November 5, 2017: "Ordinary Saints"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 4, 2017: All Saints Day
Micah 6:1-8 & Matthew 5:1-12
I’ve been preaching for a little over five years now and I still find Sundays like today challenging. It is a challenge because the message is in the name: All Saints Day. Today is a day the church has set aside for centuries as a day to recognize the men and women who went before us in life and death who inspire us as disciples of Jesus. What more is there to say? Like Jesus, the simplest and best thing I can say to you is, “Go and do likewise.”
But in the pomp and circumstance of All Saints Day it is easy to lose sight of the fact that saints are ordinary people just like me and you. The hymn we sang before and after the gospel reading today makes that clear. It’s a great hymn, so light and fun. I remember singing it each All Saints Day in the Episcopal church where I grew up. I’m so glad that it was included in our new hymnal Glory to God because in and among the rhymes and cute images is that profound message: saints are ordinary people like me and you.
One was a doctor. St. Cosmos was one of two physician saints recognized by the early church; the other was his twin brother St. Damian. Cosmos and Damian traveled through the Roman countryside and were known as the ‘pennyless ones,’ because they never charged a fee for their services. There is even a story told of how Cosmos treated an injured Roman solider during battle, and how a short time later that same Roman solider hung him on a cross during a persecution of Christians.
And one was a queen. The best-known queen saint of the church is St. Helen. Helen was the mother of Constantine the Great, one of Christianity's greatest champions. St. Helen is credited with finding the cross of Jesus and taking pieces of it, and the Gospel, to cities all over the known world.
And one was a shepherdess on the green. St. Joan of Arc kept watch over her family’s sheep until at the age of 19 she led a successful military campaign for France against English domination during the Hundred Years’ War. Joan of Arc is a clear and potent example of the important place of women in the church and society. She was tried and convicted for treason and heresy, and burned at the stake as a witch before her 20th birthday.
One was a soldier. St. Francis of Assisi took up arms during the Fourth Crusade, seeking glory and honor. But on the battlefield one day he had a vision where God told him to put his weapons down and go home. In his hometown he was laughed at and exiled, with only animals and nature as companions. This began Francis’ slow conversion and led him to find that the only glory truly worth attaining is the glory of God.
And one was a priest. Fr. Stanley Rother grew up in Okarche, Oklahoma, just a handful of miles south of here. Fr. Rother served a mission in Sololá, Guatemala, and while he was there he translated the Bible into the language of the people. This gave the people a common language and freedom to think and believe on their own. This put Fr. Rother at odds with the local cartels, who had Fr. Rother murdered in his home on July 28, 1981. In September of this year the Catholic Church put Fr. Rother on the path to becoming recognized as a saint. Interestingly enough, Fr. Rother failed most of his classes in seminary on the first try and was almost removed from candidacy for the priesthood. He is now known as the shepherd who did not run.
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast. There are many saints who died in arenas at the claws of wild beats, but Felicity and Perpetua are two worthy of our attention. Perpetua was 22 and the mother of a newborn when she was imprisoned in Rome with her slave Felicity for their faith in Jesus. Even until they met their grizzly end, Perpetua and Felicity never denied their faith in Jesus—and they never stopped clinging to one another.
All of these are saints and they were just ordinary people living ordinary lives. Sure, some had a little more education than others; some had more resources, too. But they were ordinary people who answered the call to faith in Jesus, and in their own unique and special ways changed the world.
Now there is a saint who was not mentioned in the hymn we sang today, a personal saint of mine. He was an electrician. F. Philip Smith was my grandfather. Shortly before his tenth birthday Grandpa’s dad abandoned him and his mother, leaving them to provide for themselves in an already desperate time. At the age of 16, Grandpa forged enlistment paperwork for the Navy and shipped off to basic training so that he could at least send a little something home to his mom. While stationed in New York before being deployed to Germany in World War II Grandpa met a pretty pool shark a the USO who would one day become my grandmother. After the war, he married Edith and they started their family in upstate New York. With a scholarship from the G.I. Bill, Grandpa became a master electrician and had a long and success career with RCA. He retired the month I was born in 1985, which meant that he was around for every part of my childhood. Grandpa taught me how to fish, how to put gas in the car, and how to camp. Grandpa was patient with me on the golf course when it took me 10 or more shots to get on the green, and he even let me drive the golf cart before I was old enough. Grandpa even taught me that sometimes colorful language is acceptable. He was not well-known and he was never recognized for any real acts of bravery. But to me he was the essence of a man, the essence of a saint: kind, gentle, disciplined, faithful.
