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Posts by Br. James Koester

What is truth? – Br. James Koester

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Br. James KoesterDaniel 7: 9 – 10, 13 – 14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1: 4b – 8
John 18: 33 – 37

Several years ago, while I was still a parish priest, some parishioners came to me with a question. Robin and Anne were actually Baptists, but since we were the only church on the island where they lived, they attended the Church of the Good Shepherd. Some of the things that we as Anglicans took as a matter of course, were of concern to them, or else simply puzzled them. On this particular occasion, they had questions about the use of the lectionary.

Since the lectionary was, they felt, simply a human construct, what would happen if I believed God desired me to proclaim a certain message that in no way related to the appointed texts on that particular day. Would I, they wondered, be free to choose other readings? I don’t remember my answer. I think it was pretty wishy-washy. What I do remember, after nearly forty years, is the question. It still haunts me.

Were Robin and Anne to appear today and ask me the same question, I would have a very different answer. The real question is not, what if God wants me to address something outside the scope of the readings on any particular day. The real question is what to do if the lectionary forces you to look at something you would rather not! Read More

Letter from the Superior

Dear Members of the Fellowship of Saint John and other Friends,

This spring, as we once again read our way through the book of Exodus at Morning Prayer, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the story of God’s people in Exodus has been imprinted, not only in our hearts and minds, but also on the soles of our feet. Like the ancient people of Israel, we are a people on the move. We may not cover much distance in our lives, at least physically, but as God’s pilgrim people, we are always on the move, slowly but surely making our way through the wilderness of this life, to the land of promise in the next. This pilgrim journey of ours is marked not so much by miles traveled, but by hearts melted. As Ezekiel reminds us: A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 

If this journey from stony hearts to hearts of flesh is the story of God’s people throughout time, then it is our community’s story, not simply as God’s people, the Church; nor just as individuals, as Christians; but as a monastic community as well. We Brothers often speak, as Father Benson did, of being men of the moment, but I would also say that we are men of movement. Like all of God’s people, we too are called to be pilgrims. 

Last summer, we Brothers were able to embark together on an incredible pilgrimage to England, celebrating the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of our founding, by getting in touch with the deep roots of our tradition and visiting sites sacred to our community. We stood in the place of the Society’s founding, prayed in Father Benson’s parish church, and took a week’s retreat on Iona, where members of our Society once ministered. We laughed, we cried, and we were transformed by our experiences. As so many pilgrims do, we returned home with hearts aflame.

You can see some glimpses of our journey throughout this issue of Cowley, which takes up the theme of pilgrimage. In the Monastic Wisdom reflection, Br. Geoffrey explores the inner dimensions of spiritual pilgrimage. In his article, “Like a Beaten Bell,” Br. Keith reflects on experiences of thin places. You can also read about the recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, through reflections by a former SSJE intern, Amy Nizolek, and Br. David Vryhof. These stories of diverse experiences in diverse lands testify to how, in amazing ways, any pilgrimage takes us out of our everyday life only to return us to it more energized and ready to follow God’s call. Our community’s time overseas galvanized our passion for this life of ours, here in Cambridge and West Newbury. For more on that, check out Br. Jim’s interview about our new vocations website “Catch the Life” (p. 16-19). We hope that these stories of pilgrimage will strengthen and inspire you, wherever you find yourself along your path. 

It’s easy to read Exodus as an account of something which happened long ago, to a people far away. It’s easy to think of Saints Columba and Aiden and Cuthbert, whom we encountered in Britain, as dusty relics of a bygone time. But these are living stories. Their power comes when we allow them to be a lens through which we can examine our life as God’s pilgrim people today. To read Exodus simply as history is, perhaps, interesting. To read it as a pilgrim journey of risk and renewal – in which God’s people discover for themselves the meaning of their life with God – invites us to discover for ourselves the story of our own pilgrim journey, as we journey ever deeper into life in union with God.

BrJames

Thank you for being our companions on this journey.

Br. James Koester SSJE
Superior

The Promise of Divine Fulfillment – Br. James Koester

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Br. James KoesterToday at both Morning Prayer and the Eucharist we are confronted with a scandal. In both places the original audiences would have been shocked by what Jesus was saying. They may have been listening as Jesus spoke, thinking yes, yes, I quite see that. Suddenly, they would have been startled by what they heard. Perhaps they turned to their neighbour with a quizzical look. Maybe they asked someone near them to repeat what they thought they had just heard. Perhaps they tried to clean out their ears, thinking they had misheard the Teacher. But if we read the gospels carefully, what we heard this morning is not new. Jesus repeats it over, and over. Indeed, Jesus lives it. We could even say that Jesus dies it.

Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.[1]

‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured…’[2]

The world isn’t supposed to operate this way! Masters are not supposed to serve slaves; guests are meant to be honoured, not sent down to a lower place. Read More

 Name It and Claim It – Br. James Koester

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Br. James KoesterFeast of All the Faithful Departed: All Souls’ Day

There is an old evangelical saying that comes to mind each year at this time: name it, and claim it. The idea is that you name some virtue, or aspect of God, claim it as yours, and live it as a reality. The idea is to name something, like God’s love for you, to claim it as yours, and then to live, not as if it were true, but live in the reality of its truth. Without using this name it and claim it phraseology, Father Benson uses the sentiment when he reminds us that we are to live … as those who have been with Jesus.[1] He doesn’t tell us to live as if we have been with Jesus, but to live in the present reality of that relationship.

For me, All Souls’ Day is one of those occasions when we are invited to name and claim something, not for ourselves this time, but for others. It’s a bold move, because we are naming and claiming nothing less than the healing, redeeming, and sanctifying love of God, not for ourselves, but for those we love, but see no longer.[2] We do this, not as if what we say in the Creeds is true, but living in the truth of the Creeds, where we proclaim I believe … in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.[3]

What we are doing today is claiming those very things: the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We claim them, not for nameless entities, not in a general, universal way, but for specific people who we love. Note, we name and claim these things, not for people whom we loved once upon a time, but for people who we still love, but see no longer. Read More

Heralds of Good News – Br. James Koester

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Br. James KoesterGalatians 1: 13 – 24
Psalm 139: 1 – 14
Luke 10: 38 – 42

If truth be told, I don’t much like this passage from the Gospel of Luke about Martha and Mary. It makes me uncomfortable. I hear it as the great Martha put down, with Jesus saying, in effect, “Martha, I like your sister Mary better!”And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some people to others, And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some activities, or rather no activity, to others, or rather any activity. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers contemplation to action. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that you can only be in relationship with Jesus when you are sitting at his feet, rather than making him dinner. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that when I get busy, doing any number of things, Jesus likes me less, than when I am quiet, and still. And that makes me really, really uncomfortable, because probably like you, I have a zillion things on my to do list, and even when I am supposed to be, I can’t always be quiet and still.

But is that what is really going on here? Is Jesus really making these invidious distinctions between Martha and Mary? Between busyness and stillness? Between housework and hospitality? Between action and contemplation? That’s what we’ve been told over the years, but is it really the case? Read More

Whose Property is Always to Have Mercy – Br. James Koester

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Br. James KoesterIsaiah 35: 4 – 7a; Psalm 146; James 2: 1 – 10 (11 – 13) 14 – 17; Mark 7: 24 – 37

I love this story of the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter from the Gospel of Mark! I love it in part, because I get to say the word Syrophoenician! Just throw that into the conversation next time you are at a dinner party and see how impressed people are with your erudition! I love it because of the breathlessness with which Mark tells the story. You can almost hear the urgency in Mark’s voice, as in just six verses he tells us an awful lot, that is profoundly significant. I love it, because it harkens back to the church of my youth, and it calls to mind growing up at St. Mary’s, Regina. It is from this passage, among other sources, that Cranmer created, what some of you will remember, as the Prayer of Humble Access, or the Zoom Prayer, as a friend of mine calls it:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us. Amen.[1]

But mostly I love this story because it shouldn’t have happened! There is a hint of the forbidden. We see Jesus acting out of the box. He shouldn’t be where we find him today, doing what he shouldn’t be doing. And that’s just the point. Read More

A Day of Small Beginnings – Br. James Koester

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Br. James KoesterFeast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Isaiah 40: 1-11
Psalm 85: 7-13
Acts 13: 14b-26
Luke 1: 57-80

It doesn’t take much: a young girl, barely a teenager, lowering her bucket into the village well, listening for the splash when it hits the water[1]; an old man, hands shaking with age, alone in the sanctuary of the Lord, spooning incense onto the red hot charcoal of the altar brazier[2]. It doesn’t take much, and suddenly there is a moment, a movement, a presence, a strange voice, a greeting: ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you’[3]; a command and a promise: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’[4]

