A Great Inheritance
November 3, 2019 / All Saints Sunday / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Second Reading: Ephesians 1:11-23; Gospel: Luke 6:20-31
A Great Inheritance
There are persons who came from nothing, started from scratch, and proceeded by their own effort and ingenuity to amass a great fortune. And there are others who were born into wealth, who inherited from their parents and ancestors a great fortune.
As Christians, you and I are like that second group, those who have received a large inheritance. We are not self-made as Christians; we are heirs, beneficiaries of a rich inheritance of faith and hope and love. You and I are blessed to be part of something greater than our individual selves. We belong to what we call the Communion of Saints. Week by week in the creed we affirm that we believe in the Communion of Saints.
What is it? Here’s one definition: The communion of saints is the spiritual union of the members of the Christian church, both the living and the dead. All are part of a single mystical body, with Christ as the head, in which each member contributes to the good of all and shares in the welfare of all. The communion of saints is made up of all the baptized Christians who have ever lived in this world, from the first century up to today.
All Saints is our occasion to give thanks to God for the inheritance we have all received; the legacy of all the faithful who lived before us. Today’s reading from Ephesians speaks of the “riches at our glorious inheritance among the saints, which is ours in Christ.“ Today we recall the devoted perseverance of all the saints who came before us.
We give thanks for the way they conducted their lives with conviction and determination, and also with peace and joy. We remember how steadfast hope sustained them in times of crisis and adversity, how hope in Christ instilled in their hearts a kind of quiet courage to continue onward. It’s truly a marvel how this sure and certain hope in Christ has been embraced and shared with each succeeding generation, down through the centuries. Their shared hope in God is our rich inheritance.
The truth is, we need more than a theory or even a theology to live on. You and I need actual examples, models of faithful living. We need to be acquainted personally with persons who embody compassion, faith and humble service. We must experience genuine love and forgiveness from others in order to learn and appreciate their surpassing value. Christianity is caught more than it is taught. So we must be exposed to faithful Christians in order to witness what well-lived lives actually look like. You and I benefit from having evidence that living such a life is not only possible, it’s desirable. That’s what we get from hanging around with saints of God.
Most of us can point to persons whose lives have demonstrated to us the worthiness of faith, hope, and love, the goodness of following Christ. Such people are not perfect, flawless role models, but honest to God lovers of Jesus, forgiven sinners, ordinary saints who are grateful for their blessings, and who try as they can to be a blessing to others.
Recently I have been moved by the tributes many have paid to Elijah Cummings, who died on October 17 at the age of 68. Cummings served in the House of Representatives for over 20 years, representing his home district in Baltimore. Cummings was one of seven children born to his parents, who were sharecroppers. His parents were committed Christians. When they moved to Baltimore, his mother founded a prayer chapel in the basement of their home. As the ministry grew, it moved to a permanent location. Under his mother’s leadership, the church created a food pantry, established clothing drives, and launched both a prison ministry and a nursing home ministry.
Cummings was profoundly shaped by the faith of his parents. For 40 years he was an active and faithful member of the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore. Cummings told how when he was a child his father would dress him up and take him to the airport, telling him: “I may not fly, but you will fly one day. We can’t afford it right now but you will fly.” Shortly before he died, the staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital wheeled Cummings on his bed to the rooftop of the hospital so he could see the sun, and look out over the city he served. “Boy,” he said, “have I come a long way.”
What’s remarkable in these times of deeply divided partisanship is that Cummings was admired and respected by many members of both parties. In his eulogy at Cummings funeral, Barack Obama (a fellow member of the communion of saints) made these observations: “Elijah Cummings was a man of noble and good heart. His parents and his faith planted seeds of hope and love and compassion and righteousness in the good soil of his life.” He added that Cumming’s life demonstrates that “through our works, and our dedication and our willingness to open our hearts to God’s message of love for all people, we can live a purposeful life.” That’s what saints aim to do; to live life on purpose, to be instruments of God’s goodness in this world.
Another member of the communion of saints, Representative Trey Gowdy, is one of many Republicans who hold Mr. Cummings in high esteem. Gowdy wrote this: “His path was filled with pain, prejudice, obstacles and doubt that he refused to let stop him. His legacy is PERSEVERANCE (!) His legacy is fighting through pain. His legacy is making sure there were fewer obstacles for the next Elijah Cummings. His legacy to me, above all else, was his faith; a faith that is being rewarded today with no more fights, no more battles, and no more pain.”
What a legacy! In his life, Cummings demonstrated that character transcends political divides. Goodness and kindness and faith run deeper than partisan issues. Cummings brought the Golden Rule out of the relatively safe confines of the church into the rough and tumble world of politics. He treated others as he wanted to be treated.
Elijah Cummings was by no means perfect. To be a saint is not to be perfect; it’s to love and trust God, and to let the light of Christ shine through you to bless others. Cummings appreciated the inheritance of faith he received from his parents. And he understood the importance of passing along that heritage. He said, “Our children are the living messengers we send to the future we will never see.”
In these uncertain times, it is good to be reminded that there are saints among us. There are saints sitting right here this morning. As we remember and give thanks for all the saints who have died, let’s also give thanks for the light that shines through the saints who are among us. Look around! There are saints out in our memorial garden and sitting here with you. Saints are a good reason to keep showing up here at church. You can learn more by hanging around faithful, caring persons than you will ever learn on the internet, or through any of the many distractions that occupy our time and our minds. Faith is contagious. So is hope. Spending time around faithful Christians will give you reason to believe.
By the grace of God, you and I are members of the communion of saints, that great spiritual union of all the faithful Christians who have ever lived. Let’s not squander the rich inheritance given to us! Let us persevere in sharing the hope we have received, loving not only those who love us, but also those who don’t; always aiming to do unto others as we would have them do to us, letting the light of Christ shine through us.