Feast of Bernard Mizeki
Revelation 7:13-17; Psalm 124; Luke 12:2-12
When reading the lessons appointed for today, I could not get the front page of the Boston Globe from the day after the Marathon bombings out of my mind. The large picture was of a woman lying on the sidewalk in a pool of blood with two men attending to her, one applying pressure to her badly wounded leg. The bold print accompanying the article underneath the picture read, “Amid Shock, A Rush to Help Strangers.”The article went on to describe the various reactions to the bombing.[i]The one I think we all can identify with is fear and the immediate need to get away to safety as fast as possible. All of us have this innate instinct for self-preservation that when something devastating happens, the body is driven to action by chemical processes in the brain such as the release of adrenaline.
There was also the unthinkable reaction of some, who despite not knowing what was coming next, ran toward the explosion sites to start helping people who had been injured. Some of the first responders were trained EMT’s, doctors, and nurses….and then there were others who had no idea what to do except to apply pressure to wounds and keep talking to the injured to ward off shock. In a chaotic scene such as that, I can only imagine the overwhelming sense of helplessness some people had, yet remained behind to help in any way possible, risking their own lives in the process. I greatly admire these people and wonder if I would have stayed to help or if I would have followed my instinct to run away to safety.
This is exactly what comes to mind for me when we celebrate the feasts of martyrs. The word martyr is usually associated with those who die defending their faith, and indeed the first definition for martyr in the Merriam-Webster dictionary says just that.[ii] A closer look at the word and its etymology will show that its meaning is broader. The word martyr comes from the Greek martys which means ‘witness.’ A martyr is someone who bears witness to something, even to the giving of their life. You may recall the beginning of the First Letter of John which reads: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.”[iii]This is the testimony of a martyr, although not one who died as a result. Even though these words were written by someone in a Johannine Community during the first century, it has popularly been attributed to John the Evangelist, who tradition says did not die a martyr’s death. Even still, these strong words of witness testify to something that has changed the life of the author.
Today in the calendar of the Church we remember a martyr who is near and dear to the heart of our community. In the late 1800’s, our Society had a Mission House in Cape Town, South Africa where we also ran a school. Bernard Mizeki, a young man originally from Mozambique, attended classes there and came in contact with our brother Frederick Puller. It was through Fr. Puller’s influence that Bernard became a Christian and was baptized on March 9, 1886.
Bernard was inspired to teach others the faith. Commissioned by the bishop, he became a lay catechist (one who teaches the faith to new converts), and was sent to a village in Mashonaland. There he studied the local language, built a mission, started a school, and prayed the Divine Offices faithfully every day. His life of prayer, service, and faith influenced the people of Mashonaland and over the next few years, many were baptized and joined the Church.
However, trouble was on the horizon for Bernard. Nationalists in South Africa regarded missionaries as working for European colonial governments. Even though Bernard was a native of South Africa, he was teaching a religion associated with colonial rule. He was advised to flee. Bernard, however, felt compassion for those under his charge who were suffering. He decided that he could not leave the people he was serving and so he stayed behind under the threat of danger to continue his work.
Two days later, he was dragged from his hut by three men and stabbed with a spear. His wife and friend ran away, thinking Bernard was dead. Bernard managed to pull himself up and crawl to a spring where he washed his wounds. His wife heard his cries and returned where Bernard was lying. He professed that even though he was dying, his work and that of his teachers must continue. His wife then went to get him some food. Upon returning, they witnessed a brilliant light and the sound of what they described being like “many wings of great birds.” When they arrived back to the spot they had left him, Bernard had disappeared. His body has never been found.[iv]
What stands out most for me in our gospel lesson this evening is Jesus admonition against fear. He says, ‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ This gospel occurs in Luke at a time when there is a shift in mood. Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem is gaining momentum, the mission is becoming urgent, and tension is building due to the opposition to His message.[v] Like one heading towards an emergency, Jesus is ready to give his life so that others can live and have life more abundantly. Jesus’ words put things into perspective and point out that the one who encourages you to do nothing, settle for indifference, and watch while others suffer and perish from a place of isolation, THIS is the one whom you should fear. Hell has often been described as total separation from God. Our Rule of Life puts it this way: Powerful forces are bent on separating us from God, our own souls, and one another through the din of noise and the whirl of preoccupation.[vi] Jesus has come to our aid amidst chaos, to restore our relationship with God and each other, repairing those fractures which separate us from His love. He did this through the giving of his own life, forever nailing our own sin and shame on the cross, and bringing us to wholeness again through the power of his resurrection from the dead.
When Bernard Mizeki came into contact with the love of Jesus, he encountered a love so abundant, that it changed the course of his life. He followed Jesus, using the gifts endowed him by his creator, that of a teacher to bring a suffering people to the knowledge and love of God. Following Jesus’ example, he did this without fear, even to the giving of his own life. Like Bernard, Jesus is also calling us to bear witness to the healing power of Christ. We must resolve to cast fear aside and follow him towards connection and relationship, towards the abundance that God wants for us, which is an abundance that transcends the life of the physical and finite, and become one with Him whose bounds know no end. In order to do this, we need to be in touch with how Jesus has come into our lives to heal us and to be aware of how He continues to lead us into wholeness.
How have you come to know the love of Jesus in your life? Where have you found healing and wholeness amidst chaos? How have you come to know connection and community in a culture that thrives on isolation and individualism? If we are honest, most of us here tonight have not come to know the power of Jesus’ healing and redemption through mere acceptance of platitudinous trivialities, but rather through something that has brought us to our knees. God rarely enters our hearts through doors we have left open invitingly, but through the cracks and fissures rendered through some hardship, difficult relationship, or traumatic experience; something obviously beyond our control. We may not be unscathed and like Jesus may bear the scars from our wounds. Yet, here we are, standing on the other side like a living miracle! If we are to cast aside fear and follow Jesus towards abundance, we must be in touch with how God has been working in our life, and bear witness to the light, life, and love that God has restored in us. We may not necessarily have to suffer physical death in order to testify to God’s love, but we are being called to give of our lives in service, willing to help and assist where Jesus calls us, as we continue our journey with him.
If you are not sure quite yet of how Jesus is working in your life; confused as to how you ended up here under these gothic arches here tonight, perhaps that is the substance of your prayer. Ask Jesus to shed light on what is out of your control, broken, and in deep need of healing. In a few moments come forward and give that as an offering to Him. In return, take a piece of bread and a sip of wine, nourishment for the soul and then wait patiently with God as he tends to your needs. This will take courage but, be assured that you are not alone. Jesus is God Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” He will not abandon us in our journey towards healing.
I often wonder what it was in Bernard Mizeki’s own life that was the catalyst for his conversion and then his desire to follow Jesus in the service of others, even to the result of his physical death. I suspect the answer to my question is hidden in my own experience of this and I now continue on my pilgrimage to wholeness with you and my brothers. Most people who have been donned a ‘hero’ usually shrug off the title saying that they reacted to a situation by instinct and not by any heroic rationale. Had he lived, perhaps Bernard would have said the same of his behavior in the face of violence. Bernard Mizeki, Catechist and Martyr in Mashonaland, South Africa, whom we remember this evening.
[iii]1 John 1:1-2
[iv]More information about Bernard Mizeki may be found here: http://www.satucket.com/lectionary/Bernard_Mizeki.htm
[v]Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone. Westminster John Knox, 2015.
[vi]SSJE Rule of Life, Chapter 27: Silence
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