12 November 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Ikuko Williams
Wisdom 6. 12-16; Matthew 25. 1-13
Originally from Japan, Ikuko Williams was ordained ten years ago in the Church of England and now works as a Hospital Chaplain at Leeds Teaching Hospitals. She is based mainly at Leeds General Infirmary.
It is important to remember the loss of those who have died, as each life is precious to God and to those who loved them. It is important to grieve, as we recall Jesus saying, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ As I work at the hospital, I see many healthcare staff caring for those at the end of life. Although they work in a professional manner, I remind them as a Chaplain that it is important to grieve and to mourn when their patients die, as we have a God who promises to comfort us when we mourn.
On Remembrance Day, we remember those who lost their lives in all the wars and conflicts as a nation. And I join in that act of remembering. However, there is an inconvenient factor that I am Japanese.
For the last nearly 30 years that I have been living in this country, I have had some mental and spiritual grappling to do with this uncomfortable reality. I hope you will allow me to share the story of my journey so far as a way of testimony.
I met Mark, my husband who is English, in Japan and got married, and when he was offered a post to teach at Leeds University, we decided to move to Leeds in 1989. That was my first time to live in England. On the day we left Japan in January of that year, the Emperor of Japan died. Personally, as the Emperor was a very distant, nominal figurehead in the minds of the younger generation, his death did not mean much to me in one way or another. However, when I arrived in UK, every day of my first week I was bombarded by the reporting of very strong anger and hatred towards Japanese in the news on the television, radio and newspapers; as this Emperor was the leader of the Japanese wartime regime, the former British Prisoners of War, who had suffered under the Japanese military during World War II, were venting their anger towards him and the whole of Japan for the inhumane treatment they had endured and for the lack of sincerity from the Japanese government in dealing with them in the years afterwards.
I was shocked to hear such strong voices of hatred towards us. But at the same time, I was deeply dismayed to learn for the first time how our country had treated people in South East Asia during the war. I was horrifyingly ashamed of what our country had done, but I also felt deeply ashamed that I did not know about it – that we had not been taught the actual historical facts.
So, that was how my living in England began. I felt rather nervous living in this country as a Japanese. I felt awful and guilty about our country’s history, but I was too timid and afraid to seek out, let alone meet face to face, those former POWs who were so full of hatred and bitterness towards us.
A couple of years later, a professor from my university, International Christian University in Tokyo, came to Leeds for a sabbatical year. I discovered that he was someone who was sincerely concerned about this very difficult situation with the British former POWs, and that he had already translated a memoir written by one of the former POWs, called Ernest Gordon, as he believed that the Japanese people ought to know what had happened. The book’s title was, The Miracle on the River Kwai, and it is a memoir with a hopeful message, too; as painful and awful as it was, Gordon found faith in Christ whilst in the camp by the River Kwai – in a most unlikely place. As this professor was leaving Leeds at the end of his year, I asked him for his advice on what he thought I should do to help with the situation with the former Far East POWs. He looked at me with a kind gaze and said to me to just continue what I was doing already, i.e. relate to each person I meet in this country with utmost sincerity and try to build relationships based on trust – one person at a time and one encounter at a time. I felt it was rather too little, but he must have known the demands of our very young children on me at the time, and he very wisely said that it would be enough and that, if and when there was something more I could or should do, God would show me the way.
A few years later, I heard the news about a Japanese Christian lady in London, called Keiko Holmes, who had been working tirelessly for reconciliation between the former British POWs and the Japanese. Her work was being recognised by both governments of the UK and Japan. I was astounded that such a thing was possible, wondering how she was managing do such an impossible job. I so wanted to meet her, but this was a pre-Google era and I did not find out how to get in touch with her.
Then, a few years later again, when I was asked to come to a conference at a church in London to help out with simultaneous interpreting, I walked into my interpreting booth – and found out that my interpreting partner was Keiko Holmes! I was thankful and delighted at this surprise chance to meet this lady, and asked her all the things I had been dying to find out about. And then she invited me to attend the Reconciliation Service for the POWs and the Japanese which was happening the following month.