It doesn’t take much, a young girl, barely a teenager, going about her daily chores; an old man, whose hands tremble with age, performing a duty he had done, perhaps countless times before, yet something is profoundly different. Read More

Whosoever Will Be Saved – Br. James Koester

Br. James KoesterPreached at St. Stephen’s Church, Pittsfield MA

Isaiah 6: 1 – 8
Psalm 29
Romans 8: 12 – 17
John 3: 1 – 17

Growing up in the Church, as I did, I often found myself, in those moments waiting for the service to begin, exploring the Prayer Book that I held in my hands. I would flip though it, as perhaps you have done, and read the interesting bits.  I liked to look at the The Calendar, and wonder who some of these people were: Bede, Dunstan, Dominic, Stephen. Over the years I have stopped wondering who they were, or even their place and role in history. I have come to know them as friends. As our Rule of Life says, in a somewhat different context: we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.[1]

Or I would make my with through the Table of Kindred and Affinity, where I would read: A Man may not marry his Mother, his Sister, his Grandmother, his Aunt.[2] As I worked my way through the list, and picture the people I was not allowed to marry, I would wonder, not so much as why I may not marry them, but why on earth I would want to marry my mother, my sister, my grandmother, or my aunt, in the first place!

The other place that gave me endless hours of entertainment was the Creed of Saint Athanasius.[3] I would read and ponder what this riddle that is our Faith, is actually about.

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost
incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.[4]

All this was pretty heady stuff for a teenager, but now that you know that about my teenaged self, is it any wonder that I ended up where I have in life, as a priest and now a monk?

At one point in the life of the Church, parishioners were expected to plough their way through the Athanasian Creed several times a year, but now it is relegated to the back of the Prayer Bookin the section referred to as Historical Documents of the Church.[5] But while the text itself may be an historical document, the Faith it proclaims is anything but. For the Faith it expounds is nothing less than what Christians over the centuries have come to know to be true about God’s very being.

What Scripture proclaims, what the Creeds declare, and what Christians have affirmed about God over the last two millennia, is not some mathematical riddle the tells us that 3 = 1, but that God is a God who communicates with the creation; that God was revealed to us in the person of Jesus; and that God continues to be known to the people of God, even today.

For us as Christians, God is not some distant, uninterested and unknowable, divine being, far removed from human life. Rather for us, God is known and experienced, not only in history, but in the tiny moments of daily living. We see God in the wonder and beauty of creation, and the awe of worship; we touch God, in the person of Jesus, and the simple elements of bread, wine, water, and oil; we know God, who is closer to us even than our own breath.

We see and touch and know God, not as three gods, but as one eternally creating, redeeming and sanctifying God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is this knowable, loving and sustaining God whom we describe as Trinity of Being, and Unity of Substance. But it is so easy to become lost in the math, and ignore the reality of our experience.

Father Benson, the founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, in a letter dated 10 November, 1875, once said this:

I quite feel that the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity has been the great cause of the decay of Christendom. The Church —the Sacraments —Hagilogy, I had almost said Mythology —have filled the minds of devout people, partly for good partly for evil. ‘Thyself unmoved, all motion’s source’ this mystery of the circulating life of the eternal Godhead, has been almost lost to sight, spoken of as a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality.[6]

I think what Father Benson was trying to say is that when people lose sight of their personal experience of God, and cloak God in unmeaning jargon[7] then God simply becomes mumbo jumbo. For many people today, and perhaps even for some of you, all this god-talk is nothing less than meaningless mumbo jumbo.

For the Church to reclaim a vision of God which is not shrouded in mumbo jumbo, we need to feel God as a power, and love God as a reality. I believe that the world is desperate for the witness of the Church to a God who can be known, loved and felt.

We say, again in our Rule, that: our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons. Through prayer we can see that this flows from the triune life of God. If we are true to our calling as a community, our Society will be a revelation of God.[8]

The heart and example of Christian community, whether that be household, parish, or monastery, is the heart and being of God, who is community. Unless we live, and are known to live, in communion and community with one another, our witness to a God who is first and foremost community, will fall on deaf ears.

