November 3, 2019: "Unlikely Saints"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 3, 2019: All Saints
On the west side of Princeton University there is a large, stone archway through which you can access the whole campus. I became quite familiar with this archway in my time at Princeton Seminary because I walked through it several times a week on my way to the university library. The library at the seminary was under construction during my years there, so I used the university library as much as I could. On either side of this large, stone archway are carvings of saints: St. Andrew on the left and St. George on the right. St. Andrew stands heroically with his eyes to heaven as he holds onto a large wooden “X.” The story is told that St. Andrew was condemned to die by crucifixion, but because he did not think himself worthy to die as Christ did, he asked to be crucified on his side in an “X” shape. St. George, on the other side of the arch, is even more heroic, atop a horse with one hand raised to the sky in victory as his other hand plunges a spear into the side of a dragon laying at the feet of his horse. St. George is said to have slayed the evil dragon who demanded human sacrifice, saving a princess who had been chosen as the next sacrifice.
Each time I walked through that archway, I would look up at these powerful and heroic saints and feel in my body a sense of confidence and inspiration. Generally, I think that is the common idea about saints: heroic, powerful, bold. St. Andrew told his executioners that their chosen method of death was too good for him and to do it another way—that’s pretty bold. St. George, like something out of a great fantasy fantasy novel, rescued the damsel in distress, saving her from the dragon’s fiery breath—it doesn’t get more heroic than that. You’ve seen statues of saints in churches and cemeteries and you’ve seen saints outlined in stained glass windows. They always look tough as steel, grounded, unmovable. But as we look back through the history of the church all the way to the time of Jesus, most of the men and women who have been recognized by the church as saints were just ordinary, even unlikely, people.
St. Dymphna, the patron saint of those who suffer from mental illness, is one such unlikely saint. St. Dymphna was born into an extremely wealthy Irish family, to a Catholic mother and a pagan father. Dymphna’s mother died when Dymphna was only 12 years old and the grief was so powerful that it caused Dymphna’s father to fall into a deep and severe depression. In those years, Dymphna’s father tried to kill himself many times and he tried often to harm the many servants that cared for him. Seeing no other option, Dymphna gathered together what she could of her family’s wealth and fled to the town of Geel, in what is now Belgium. Once Dymphna was settled in Belgium, she built a hospital to care for people with mental illnesses. She did this, it seems, as a way to care for people who were suffering as her father was. From the day that Dymphna fled from Ireland, her father searched for her, enraged that she would leave him. After searching for many years, Dymphna’s father eventually found her, murdering her in her sleep.
But even after her death, Dymphna’s care for those with mental illness continued and it still continues to this day in the town of Geel. In 1349 the town of Geel built a church to honor St. Dymphna, and by 1480 so many pilgrims were visiting the church that it had to be expanded to more than seven times its original size. More and more pilgrims came to the church of St. Dymphna through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, that the townspeople in Geel began opening their homes to house them all. This began a tradition, that continues to this day, of people in Geel housing and carrying for the mentally ill who come to pray at the church of St. Dymphna. Because of Dymphna’s unlikely journey to sainthood, there are schools, religious communities, and medical societies throughout the world that bear her name, working to bring relief and hope to those who suffer from mental illness.
St. Thomas More, the patron saint of adopted children, is another example of an unlikely person becoming a saint. Thomas More was an English lawyer, philosopher, author, and statesman. He also happened to served as Chancellor to the English king Henry VIII. More opposed the Protestant Reformation of 1517 but was generally accepting of religious thoughts and ideas outside of his own. Where he was not accepting, though, was in how his boss, Henry VIII, had so many wives and basically established his own church so he could marry all those wives. This opposition to the king eventually led to Thomas losing his head. But before he lost his head, Thomas was quite the revolutionary, particularly at home. Thomas and his wife had no children of their own, but More cared for his wife’s daughter from another marriage as if she was his own. Thomas and his wife also took two orphan girls into their home. Where he was really revolutionary is in how he made sure his daughters received the same education as the boys in the neighborhood.
Thomas More believed, even outside of his religious tradition, that women and men were created equal in the image and likeness of God. That might sound pretty straightforward to us here in 2019, but this was not the case in England and Europe in the 16th century. And, if we’re being honest, there are certainly still many places in our society where men and women are treated very differently. Thomas More, along with being an example to parents who care for children that might not share their genes, challenges us all to remember that our faith is built on a Biblical and theological foundation that men and women are created equally in the image of God. Thomas More, but his example, also challenges us to work for equality and equity among men and women and all people in society. More’s name can be found on schools, law firms, and publishing houses in the United States and Europe who are working to achieve those divine and important goals.
