Of Superheroes and Saints


Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Odd as it may seem, my reflections on All Saints Sunday this year have been shaped by a cartoon, more specifically, the movie The Incredibles.” For those of you who might not be familiar with that flick, it is a 2004 American computer-animated superhero film, written and directed by Brad Bird and produced by Pixar Animation Studios. The action takes place in an alternative version of America in the 1960s where superheroes regularly assist law enforcement authorities in keeping the peace and protecting society from danger. But public opinion turns against the superheroes after several of their rescues and crime prevention measures result in significant collateral damage. Several lawsuits result, leading the government to initiate the Superhero Relocation Program. Under that initiative, “Supers” are required to assume secret identities, settle into quiet suburban neighborhoods and abandon their heroic exploits. Fifteen years after the act goes into effect, Bob and Helen Parr—formerly known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl—and their children are living in the quiet neighborhood of Metroville.

Bob works as an insurance agent in his new identity, a job he finds dull and unfulfilling. After losing that job for an act of insubordination, he becomes despondent. But then he receives a message from a mysterious woman called Mirage who employs him to destroy a savage tripod-like robot, the Omnidroid, on the remote island of Nomanisan. Bob battles and disables the robot by tricking it into ripping out its own power source. Bob finds the action rejuvenating and the resulting income welcome. What Bob does know is that the Omnidroid is the creation of Buddy Pine, a young man who worshiped Bob as Mr. Incredible in his childhood and sought unsuccessfully to become his sidekick. Bob dismissed Pine as a nuisance, rebuffing his childish efforts to follow him about on his heroic exploits. The frustration of Pine’s dream of becoming a superhero has made him bitter toward all the Supers. He has been using Mirage to lure superheroes, such as Bob, to Nomanisan where they are killed by Omnidroid.

I don’t want to be a spoiler for those of you who have not seen this remarkable film, so I will leave the narrative at this point and encourage you to watch it in its entirety.[1] I do, however, want to focus on Buddy Pine, the superhero fan turned villain. Buddy resents the Supers, not so much because they have powers he lacks. He hates them because they represent something he will never be, namely, a hero. Buddy, it seems, has no interest in protecting the public or fighting evil. He craves the status, the admiration and esteem in which the Supers were held in their heyday. In one very telling exchange with Mr. Incredible, Pine discloses his plan to murder all the Supers and set the Omnidroid loose on society. As he alone holds the key to disabling the Omnidroid, it will appear to all the world that Pine is a true superhero when he shuts the savage robot down. Anyone with the technology to manage it can be a superhero. “And when everyone is super, nobody will be.” Rather than raising himself up through aspiring to the Supers’ heroism, Buddy Pine would pull them all down to his own level.

So what does any of this have to do with All Saints? Well, it makes me wonder whether we protestants don’t cheapen the term “saint” when we apply it as liberally as we do. Yes, I understand that in some sense all the baptized are “saints” and that this status is conferred upon us by grace alone through faith-not by any effort on our part. That notwithstanding, “saint” is not a title I would willingly confer on myself. I cannot imagine telling anyone to “imitate me” as does Saint Paul. But there are people I believe are worth imitating and that I do my best to imitate, however imperfectly. I try to emulate Saint Augustine’s thirst for understanding and his devotion to articulating the Christian faith in the shadow of civilization’s collapse. I try to emulate St. Francis of Assisi’s devotion to the love and wellbeing of all creation. I struggle to emulate the courageous witness to Christ given by Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer under the weight of oppression and hostility. I try to practice the faithful devotion displayed by Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm community embodying God’s gentle reign on a violent planet . I do not come close to matching the work and witness of these saints. But I like to think that I am a better man for having spent my life trying.

We live in a cynical age where negative campaigning, tearing one another down and ruining reputations is the norm. Though it probably is not fair to blame social media for all of this, there is no doubt that it has exacerbated the problem. Many voices I hear regularly on social media take a perverse delight in exposing the shortcomings and failures of public figures, be they politicians, preachers or journalists. Of course, corruption, falsehood and hypocrisy need to be exposed. No apology is required for that. But I sometimes worry that our overheated zeal for “cutting the fat ones down to size” amounts to nothing more than a desire for a world where “everyone is super” and therefore nobody is. I worry that we are lending credence to the jaded assumption that all politicians are corrupt liars, all journalists are purveyors of fake news, all preachers are hucksters, all religious people hypocrites, all cops are bullies, everybody is finally out for themselves alone and life is just a war of all against all. People who put their lives on the line for anything that doesn’t profit them are “suckers.” I worry that we are making for ourselves a world without heroes, saints or anything worth sacrificing for. That would be a bleak and sorry place. As the hymn reminds us, “A world without saints forgets how to praise.”[2]