Our witness to a God who can be known, loved, and felt, stems from the witness of the way in which we live together with one another, not in our ability to decipher mathematical impossibilities.

If we are true to the mission of God, which is our mission, then God will be known, loved and felt, in our midst, not as some distant, uninterested and unknowable, divine being, far removed from human life, but rather as one eternally creating, redeeming and sanctifying God, who is knowable, loving and sustaining and whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today as we rejoice in God as Trinity, we do so not to confound people with mumbo jumbo, but to proclaim to a world hungry for the good news of the eternal reality that God can indeed be known, that God is indeed loving, and that God is indeed forever present. This is our mission. This is our purpose. This is our call.


[1]SSJE, Rule of Life, Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition, chapter 3, page 6

[2]BCP, Canada, 1962, page 562

[3]Ibid., page 695

[4]BCP, Episcopal Church, 1979, page 864

[5]Ibid, page 864 ff

[6]Benson, Richard Meux, Letters of Richard Meux Benson, page 187

[7]Ibid., page 187

[8]SSJE, Rule,The Witness of Life in Community, chapter 4, page 9

Bearing Fruit – Br. James Koester

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Br. James Koester

Acts 8: 26 – 40
Psalm 22: 24 – 30
1 John 4: 7 – 21|
John 15: 1 – 8

I think that it is safe to say that the further we get from our agrarian past, or even just from the practice of having a small vegetable garden in the back yard, the more foreign some parts of Scripture will be for us. Much in Scripture, and certainly in the Gospels, assumes a familiarity with different aspects of agriculture. But what was once common knowledge, even if it wasn’t firsthand knowledge, now must be learnt, not from experience, but from books or podcasts.

My mother delighted in telling me a story when I was visiting her a number of years ago, about my then, 6 year old niece Callie. Callie was helping Mum, whom she called Oma, make lunch one day, and in the midst of the preparations Mum instructed Callie to go out into the backyard garden and pull a few carrots from the vegetable patch for them to have with their lunch. Wide-eyed Callie put her hands on her hips and shook her head. Oh, Oma, Callie said very seriously, carrots don’t come from gardens, carrots come from grocery stores. Clearly, poor old foolish Oma didn’t know anything about carrots, and certainly not where you could get them if you wanted to have some with your lunch.

If we no longer know where carrots come from, as obviously some people in this world don’t (and here I don’t mean poor old foolish Oma!); if we have forgotten our agrarian past; if there is no longer any dirt under our finger nails; if our only experience of food production is what we find in shops; what are we to make of a text such as we have today from John’s Gospel that assumes a degree of knowledge of viniculture, or even just basic gardening. Read More

Prisoners of Hope – Br. James Koester

Br. James KoesterThe Great Vigil of Easter

Romans 6: 1 – 13
Psalm 114
Mark 16: 1 – 8

Every once in a while I’ll be minding my own business, and suddenly, in the middle of Morning or Evening Prayer, something is read and my attention is instantly arrested. A word, or a phrase, or an image from Scripture leaps out of the appointed reading at me, and for the next hour, or day, or week, it returns to me over and again. That happened a week ago, on Palm Sunday, at Morning Prayer, and suddenly what we say in our Rule of Life became immediately true. We read there that in our worship the Spirit sometimes touches us immediately through a word, an image or a story; there and then we experience the Lord speaking to us.[1]

Keith had been reading from Zechariah, where the Prophet proclaims that the coming ruler of God’s people will arrive humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.[2] It’s an all-too-familiar passage that I have read, or heard, dozens of times, and because of its association with Palm Sunday, we heard it again last Sunday at Morning Prayer. In spite of having heard that passage countless time before, I have actually never heard it. Or, at least I have been so caught up with the image of the king coming, humble, and riding on a donkey, that I have never heard the rest of the lesson. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.[3]

It was the phrase prisoners of hope that arrested me. Suddenly, I was no longer thinking about kings and donkeys, palms and processions, but prisoners, freedom, and hope. I was thinking what it might mean to be a prisoner of hope. In a sense, while everyone else was celebrating Palm Sunday, and beginning to enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God] has given us life and immortality,[4] I was already at Easter, thinking about the gift of freedom and hope that comes to us through the Resurrection of Jesus. And that is where I have spent this week, living the events of Holy Week through the lens of being a prisoner of hope. Read More