Lord Jesus, Come Soon! – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester
Luke 3:1-6

I don’t know if you have ever been to Compline here at the Monastery. If you have, you will know that it is our custom to read the obituary of a brother on the anniversary of his death. Now not to boast, but I will take the credit, or perhaps the blame for not only reviving this custom, but also writing from scratch some of the obituaries and editing others. This was a project I did when I was a novice. Now after listening to them for nearly 30 years, I am aware that some of them were badly written and others seemed to be just a list of dates. A few of them were eye rollingly embarrassing and have caused more than a few sniggers over the years. This fall, after I moved back to the monastery I decided it was time to fill in the gaps (we were completely missing some obituaries) and to rewrite the really deadful ones.

I have been working on this project for a couple of months, and I think I can now say with Father Gross, whom some of you will remember, that I now know more of the real history of the Society, that I could write a scandalous best seller. But don’t get your hopes up. I am not going to do that.

One of the obituaries has always caused us to roll our eyes. In Father Conran’s we would read “that his health precluded him from living in community for long periods of time” and so off he went to Scotland to run a parish and live with his sister. We rolled our eyes not because we couldn’t imagine the scenario, but because every one of us at one time or another has not wished that our health precluded us from living in community. Over the years Father Conran became a caricature upon whose delicate constitution we would project our own feelings and frustrations with life in community.

But this fall I discovered something. We had Father Conran all wrong. I’ll let him speak for himself:

Somewhere in France

11 October 1915
We have had our confirmations. At first the men didn’t understand; … they…seemed to think of it as ‘being done,’ much as if they were to be inoculated…. But the great difficulty was when and where to see them to give them any sort of preparation…Then there were [other] difficulties; for instance, how about the commandment “Thou shalt do no murder,” when they were trying to kill Germans every day.

At last the day of confirmation came. …at 2 PM 126 of those I had prepared were there…but no Bishop, then a wire to say ‘motor broken down’ but he was coming on. We spent the time going over the instructions…but the men were getting uneasy; they had to be back in the trenches. I felt they must go, and had just said so, when the Bishop came. No time for address or hymns… they knelt down to be confirmed, and after the Blessing marched straight away, I fear some to death, and some to be wounded; but [they]…had the gift of the Holy Ghost to strengthen them through what was to come the following day; a day I shall never forget as long as I live….[1]

It wasn’t Father Conran’s delicate constitution that precluded him from living in community. What precluded him from living in community is what we now call Post Traumatic Stress and what he would have called Shell Shock. Now when I think of him I think not of a delicate constitution but of the killing fields of the First World War, of flash backs, mood swings, night mares, cold sweats, depression, perhaps even uncontrollable rage and suicide attempts. A day I shall never forget as long as I live.It is safe to say that Father Conran never did forget that day. That day was etched in his memory for the rest of his life. That’s why Father Conran’s health precluded him from living in community for long periods. Not because of his delicate constitution, but because he saw what no one should see, never mind live though.

Knowing the truth about Father Conran has challenged me, and in challenging me I have been changed. I have changed the way I think about him as a person, no longer as an object of pity or ridicule but of awe and incredulity. I have changed the way I now listen to his obituary, and indeed all the obituaries, I have changed the way I relate not just to his past, but to the community’s past and even to my own past. Knowing the truth about Father Conran has changed me. But isn’t that what truth does? Truth changes us, if we let it.

You could say, I suppose that today is a feast of truth, that John the Baptist is a saint of truth, that Advent is a time of truth. And if we let it, the truth will not only challenge us, but change us.

John the Baptist stands in a long line of prophets. The role of the prophet in scripture is not to predict the future but to speak the truth, God’s truth, to a disbelieving, distracted, disheartened people. At times the prophet is sent to speak this word of truth, God’s truth, to a specific person, the king, and truth is spoken to power. At times the prophet is sent to speak this word of truth, God’s truth, to a people, the nation. That truth, God’s truth, comes as a word of warning; a word of challenge; a word of hope. Whenever and however it comes, that word of truth, God’s truth, has the power to change people. And those to whom the word of truth, God’s truth, is spoken have a choice: they can choose to hear that word of truth, or they can choose to ignore it. They can choose to hear or ignore, not because the truth hurts, but because the truth challenges and changes us. If we choose to hear the word of truth, we will be changed, we will be changed, just as I was changed, even if in a tiny way, when I heard the word of truth about Father Conran.

We live in the midst of a disbelieving, distracted, disheartened world. How could we not? Who here today has not been disheartened, distracted, disbelieving this week, this month, this year? The news we hear day by day, week in and week out is anything but encouraging. Is it any wonder that the one section of the New York Times I read without fail is the Sunday Styles section, and especially the wedding page?

Today we hear John the Baptist speak a word of truth to a brutally oppressed people, living in an occupied land:

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.[2]

Who would blame John’s audience for not believing? How could this possibly be true? How in the midst of a military occupation are they expected to see the salvation of God? These are the words of a madman, not a prophet. Who would blame us for not believing? How in the midst of the shootings in California, the bombing in Paris, ISIS in the Middle East, the very real and justified anger behind Black Lives Matter, climate change around the world, not to mention the daily ups and downs of our own lives, are we expected to see the salvation of God. These are the words of a madman, not a prophet.

