On Failure and Faithfulness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon March 13, 2019, the commemoration of Bishop James Theodore Holly, at All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA. The lectionary text cited is John 4:31-38.

As we settle into the reflective season of Lent, and as I look beyond graduation to whatever lies ahead, there is one thing that I am acutely aware of: despite all of my personal formation at seminary, I am still deeply afraid of failure.

And that can show up in a lot of ways: failing to do well in classes, failing to find the right church position, failing to maintain my integrity in difficult conversations, failing to find a life partner, failing to deliver an effective sermon…and the list goes on. Despite the wisdom that our tradition offers about the value of humility and the holy foolishness of the Cross and the preeminence of love over success, I still find myself operating in a system that categorizes life and its activities in terms of success, failure, and the spectrum of perceived merit that lies in between those two poles.

This is certainly true in seminary, where we are constantly graded and assessed, and I suspect most of us will continue to encounter something similar in the institutional church or wherever we do our work. My fear of failure, in its many permutations, will likely be a demon I wrestle with for a very long time. Maybe I am not the only one who struggles with this.

Hold onto that thought for a minute. I’d like to offer you a story:

On March 13th, 1911, James Theodore Holly died in his sleep at a church rectory in Port au Prince, Haiti. He was the founding missionary of the Episcopal Church in that country, and had been ordained as the missionary bishop of the church in Haiti in 1874, the first African American in the Episcopal Church to enter into that order of ministry. If you read the official commemorative materials about Holly, that’s mostly what you’re going to learn about him. But, as with every life, the story is far more complex.

At the time of his death, Holly’s ministry was, in the eyes of many, a story of continuous disappointment and unrealized dreams:

  • The main church in Port au Prince had burned down a couple of years prior, in 1908, and there was essentially no support from the American church to help rebuild it. His attempts to raise money for a church endowment through speaking tours across the U.S. were similarly unfruitful.
  • A combination of ongoing political unrest and natural disasters in Haiti had proved immensely detrimental to the growth of the mission, beginning almost immediately upon its initiation in 1861.
  • The Bishops and other church leaders in the United States, because of the Civil War; because of their own personal preoccupations; and, let’s be honest, because of deep seated cultural and institutional racism, had been lukewarm at best in providing any resources to an autonomous black church in an autonomous black nation state.
  • Furthermore, Holly’s initial dream—the dream that launched the whole mission in the first place—to inspire a mass emigration of black Americans to Haiti through the building up of a strong, national church, was largely rejected by black persons who, in the years before and after the Civil War, preferred to stay in the US, their homeland, and fight for equality there.

Holly arrived in Haiti 1861 with 101 people as part of his church mission; 80% of them died or left within a year; his own wife and young children were among the dead. 50 years later, when he died, the church severely lacked resources and had not yet reached 2,000 communicants. One publication, in announcing his death, assessed his life and ministry curtly by observing that the church in Haiti “has not prospered so greatly as was at one time hoped.”

Some eulogy.

In the US, at the time of his death, he was largely dismissed or forgotten. The only officially recorded acknowledgment of his death by The Episcopal Church was a note in the board minutes to strike his salary from the budget for the remainder of 1911.

And so I ask you: was James Theodore Holly’s ministry a failure?

I would say, firmly, no, but we could debate that question for a long time. And if we did, we’d have to account for many things:

  • The racism and oppression that impeded his work from the very start.
  • The political and historical and theological contexts that shaped his decisions and those of the people he encountered.
  • The relative meanings of failure and success as measured over time and the criteria used to do so.
  • The fact that the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti is, today, both the largest diocese in our Church in terms of membership and yet is one still beset with a number of challenges.

Yes, I am sure we could ponder the question of whether Bishop Holly failed or not for a very long time indeed.

But it’s the wrong question to ask.

It is the wrong question that we keep askingabout our spiritual forebears and about ourselves. Failure and success are the wrong modes of assessment. They are, through the metaphor of today’s Gospel passage, the wrong type of food with which we keep filling our plates, over and over again.

 “’He said to them, I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, surely no one has brought him something to eat? Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.'”

The demand of Christ on our lives is not a demand to be successful.

I am coming to see, more and more, that the demand of Christ on my life is to forget the language of success and failure, and to let myself instead be governed and judged by faithfulness. Faithfulness to the will of the One Who has called me; faithfulness to the vision of the kingdom that God is revealing in our midst.

This simple, daily faithfulness, made up of the longing in our hearts for God and the steadfast trust and devotion which we lay at the feet of Jesus in all that we do: this is the sole criteria of our discipleship.

Not the degrees we earn or the income we gather.

Not the churches we help grow.

Not the titles we acquire or the vestments we are allowed to put on.

Because if we use those things as the ultimate measure, as ends in themselves, then we get mired in the landscape of success and failure, and we might start to believe the toxic lie that our shifting fortunes serve as indicators of God’s favor upon us.

“Do you not say, four months more, then comes the harvest?” Jesus chides his disciples. But what if the crop fails? What if life is not what you expected it to be? What if the church burns down and the money stops coming in and you die, disregarded and poor, in your bed? How can the language of success and failure ever get to the heart of what you have faced, what you have learned, whom and what you have loved?

It can’t. We have to toss that language out. Our lives are sown and reaped not in power and influence and success, but in faithfulness—in fidelity and love, which gives us new vision, a new mode of assessment. It is by our faithfulness which we reveal the extent to which we have embedded our lives in God.

“But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.”

Whatever else can be said of James Theodore Holly, whatever the ups and downs of his life and ministry, he saw the ripe fields of God’s kingdom, and he was faithful to that vision. His fervent advocacy for the liberty and self-determination of black Americans; his unflagging belief in the potential of the nation of Haiti and in the church’s role there; and fundamentally, his unfailing trust in the liberating, life-giving God he found in Jesus Christ—these are the marks of a faithful disciple. These are the reasons we commemorate him today. He inspires me to let go of my fear of failure and my hunger for success, and challenges me to dwell in faithfulness, no matter what happens next.

Because if his life is a failure, then may God grant each of us the grace so to live, and so to fail.

220px-James_theodore_holly

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