Sermon for the Commemoration of the Reverend Doctor Li Tim-Oi
All Saints’ Chinese Church, Toronto, May 5th, 2002
by the Rt. Rev. Victoria Matthews
The Gospel reading chosen for this commemoration of the Reverend Doctor Li Tim-Oi is particularly appropriate for in St. Luke only, when Jesus is rejected for his prophetic message, He is not rejected by his family or household, but only by those regarding him from some distance. Consequently we hear He is able to heal a man imprisoned by leprosy, while others, enraged by the very thought of who He was and what He was doing, want to kill Him.
Li Tim-Oi, ordained a priest by Bishop Ronald Hall in 1944, exercised her priesthood sacramentally for just over two years before resigning her license (never her orders) in order to save her bishop’s ministry and reputation. I quote from her Memoirs: Raindrops of My Life:
“In 1946, I received a letter from Bishop Hall’s secretary,…(also a lawyer), asking me to come to Hong Kong. At the meeting, I was quickly told that Bishop Hall had broken church canon law to ordain me as a priest, and hence had been denounced by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Either Bishop Hall must resign as bishop or I must give up the title of priest.
“When first told of this problem I was quite perturbed. I gave serious thought as to whether I should step down or stay on. Through a moment of deep meditation in which I prayed for God’s guidance, and the constant working of the Holy Spirit, I suddenly saw the light. I realized that I should see my personal prestige as worthless for I was merely a small servant of the Lord.
“I voluntarily and whole-heartedly supported Bishop Hall in upholding his holy office as bishop. He was a man of deep spirituality. Not only was he influential in the Chinese Church, but his international contributions were also large. I was willing to give up my title as priest, but I knew that having been ordained, I had to follow the order throughout my life… This is my philosophy of life. No one can take away the peace that comes from completing one’s responsibilities to history and fulfilling God’s will.”
In his letter to the Romans, Paul namedrops unashamedly. In the final chapter no less than 26 names are mentioned. In our brief selection of verses we heard Paul’s strong recommendation of Phoebe, the deacon. Why is Paul so concerned with establishing his network? Unlike the other churches to which Paul wrote his letters, the Roman church was not founded by Paul. A city of history, prestige and raw power, Rome was new to Paul and he hoped the Christians there would help him with the collection he was raising for Jerusalem. If the Roman visit was a failure, Jerusalem might be also. The stakes are very high.
But much more than money is at stake for Paul. Some commentaries call Romans Paul’s “last testament”. Although he could not see the future, he must have felt the political pressures closing in on him. From our vantage point we know imprisonment and death were not far away. He would not get to Jerusalem and his desire to see Rome would be fulfilled not by means of a Cook’s Tour but from the vantage point of the prisons of the Imperial city. Consequently the freedom Paul writes about in all his epistles is especially poignant here. “For me to live as Christ and to die is gain”. Paul is almost humble. The cost of discipleship is felt and yet at the same time he is beginning to glimpse the awesome truth that it is in Christ, whose service is perfect freedom, that the fullness of life here and hereafter dwells.
And so what does Paul do as he nears the end of this remarkable epistle? He recommends Phoebe and greets his friends in Rome, for he knows that whatever the future will bring, it is his membership in the Body of Christ, his partnership in the Gospel; it is the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ that will see him through. Again we think of the parallels in the life of Florence, Li Tim-Oi.
In the life of Li Tim-Oi, many different political philosophies; presentations of power and secular scenarios tried to win her from Jesus Christ and the Gospel. In hindsight it is clear that for the most part all that was happening was a trading off of oppressors and oppressed. Those who had suffered at the hands of one regime were determined to make their oppressors suffer now. And believe me Li Tim-Oi was no stranger to suffering. Like Paul she knew what it was to be a prisoner for the Good News while never forsaking the freedom that was hers in Christ.
As I read and studied tonight’s lections and reflected on the Memoirs of Li Tim-Oi, I could not help but be reminded of a CBC program called Tapestry. It was Thanksgiving Sunday, 2000, and I was driving across the prairies yet again. The interview was with a prison chaplain, taped within a penitentiary. You heard doors being locked and unlocked and the echo of the empty halls of misery. At one point the Chaplain was approached by a prisoner who had just come back from his sentencing. One couldn’t hear their conversation but the interviewer’s words thereafter made it clear that the man, described as being in his sixties, was sobbing. Back on the air, the Chaplain explained that the man had received “life”. “He has just realized he will die in prison”, the Chaplain said. “So what’s the good news for him?” was the interviewers question. “In the world outside there are many who live lives of bondage. Whatever their apparent freedom, they are prisoners of addiction, hate, interpersonal strife, or boredom. This man is in a physical prison. His opportunity in the time he has left is to learn the freedom that is offered in the Gospel. Freedom can be his here only if he accepts it from Christ. The choice is his.”
The apostle Paul and the first female priest of the entire Anglican Communion, the Reverend Doctor Li Tim-Oi, knew in their earthly life no small share of hardship, prejudice, oppression and imprisonment. But they also knew freedom: the freedom of the Good News of Jesus Christ; liberation from this world’s shackles and bondage. Why? Because they knew and loved Jesus Christ, whose service is perfect freedom.
As we celebrate Li Tim-Oi on this 95th anniversary of her birth, let us give thanks to God for a woman of enormous courage and faith; for a priest of Christ’s holy catholic church and for a visionary who having glimpsed the holiness of the throne of God bowed down in humility and said “Here I am, send me”.