"See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God,
and that is what we are..."
It's a memory that is almost as old as I am now.
We were small children yet --- I would have been under seven, which would have made my sisters five, four, and three in age at most --- we four daughters of Tom and Kathleen. And I can't say with any certainty how long this was a practice in our family, but it was long enough that it lives as a precious memory still.
It would be bedtime. We would have brushed our teeth and had our baths. And my mother would start singing. It had to be her as my dad could not carry a tune. She would start to sing, "When all the Saints Go Marching In..." And we would join in, 'marching' up the stairs in our little footie pajamas to bed. Oh, that would be just the beginning of what we would sing as we would join together in other Sunday School and Church Camp songs --- doing our very best to come up with yet another verse of "Kum Ba Yah" before we would finally settle in to sleep. It was a ritual of belonging --- in our family, yes, but one that, through the songs we sang, carried us beyond our small bedroom to family encountered in our congregation and at family church camp --- and to all those un-named, as yet mostly unknown saints whose number we longed to be counted among. It was, indeed, a belonging we had not earned or even deserved. It was ours from birth and before: borne of love, yes, and a given. Not unlike, it seems to me, what is pointed to in our lesson from 1st John today where he tells his listeners that we are God's children because God made it so. To be sure, in my own immediate family even though miles and life experiences separate us now, nothing can change this. It is 'what we are': we are the children of Tom and Kathleen. Don't you suppose this is also so in the 'family' John speaks of now? That nothing can change this?
Indeed, I had a deep sense of this kind of belonging as I stood next to a young cousin at our Aunt Viola's graveside committal a couple of months ago. BJ is nearly twenty years younger than I am. Clearly we did not grow up in the same time nor, for that matter, even the same place. His dad was my cousin. For that matter, I didn't grow up with him either, he was that much older than I. As a result, you might think we are mere acquaintances --- and given the amount of time we have actually spent together, this would be objectively so.
So there we stood, facing into the sun--- outside the tent where immediate family had gathered. BJ had his sunglasses on so I could not read his expression. And then he shook his head and said, "Forty-seven years." "Yes," was all I said. Apparently he had not heard that number before that day --- the number of years ago that Viola had been widowed. The years which have gone by in a blink of an eye but which add up --- and when named reminding us in an instant not only of Uncle Joe, but also all those others whose lives we have cherished and grieved and entrusted to God over and over again.
We were bound to one another in that moment of acknowledgement of shared history in our family--- a history given to us which I barely remember and apparently he had never really considered before. We were bound to one another and yet, I realized, not only with him as we visited briefly before heading back to the church for a shared meal. For I felt that same assumed, comfortable connection to all the other family gathered there for this. We hardly know each other any more if we ever really did. And yet we are part of one another. In the timber of a voice, the shape of a nose, a turn of phrase we recognize it. We are children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, great-great grandchildren of Mabel and Avery. It is what brought us to that hour and it was given to us: not earned or deserved. It is 'what we are.'
Only here is what made that day even more memorable. For you see, there was another cousin at the graveside that late morning. I had never laid eyes on Gail prior to the night before, although I had heard her spoken of in recent months. She is, in fact, the only child of my mother's younger brother. His marriage had ended badly when she was but an infant. Her mother, unquestionably angry and bitter, kept her from the family, all the while raising her within miles of them --- at least those who remained in that community.
Not so long ago Gail was at another funeral visitation. While her dad's family did not know her, apparently she knew us. For she turned to the woman standing behind her in line and she said, "You don't know me, but you are my aunt." Later Aunt Viola told my mother that it was like seeing a ghost: face to face in that unexpected moment of grace and possibility.
It turns out that she had grown up mere blocks away from Viola. In the cemetery that day we discovered that her infant daughter was buried just yards away from our Uncle Joe --- next to whom Viola was buried that day.
I thought it took great courage for her to come to us then. I was grateful to see other cousins --- and there are many of us --- go out of their way to reach out to her in conversation. More than fifty years have passed since her mother made the decision to cut her off from us. But it seems to me that she is no less a part of us even so. Another grandchild of Mabel and Avery.
I say it again: this is a given. We don't earn it or deserve it. By accident or providence of birth and circumstance we are part of a family. Oh, surely one can be disowned. One can distance oneself. One can be cut off from it. One can run from it, hide from it, but it doesn't change it. It is still what --- it is still who you are. Indeed, in our families now and in this great family of God. It is what you are. It is who you are.
And so we come to these words on All Saints' Day --- this day when we pause in our perhaps still raw heartache and always yearning hope to remember those who have died. And we listen to these words spoken to us and about us: "See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are." Only as we remember this we know that in this family it is not about the timber of a voice or a shared profile or even, really, a shared history. At least not the sort we normally think of first. Except for this: our coming into this family is about love: God's love for us, and yes, that same love reflected in our love for one another and for the world.
I've read John's words in this letter before. This time through? They seem to speak with a greater sense of urgency. Maybe because I come to All Saints' Day grieving still this year. Perhaps because I've known some losses in my family and in the church family I serve which were unexpected and seemed far too soon. I am especially aware now that we can't wait to show the love John speaks of. But first, of course, we must experience it.
Indeed, I think of marching up those stairs to bed when I was six and singing with gusto "When all the Saints Go Marching In" --- not even really knowing what it was I was singing about, but sensing it made me part of something bigger than I could then imagine. Oh no, I surely did not yet know the vast number of Saints I would come to know and love and later grieve and live in hope to see again one day. We will sing it this Sunday as our sending hymn and I will do so with tears and with joy and with deep gratitude to know I have been so blessed to be 'what we are' as God's children. Because God said so. And to recall that 'what we are' means something. For this identity is known only and always in this way: It is lived out in love. A love which is shown in our belonging. A love which is lived out because first we know we belong. For that is what we are, Children of God. This is what we are.
- These are our words: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are." What does it mean that this is 'what we are?' What does it mean to be 'included in' those who are marching in?
- It seems to me that 'family is still family' no matter what. I have witnessed this in my own family and extended family --- that we are still part of each other regardless of time or distance or difference or even intentional cut off. I believe this is so in the family we hear about in these words today. What do you think?
- According to 1st John, what we are is grounded in God's love. What does this mean for you?
- Who do you remember this All Saints' Day? Who is in that number that you yearn to join?