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Sermon at the Eucharist of the Resurrection in honor of Br. John Mathis SSJE (1923 – 2011) – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

We come together today to give thanks to God for John.  We give thanks that after a long life of many struggles, but also many blessings, God has now called John home.

As I was praying over today’s Scriptures, one line in particular from St. John’s Gospel stood out for me: “Jesus said, ‘anyone who comes to me I will never drive away’.” And that for me is an apt way of describing John’s remarkable ministry. Like his Lord he would never ignore or turn away from someone in need, however desperate their lives had become.

The first time I met John was thirteen years ago, when I first visited the monastery.  He was walking slowly towards Harvard Square in his own rather distinct habit: those blue denim farmers’ overalls!  When I introduced myself, his whole face lit up with that wonderful smile – which has given hope and encouragement to so many over the years.

He would sit in the square, and folks would be drawn to him: the homeless, the lost, those suffering from various addictions.  John welcomed them all.  “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”  I spoke to a man a few days ago about John who said, “When I first came to the square I was homeless and on drugs. John began my path to sobriety, and the life that I have today.”  Another man said it in just four words: “He saved my life.”

John was however in many ways a ‘wounded healer’. His remarkable empathy with and understanding of others, had its source in his own ongoing struggle with addictions. He found his strength for the battle through his faith in Jesus, crucified and risen.  It was the triumph of Jesus over suffering and death which gave John his belief that no one, however desperate, was beyond the redeeming love of God.  Somehow he was able to offer this higher power to those without power, to fearlessly minister to those whose lives were in unmanageable confusion.  To offer hope where there was despair, light where there was darkness, joy where there was sadness.

No wonder he loved St Francis and always wore the cross of St Francis close to him.  How marvelous that this funeral should be taking place on the feast of St Francis.  John managed to bring something of that Franciscan simplicity, sunshine, and joy into the lives of others, as well as that radical availability to anyone in need.  “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”

John’s early spirituality was formed through his association with SSJE.  Serving during the 2nd world war in the Marine Corps he bravely served in Guadalcanal as a radio forward observer and went behind enemy lines.  John was then a lay reader, and wanted to take services for the troops on Guadalcanal, and so he wrote to SSJE to ask for some worship resources.  And so began a long correspondence throughout the war with Granville Williams Superior of SSJE.  After the war he came to visit for a weekend – and stayed for two years!

Then came Harvard, and then marriage, and the happy birth of Jen.  After a time as an educator John moved to Washington DC and began a long and fruitful association with the parish of St Stephen and the Incarnation. He also began a long and happy friendship with Bill MacKaye.  It was in DC that he really began his life of social activism, and his remarkable ministry to street people.  During this time he also went to San Francisco to spend time as a chaplain to those suffering from AIDS at the General Hospital.  It was at a time of ignorance, where patients were often feared and stigmatized. Doctors and nurses wore suits and gloves. But John would have none of that. He went right in there as himself.  “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”

During these years his relationship with SSJE deepened and he became an oblate. The relationship was to become even closer when after a terrible knife attack seriously injured him, Tom Shaw who was Superior at the time wrote to John and invited him to ‘come home.’  And so John came back to Cambridge to be our brother.

So today is a day above all to say thanks; thanks for all that God has done in the life of our brother John. Thanks for all those men and women to whom John has brought hope; all those to whom he has been a mentor and a sponsor.  But also thanks to God for enabling John to do this in the midst of his own struggles with addiction, his own demons, in which there were many victories, but also failures. We offer them all to God, saying ‘thank you God for the good that John has done.’  Such as the e mail I received a few days ago from Russia; from a man who remembered John with affection when this man was a young medical student. “I came to America” he wrote, “and knocked on the large door of SSJE and Brother John, smiling, opened the door for me. Brother John opened the door in many ways, and with infinite, immediate love, and making me at home.  He has always given me courage and at times and of hesitancy and despair – strength and conviction in a better future soon. He continues to live in my heart and thoughts, and also in many other peoples’ hearts and souls that he has touched with this sincerity, encouragement, strong faith, and his big, understanding, reassuring smile.”

So at this Eucharist, on this feast of St Francis, we give thanks with Jen and all John’s family, with John’s monastic brothers, and with all his friends, and with all those known and unknown, whose lives have been blessed by John’s ministry.  We give special thanks for the wonderful ministry of the Little Sisters of the Poor who have cared for John so lovingly over these past few years.

We come together to commend John to God’s infinite love and mercy, in sure and certain hope that this day John will himself hear those words of welcome from his Lord, “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.” In that wonderful hymn of St Francis which we sang at the beginning of our worship, there is this line, “And even you most gentle death, waiting to hush our final breath, you lead back home the child of God.”

Welcome home John, and may angels lead you into Paradise.

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3 Comments

  1. John nute on January 22, 2016 at 13:01

    Rest in peace my old friend we had ourtrials and tribulations howevere I sure appreciate help yougave me , see you on the other side, eft

  2. jane goldring on January 3, 2012 at 06:14

    hi geoffrey thanks for the sermon at the eucharist of the resurrection in honour of br. john mathis. i met john different times when visiting the monastery and always had a good visit with him. he always made you feel so welcome. he will surely be missed. i ran off the service for john and will give it to him. jane

  3. Eileen Harakal on October 5, 2011 at 21:09

    I came to the SSJE site looking for inspiration, and I found that and more in this commemoration. I did not know that Bro. John had died, and I am so sorry for your loss, though clearly John was always, and only, gain. I remember visitors saying he looked like Santa Claus which always annoyed me. Clearly he looked like Claude Monet, but with the best of smiles. Do, indeed, rest in peace, dear Brother.

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