Lesser Feast of Henry Martyn, Priest and Missionary—Psalm 98:1-4
Just a few minutes ago, this church resounded with the full-throated singing of a refrain from Psalm 98: “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.” Let’s just allow our minds to play with that refrain for a bit. Let your mind’s eye paint the picture of “all the ends of the earth” seeing the “victory of our God.” God’s “victory” is warranted—guaranteed, testified to—by the “success” of his intervention through the Messiah—the Anointed One, the Christ—God’s intervention in which the realm of sin and death is defeated, and the Kingdom of Heaven made manifest—that is, made visible and available for all to see and know. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
It is in this context, then—the context of God’s victory—that we celebrate the feast of Henry Martyn, Priest and Missionary at this synod Eucharist. Henry Martyn was a young man … who never became an old man. He was born in 1782 in Cornwall, and although his family was neither aristocratic nor inordinately wealthy, they were modestly well off, and Henry was able to obtain a Cambridge education. While in college, intending to pursue a career in law, he had a conversion experience, and his life was completely turned around. His imagination was fired by stories of missionary endeavors in far-off lands—America, Africa, and Asia. He soon found himself ordained deacon and priest in the Church of England, and then a missionary in India, and a little later in Persia, which is now Iran. He devoted himself to learning the language and culture of both places, and showed an enormous aptitude for doing so. He translated large portions of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Hindustani, Urdu, and Persian. After only a few years, however, his health deteriorated. He started to travel back to England to recover, but he didn’t make it. On October 16, 1812—two hundred years and three days ago—Henry Martyn died in Turkey at the age of 31. When he had first arrived in India only six years earlier, he exclaimed, “Now let me burn for God.” He probably didn’t realize how quickly he would indeed burn out for God, nor, I suspect, would he have cared. Henry Martyn was, as we sometimes say nowadays, “all in.” All in.
The witness of Henry Martyn calls us to deep self-examination. As a diocese, are we “all in”? As the bishop of this diocese, am I all in? This is a question I must ask myself again every day. How about you? Are you all in? Is your parish or mission congregation—your Eucharistic Community—all in?
These are not merely abstract questions. Being “all in” eventually becomes very concrete. In Henry Martyn’s case, this took the form of what I can only call “godly shrewdness.” In essence, he piggybacked on a wealthy corporation, the East India Trading Company, by getting himself hired as a chaplain to its expatriate employees in India. He then used that job as a base for his missionary efforts among the natives there. In the language of our Lord’s parable, he made “friends with unrighteous mammon.
As we strategize for the missionary challenges we face in a society that is no longer substantially Christian, we do well to ask ourselves, What is it about our culture that we can righteously exploit—you heard me, righteously exploit—for the sake of the gospel? What might we piggyback on, the way Henry Martyn piggybacked on the East India Trading Company, for the sake of showing “all the ends of the earth” the “victory of our God? I don’t have a definitive opinion on what the answer to these question is, but I have a strong suspicion that it has something to do with deeply listening to what people around us say is causing them anxiety and fear. It may be that we eventually lead them past those anxieties and fears—that is, past their felt needs—to where their deepest needs actually are, the needs that can only be satisfied by a saving knowledge of Jesus in the communion of his Church. But it all begins with listening. Careful listening.
Of course, one could make a case that the signal accomplishment of Henry Martyn’s short life was his interaction with native peoples in their own language, and his translation of the scriptures into those languages. Henry Martyn proclaimed the gospel, as the English reformers expressed it 250 years before him, in a language “understanded of the people.”
As we draw inspiration from his witness, what “languages” do we need to learn in order to effectively pursue mission in central and southern Illinois, bearing in mind that languages have as much to do with cultural outlook as it does with what words we form with our lips. Urbanized young adults in college towns like Bloomington-Normal, as well as Champaign and Carbondale and other places, have a cultural language. Those who have pursued the vocation of agriculture in rural areas for generations have a cultural language. Those whose families have suffered poverty for generations have a cultural language. The residents of middle class suburban subdivisions in the Darrow Deanery have a cultural language—and as Episcopalians, I would suspect, this may actually be our native tongue! All these groups and others—we haven’t even mentioned Spanish speakers—all these groups and others are part of the “ends of the earth” that hunger to see the victory of our God, and our mission is to show them that victory in a language they can understand.
Henry Martyn was certainly willing to pour out his life for the sake of the gospel. We have all sorts of safeguards these days to protect people like him from burnout. Somebody would have intervened before he got so sick. But the concept of burnout was not in the vocabulary of the time, and I’m not at all sure Henry Martyn would have been all that receptive to a burnout intervention anyway. He probably considered it an honor to die as he did and when and where he did. St Paul used the image, speaking of his own life, as a libation—a drink offering—poured out on the ground in service to the gospel, and I’m quite sure Henry was familiar with that image, and would have delighted in emulating it.
So this brings us back around to the “all in” question. Henry Martyn left a legacy. There are probably Christian communities in India today that are there precisely because of Henry Martyn’s missionary efforts. Other missionaries have been inspired to service because of his example, and missionary societies have been formed to pick up where he left off. Yet, one gets the impression that leaving a legacy was the last thing on his mind, that he would have been content for his name to fade into obscurity along with his dying breath.
Ironically, then, we honor Henry Martyn’s legacy best by not being concerned with our own! Instead, we honor his legacy by being content to pour out our lives as he did and be forgotten in the next generation, confident that the mission we are engaged in is indeed God’s own mission, resting in the knowledge that God will see to the fruition of his mission, and that all the ends of the earth will indeed see the victory of our God. Blessed Henry Martyn, pray for us. Amen.