My mother grew up, at least in the summers, with her Methodist minister grandfather who was quite a strict Sabbatarian. As a grown woman she remembered the Sundays of her childhood as full of rules, regulations, and restrictions. She could not swim unless it was over 100 degrees. She was not allowed to call on her friends but had to sit quietly with her younger sister reading. Sunday dinner, which had been cooked the day before and in spite of being kept warm in the oven, was cold, overcooked and tasteless. To me, and obviously to her as she spoke of it, it sounded dreadful.
Today’s gospel pulls us in to yet another confrontation between Jesus and a group of Pharisees. This time the argument is about sabbath keeping. It’s an argument I think my mother would understand.
It’s easy for us read this passage and once again to vilify the Pharisees, setting them up over and against Jesus, and always on the loosing side. Rather than doing that, let’s dig around and see what we can discover about the nature of the sabbath, and the point Jesus might have been trying to assert.
Over twenty years ago, we Brothers went through a period of renewal. We were stuck, and we knew it. It was difficult for us to make decisions. We were busy all the time, but it seemed, we were mostly busy spinning our wheels. We didn’t know which direction we wanted to go, and we weren’t even sure how, or who, would decide that. We were stuck, and we knew it. Luckily, we also knew that something needed to change. We weren’t sure what, but we knew we could not go on like that. And so, we asked around. What had other people and organizations done in similar situations? Eventually we were led to a woman named Jean. Jean walked into our life one day, and while there were countless times when we all wished she would walk right back out, she and we persisted, and we’ve never been the same.
Twenty years later, all of us who were here then, still speak of her. Brothers who were not here, certainly know of her. She is perhaps quoted, and referred to, only slightly less frequently than Father Benson. Ask some of us, and we all have our favourite Jean story.
One of the things that was eye opening for me, was the day Jean introduced us to the concept of frozen roles.
Jean’s point was that we often cannot see what another is doing, or saying, because we think we know what they will do, or say, even before they do, or say it. She always reacts this way. He always does that. I don’t need to bother listening, because I already know what they will say. We freeze people, and even ourselves, into certain patterns, and we don’t allow them to break out.
Today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel, though brief, just four verses, is significant, because it captures some of the essential qualities and characteristics of God. In this encounter between Jesus and leper, we see again the nature of God, and God’s desire for all humanity.
…a leper … came to [Jesus] and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
What stands out for me this morning, is not only what is said, but also what is done, for Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper. While leprosy is contagious, it is not necessarily contracted through touch, as was once believed. That Jesus touched the leper, is significant, and in itself demonstrates something about God. In that one action, we see that nothing is beyond the touch and reach of God.
What is also significant is the dialogue. Lord, if you choose … I do choose….
The essential quality, characteristic, and nature of God is one of healing, wholeness, and life, for the God who in Jesus came that [we] may have life, and have it abundantly, is the same God who reaches out and touches, saying I do choose. Be made clean.
Yet while it is God’s nature to choose to reach out and touch us, our nature runs in the opposite direction, as we choose to hide, to turn our backs, and to reach out for what is forbidden. In our pride and arrogance, we choose to stretch out our hands, not to God, but to the forbidden fruit, thinking that by eating it, we will become like God.
The paradox is that we become like God, not by stretching out our hands in pride, but by choosing to stretch them out in humility and loving service, just as did Jesus.
The fruit that makes us like God, is when we choose to stretch out our hands in loving service, touching the untouchable, and bringing to them the healing, health, wholeness, and life which God chooses and desires for all humanity.
This passage, though brief, is significant, because it reminds us what God is like, and what God desires for humanity: healing, health, wholeness, and life. In choosing to reach out and touch, Jesus invites us to do that same. When we do, we become like God, whose very life and nature is bound up in acts of humble, loving service.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Friday, Year 1, Proper 7
 Matthew 8: 2 – 3
 John 10: 10b
 Genesis 3: 5
Feast Day: Bernard Mizeki
We Brothers are familiar with the story of Bernard Mizeki, because in many ways, he’s one of our own. Unfortunately, the all too brief hagiography of him in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, doesn’t do him justice. Nor does it do justice to reason why his shrine in Zimbabwe continues to attract thousands of pilgrims each year on his feast day.
But today, I don’t want to focus on the story of his martyrdom. I want to remember a part of his story, which is less familiar: the story of his baptism.
Writing from Cape Town on 9 March 1886, Father Puller says this:
We had a very happy day on Sunday. As … the Bishop gave us leave to baptize our [African] catechumens before the … chapel was formally opened and licensed.
Accordingly, we got the building ready and held the service on Sunday Evening….
The altar with its dossal and canopy and other sanctuary hangings looked very dignified and beautiful….
Our baptismal tank holds about 400 gallons of water….
