O Give Me Grace to Follow – Br. James Koester

Bernard Mizeki, Catechist and Martyr, 1896
Life Profession of Lucas Hall SSJE

John 1: 1 – 18

Some of you will know that Lucas had a birthday a few weeks ago. The day of his birthday, I came up behind him and began to hum Happy Birthday. He turned, pulled out of his habit his small pocket diary, opened it, and showed me the page for his birthday. It had one word on it. Old.

I don’t know about you, but the day Lucas was born, I was about to turn 35. I am not even sure that I can remember turning 30! And if 30 is old, I am curious to know what Lucas, you will think of yourself when you turn 65. No doubt you will feel a proper Methuselah, who Genesis tells us was 969 years old when he died.[1]

While I don’t know this for a fact, my hunch is that you Lucas, will be at least for today, the youngest life professed member of a monastic community in the Anglican Communion. That alone is worthy to note, but it is not in fact, what sets this day apart, because the story of how we got here did not begin a mere 30 years ago (no matter how long ago youmight think that was). Rather the particular story of why we are here, began many, many years ago.

I am tempted to say that today’s events were set in motion before the beginning of time, when there was nothing but the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.[2] In that time before time, when there was nothing, save only Word and God, everything was set in motion that would bring us here today.

But rather than rooting today’s profession in this time before time, I want to turn to another time, to a time within time.

Cape Town
9 March 1886

Dear Father Benson:

We had a very happy day on Sunday. As … the Bishop gave us leave to baptize our … catechumens before the … chapel was formally opened and licensed.

 Accordingly, we got the building ready and held the service on Sunday Evening….

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… 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… Everyone was, I think, impressed by the great seriousness and earnestness of the catechumens.

I stood at one end of the tank with Father Shepherd on one side, and John James the catechist on the other.

Each catechumen renounced the devil looking westward and confessed his faith looking eastward. Four of them made their answers in English, [and for] the other three [John James acted] as interpreter. After the interrogations were finished, I gave an address… Then followed the baptisms. Each catechumen knelt in the water and was immersed three times. After each one had been baptized, I led him up the steps of the tank, and Father Shepherd covered him with a white mantle, and then John James led him into the dressing room to dry himself and change his garments. While the latter process was going on, we sang two baptismal hymns… just as the second hymn was finished, the seven neophytes came back to their places in clean white suits. Then followed the signing with the cross, which I emphasized by putting round the neck of each one a copper cross, as a remembrance of the day. At the end of the service we sang in procession, “O Jesus I have promised, to serve thee to the end.”

The day ended up with a tea for the newly baptized. One of them certainly deserved his tea. They had all been exhorted to fast on the Saturday, but through a misunderstanding this one continued his fast all through Sunday, so that he had been nearly 48 hours without food.

One feels very thankful and at the same time anxious over these first fruits. I feel morally certain that they are at present in real earnest; but one knows how anxious the devil will be to sow tares as soon as possible. I hope that … you will pray for their perseverance. The names given to them at baptism were: Thomas Masrai, John Ntinge, James Mpilele, Bernard Mizeki, Nicholas Kossana, Peter Paliso, Francis Maimbanini.[3]

This was no ordinary baptism, and as we Brothers know, the name Bernard Mizeki is engraved in the annuls of our community history, for the baptism took place in our church in Cape Town; Father Puller who wrote the letter, and Father Shepherd who is mentioned, were early members of the Society; Bernard himself would go on to be the first missionary in what is now Zimbabwe, where he would be martyred on this day in 1896. Looking at the calendar to find a day for Lucas’ profession, the choice was obvious.

There are many aspects of Bernard’s story that inspire, but there is one which has the power to shape the rest of your life Lucas, as a professed member of our community, and which can give you a purpose, and a mission.

