October 2, 2011

 

ON LITTLE GIRLS WHO BECAME SAINTS

Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 2 October 2011
 
 
Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-19
Reading for the Epistle:                Romans 16: 1-15
Reading for the Gospel:                     Luke 1: 26-38

 

Thank Heavens, for little girls,
For little girls get bigger every day.
Thank Heavens, for little girls.
They grow up in the most delightful way.
Those little eyes
So helpless and appealing,
One day will flash
And send you crash-
Ing to the ceiling!
Thank heavens, for little girls.
Thank Heavens for them all
No matter where, no matter who.
Without them what would little boys do?

So sang Maurice Chevalier in “Gigi” back in 1959!  For those of us who are fathers, our daughters are always special, and no matter how tall they get, how many years they acquire, they will always be our little girls.  There is no man in the world worthy of them, and should some fellow or other be fortunate enough to marry one of our daughters, he had better be sure to treat her with all the respect to which she is entitled.  But though she gets married, or, rather, deigns to get married, she is still her father’s daughter. What is the old saying?  A son is a son till he gets him a wife.  A daughter’s a daughter for all of your life. There is a very special and significant relationship between a father and a daughter, one that a good father jealously and zealously does his very best to maintain and retain.  Forgive me if I boast, but my daughters are the finest daughters ever born to a man, and I shall love them with all a father’s love for ever.

But today we think about other men’s daughters, each of whom in her own way went off and did what she felt she had to do.  And they did so as young women, some of them even as teenagers.

Our Bible readings have introduced us to a bevy of young women who did what they had to do.  In many cases it might not have been what their fathers might have wished.  We started with Ruth, who as a young woman chose to marry a man who was a refugee from another country, indeed one with which her own had been at odds off and on for centuries.  When both she and her mother-in-law were widowed very swiftly one after the other, Ruth made the deliberate choice of staying with her mother-in-law, Naomi, even returning to Naomi’s own country rather than going back home to her own family.  Naomi did her utmost to persuade Ruth from taking that serious step, but Ruth insisted, and, as we know, she married again and became an ancestress of King David and eventually of Jesus, our Saviour.

Our second reading is one that you will seldom hear in the course of public worship.  It looks like just a list of names, and in one sense it is.  What matters are the names on the list.  These are twenty-four people, of various ethnicities, who made up the leadership of the very early Church in Rome, before there were church buildings, at a time when it was dangerous to be a Christian.  Of those twenty-four names, nine are of women.  Some are the wives of Christian men, but others are not.  Some are apparently quite young.  Two of them are sisters.  Among them is a woman whom Paul, who is the one who drew up the list, describes as a bishop, while another is a Deacon.  What is significant is that when Paul drew up this list he had never yet visited Rome.  Yet so active were these nine women in the life of the Church that their reputations had spread across the seas.  Unlike Ruth, as far as we know, none of them had ever travelled far from Rome, and all of them had chosen deliberately to lay aside their ancestral faiths to follow Jesus, with all the potential danger and risk that that would have entailed.

The young woman in our third Bible reading is perhaps the most beloved of all women in the Bible. Certainly we make much of her in the Anglican Communion.  At one time, prior to the Reformation, she was the Patron Saint of England, and there are more Anglican churches in England dedicated to her than to any other saint.  In my years of ordained ministry I have served on the staff of three churches dedicated to her, in England, in Kenya and in the United States.  She is, of course, the mother of our Saviour.  It is very easy to get emotional about her, but how many times have you stopped to think just how heroic she was?  At the time of the Annunciation she was probably in her very early teens.  We are so familiar with the story as we have it in Luke.  It’s been around for nineteen and a half centuries.  But go back to the day that it happened.  Mary comes home and describes an encounter with a strange man as a result of which she is pregnant!  By the standards of her time her parents, and in particular her father, should have put her to death!  Even today, in families of her culture this is what happens.  Just last month it was reported how a father in Libya had killed his three teenage daughters because they had been raped by some soldiers. Laws have been passed in the United Kingdom in an attempt to stamp out this practice in some immigrant communities there.  That is the sort of challenge the young, teenaged Mary faced when confronted by that stranger in the fields outside her village.  And Mary, young as she was, dared to agree, full knowing what might happen to her.