Of course, I went to this Service. Quite a few former POWs (those who had agreed to come to such a service) were there, attending alongside the Japanese who wanted to be there with them. During the service, a Japanese pastor prayed, on our behalf, a prayer of repentance for what our country had done against humanity and the POWs during the War, prayed for forgiveness for all such humanly-speaking unforgivable deeds, acknowledging that this could only come from the amazing grace of forgiveness of all our sins given to us through Christ who died on the cross on our behalf. He then prayed for healing for all those who were still suffering from mental wounds from the past. I couldn’t help but cry throughout these prayers. These prayers were what I needed to pray. But for all those years, for 10 years to be exact, I had not been able to find the courage or the words to pray those prayers. Yet, there I was, finally given the opportunity to join in those prayers I so needed to pray. I felt the grace of healing flowing through. I felt it as an unimaginably precious gift of release from the burden of guilt which I had previously been powerless to deal with.
Then, towards the end of the service, when we were invited to exchange the sign of peace, those former POWs came towards us, the Japanese, to shake hands. Although I had grown up knowing Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies, it was the first real experience of learning what that really meant. I was the recipient of that love. This totally humbling experience moved me to the core, and it is something that will stay with me the rest of my life.
I then I got myself involved in various small ways in the reconciliation journey with the former POWs. I continued to experience so much grace through simply being with them and listening to their stories. It never ceased to amaze me to hear their stories of being freed from their grip of bitterness and hatred by joining in the reconciliation efforts and building friendships with ordinary Japanese people. This is the healing work of God.
I learned that the God of forgiveness, whom we know through Christ, is the God who brings healing to both sides of tragedy – victims and perpetrators alike. And I am deeply, deeply thankful.
By that time in my life, I had begun to explore the discernment for vocation in ministry. But my biggest problem was that I just felt my being Japanese was not right for the Church of England. Yet, Simon, your Rector here, who was our vicar in Roundhay in Leeds at the time, kept on encouraging me to be open to that calling, and for that I am most grateful. And this chance I was given to be involved in reconciliation with the former POWs played a significant role in my being able to take steps forward in my accepting the call to public ministry in this country.
Shortly after I started working as a hospital chaplain, one Christmas eve night, after going around the wards carolling with a choir, I felt I wanted to re-visit an elderly patient I had seen that day, who was sad to be in the hospital at Christmas and was worried about his wife left at home. We had some conversation in the quiet of the night and shared communion together. It wasn’t a particularly long visit. But what surprised me was what this patient told my colleague a few days later. My colleague was told that this patient was someone who was in Burma in the War, and because of what he experienced there, he had vowed not to have anything to do with the Japanese or with any Japanese products, and he had kept to that principle all these years; but, because he happened to visited by me who came to pray with him and share the communion with him, all the bitterness he had hung onto for such a long time had disappeared. He was very thankful for the release from that bitterness, and for the peace restored within him. I was astounded to learn of such a work of grace that had taken place. We had many lovely visits with him after that. I was invited to visit him at home and had a privilege of taking communion to him and his wife as they celebrated their special wedding anniversary.
One thing you might take away from all this is that God may call us to be in an uncomfortable place, but He can use us to be channels of His grace, and there may be the gift of healing and reconciliation.
The Son of God came to reconcile us to God. We have a Reconciling God who gives us grace of forgiveness and healing. And we are called to be open to be the channel of that grace of reconciliation; the freedom from the grip of bitterness, pain and guilt is what reconciliation can bring to us, and that is what God would like us to receive freely.
To receive this gift, we need to be open and humble. We need to trust Him and call on His Wisdom, not our own. We heard beautifully encouraging verses on God’s Wisdom in our first reading today: “she appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.” (Wisdom 6:16) We are to thankfully welcome her.
And in the Gospel reading, we heard about the five bridesmaids who lacked the wisdom to use their time with alertness. They did have the time, their chance to get the oil, just as the other five bridesmaids had done, but sadly they wasted their time and precious opportunity.
We are given time to journey here on earth, but we are all mortal, and have ‘limited’ time. We are limited beings here on earth. The awareness of our time being limited can help us to be alert as to how to use our time and how to live our precious lives for the purposes of eternal meaning.
Remembering the loss of precious lives, as we do today, may help us to focus our minds on our own callings in our time and place. And today we will be remembering together once again in our Eucharist how Jesus called us to ‘remember him’ as we gather to take the bread and wine.
In our humility we remember, praying that we may continue to walk with our reconciling God of amazing grace. This leads me to close by reminding us all of the following verse from Micah: Live justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. Amen