Near the mission hut where Bernard lived, was a grove of trees, where lived, according to legend, evils spirits. Consequently, the locals were terrified, and would not enter the grove. As a way for them to discover the God who is light, whom the darkness cannot overtake[4], Bernard cut crosses into the trees. He beckoned them to enter and see for themselves there was nothing to fear. That scene is depicted in our icon of Bernard.

Lucas, in that time before time, when there was nothing save Word and God, you were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love [and] destined … for adoption as his [son] through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.[5] In that moment you were endowed with a life, and a vocation, and a purpose, and a mission.

Lucas, today Bernard points to, and you are grasping that life, that vocation, that purpose, and that mission which is nothing less than beckoning people into an encounter and union with the living God.

Our Rule tells us that [our] mission is to bring men, women, and children into closer union with God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit that he breathes into us.  Christ is already present in the life of everyone as the light of the world.  It is our joy to serve all those to whom we are sent by helping them to embrace that presence in faith.[6] At the same time, Father Benson reminds us that the object of our association in a Religious Community is [not] to equip us to go out as missionaries. We do not come into our Community primarily in order to convert others, but rather with the desire, first of all, to be converted ourselves. Then, if by God’s grace, we are converted to Him, He may use us in missionary work, or in any other way that He pleases.[7]

Lucas, in the offering of your life to God today, as a witness to Jesus who is Light, and Life, and Word of God, you are, in a sense, standing in the baptismal tank at St. Philip’s with Bernard. Like Bernard, you don’t know where you will be led, but with him you are saying, O give me grace to follow. This life you are choosing may lead you to places of darkness, and fear, but with Bernard you are saying, O give me grace to follow. Wherever this life does lead you, like Bernard, take with you the cross of Christ, and as you cut it into those places of darkness you find along the way, pray with Bernard, O give me grace to follow.

Nearly 140 years ago Bernard, sang O Jesus, I have promised.[8] It is a hymn we often sing here are the monastery, for our life, and after today your life Lucas, is rooted and grounded in a promise to serve [God] to the end. It is a promise filled with grace and challenge. Like Bernard that promise may cost you your life, literally. But my prayer Lucas, is that this life for you, as it has been for many others, will be one of light, and life, and love. But when it isn’t, and there will be days when it won’t, and the darkness and demons seem to be everywhere, carve the cross of Christ into the nearest tree, and like Bernard, step into the darkness praying O give me grace to follow. Then you will find the light and the One who is the Light of God leading you on, and if you follow, others may too, and discover for themselves that life is full of meaning in union with God.[9]

For Bernard, carving those crosses into those trees was an act of faith and trust. He had found the Light of God for himself, and beckoned others to find that same light in the person of Jesus. Making your life profession in our community Lucas, is also an act of faith and trust, especially in one so young, and it inspires us [all] with awe and joy; [and] we wonder at the risk of such a decisive choice.[10] But by this free act of self-offering, God is carving anew the cross of Christ in your life. That cross, first carved on you at your baptism, beckons you, and all of us as well, into those places where we will find again the light, and life, and love of God.

The mission and purpose for your life which you are here accepting today Lucas, is to be like Bernard, and beckon us all to follow, and in following embrace the One who has called us all, from before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love, even as we pray, O give us grace to follow, [our] Master and [our] friend.

Lucas, may you find the grace to follow Christ as your Master and your Friend all the days of your life as a member of this community, and in following, remember to look back and beckon us to follow too.

[1] Genesis 5: 21 – 27

[2] John 1: 1 – 3a

[3] Parish Magazine, Cowley St. John, May 1886, page 2 – 3

[4] John 1: 4 – 5

[5] Ephesians 1: 4 – 5

[6] SSJE, Rule of Life, Mission and Service, chapter 31, page 62

[7] Woodgate, M.V., Father Congreve of Cowley, SPCK, London, 1956, page 20

[8] Hymnal 1982, hymn 655, words by John Ernest Bode (1816 – 1874)

[9] SSJE, Rule of Life, The Word of God in Preaching, chapter 19, page 39

[10] Ibid, Life Profession, page 79