In the gospel reading today, Jesus is sitting on a mountain top with his disciples and he is giving the very first sermon of his career. He does not begin this sermon with a good story or a silly joke or an anecdote; he doesn’t immediately dive into the Scriptures. Instead, he points to people around him who are saints, though he uses a different term to describe them: blessed. This is beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but it is also the beginning of the disciples’ ministry. These 12 and more men and women are about to go out into the world to tell people about Jesus; this is the time when they will answer the call to faith in Jesus and start changing the world. Jesus doesn’t start their ministry with Biblical training or with the ins and outs of healing or with lessons on how to run a church. No, he tells them to open their eyes to see the blessed, the saints, all around.
This is very significant. It is significant because the world of the disciples was complex, it was dangerous, it was not friendly to the good news of the gospel. It was a world built on power, particularly the power of the Empire. It was a heroic age—big, strong men marching off into battle and into the arena to vanquish foes and slay fierce animals. It was a time of great division, between those who had a lot and those who had a little, between those who worshipped God and those who worshipped the gods. It was a time of slaves and slave-owners, of oppressive men and oppressed women and minorities, of diseases that could wipe out an entire population. It was also a time of great abundance, and it is unfathomable to think that anyone would have to go without. But it happened all the time. The greed, the lust, the exclusivity, the self-righteousness, the lack of generosity—it was in and through everything.
It was into this world that Jesus sent his disciples. Instead of pointing the disciples towards the rich and powerful, those on top of the pile, or those who had climbed to the top on the backs of others, Jesus points them to the poor in spirit, mourners, meek and merciful folks, peacemakers, the persecuted, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And why? Why does Jesus want his followers to see these low-end people, these people who live at the bottom of the pile? Because it is in and through these people that the kingdom of God is built and sustained. God is not interested in power and riches and might; there is nothing inherently wrong with these, but they are not God’s primary focus. In Jesus, we see that God is interested in mercy and humility and peace and in people who know how to weave these things into the fabric of everyday life. That is what it means to be blessed by God—it means taking part in God’s constant renewal of the earth.
The poor in spirit are blessed because they know that their worth and value is not tied up in stuff, but in the kingdom of heaven. Mourners are blessed because they will know how to comfort others. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed because they have hope, hope that the world will one day be exactly as God wants it to be. The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers; all these folks are blessed because they know might doesn’t make right…love makes right. The people who are persecuted for their faith are blessed because God promises that no weapon formed against them will ever prevail. These are models for the disciples, and as the disciples live like these blessed folks, these saints, God’s kingdom will take shape around them. These are the people God uses to build the kingdom on earth, and they are just ordinary, common folks. This gave so much hope to the disciples that they too could have a significant impact on the world by being nothing other than what God had created them to be.
This is exceedingly good news for us. Our context, our world, isn’t terribly different from the world of the disciples. Power is still championed at the cost of so much; slavery might not be about chains anymore, but it is no less deadly. We still climb to wealth and social status on the backs of other people, and there is no end to the division between races, between people of faith, between people in our own households. And when we take it all in, when we honestly look at how things are, its a wonder that we don’t run and hide. These issues of our days are massive and complex, and it would be easy to say, “Well, we’ll leave that to the experts, or the smart people, or the government.” But that is not what God wants; that is not what Jesus preached on the mountain. Our task as people of faith is not to run and hide and leave it someone else; we’re also not called to be be heroes. We’re called to be saints who do the common and ordinary things with great big love. We're called to be exactly who God crated us to be.
This means that even though the number of hungry people in America continues to rise, saints will continue to feed people here at the church every Saturday and support local and state food banks. This means that even though the state of Oklahoma is slashing and burning public education and mental health services, saints will continue to tutor and mentor children and offer our prayers and support to organizations outside of school and church that are helping pick up the slack. This means that even though the divisions in our society seem to be getting deeper by the day—between the left and the right, between Democrats and Republicans, between blacks and whites, between Presbyterians and Baptists, between those who support this thing and those who hate it—saints will continue to reach across the aisle in the legislature and in the sanctuary, across the street and across the world. This means that even though negativity and doom, despair and depression are strangling us, saints will continue to preach the good news of the Gospel, they will continue to worship and sing and pray, and they will continue to have hope that nothing can separate this world from God’s great love. Yes, we will do all of these things. This is not heroic work and it certainly won’t be popular work; it is ordinary and common and the result will be nothing short of heaven on earth.
So are you up for the task? Are you ready to be a saint? Are you ready to do these common and ordinary things with great big amounts of love? This is the work we are called to as followers of Jesus. And here is some more good news: we never do it alone and we don’t have to fake it until we make it. We do this work together, and we do it surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses and saints who will show us the way. Let’s take their example today; let’s follow their lead. Let’s follow Cosmos and Damian and St. Helen and Joan of Arc and St. Francis and Fr. Rother and my grandpa. They were all of them ordinary saints of God, and God helping, we can be, too. Amen.