But they aren’t the words of a madman. This is the promise of God…all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

I saw the salvation of God yesterday. It was on the front page of the New York Times. Maybe you saw it. For the first time since the 1920’s there was an editorial on page 1. In part it read: It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that people can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill with brutal speed and efficiency…[P]oliticians abet would-be killers by creating gun markets for them, and voters allow those politicians to keep their jobs. It is past time to stop talking about halting the spread of firearms, and instead to reduce their numbers drastically….[3]

Is it any wonder that gun sales have gone up in the last few days, and that the NRA has ramped up a web based membership campaign? Truth was spoken to power yesterday on page 1 and we can choose to hear it, and be changed or we can ignore it and become even more disbelieving, distracted, and disheartened.

Advent is the darkest time of the year, literally, and it would seem this year metaphorically as well. We are those people of whom Isaiah spoke who sit in darkness desperate to see the light.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.[4]

We are those people who pray the words of Revelation: Maranatha! Lord Jesus, come soon![5]aching for the light to return, not just to our lives, but to our world.

It is to us, no less than the crowds along the Jordan River that John comes speaking the word of truth, God’s truth: and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. We are desperate to see that salvation here, now, today. We are desperate to see that salvation of God in California, Paris, the Middle East, our inner cities and around the globe. We are desperate to see God’s salvation in our own lives. We are desperate, and God knows it. And the promise of God is that we will. We can. We do. Even today we can see the salvation of God.

But to see it, we need to be prepared to change, because the truth will change us. I found the truth about Father Conran, and not only was the way I looked at him changed, but I was changed. We saw the word of truth yesterday on page 1, and if we let it, that truth will change us and this country. We know the Word of Truth in Jesus and if we let him, he will change us.

Advent is a time when we face the darkness, not only of our own lives, but of the world. We know the stark, dark reality of our need to see the salvation of God. The promise of Christmas is not just the promise of a baby, but promise that God has heard our cry. Maranatha! Lord Jesus, come soon! we cry: for ourselves, for California, for Paris, for the Middle East, for justice in our cities, for our world. The promise of God is that our cry has been heard. To our cry Lord Jesus, come soon! God answers Vero Cras: truly I will come.[6]

The word of truth spoken by John in today’s Gospel is not just some future prediction, but a present reality. Yes, God will come, but more to the point, God has come and God is coming. That is God’s truth.

Sometimes God’s truth is spoken to power, and if they listen, they tremble. We saw that yesterday on page 1.

Sometimes God’s truth is spoken to a disbelieving, distracted, disheartened world. And if we listen, our eyes will be opened, our ears unstopped and our lives changed.

It’s curious. Father Conran opened my eyes. He unstopped my ears. He changed my life. And today I can see the salvation of God just a tiny bit clearer, even in the darkness.

[1] Cowley Evangelist, November 1915, page 248-249

[2] Luke 1: 4c-6

[3]New York Times, 5 December 2015, page 1

[4] Isaiah 9: 2

[5] Revelation 22: 20b

[6]The Great O Antiphons of Advent, according to the Sarum Usage and as sung at the Monastery, form a Latin acrostic spelling out ‘Vero Cras’ or ‘Truly I will come.’

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  1. Sarah Acland on December 17, 2020 at 10:21

    Thank you brother James. The story about Father Conlin was truly inspiring and made me cry.
    Not too long ago this state recognized PTSD as a Severe Mental Illness, which means sufferers are eligible for Social Security disability payments. This has made life easier for a lot of people

  2. SusanMarie on December 12, 2019 at 09:21

    Beautiful. Poignant. Important. Thank you.
    Come, Lord Jesus…

  3. John Boehmer on December 12, 2019 at 08:56

    This get’s right to the core of it for me. Truth seems to be in short supply these days. And yet it is the most important thing of all. That is why I am a Christian.

  4. Jeanne Defazio on December 12, 2019 at 08:16

    This is profound

  5. James Rowland on December 12, 2019 at 07:36

    Br. James
    Thank you for a powerful message. I, too, am fascinated by the obituaries read at Compline through the year although I am not present to hear them. From the Ordo I use Google (sometimes get lucky there) and more recently Serenheadd James’s fantastically wonderful book, The Cowley Fathers, A History of the English Congregation of SSJE. (Readers: Get it!). Indeed, truth emerges and changes you. And the truth to connect to every day: Jesus came, is coming, comes, will come even though the powers we live under spread darkness. We wait and pray.

  6. Margo on December 10, 2015 at 14:46

    Thank you Br. James. I love those obituaries badly written or not. I love to think of that little chain of men going all over the world and handing on generation to generation their truth. They have been on the edge or center to my life in South Africa, in England and here. Their continuity gives me a great sense of stability in crazy times. Write them beautifully this time but please leave out no quirks. Margo

  7. Christina McKerrow on December 10, 2015 at 09:30

    Dear Brother James: Thank you so much for this sermon. I weep for the mess our world is in
    presently. I believe that our only hope is for our God to lead us out of the turmoil and the ways that some people are thinking. It is hard to comprehend our ways of thinking about those who are suffering every day in refugee camps and those who have left Syria.
    I came to Canada as a young woman with my friend; we were here for an adventure – to see this great country. Later, after I returned to England, I married and returned and have been here ever since. 57 years.
    So. I am an immigrant. Recently, I was at a meeting and there was some discussion about the Syrian refugees that we are awaiting. There were a few round the table, like me, who are immigrants, but I think it surprised others when I said that Canada (and the U.S.) has been built on immigrants. We are all immigrants. It is sad that all newcomers may be swept up into the dust pan with a few bad apples.Most of us just want to lead reasonable lives: have employment, somewhere to live, care for our children, and be left in peace.

    God bless you and all the other Brothers. Christina

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