This is the sermon I prepared for Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., for the Festival of All Saints’ Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010.
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Daniel 7:1–3, 15–18
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Loving Father in heaven, bless us with faith through your Holy Spirit, so that we may follow the example of your saints in living and loving obediently; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Sometimes we imagine the company of saints
as a kind of pantheon of Christian heroes.
We see it like a Justice League of martyrs, witnesses, and apostles,
replacing Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman,
our favorite superheroes with special powers.
We don’t imagine that we could ever match
the holiness of the saints in that company,
attaining the heights of spiritual purity and discipline,
performing the works of extreme charity and devotion,
and offering up prayers of sublime piety and eloquence.
And so we throw in the towel.
We say to ourselves, “I’ll never be a saint.”
We grow content with our lives just as they are.
We keep our heads down
and our eyes on the ground right in front of us.
We lock our spiritual lives on autopilot
and we go through the motions.
We avoid the worst pitfalls that come from straying,
but we also steer clear of the great heights that come from striving.
There are saints whom God our Father has blessed
with almost unimaginable courage and conviction,
strength and stamina, faith and fervor.
I am awed and humbled by the witness of those saints.
One, for example, sticks in my memory.
Our Church commemorates St. Ignatius of Antioch
each year on October 17.
He was born around AD 35,
lived as a pagan, and then was baptized into the Christian faith.
He became the bishop of Antioch in Syria.
Along with others, he was condemned to death
during the persecutions of Emperor Trajan in the early 100s.
While he waited in prison for his execution,
he authored and sent letters.
Copies have survived to this day.
In one letter to the Church at Rome, he wrote,
“Let me be food for the wild beasts,
for that is how I can get to God.
I am God’s wheat and shall be ground
by the teeth of the wild beasts
so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. …
“Even now as a prisoner I am learning to forego my own desires.
All the way from Syria to Rome, by land and sea,
by night and day, I am chained to ten leopards
(I mean the detachment of soldiers)
who only get worse the better I treat them.
By their injustices I am becoming a better disciple….
“May nothing, seen or unseen,
begrudge me making my way to Jesus Christ.
Come fire, cross, fighting with wild beasts,
wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs,
crushing of my entire body,
cruel tortures of the devil—
only let me get to Jesus Christ.…
“My desire is to belong to God.
Do not, then, hand me back to the world.
Do not try to tempt me with material things.
Let me attain pure light,
for only on my arrival there
can I be fully human.
Let me imitate the passion of my God.”
(From a letter to the Romans by St. Ignatius)
This witness raises all kinds of questions in our hearts.
Does that inspire me?
Does it frighten me?
Do I find it even a little bit beguiling?
Could I surrender myself so completely to God
that I would trust him and face death for my faith?
I don’t know the answers for myself or for you.
Probably our responses depend upon the day,
the waxing and waning of our confidence and convictions.
But even so, we can learn from this saint’s witness,
from his faith in the face of martyrdom.
He desired to belong to God
and he wanted to imitate the Lord’s passion.
No one can conjure up from within
the strength to do these things.
The power of the Holy Spirit
to make us our Father’s possession
comes from him and him alone.
It’s the same with the will and the resolve
to imitate the obedience and sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ.
God begins working in our lives in small steps,
with tiny acts of discipleship,
with the just the hints of the glimmers of great sacrifice.
That’s what inspires Jesus’s words to us in today’s Gospel.
They come to us from St. Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Plain.
Jesus announces blessings and woes,
the gracious judgments and reversals
that pour out from his Father’s hands
upon all who live, regardless of their circumstances.
The poor shall be blessed, but the rich will receive woe.
The hungry shall be filled, and the sated will know want.
Those who mourn will come to laugh, while those who laugh will know loss.
This is God’s way, the way it shall be.
So what we do? How do we live?
What’s the shape of life of a saint?
What’s it look like to be one who, like Ignatius,
wants to belong to God and to imitate his Son?
Jesus tells us how to follow him:
“But I say to you that listen,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek,
offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat
do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27–31, NRSV)
There are no great programs or initiatives
hiding within that list of admonitions.
There are no ten easy steps,
no seven effective habits,
no secret keys to the life of faith,
no shortcuts to the path and no inside track to the calling of the saints.
Instead, the Christian life, the way of sainthood,
lies totally in the way of the small things.
We love the unlovable.
We do good with no thought of return.
We surrender what we own.
In the end, we even give up our own lives.
But this is not loss. It is no defeat.
It is our calling, the path set before us
as people baptized into the death and resurrection
of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He has given us the strength of spirit
and the discipline of will
and the power of prayer
that we need to imitate him,
to shoulder the cross daily,
to follow him in obedience.
Along that path, we have guides and mentors,
people who have gone before us in the faith.
One of them, Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
offers us some wisdom to guide and encourage us.
She said many times,
“We can do no great things;
we can do only small things with great love.”
This is how God works in us,
how he makes our lives holy
and turns us into his saints for others. Amen.