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Thanksgiving for all who have transformed us in love

Last week, I watched the funeral of Congressman Elijah Cummings. Funerals are times when we get to hear stories of a person’s life and character and in Elijah Cummings’ case, how love and faith shaped him for good work. There were many remarkable speakers that extolled Congressman Cummings tireless work for the rights of all people in our country. Speaker after speaker called him a kind man with a good heart, a moral man, and a dear friend. But many of them spoke to how who he was came from “fertile soil.” That who Elijah Cummings was and became, sprung from seeds planted in fertile soil by his humble parents—parents who were sharecroppers in the South-and then moved to South Baltimore for the hope of a better life where Mr. Robert Cummings worked as a shift worker in a plant and Mrs. Ruth Cummings cleaned other people’s houses. 

Congressman Cummings’ parents raised him and his six siblings with love, teaching them the importance of hard work, to recognize the dignity of all people, to cherish their faith, and to respect their elders. They passed on their strength, but also their kindness and their faith to their children. According to President Barack Obama who spoke at the funeral, “as a boy, Congressman Cummings’ father would make him shine his shoes and tie his tie and then they would go to the airport– not to board the plane themselves, but to watch other people board. Congressman Cumming’s father would say to him, ‘I have not flyed, I may not fly, but you will fly someday.’”[1] And The Honorable Elijah Cummings did.

Much of who we are, what we have to share with others, and how we see the world is due to people who loved us, who saw and called out the good in us, supported us in our learning and growth, and sheltered us when we were overwhelmed by the chances and changes of life.  Each of us have people who reflect God’s love into our lives. They may be members of our family, precious friends, teachers, coaches, colleagues, who in some way touched us and made our lives richer. They may have lived lives that were widely acclaimed, or they may have lived lives that were quiet and humble. These people who are saints to us shared their time, their knowledge, their heart, and their treasure so that we and the world could be better for them being amongst us. 

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day.  It is a special day in the church when we celebrate those whose lives have radiated the love of God and as a result have transformed us. We celebrate these people today, not just because they touched us and changed us, but because in them, God is working out God’s intent for the whole world. In them, we are able to see and experience Christ’s love and from that experience we are able to live lives that show that love. 

Some of the saints in our lives are named in our listing of Saints in our worship bulletin. But many more people, when we stop and think, have touched us so that we have seen love, we have experienced compassion, we have witnessed the power of giving to others, we have felt the value of having a purpose beyond ourselves.These saints may live among us now or they may have gone on before us to live with God. Today is a day when we remember them with prayers of gratitude. 

We know that without these people, our lives would be diminished. We would not be who we are or who we are becoming.  They continue to love, inspire, and support us as we strive to be instruments of God’s grace and mercy in the world.  Through them we are able to glimpse what it means to be God’s beloved children because they showed us love and faithfulness. 

I am fortunate to have been surrounded by many saints in my life. My mother and father taught me early the gift of church. I was raised in the heart of a faith community that in my earliest formation taught me that I was loved, that I was God’s precious child, and that every step of the way I could lean on the everlasting arms of God and God’s people. 

My grandmother taught me about giving to others. This formidable Southern Baptist, never-catch-a-joke, lovefest would teach Sunday School at her Baptist Church on Sunday morning, somehow prepare a full meal for our family after church, and then lead a youth group at night at another church.  When I got old enough and learned to play the guitar, she would take me with her on Sunday nights to sing and pray with young people in my town. She seemed energized in service to God. And yet with all her ministries, she always had time for me. 

And then of course, you all got to know and love one of my favorite saints, Sey Zimmerman. I believe I fell in love with Sey when I noticed that he truly saw and dignified every person he met. With a curious and kind spirit, he could find the life story of a judge and a janitor, a person in a nursing home and a young child. He particularly recognized the gift of young people. He truly lived a life that exemplified that Christ is alive in every person and he was always looking for the Christ inside.