Father Shepherd has been training a choir, and we came into the chapel in procession singing “As pants the hart for cooling streams.” … The Chapel was very full of people, although we had not given public notice of the service. The choir took their places on one side of the baptismal tank, and the seven catechumens in dark blue garments reaching to their feet … on the other side. Fraulein von Blomberg, as godmother, had a place beside them. Everyone was, I think, impressed by the great seriousness and earnestness of the catechumens.
I must confess that I have always been envious of those who are able to acquire another language. I have always struggled to learn a second language.
As a child my parents enrolled me in private French lessons, but when French became available at school, it was like starting over again. Each year was the same. I struggled all year to learn a few basics, scrape by with a pass at the end of the school year, and then forget everything over the summer. I would start again from square one, once again, each Fall. I finally dropped both French and Latin in high school. In the first year of seminary, I enrolled in New Testament Greek. Early in the term the professor arranged for us all to take a language aptitude test. My years of struggling to learn another language all came together with that test. Finally everything made sense.
If you have taken the language aptitude test, you will know that it is based on learning a few simple elements of Kurdish. The idea is to see how quickly you can learn it and then answer some questions. A week or so after the test, I sat in the professor’s office to hear my results. He began by telling me he didn’t understand why I was having such difficulty learning Greek, as I had a perfect aptitude for foreign languages. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. Mumbled oh and said to me, James I see why you are having such difficulties. I was reading the score backwards. You have absolutely no aptitude to learn a second language
I don’t know exactly how that language aptitude test works, but after years of trying to learn French, Latin and then Greek, I didn’t need a test to tell me what I already knew. There is something about my brain that simply can’t absorb languages. I joke that even after thirty years in this country, I still don’t understand and can’t speak American. It has been explained to me countless times, what freshman, sophomore, junior and senior mean, but it needs to be explained to me again each time someone uses those phrases. And please don’t tell me you are a rising sophomore because that will just confuse me even more.
One of the things which surprised me when I became the Superior in our community was my relationship to the vow of Obedience. At our Profession, we promise “to Almighty God, and to you my brother, the Superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, and to your successors in this office, that I will live in the life-long observance of Poverty, Celibacy, and Obedience, according to the Rule of this Society.”
As we know, the English word “obedience” comes from the same Latin word as “audio,” so that in the monastic tradition, obedience is primarily about listening. At times we are called to “be attentive to the voice of the Spirit within our hearts.” On other occasions we are challenged by obedience to “let go of attachment to our individual preferences and [learn] to trust in the wisdom of the community.” As a Brother in the community, it was my experience that there was one Superior. Now as Superior, I find that I am constantly challenged to listen to the wisdom of the community. In doing so, I find that, as Superior, I have twelve superiors.
This relationship between power, authority, and obedience is difficult to keep in balance. We know what happens when the authority of some comes at the cost of disempowering others. We know too the terrible tragedy that occurs “when in the name of obedience human beings have gladly abdicated responsibility and taken refuge in passivity and conformity.”
It is not an accident that this issue of Cowley is devoted to these connected dynamics of power, authority, and obedience. Nor do I believe that it is an accident that, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, these issues have been thrust onto center stage. As the pandemic has unmasked many inequalities in society, we have seen and experienced what happens when the balance between power and empowerment, authority and authoritarianism, obedience and listening have resulted in division and dominance rather than reconciliation and cooperation.
It is our hope that these reflections, rooted in our monastic tradition of obedience, will help in some small way as we practice the art of listening to one another deeply, and with open hearts and minds.
That kind of deep listening is not, I assure you, simply empty monastic talk. It is something we Brothers are engaging in currently as we attempt to navigate how best to consider re-opening the Chapel and the Guesthouse. Trying to balance the hopes, needs, and concerns of guests, members of our congregations, staff, and Brothers is not an easy thing. As we are discovering, every decision delights and relieves some, and concerns others. Nor are we trying to address concerns about health and safety issues without abdicating responsibility or giving way to fear. As we carry on these conversations about re-opening, I know we can count on your patience. We ask for your prayers for wisdom.
I cannot conclude this letter to you without once again expressing our gratitude to each of you for your abiding care, support, friendship, and prayers over these past challenging months. They have been sources of strength, grace, and hope to each of us, and especially to me. We Brothers are enormously thankful for the gift of your friendship.
Please know that just as you pray for us, we pray for you.
Faithfully in Christ,
James Koester, SSJE
When I’m working on a sermon, I usually keep a couple of questions in my mind. One is, where’s the good news? If I can’t answer that, then none of my listeners will be able to either. The other is, can I sum this whole sermon up in one sentence? If it takes me a whole paragraph to explain my sermon, then it’s not focused, it’s too complicated, or too long.
