Text: Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Aino Anne (Annie) Kallio, 102, of Raleigh died Sunday at Elmcroft of Northridge, where she was a long time resident. Aino was born in Finland and had lived in the United States most of her life. She was a retired nurse with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. A service will be held in the mausoleum at Montlawn Memorial Park on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015 at 3pm. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Transitions LifeCare (formerly Hospice of Wake Co.).
This obituary appeared in the News&Observer this past week. I didn’t know Annie Kallio before my phone rang at around 11:00 a.m. on Friday, October 30. The caller ID on my phone read Mark Blake from Brown-Wynne Funeral Home. The call came as I was participating in a minister’s conference focused on theology in the public square in Whitakers, NC—a small rural town about an hour and a half from Raleigh. When I saw Mark’s name on my caller ID, I stepped out of my meeting to take the call. For all pastors know that when the undertaker calls, you always answer. Mark was in a tough situation. The minister he had secured to do Annie funeral had been taken suddenly to the hospital that morning, and he needed a minister. As the obituary stated, Annie’s funeral was to be at 3:00 p.m. that very day at Montlawn Memorial Park. Remember, Mark’s call came to me at 11:00 a.m.
At first, I told Mark that I couldn’t help him. My conference was not to end until 4:00 that day, and since I was one of the organizers it didn’t feel appropriate for me to leave early. But as Mark continued to talk, I decided that I was needed more in Raleigh than in Whitakers, so I told him I would head back to Raleigh and meet him at Montlawn a little before 3:00. Before we hung up I said to Mark, “Send me her obituary.” Mark replied, “Okay, but it doesn’t give you very much.” He went on to briefly explain that Annie didn’t have any family in Raleigh. “Actually,” he said, “She doesn’t have any family in the United States.” The one relative that had been located was in Finland. He told me that the only people who would be at the service would likely be himself, along with Annie’s state-appointed guardian and the guardian’s assistant. I told Mark I would meet at him at the mausoleum a little bit before 3:00. I packed my bag and was headed back to Raleigh by 12:30.
I arrived at Montlawn a little before 3:00. Gathered were Mark and his assistant, the state-appointed guardian and her assistant, and a lady from Montlawn. A couple minutes before 3:00, Mark opened the casket for the guardian to view Annie’s body. Out of respect, I stood to the side until after she had paid her respects and said a few caring words to Annie and gently touched her hands. Then, as she stepped away, I offered a silent prayer before Mark sealed the casket for the last time.
Annie was a beautiful woman. Her long gray hair framed her kind face. The mint colored dress that had been chosen for her burial was as soft as her face looked. Her hands, resting on her stomach, were hands of a woman who had obviously cared for others. Her slender body, not to mention her 102 years of life, was a testament to someone who had taken care of herself. Annie’s body, her soft face and her worn hands, spoke of a compassionate, caring soul.
I began the service with words from the Book of Common Prayer: “I am the resurrection, and the life…the one who believes in me, though she were dead, yet shall she live, and whosoever lives in me shall never die.” I continued with the reading of two Psalms: Psalm 139 and Psalm 23. I spoke of Annie’s life out of the few details I had and what I could imagine from a child’s life who had been raised by a single mother in a foreign land, and her adult life that had been spent caring for those in prison. I read from Matthew 25: “…when did I see you a stranger and welcome you, hungry and gave you food, thirsty and gave you drink, sick and in prison and visited you.” It seemed safe to me to say that Annie must have understood the teachings of Jesus for she had given her life to people trapped in a system that treats people as nobodies. Mark had shared one other detail with me. He told me that Annie had indicated in her funeral planning that it was her desire for a minister to conduct her funeral. It seemed almost certain to me that Annie was a person of faith.
And so I concluded my remarks with more words from the Book of Common Prayer. The Communion of Saints: O God, the Light of the faithful, the strength of those who labor, and the repose of the blessed dead: We give you thanks for the saints who have witnessed in their lives a good confession, for all the faithful departed, and for those dear to our own hearts who have entered into rest…Grant us grace so to follow their good example that we may be one with them in spirit, and, at the last, together with them, be made partakers of your kingdom…” And then I concluded, “Annie Kallio, a saint in this life, now dwells with all of the saints who have gone before her. Today, her soul rests fully in the blessed light and love of the God who created her.”
You may be wondering, why I spoke of Annie Kallio as a saint? Was it the struggle she and her mother overcame when they came to the United States all alone, knowing no one, because her mother was unwed when she had Annie and the stigma in the early 1900’s of being an unwed mother was too much to bear among her family and friends in Finland? Or was it that she chose a vocation in which she sought to bring healing and compassion to those confined in system that is anything but healing and compassionate? Did that make Annie a saint? Or was it as simple as that her 102 years qualified her for sainthood? While I know nothing more of Annie’s life than what I have shared with you, I am deeply moved by the few details of her life that I do know. And when I called her a saint at her funeral, it wasn’t because she overcame hardship or gave her life caring for those in prison. I didn’t call her a saint because of the few, very few, details I know of her life. I called her a saint because she was a child of God. Before Annie did anything in her life, she was already a saint because she was born a child of God.
What makes a saint a saint? From the moment we enter into this world we are already saints. We are born into original blessing, into original sainthood. And what we choose to do with that blessing, with that sainthood is up to each of us. Bonaventure, a 13th century mystic, believed that the light to see and to be full manifestations of our original sainthood is already within us, but we must turn toward this light, and the very act of turning is itself a decision made in freedom and in response to grace. In the words of one of his biographers, “To recognize God within us is to let go in freedom – of clinging to that which is not God – and to embrace in love that which is God even in the midst of suffering humanity.” (Ilia Delio)
Here, in fact, we perceive the true significance of the name of this day – All Saints’ Day – far more clearly. Saints are not only those persons in the Bible or Church history who did great things. Nor are Saints only those who died for their faith. Saints are not only those who are of such great moral courage, kindness or discipline that they set examples for the rest of us. Rather, saints are all those who love LOVE with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their strength, and who understand that to love LOVE means to give it away! Even us sinners who risk loving LOVE (God) are saints. Saints are not people who are perfect. Saints are the people we love who, in all their imperfection and humanity, love the world the best they can with all their heart, soul and strength. That is what makes a saint a saint.
So the good news today is that you are already a saint. And the invitation of the gospel is to live into your sainthood by loving LOVE (God) with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. That is truly what makes a saint a saint!