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Diocesan Synod Mass (Henry Martyn)

St Paul’s Cathedral, Springfield–Isaiah 49:1-6, I Corinthians 9:16-23, Psalm 98:1-4, John 4:22-26

In some ways, this homily is going to be Part Two of the synod address that I just gave. In the serendipitous grace of the liturgical calendar, today is the lesser feast of Henry Martyn, who has a thing or two to teach us about commitment to and focus on the mission of the gospel.

Henry Martyn was born in 1781, which was not exactly a high-water mark in the history of the Church of England. Theology tended to be hazy, faith tended to be lukewarm, and devotion tended to be lax and shallow. Nonetheless, there were glowing embers scattered about, and young Henry came into contact with one of these embers when he went to study at Cambridge—a parish priest of uncommon evangelical zeal by the name of Charles Simeon. As a result of Simeon’s influence, Martyn turned his considerable gifts in both mathematics and the law toward service as a foreign missionary.

He was ordained deacon and priest, served as a curate for a while under his mentor Charles Simeon at Holy Trinity in Cambridge, and then took a position as a chaplain for the British East India Company—which was a somewhat ingenious strategy to become a missionary without technically becoming a missionary—leaving behind his family and the woman he had fallen in love with and whom he had not been able to persuade to marry him. During the ten months it took to travel from England to Calcutta, Martyn occupied himself with learning to read and write Urdu and Bengali. In addition to math and law, apparently, he had quite a facility for languages.

Martyn was 25 when he arrived in India in 1806, and served a chaplain in two locations over the next nearly five years. Although the duties for which we was paid involved ministering to the expatriate employees of the British East India Company, he reached out actively to the native population, and established connections with both Hindus and Muslims that were characterized by genuine mutual affection and respect. He was, of course, keen to introduce them to Jesus and to share the good news of the risen Christ with them in a compelling way. But he managed at the same time to avoid the pattern the many missionaries of that time fell into of regarding native peoples as inherently inferior. He in fact annoyed many of his fellow Brits by treating his Indian friends as equals, and seeking to understand especially Islam from a sympathetic, rather than antagonistic, point of view. Along the way, he translated the Book of Common Prayer, the entire New Testament, and the Psalms into Urdu, Arabic, and Persian. (It helps to know here that Persian was widely understood from India west all the way to Syria, which is quite a chunk of real estate.)

In 1810, when he was barely thirty years of age, Henry Martyn began to make his way back to England. His heart was pining away for the lady friend he had left behind, and he was resolved once again to persuade her to marry him and join him on the mission field. But he suffered from poor health—something that was then called consumption, but which we know now as tuberculosis. He had to take frequent periods of rest, and, even so, continued his work of evangelizing and translating as he traveled overland slowly, in fits and starts, across Iran and Iraq. He made it as far as Turkish Armenia, but died there at the tender age of 31 in October of 1812. The Armenian Christian community thought so highly of him that they gave him a burial with honors usually reserved for a senior bishop.

In the 49th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet is told that it is “too light a thing” that he announce the word of the Lord only to the house of Israel, but that is was called to be a light to the nations. Indeed, Henry Martyn became a light to the nations—more specifically, nationalities—both through his personal interaction and through his translating work. The Lord has called you and me to something slightly more modest—to be a light to central and southern Illinois. Surely the grace that equipped both the Prophet Isaiah and the missionary Henry Martyn for their work is also sufficient for us in ours.

St Paul talks about being “all things to all men that [he] might by all means save some.” Many in the history of Christian mission have imitated Paul in that, and certainly Henry Martyn may be numbered among them. He truly “moved into the neighborhood,” metaphorically pitching his tent in the midst of the camp of those whom he was impelled by the Holy Spirit to reach with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Can we catch this vision in the Diocese of Springfield? Just because most of the people around us speak English (though we should not forget that there are many who don’t) doesn’t mean we don’t have some “translating” to do. There are barriers of class, race, educational level, economic status, and culture that require the same sort of effort to transcend as Henry Martyn expended making the scriptures available in Arabic, Urdu, and Persian.

The Psalmist writes of the “victory of our God” being seen by “all the ends of the earth.” Henry Martyn was a powerful tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit toward that end, even in his brief life. He was given a massive beating heart for those who, like the Samaritan woman at the well, had gotten wind of a “Messiah” who would come to “teach [them] all things,” and who longed for the confident words of Jesus, “I who speak to you am he.” God’s unrelenting faithfulness is what drove and empowered Henry Martyn’s fruitful ministry. There were no happy endings involved; that much is obvious—not that we can yet see, at any rate. But Jesus offers us all the same deal—you, me, Henry Martyn. We are called to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves, to forget ourselves in order to know ourselves, and to be part of a rich harvest on the last day. Blessed Henry Martyn, pray for us. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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