Another person in my life that I consider a saint was a man named Jackson. Jackson was someone who claimed a front porch of a business as his home, who could never quite give up the pleasure of whiskey, who could be temperamental and unpredictable, who sometimes set the nerves of our church ushers on edge. But Jackson showed up and in him I was able to witness a great wisdom, a seeking heart, and a generous spirit. He would help organize the many people who came on Wednesdays for assistance and counsel and he was always the first to begin passing out the breakfast tacos to everyone present. He taught me much beyond my sheltered privileged life and for his presence I am very grateful. 

I know that each of us have a story of someone who gave of themselves in small and large ways so that our lives or the lives of others were made better, fuller, kinder.  I know that each of us have a story of someone who helped us experience God’s love, often when we needed it the most. 

In our reading today from a letter to the church in Ephesus, the author tells the church that in Christ we have obtained an inheritance. In Christ we are able to find out who we are and what we are living for. Eugene Peterson says in The Message, his interpretation of these scriptures, “Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.” God has planned for each and every one of us—those in this place today and those who are not—a glorious life, a life that is abundant. 

The author of the letter prays that God will give us a “spirit of wisdom and revelation and eyes of an enlightened heart so that we may know the hope to which we called and grasp the endless energy, boundless strength, and glorious path for those who trust in God. God has put in our path people who show us the way to a glorious life. People who show up. People who bring us joy. People who remind us that we are important to someone. People who help us see ourselves as beautiful and of value and then help us find a way to return that love out into the world. All Saints’ Day is a witness to God’s way of blessing the world. In the people who have taught us and sometimes transformed us, Jesus has shown us the kingdom and how it is unfolding. 

On this All Saints’ Day we are to recognize that each of us are God’s saints. Our opportunity as saints come because Christ is our heritage of righteousness. Our opportunity as saints come because in Christ we see who we are. Christ had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, We are a part of that overall purpose for glorious living for everything and everyone. 

Each of us are called every moment to enact God’s love in the world, to be seekers of justice, to act in the goodness of God’s mercy, to see and listen for and call out Christ who is in everyone. We never know when an opportunity will present itself.  Each of us may have the chance to remind someone of their blessedness, of their unique beauty, of how their gifts are needed in this world this very day. Because everyone in this world needs someone to show up, to bring joy, to be reminded that they are important to someone. 

Despite how the world may look and feel at times, as followers of Christ our lives are reframed within God’s already established future embodied in the risen Jesus Christ. Because we following a living God, our future is assured in God’s love. On days like today we are reminded that even now, God rushes to meet us, reclaim us, and realign every moment, every experience within this eternal love. This does not mean that every sorrow, failure or worry is dismissed, but that God’s love will never fail us.

We are surrounded in this place by saints? People who hear a need and respond with generosity. People who show up for others. People who reach out and care and offer themselves as simple, yet powerful presence. People who are always listening for God’s movement in their lives and then offering themselves as first responders in this hurting world. I am inspired by who you are. I am inspired by your response to opportunity. I am inspired by the way you offer compassion into our community. 

This is what church is. We at Grace Church know well, church is not just a steeple or pews or stained glass—as glorious as those things are. Church is people who live their lives in a way that show out Gods’ kingdom of justice and grace. Church is a place where we are invited to experience the world as filled with Christ “who fills all and is in all”—with God in whom we live and move and have our being and then offer that grace-filled gift to others. 

When we come together in worship we are invited to let our lives be open to a new world—not to escape, but to experience the life of God as the heart of all things, the sustaining love that undergirds all that is. Together as church we are invited to see how life can move with God’s love for the world so that all creatures and creation realize their connection, their dependence on each other as a part of God’s glorious cosmos.

The letter to the church in Ephesus is not a letter that itemizes problems or offers a list of solutions. It is a letter from beginning to end of thanksgiving. It is a letter that lets this church know who they are by celebrating the ongoing, world-changing redemptive action of God in which they participate. It is a letter of love and ongoing thanksgiving. And doesn’t that capture our remembrance and celebration of the saints who have loved us and the saints that we hope to be too.

[1] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/watch-live-obama-clintons-to-speak-at-cummings-funeral