Sue Sawyer is another unlikely saint I want to lift up to you today. She does not technically have ‘saint’ in front of her name and she is not designated as the patron saint of anything. But she is a saint no less, and she was my third-grade teacher at Hickory Elementary school in Bel Air, Maryland. When I entered third grade, I had a problem that not many people knew about: I could not read. Later it was discovered that all 22 of us in that class had the same problem. You see, we had all entered kindergarten together and moved as one unit to each higher grade. The teacher also moved with us to each grade. And when we all got to Mrs. Sawyer’s class, she soon realized that none us knew how to read. When I asked my parents about this many years later, they didn’t realize I couldn’t read because I was excelling so rapidly in my music studies and figured I was just a little behind. By third grade, I could read and play Mozart piano sonatas but I could not read Goodnight, Moon.
In a system that is so heavily regulated and monitored and filled with rules and tests and standards, Mrs. Sawyer had to throw everything out the window and start from scratch. When I talked to Mrs. Sawyer at my ordination service in 2012, I asked her how she did it, because by the end of third grade our whole class was reading at a fourth-grade level. She told me about how she bought books and supplies and filled her room with every possible tool we would need, all on her own dime. She told me how she worked so late most nights that year that she slept on an air mattress in the corner of the room. She told me about how she would spend her weekends visiting her student’s homes, visits that I remember to this day. She told me about how she was not going to rest until we were ready for the next grade. There are no schools that bear her name. Her face is not carved in stone or memorialized in stained glass. But Sue Sawyer is a saint and she is the reason I don’t go a single day without picking up a book.
What do these three saints have in common? What have in common is that they did not set out one day to be remembered as heroic or powerful or strong. Each, in their own unique and special way, used their God-given gifts and talents to make life better for the people around them. St. Dymphna took the pain and trauma of living with mental illness and turned it into a place or care and compassion for those suffering like her father. St. Thomas More used his knowledge and power to make sure the women in his life were educated and given the best shot at a full and meaningful life. Sue Sawyer could have just passed us off to our fourth grade teacher just as we had been passed from one grade to the next, but she did not. She knew, more than anyone else, of the closed doors we would have faced if fell even further behind. The textbook definition of a saint talks about faith and sacrifice and, ultimately, some sort of death because of someone’s faith and the sacrifices they made. But I think there is so much more to it than that. A saint is someone, anyone, whose uses their life to make the lives of the people around them better and more whole. And that someone, that anyone, can be ordinary and unlikely…it can even be you and me.
We celebrate All Saints Day today not because we think that praying to the saints will get us into heaven quicker. We don’t celebrate All Saints Day because the saints have some magical power that gets us even more into God’s good graces. We celebrate All Saints Day, and we remember people like Dymphna and Thomas More and Sue Sawyer, because their lives are meant to inspire us to live more faithfully, more generously, more compassionately as we follow the way of Jesus. Isolation can be the death of pretty much anything, especially faith, and it is a threat we must always be aware of a people of faith. In a world of so many complex issues and problems, it is easy to imagine that we are doing this Jesus thing all alone. The dark forces of evil and sin would like us to imagine that we are doing this alone because that is the first step to faith eroding away. But today, this celebration of all the saints, reminds us that through baptism, we are never alone. Instead, we are joined together with a great cloud of witnesses living and dead who have spent their lives bearing witness to the light of God. Remembering them, we remember that we do not do faith alone. Remembering them, we remember that we do not do church alone. Remembering them, we know for certain that living like Jesus is possible and that following his way brings us close to God, to one another, and to a world that is ruled by peace and justice.
So today, my friends, have hope. Saints are not God’s heroes; saints are ordinary, unlikely people like you and me who know that life is given to us so that we might give it away to other people. Have hope because we can be saints, too. Each one of us has been given so many gifts by God that can be used to make the lives of others, the world we live in, a more just, peaceful, and holy place. We have the ability to forgive—that is saintly. We have the ability to share—that is saintly. We have the ability to stand in the presence of scarcity and fear and hate with the shining light of Christ’s love—that’s saintly. And God is depending on us to be saints who bring Christ’s light into the world. Have hope because you are not alone. Have hope because many have come before us and have faithfully followed the way of Jesus, showing us the way to do the same. Have hope because the saints who have gone before us surround us at every moment, cheering us on as we run the race of life. Have hope and remember. Remember your saints. Remember their kindness, their faith, how they used their gifts to bring God’s kingdom even closer. Remember and, as Jesus said, go and do likewise. Amen.