Now let us step outside the framework of the Bible.  I want to take you to a city far away on the banks of the Mekong in south-east Asia.  The city is called Vientiane, and it is the capital of Laos.  I’ve been there several times and have spent hours just wandering around the streets and lanes that make up the city.  I have taken lots of photographs, of people, places and things.  One of the photographs is of what looks like a tomb.  Carved in very rough letters is one word in Lao, a language I do not know even though I know the alphabet.  But underneath this word are three lines in French: “ICI DORT UNE JEUNE FILLE DE PAKSE QUI AIMAIT CHANTER.”  It is all in capital letters and the carving is very rough.  The carver thought he would run out of space so he carved the last five words with no gaps between them.  “Here sleeps a young girl from Pakse who used to love to sing.”  We know nothing about her, except that she had left home, made the long journey to the national capital, where she died young, and all anyone knew about her was that she used to love to sing.  We do not even know her name.  We do not know why she left home, or what she was doing in Vientiane.  But she obviously brought pleasure to someone because she sang to him and he thought it was important enough to recall that fact about her even if he did not know her name.  I mention this young girl in this context this morning because she chose to go off from home and communicate her joy and happiness to others, even though she did it anonymously.

There used to be three Christian places of worship in Vientiane, but when the Pathet Lao took over the reins of Government in the 1970s they confiscated the Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit and turned it into a gymnasium for their militia.  The second place of Christian worship was a small storefront chapel run by a group that called itself the Evangelical Protestants.  And the third place of worship was the Roman  Catholic  cathedral,  dedicated  to  Sainte  Jeanne  d’Arc.    We  used  to  celebrate  the  Anglican Eucharist there sometimes and the Bishop would attend with all his clergy sitting in the front row.  I once asked him why a Roman Catholic place of worship in Vientiane in Laos would be named for so popular a French saint as Jeanne d’Arc.  He just smiled and asked me answer the question for myself.  I knew that Laos is a country that has suffered occupation from many other nations over the centuries.  The Thai and Vietnamese have been arguing over it for centuries.  Then the French held it for perhaps a century or more.  More recently it was under the sway of United States authorities and then that of the Soviet Union. It is a nation living on its own territory but under the domination of others.  And in that regard it is like the France of Jeanne d’Arc.  Her contribution to the history of her people was, as a teenager, to encourage the French king to show some valour and energy and to do something about the situation in which his country found itself.  At the command of the voices that she believed were those of God’s angels, she had urged the king to be a man and throw off English rule in France, and in a few short years that happened. She stood at his side when he was crowned King of France.  She herself was eventually captured by the English and handed over to the Church for trial as a heretic, and she was condemned as such and burned at the stake.  Incidentally, the evidence that was taken as conclusive that she was indeed a heretic was that she had dared to put on the uniform of a soldier and dressed as a man!  When I had thought my way through all this, as the Bishop stood there waiting for me to finish, he again just smiled and slightly nodded.  In a land where the Government keeps close tabs on everyone there was not much more the Bishop could do.  Yet the teenage Jeanne d’Arc, whose statue graces the cathedral, remains an inspiration to a country looking to regain its total freedom.

And so, at last, we come to the final teenage daughter of a father who had very clear ideas as to who and what his daughter should be.  She is our patron, but not only ours but the patron of dozens of churches across Spain and France and England.  There is even a state capital here in this country named for her. Faith or Foie or Foy or Fay, spelt F-A-Y or F-E, Holy Faith, Santa Fe, has lent her name in one form or another to churches and townships across three countries in Western Europe and elsewhere.  Her marriage with the son of another prominent family in south-western France, as we call it today, was supposed to seal a business relationship to the advantage of both, but Foie was having nothing of it.  We cannot be sure what name she had been given by her family, back there fifteen hundred years and more ago, but she had taken Foie, Faith, as her Christian name, when she gave herself to her Saviour, to Jesus.

She chose, at a time when it was foolhardy to do so, to commit herself, body and soul to the love and the leadership of Jesus.  Like all the other women we have considered this morning, her memory lives on in the contribution that she made through that act of commitment.  It was to cost her her life, as the same sort of commitment had cost Jeanne d’Arc her life.  Faith, like Jeanne, was burned to death.  But as with Ruth, and the Christian ladies of Rome, and Mary, and as of this morning the young girl from Pakse who used to love to sing, her life and that of Jeanne d’Arc have affected lives all around the world.

Once upon a time, they were all little girls, whose little eyes were so appealing to their loving fathers. But then came flashes of inspiration and off they went to meet their destinies, destinies that have made such significant contributions to others, far away from their native villages and communities.  Dare it be hoped that as each of you leave here today, whether you’re a teenager or not, whether you are somebody’s daughter or somebody’s son, you will so live out the rest of your lives as to affect the lives of others way beyond the community in which we now find ourselves?