A week ago we were celebrating Reformation Sunday and the church renewal movement launched by Martin Luther. It’s too soon, only a week later, to overlook his teaching about the Feast of All Saints and the renewal of our faith. Here’s what he had to say about the day: “Here is the true foundation for honoring departed saints. . . . We honor [them] only so that we might be encouraged and grounded in the doctrine of faith.”
Remembering anyone who has died is a call to renew our faith. When asked about the Galileans who were sacrificed by Pilate and others who were killed in a building collapse (Luke 13:1-5), Jesus did not speculate about the reasons for those deaths. He simply saw them as a reminder that life is short and that today is the only opportunity we have to live fully and faithfully.
In the same way, Luther says our memory of the dead should reground us in scripturally based faith. We “must make a distinction, between the saints who are dead and those who are yet living,” he said. “You must turn away from the dead and honor the living saints. The living saints are your neighbors, the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, poor people; those who . . . suffer shame, who lie in sins. Turn to them and help them. That is where you are to apply your works.”
Luther held that remembering and celebrating the saints, living or dead, is an opportunity for us to more and more be the body of Christ in the world (1 Cor. 12:27), for us to grow into a maturity measured by the very fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-16), and for us to do even greater works than Jesus did (John 14:12). It’s not something that happens overnight. It is the lifelong experience of God’s grace transforming us into the people God intends us to be, the people God created us to be.
Early in the process of sanctification, the process by which we live more and more according to God’s design and purpose, we shape our lives after the example of someone else. The great saints of the church are good examples: Augustine, Benedict, Francis of Assisi; Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Calcutta. Sometimes they are saints closer to home. Some of mine are my grandmother Edith, Rose Haake of Union City, Helen Denny of Delmar, Art Hagy of Albany; some of yours you remember today. They are examples of faith who give shape to our own lives of faith.
As good as those examples were in their season, we cannot live an imitation faith. Not even Peter, the rock on whom the church would be built, could live his life after the example of Jesus, as he discovered when three times he denied his relationship with Jesus (Luke 22:54-62). Faith modeled after even the best example will finally fail. “’Are you able,’ said the Master, ‘to be crucified with me?’ ‘Yes,’ the sturdy dreamers answered, ‘to the death we follow thee.’” And we discover that, no, we are not able; an imitation faith will desert us and leave us helpless.
But the failure of imitation faith is only a passage through which we discover mature faith, an authentic, uniquely personal faith that’s as powerful for us as Jesus’ faith was for him. When we stop living like someone else, even like our best examples, we can start living as the people God has created us to be. The story is told of Rabbi Zusya who, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” God will not ask me why I was not Benedict or Francis or Art; God will ask me why I was not Richard. Why was I not the authentic, honest-to-God, unique and gracefully eccentric individual God created me to be.
We don’t become that person all at once. Sanctification is a long and winding pathway of growth, and it is not the fruit of our labor. It is the result of the grace of God working in us. But we can learn to cooperate with it. We can learn to read another scripture, the sacred text of our own deepest responses to our own experiences, and find guidance there. Discovering who I am does not mean laboring toward some prize waiting for me in the future; it means learning to recognize and accept the treasure of who by God’s grace I already am.
Sanctification, our growth toward maturity as saints, is not the result of being model disciples; it’s the result of our failure to be model disciples; it’s the result of our failure to live up to anyone’s expectations, even the expectations we think God has of us, which often are nothing more than our own learned expectations of ourselves; it’s the result of letting go of everything we try to be so we can be what God makes us to be. And that’s what the church does for us.
Before he died, a father gave his son a watch and said, “Your grandfather gave me this watch. It’s more than 200 years old. But before I give it to you, go to the pawn shop and see how much they offer you.” When the son returned, he said, “They offered five dollars because it’s old.”
The father said, “Go to the coffee shop.” He went, came back, and said, “They also offered five dollars.”
“Now go to the museum and show them the watch.” The son came back and said, “They offered me a million dollars!” His father said, “The right people, the ones who know who you really are, will help you know your true worth. Find those people, and learn from them your true worth.”
So today we celebrate the great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, who help us ground our faith and know our true worth. And we celebrate those living saints whom we serve as the body of Christ – the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the sick, the prisoner, the stranger in our midst – for how we serve them also helps us deepen our faith and know our worth.