcome even the death the separates us from each other. That’s what being a saint is about. That’s what this family is about.
Today we’re baptizing Canon Clanton, and what I love about baptizing on All Saints Day is that on the day we are reminded of just what kind of family we are, we adopt a new member of it. Today we are giving witness to the fact that no matter what happens in Canon’s life, no matter what curveballs he is thrown, no matter what hardships knock him around, no matter what successes he enjoys or failures he regrets, God’s love will not let him go. We’re promising to remind Canon of that truth, and someone has promised to do that for each and every one of us.
Every time we gather for worship, that whole family gathers with us. We pray it every week, “therefore with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven.” And they really do join us. The woman I spoke with at that powwow in South Dakota knew it. She took enormous strength, and courage, and comfort from what she knew deeply to be true. We’re invited to do the same; to sit today, to remember all those whose lives have shown us God’s power and love, to give thanks for them, to remember that they are really here with us, challenging us to live lives that show that same love and power and grace in our own day. Amen.