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

Poems on the Road

I’m on a night train heading through the Oregon wilderness, and I decided to share a couple poems I jotted down recently. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the spirituality of love and desire this past year, and these are small, imaginative windows into that journey, one from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, and the other from Judas Iscariot. Hope they resonate for you in some way. Peace, friends.

Magdalene

I needed you so much that
I whispered my deepest longings into a jar
And poured its dark sweetness upon your feet
Not that you would grant them, but
That you would absorb them into your self
My desire like sweat on your skin

I wept tears of love so pure and burning
that they felt like grief
Salt water sonnets
Braided through my hair like jewels or
Serpents

And just now
In the garden of re-encounter
Which never looks like the old days
When love was initial:
I saw
Briefly, ever so
The glimmer of my longing, and my tears
Transfigured into something selfless and whole
In you

Do not hold on
You said
Not because I shouldn’t love you
(Impossible)
But because my love
Reached its home in
Your heart
The sweetness and the salt are yours now
Ours now
The world’s now
Now, always
Anointing
Washing
Outpouring
Shameless
Free

 

Judas

You offered me the cup, said it was your blood.
Oh how I hated you, and loved you
For your generosity
When all I wanted was to bite your flesh and make you bleed from my desire.
You called me by name once
And I thought I loved you
Purely, selflessly
But now I know I wanted what i thought you were
What I needed you to be
Most beautiful of men
And when I realized that your inner light was as perfect as your shining face
I hated you, because I could not possess you for myself
Apple, flesh, my joy and sweet poison
They killed you and I thought I’d find relief
From your perfection
But there is no rest apart from you.
My tears are silver discs
And I weep, not for you, Who is peace itself
But for myself, because I realize
We could never have been united
Until I let you be Yourself. And I couldn’t.
My desire was misplaced.
I long for you still.
I will join you.
Beyond death, somehow, find me.

Sermon: A Tale of Two Liturgies

I preached this sermon today, November 27th, at All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA. It was given as my senior-year sermon for the Master of Divinity program. Lectionary texts are Revelation 14:14-20 and Luke 21:5-9.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” (Luke 21:9)

This morning, in the midst of these apocalyptic readings from Revelation and the Gospel of Luke, I felt called to share a word…about liturgy. If my time at CDSP has taught me anything, it’s that there is nothing—absolutely nothing—more essential for us to talk about than liturgy.

But I’m not being glib or preciously High-Church when I say this, nor am I just giving a shout-out to Dr. Meyers. Liturgies—understood broadly as those ongoing structures of relational action in which we participate—are what define us. The daily liturgies of our lives shape our reality and determine the parameters of our hope.

And so, in light of today’s Gospel passage, I would ask that we sit here a moment with Jesus, gazing up at the finely ornamented temple of 21st century life in this country, and I would ask us to consider the “wars and insurrections” of our time, and how they form a twisted, macabre liturgy of their own. A liturgy of Death.

In this liturgy, the hymns are composed with the staccato of gunshots, and incense rises up in clouds of tear gas. In this liturgy, the Gloria is sung to acclaim the power of whiteness and the prayers of the people read like a shopping list. In this liturgy the prophets preach the commodification of well-being and the anesthetic of endless, consumable content. This Death liturgy is the shiny, shambling procession toward the void of human possibility: the howling emptiness we sometimes call sin, and we perceive its highly effective “missional outreach” whenever we read the daily news headlines.

But this liturgy is not the exclusive possession of our age. Our compulsion for death, both physical and spiritual, has always been with us. The blood in the ground cries out to bear witness through the generations. And this is why Jesus tells us, “these things must happen.” Because we are enthralled by sin. Wars and insurrections and toppling temples must happen, not because God needs them or delights in them, but because they are the perverse oblation of the liturgy of Death, the destructive “work of the people” that inevitably occurs in the absence of God’s grace.

It is this liturgy of destruction that is attested, also, in the book of Revelation, where the harvest of the earth is crushed by God’s winepress. But lest we misread the text, we must remember: the blood that flows from the winepress is not that of the wicked in the hands of a vengeful deity, but the blood of the martyrs. We kill the martyrs. Like Christ before them, they are trampled by Death’s liturgical procession and their lives are poured out over the earth.

We see this already, every day. In the liturgy of Death, the innocent are slain on the altars of nationalism, economic exploitation, homophobia, misogyny…and the list goes on. And in our complicity, in the things we have done and left undone, we bow at the altar of death and drink the blood of our victims. It is a bitter cup, and in those last days it will taste like wrath to those who drink it. This is the liturgy to which we are bound.

Except…

We are here, now, because we have encountered and been reborn into a different liturgy. The liturgy of God’s love. The liturgy of Life with a capital L. This is what Christ offers us in his resurrected body: the promise of Life, and the absolute rebuke of humanity’s penchant for death and destruction. His empty tomb destroys the lie that Death’s liturgy leads to our final resting place, or that God’s ultimate posture is one of destruction. God is revealed in the resurrection of Jesus as God has always been—permanently creative, eternally life-giving, infinitely merciful.

And God’s liturgy is so beautiful, so poetic, because it takes the very instruments of Death’s liturgy and transforms them into signs of hope. The cross, an instrument of torture, becomes the banner of victory. The innocent blood poured out becomes the cup of life, the cup of forgiveness. And thus the winepress of the wrath of God is revealed for what it truly is: the beating, bleeding heart of Christ, spilling out, flooding the earth, inundating the liturgy of death, drowning it with life.

This is our choice then: which liturgy will we inhabit today? Will we orient our hearts toward the altar of Death, or that of Life?

We are here, at CDSP and in the Church, because no matter how loudly Death processes in the streets, we choose the liturgy of Life, over and over again. We have been given the gift of spending time here in this community, exploring the contours of God’s love, finding words to describe it and to share with those whom we will serve elsewhere. We are here to embody that Life-giving liturgy with one another, and to let it shape us. We are here, too, because we have seen the liturgy of Death, each in our own personal way. We have peered into the void, and we have heard God’s NO:

NO to death’s proclamation of expendability,

NO to its mockery of the life which God has declared good,

NO to its glittering idols of self-interest.

We have heard the NO to Death and we are saying Amen, Amen, Amen, come, Lord Jesus, come and give us Life once more.

When we choose to be swept up in the liturgy of Life, when we perceive its unconquerable movement, we come to understand Jesus’ words a bit better: these wars and insurrections must take place, this temple will fall, this river of blood must flow, but you, child of God, you do not have to be terrified, because you know that the Lord is not guiding us toward destruction, but is reshaping us, guiding us back into our proper relationship with Life. Death itself is the only thing that will be destroyed.

This is the Good News that our liturgy tells us. May we be ever mindful of its power, and ever grateful for its promise.