When I was younger, I used to love leafing through our family photograph albums. You might have some of these yourself – big books with photographs stretching back generations, which bring back to mind family holidays, Christmasses and birthdays. The comedian Penelope Lombard said, and you might recognise this from your family, ‘my mother bores everyone with our photo albums. There’s even one called ‘Pictures we took just to use up the rest of the film.’ A tradition sadly lost in our digital age!
For me, my family photos were all the more poignant and all the more precious because half of my family, my dad’s side, all lived in New Zealand, where my father came from. My childhood was punctuated by visits from what we called ‘the rellies’ from down under, but these visits were rare enough that my primary connection with my family was through the photographs which they sent regularly in their airmail envelopes, accompanied by handwritten letter on thin blue paper. I studied photographs of my New Zealand grandmother, looking for familiarity in the shape of her face. The need for connection within a family is a deep, and fundamental need.
There’s something very grounding about saying ‘these are my people; this is where I come from.’ Not that any family is perfect, and if you look a bit more closely at some of those photos you might see the worry lines, the strained smiles, the two people who never appear in the same group shot. But as humans, we need to know that we belong within a larger group who give us our own identity, and give us space and grace to find that identity. One of the tragedies of life is when people’s experience of family goes badly wrong, and I’m sure you’re able to think of people whose whole lives are a search for that sense of connection and acceptance; often a search that leads people to unsafe and unhappy places.
Later on this afternoon we will have our memorial service for the departed, and maybe you will come to remember those members of your own families whom you miss and mourn. Each one of us has our own personal family photo album in our minds, memories that we flick through, faces we recall, moments that have stayed with us because they are so precious and poignant in helping us to know who we are. But as Christians, we also have a shared family history, a shred photo album of those holy men and women who, although most of them lived long before we have, lived in such a way so as to shape our identity as followers of Jesus. The reading we have heard this morning from the first letter of John reminds us that we are God’s children, members of God’s family. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.”
We are so used to this idea that it can almost pass us by. But this morning, as we celebrate All Saints’ Day, I’d like us to think afresh about this quite extraordinary, but far from perfect, family of which we are part. We are part of a worldwide family that stretches back through the generations and out across the world. At this time of year we might be thankful for our sister St Barbara, the patron saint of fireworks, or not, as the case may be. On the other hand, I’m sure that we all feel a bit sorry for St Drogo, the patron saint of ugly people. I must confess that while I was finding out about my siblings the saints I may have had the help of St Isodore of Seville, who is the patron saint of the internet.
Through Jesus, we become family with the saints; our sisters and brothers Hildegard and Agnes, Alban and Ambrose, Francis, Benedict and Hilda, and all the others – we could flick through this family album all day – are part of our shared identity as Christians as we join with them worship and prayer. We can look back to the lives of the saints and say ‘these are my people; this is where I come from.’
And it’s important to acknowledge that these are just the stories we do know; and for each story of a saint I could tell you, there must be hundreds more that have not been written down or retold down the ages. For each saint whose name we know, there must be hundreds of godly men and women who were never formally canonised yet are saints in the older, New Testament sense of the word; people who are made holy because of their faith in the holy one, Jesus Christ.
So what sort of family is this family of faith? Quite often, families have particular characters, and value particular characteristics. To call somebody ‘independent’ might be a compliment in one family, and a criticism in another. Different families place varying values on things like education, hard work, time spent together, travel, business acumen, ability to win at chess or understand the rules of cricket, and so on. In the reading we heard from Matthew’s Gospel, known as the Beatitudes, Jesus lays out what kind of characteristics are most highly valued in the family of faith.
Poverty in spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity in heart, peacemaking, persecution because of righteousness; these are the qualities and the characteristics of the family of faith. We, gathered here this morning, might not embody all of these characteristics – we are very far from persecuted for righteousness’ sake – but the church across the world and through history does embody all these characteristics.
We pray for our Christian sisters and brothers who are persecuted, and later, we will pray in our All Souls Service, for our brothers and sisters who mourn. We don’t always live up to these characteristics – we are not perfect, and certainly as we think back over our history as Christians there are many times when we have failed to live up to his calling to be pure in heart, peaceable and to hunger and thirst for righteousness. But our failure to live up to these family traits does not negate how important these characteristics are in defining what we aspire to as members of the Christian family.
And finally, what kind of house does this family of faith share? Our reading from Daniel makes it clear; ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’
This is not a family that exists solely for itself and its own purposes. This is a family whose focus is always to be outside of itself, to look to the needs of the world around and to hold those needs to God in prayer. And this is an ever-expanding family, whose calling is to welcome newcomers, whatever they may turn up looking like and however much they may or may not look like ‘one of us.’ This is a family whose resemblance to one another cannot be physical, because it spans two thousand years and thousands of human cultures; this is a family whose resemblance is to the one person, Jesus, who makes us all part of his family.
Now I know that tis all might sound idealistic, but what All Saints’ Day gives us is an ideal, the ideals of Jesus, who calls us all to be conformed to his image and to grow more deeply into his family likeness.
So sometime this coming week, have a flick through your own family photo album, and give thanks to those in your family who have gone before you. But give thanks too for his great family of faith, and pray that, with all the saints, we may live up to the calling of Jesus, and live together in a house of prayer for all nations. 'See, what love the father has given us, that we should be called children of God.' Amen.