Using that same principle, I’m wondering this morning how I would sum up the entire Acts of the Apostles into one sentence. How would I do that? There is a lot going on in Acts, but in a sense there is only one thing going on. Luke tells us at the end of his gospel, and he repeats it at the beginning of Acts. You are my witnesses Jesus says to the assembled disciples in the Upper Room on that first Easter, and again just before his Ascension. You will be my witnesses.[2
If that is Acts in one sentence, what about my other question? Where is the good news? We hear it repeatedly throughout Acts, and we hear it again today. The good news of Acts is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. That is the whole point of Acts, and it is certainly the whole point of the Council of Jerusalem which determined that it was good to the Holy Spirit and to [the Apostles and elders] to impose on [the Gentiles] no further burden than [certain] essentials. Had the decision been otherwise, in those days shortly after Pentecost, the tiny Christian community would have remained a small Jewish sect, probably being absorbed and finally disappearing into the dominant Jewish mainstream within a generation, and we would not be here. But this decision to impose no further burden than [certain] essentials breathed life into the Jesus movement in its earliest days.
As followers of Jesus, that remains our purpose, indeed it is the purpose of the Church, and the vocation of all the baptized: to be Christ’s witnesses. Part of our job as witnesses, is simply to state what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life, and what we know to be true. After that, we need to back off, get out of the way, and impose no further burden than [these certain] essentials. In that way we allow the Spirit to do its work in bringing people into an encounter with the living Lord, rather than our personal and singular concept of God.
That, it seems to me, is the good news of Acts, and while we have been invited to join in the work of introducing people to an encounter with the living God, it is our real privilege and great joy to step back and watch God at work, in the lives of those whom we serve.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Friday in the Fifth Week of Easter, Year 1
 Luke 24: 48
 Acts 1: 8
 Acts 15: 28
 1 John 1: 1
St. George the Martyr
Preaching on the saints can be, at times, a real challenge. This is especially true with some of the early saints, including some of the apostles, about whom we know very little, and what we do know, is largely legend. Does the preacher simply stick to the texts, or do they focus on the legend? The problem with dismissing the legend out of hand is that many of the legends have within them shards of historical truth, and if they don’t, the legends are so archetypal, they still contain truth, and those archetypal legends have the power to shape and influence lives.
This is especially true of St. George, whom we remember today. What can be said about him, or at least about his feast historically, is that his feast was being kept as early as the mid fifth century. The legend of George and the dragon can’t be traced back earlier than the twelfth century. It is thought he died a martyr in the early years of the fourth century, during the persecution of Diocletian. He may have been a soldier, which gave rise to him being recognized as the patron saint of soldiers in twelfth century. As patron saint of soldiers, the Crusades were fought under his banner, which is how, ultimately, devotion to George was carried back to England, where in 1347 he was declared the patron saint.
I know exactly where I was. I was sitting in the quire of Canterbury Cathedral. It was March 1976. To be more exact, it was the Fourth Sunday in Lent. With a little detective work, I know that it was 28 March 1976.
I know that it was the Fourth Sunday in Lent, because the gospel that day was this story of the boy with the five barley-loaves and the two, small fish. I remember to this day the experience of hearing, as if for the first time, the story of the young lad who shared his lunch. Now, every time I hear this passage, I find myself sitting in Canterbury’s quire.
This story opens chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. The chapter begins here, which is part of the larger feeding story, and then moves on to the Calming of the Sea, and finally the Bread of Life discourse. It’s an incredibly rich and significant chapter, full of possibilities. Because it is so rich, the story of the boy is often lost. It’s easy to overlook him, or to lose him altogether. In fact, the other three gospels, all of which record this miracle, fail to mention the boy. And John fails, or has other reasons, not to name him. It is this nameless boy who has held my attention for over forty years.
Occasion: Birthday Celebration of Isabella Stewart Gardner
Place: Chapel at the end of the Long Gallery, Gardner Museum
There are a number of words that we might use to describe Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose birthday we are celebrating today. We might use the word audacious. We could describe her as scandalous or provocative. We might call her stubborn. We could call her eccentric. We could certainly call her rich. I am sure that she was called these, and many others besides. But there is one word which we might not normally associate with her. That word is courageous.
I saw that word downstairs in the gallery where the works of one of the Museum’s artists in residence are exhibited several years ago. The works, a series of miniatures, included an excerpt from a letter written to Mrs. Gardner by her friend Matthew Stewart Prichard an art historian and one time assistant curator of the neighbouring MFA. In the letter to Mrs. Gardner, Prichard he wrote: Be generous, generosity is a symptom of courage. If you fear; you are selfish.
We are all here today, because of Mrs. Gardner’s courage. She had the courage to be generous and by her generosity both the Monastery in Cambridge and the Museum here on the Fenway continue to thrive as important cultural and religious centres in the Boston area. Without her generosity neither Museum nor Monastery would exist.