Sunday, September 02, 2012

On the Martyrs of New Guinea

The word for today is “Theodicy.” and the question it poses is this: “Why does God allow good people to suffer, and why does God, so often, seem to let evil win the day?”

The question of theodicy comes fresh with the heartbreaking news this week of five Australian soldiers murdered in Afghanistan; it come in the moments when you sob for the young mother who dies too soon with a malignant cancer; or are touched in the ongoing sadness as an old friend lingers too long in the tightening grip of Alzheimer's. The question of theodicy wonders: “if God creates a good world, then why does this evil exist, why does evil seem to win so often?”

The question of theodicy comes when we see people, working to live with all their hearts, all their purpose and passion, sharing their hope, their life, their faith in all they believe to be good and true and beautiful; who end up suffering, dying for their witness, their beliefs, losing it all in the end. And the question of theodicy comes most poignantly today, when remember and honor those Christians martyred in New Guinea in September 1942.

Martyrs have always been part of the world, of the church.  Some would say it starts with the massacre of the Holy Innocents by Herod in the Gospel of Matthew;  others would say, after the crucifixion, when Stephen, the first deacon, is murdered in Jerusalem sharing his belief in the crucified and resurrected Christ. Paul, witnessing this death, will be converted to a new life in the church and will end up beheaded as a martyr in Rome. Peter will be crucified upside down, after telling his murderers he was not worthy to die on the same kind of cross as his master. In the end, ten of the twelve apostles will be martyred, killed for their beliefs, in those very early years. In the second century Tertullian writes that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

So others will follow: Justin, Perpetua and her companions, Ignatius of Antioch, Thecla, St Alban, St. Sebastian; the list goes on through the centuries. Sometimes kings and emperors do the dirty work, other times the church makes her own martyrs: we think of Thomas a Becket, Thomas Campion and Thomas More, of Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer.  

It happens all over the world. There have been martyrs of Uganda, of India, of the Spanish Civil War; martyrs like Maximillian Kolbe and Edith Stein in Auschwitz; Dietrich Bonhoeffer murdered in Germany at the same time; even the Roman Catholic Trappists martyred in North Africa in 1996, the Anglican Melanesian brothers martyred in the Solomon Islands in 2003, and that’s still a very small beginning in a very long list. 

But, at least for me, for many years, they all seemed so far from my life, perhaps because I could look away from these painful sacrifices. But then I came to Australia in 2001 and spent most of a decade at St. Peter's Eastern Hill, working in chaplaincy and university ministry as part of the ministry team, spending many Sunday mornings sitting in the sanctuary facing the three stained glass windows that Napier Wailer designed in1946 and dedicated to the New Guinea Martyrs who had died 4 years before that.

Looking at the windows and seeing the teachers, the nurses, the workers and priests, all murdered by the invading Japanese in early September 1942 - now 70 years ago - knowing in that congregation there were people who knew the people who had died, who still held pain in their hearts and still wondering why this great tragedy had taken place: there the martyrs blood, the growing seeds, the living stories, were closer than I had known. I could no longer look away, for the witness of the martyrs calls us to see.

This Diocese and this Cathedral are closely related to these events as well. Archbishop Sir Philip Strong, the Bishop of New Guinea during the war, retired to this Cathedral Close, would be remembered by some here today as a worshiping member of this community, was buried from this place.

In an 1981 sermon, he talked about those martyred in PNG: remembering when he suggested to one that she move to a safer  inland station, she asked to stay, saying, “what will the children do if I go?” He remembered another missionary, who, when asked what she would do if the Japanese came, replied, “We are in God's hands, ready to suffer… if he so wills:” just two of many stories concerning those ten martyrs. 

As Bishop Phillip said, “I felt humbled indeed after their deaths to realize I had seen in them the true martyr spirit of selfless devotion and I felt indeed that immediately they had passed through the transient sufferings, terrible though they may have been… [To a] glory [that] must've been unspeakable.” 

For the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. 

So, with such witnesses in our institutional memory and in our very midst, what can we say? How can we respond to such a costly witness of good over evil, even when evil appears to win, when we are so small, our faith so fragile, our witness so weak? How can we even begin? Perhaps we can only wait with empty hands for a good word, a comforting grace, to begin to renew us. For, as TS Eliot writes, “The only thing we can hope to acquire is humility, humility is endless.’ And as for being small, Sr Joan Chittister writes this:

“Small is not nothing and empty is not bereft. To be small is to need, to depend on the other. Smallness bonds us to the rest of the human race and frees us from the arrogant isolation that kills both the body and the soul. To be empty is to be available inside to attend to something other than the self. We become full of the blessings of life.

The witness of these saints and martyrs, their loving lives in the face of death, can enable our witness and help us to find the grace to accept ourselves as we are, help us to move forward as we can; to witness, to take pains, to act out and witness God’s love in the larger world, according to our ability, according to our call. Again, as Chittister writes: 

“Then, emptied out by the awareness of our own smallness, we may have the heart to identify with those whose emptiness, whose poverty of spirit and paucity of life is involuntary. Then, we may be able to become full human beings ourselves, full of compassion and full of consciousness.” 

For we stand on common ground with these martyrs in the light of the great hope we have been given, as witnessing members of the community that journeys together in the belief that Jesus Christ is true; that what he said, and where he walked, and what he, did all point to a reality that is almost good beyond belief. 

We spend our lives living up to this truth: that the God who creates the whole universe is willing to be found in the midst of the very fragility of human being, in the life of Jesus; and in the work and witness, the suffering and resurrection of our lives and in those we love as well; willing to be known in the intimacy of the Holy Spirit; in the beating of our hearts, in the rhythm of our breath, and the seasons of our growing and waning and rising, where we witness as they did, as we can.

So we gather here this morning, sharing with them in the hope of an unspeakable glory, in the light of a faith that, in the end, all wounds are healed, all hearts made whole, and all hopes will finally come home. We stand with them and witness that God's will will be done, in the faith that love will finally win at the last.

Dear and Holy Martyrs of New Guinea:

Margery Brenchley
John Duffill
Leslie Gariadi
May Hayman
Henry Holland
Lilla Lashmar
Henry Matthews
Mavis Parkinson
Vivian Redlich
Lucian Tapedi

And all you who stand near God in that eternal light;
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen

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