Normally I wouldn't care too much about such liturgical intricacies except for this: it's a bit unsettling to me personally because it was on this day, twenty years ago, that I was ordained to the priesthood. And when I was ordained at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, CT, it was most definitely the Feast of the Martyrs of Japan and not the Feast of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson! In any case, I was supposed to be the preacher and celebrant today at our diocesan staff Eucharist. But we in New England are in the midst of a big n'oreaster today and I'm working from home. Even so, I had prepared a homily for this occasion, which I am glad to share below.
This day is a day near and dear to my heart. Twenty years ago today —on February 5, 1994—I was ordained a priest at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, CT. That date did not actually mark the beginning of my ordained life however; as my brother and some of my closest friends never fail to remind me it was the third ordination liturgy that they endured on my behalf. In June of 1993, I had been ordained a deacon at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford; it's just how we do it. And five years before that I’d been ordained in the United Methodist Church in June 1988 at Elm Park Church in Scranton, PA. I do “count” those years prior to coming into the Episcopal Church as important and happy ones in my ordained life, which means that I am now into my twenty-sixth year of ordained life.
Even so, this day of my priestly ordination is the one that I remember best and an easy one to remember since it is also my mother's birthday! It also gives me a chance to reflect on where I have been and where I am heading in my vocational life as a priest. And not just me (since it’s not all about me!) but a chance to reflect on God’s mission in the world and how the Church is called to share in that work, always with God’s help.
What I have come to see as the most important thing to say about those martyrs who died for their fidelity to Christ in Japan in the sixteenth century is that by all human accounts they failed. Listen again to these words in the write-up from Holy Women, Holy Men and be sure to hear between the lines:
…these initial successes were compromised by rivalries among the religious orders, and the interplay of colonial politics, both within Japan and between Japan and the Spanish and Portuguese, aroused suspicion about western intentions of conquest.
Rivalries among Christians are not new. We are very often our own worst enemies, are we not? We very often are not all on the same page within Christ’s holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We really could indeed move mountains if we could ever get two or three on earth to agree about anything, but since we carry this treasure in earthen vessels we don’t always or even mostly get it right. I was so struck last month by a piece written by Tom Ehrich in The Washington Post, entitled "Church Shouldn't Be This Hard." He wasn’t talking about faith or our life in Christ or responding to Jesus’ call to take up our cross; that is meant to be hard. He was talking about how we treat each other and how we work together in the Church—that too often we aren’t any better than the wolves on Wall Street in how we act. But it is what it is, so in the meantime we muddle along, trying to make the best of it. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, we have to learn to deal with the Church we get in all its imperfection, rather than the wish-dream of the Church we idealistically imagine God should have formed.
By all human accounts, the martyrs of Japan failed. They fought turf battles and then they suffered and then they were killed. If nothing else it is a reminder that death is not the end, but the way that leads to new life. The Way of the Cross really is the way that leads to new and abundant life. So even at the grave we make our song. The seeds of faith were planted even by their deaths, just as the death of their Lord had done some sixteen hundred years before them. So, too with us. As one of my my favorite prayers puts it, "our failures and disappointments" can be occasions for us to put our whole trust in God.
It is interesting to have such a day on which to reflect on one’s ministry and the wider ministry of the Church, especially since we live at a time when it is such a great a temptation to measure our dignity and worth by our successes.What does it mean to have a theology of failure, and of weakness, in a society where winning isn't everything but the only thing? I take their witness to mean, in this comparatively safe context of our diocese and in the relatively secure contexts in which my ordained life has unfolded that we must learn to measure “success” and “failure” in this work we are called to share as God’s people in very different ways than those used in the corporate world. It is tempting for us to look to some “bottom line” in our congregations: attendance figures, pledge income, enrollment in church school. All of those may well be indicators of health, but they cannot tell us about whether or not ministry is happening there. Those measures can be alluring, but we must guard against that allure.
Today’s gospel reading puts it succinctly and also reminds us that while it is the martyrs of Japan that we remember here today, their witness and the witness of all the saints who from their labors rest point us to the one they were willing to take up their crosses and follow: Jesus of Nazareth, the one we claim as the Way and the Truth and the Life. They remind us, as he did, that we only find the life that is worth living when we are willing to lose the secure (but false) lives we are tempted to build for ourselves and hold onto. Almost fifty-one years into my baptismal vows and more than half of those as an ordained person, and now twenty as an Episcopal priest, I know I don’t have that much faith yet. But I pray with that man who said, “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”
This vocation is not only to the ordained, of course. It is God’s call to all of us and we are in this together and eight months or so into this work now here, in this place, I believe that more and more every day. As a staff we are more than the bishop and more than the canons and more than the diocesan staff. We share this work in the name of Christ as Clergy Days and Warden-Vestry Leadership Days and Convention come up and every time the phone rings or an email is sent. The work of following this way of the cross is shared by all of us and beyond this room to every congregation in this diocese. And part of what I see a bit more clearly eight months into this work than I did as a rector of one of the healthier congregations in our diocese, is that we are only as strong as our weakest link. So part of our ongoing work is to continue to build up and strengthen the whole Body.
For us, this work is nearly impossible. But with God, all things are possible. The Holy Spirit is always at work, even in the midst of what we see as our biggest failures, bringing life out of death. I look forward to watching the Spirit continue to do Her thing as we continue, with God’s help, to do the work we have been given to do. Amen.