If we are not seeing saints among us these days, perhaps it is because we are looking in the wrong places. Our culture celebrates power and success, but often sainthood lives under the shadow of weakness and failure. Heroism burns most brightly in the wake of defeat. I think of Heidi Heitkamp, formerly Senator of North Dakota, who was willing to vote on principle against confirmation of then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh-even though she knew it could and ultimately did result in her losing re-election. I think of a colleague of mine who had more than enough support for nomination as a synodical bishop, but declined because he felt that “the last thing the ELCA needs right now is another old white guy in its pantheon of bishops.” I think of Carolyn Grant, a sixty-three year old retired nurse with severe asthma symptoms, who voluntarily returned to practice last March, serving on the front lines in the fight against Covid-19. There are saints among us worthy of our emulation. We just need eyes to see them.

Most of us never rise to the level of saintly heroism anymore than saintly heroism rises to the level of Jesus’ perfect obedience to the will of his Father. But the courage, humility and willingness to put the wellbeing of neighbors and the priorities of God’s reign ahead of self interest displayed in the lives of the saints can inspire the rest of us to be better disciples of Jesus.

Here is a poem by Mary O’Donnell celebrating ordinary people living heroic lives and perhaps giving us a few clues about what sainthood looks like and where we might find it.

Unlegendary Heroes

Life passes through places.’

–P.J. Duffy, Landscapes of South Ulster

Patrick Farrell, of Lackagh, who was able to mow one acre and one rood Irish in a day. Tom Gallagher, Cornamucklagh, could walk 50 Irish miles in one day. Patrick Mulligan, Cremartin, was a great oarsman. Tommy Atkinson, Lismagunshin, was very good at highjumping—he could jump six feet high. John Duffy, Corley, was able to dig half an Irish acre in one day. Edward Monaghan, Annagh, who could stand on his head on a pint tumbler or on the rigging of a house.

          –1938 folklore survey to record the local people who occupied the South Ulster parish landscape.                                    

 * * *

Kathleen McKenna, Annagola,
who was able to wash a week’s sheets, shirts
and swaddling, bake bread and clean the house
all of a Monday.

Birdy McMahon, of Faulkland,
walked to Monaghan for a sack of flour two days before
her eighth child was born.

Cepta Duffy, Glennan,
very good at sewing—embroidered a set of vestments
in five days.

Mary McCabe, of Derrynashallog,
who cared for her husband’s mother in dotage,
fed ten children,
the youngest still at the breast during hay-making.
Mary Conlon, Tullyree,
who wrote poems at night.

Assumpta Meehan, Tonygarvey,
saw many visions and was committed to the asylum.

Martha McGinn, of Emy,
who swam Cornamunden Lough in one hour and a quarter.

Marita McHugh, Foxhole,
whose sponge cakes won First Prize at Cloncaw Show.

Miss Harper, Corley,
female problems rarely ceased, pleasant in ill-health.

Patricia Curley, Corlatt,
whose joints ached and swelled though she was young,
who bore three children.

Dora Heuston, Strananny,
died in childbirth, aged 14 years,
last words ‘Mammy, O Mammy!’

Rosie McCrudden, Aghabog
noted for clean boots, winter or summer,
often beaten by her father.

Maggie Traynor, Donagh,
got no breakfasts, fed by the nuns, batch loaf with jam,
the best speller in the school.

Phyllis McCrudden, Knockaphubble,
who buried two husbands, reared five children,
and farmed her own land.

Ann Moffett, of Enagh,
who taught people to read and did not charge.

Source: Unlegendary Heroes.(c. 1998 by Mary O’Donnell; pub. on Poetry Foundation Website). Mary O’Donnell (b. 1954) was born in County Monaghan to a Catholic middle-class family close to the border with Northern Ireland. She was educated at St. Louis Convent Monaghan and went to college at Maynooth University. There she earned a degree in German and philosophy and subsequently an MA in German studies. She also obtained a diploma in education and became a language and drama teacher. She married Martin Nugent when she was twenty-three and they had one daughter together. In 1988, O’Donnell left teaching to work as a Drama Critic and journalist on the Sunday Tribune. She also became a regular contributor to The Irish Times and several literary magazines. She published her first of four novels in 1992. O’Donnell taught creative writing at Maynooth University for eleven years. Today, she teaches Poetry on Galway University’s MA in Creative Writing. She is a member of the Irish Writers’ Union and a Board Member of the Irish Writers Centre. You can read more about Mary O’Donnell and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

[1] There have been several sequels, but I have not seen them and so cannot comment on them one way or the other.

[2] Rejoice in God’s Saints, Pratt Green, Fred, (c. 1973 Hope Publishing Co. & reprinted as Hymn 418 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (c. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America & Pub. by Augsburg Fortress).

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