A sermon delivered at the Solemn Festival Eucharist of the Brotherhood of St. Gregory and First Profession of Vows of Br. Richard Edward Helmer, BSG
The Chapel of the Stigmata
Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center
Wappingers Falls, New York
July 27, 2013
by Br. Karekin Madteos Yarian, BSG
Normally, I would not be eager to preach at this particular service, given the weightiness of it. Knowing that our beloved Minister General and our Bishop usually preach at this made it even more difficult to request a chance to speak to you today. But I asked nonetheless, because someone that I care about very deeply is making his first profession of vows today. For all of you, my brothers, I hope that you find thoughts to take away and strengthen you from what I say here, but today I speak to you Brother Richard Edward. I speak as someone who is privileged to know you, and to have had the opportunity to watch you grow over these last several years.
Today is a big day for you. A step, in fact, at the beginning of your journey in religious life. Your time of postulancy and novitiate has been much like preparation and packing before the journey begins. And now you’re going to take the first step on the road that, God grant you, will be long indeed!
What a joy! And what a terror! Just ask the sons of Zebedee. They, like you, don’t quite know what lies ahead. Oh, you might think you know what it means to follow Jesus. You might think you know what you are asking when you choose to make your vows today in the presence of your brothers. You long for the Kingdom life, and to you, like to James and John, Jesus poses a question: “Are you able?”
Before we get to that question, however, let’s take a look at who surrounds you right now: a community of men who are on the road following the Teacher. Following the Lord, whose Kingdom is not of this earth. Remember that. It is a Kingdom not of this earth, and so the kinds of power and privilege one might expect in a kingdom are not the kind we would suppose. James and John didn’t know this. And neither did the other disciples. And sometimes, we forget, too.
Jesus has to remind them – and us – that there are no positions of power here. “It is not so among you,” he says, “but whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all.”
Now, let’s get back to that question. “Are you able?”
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus asks them. And Jesus knows that they will. And he also knows that the road will lead to suffering even in the midst of joy.
I want to ask you to remember a moment a long time ago, on a snow bank, where you and I know this journey really began. A moment of pain, a crisis of sorts, through which God finally and ultimately blew open all of the pre-conceived ideas you had about who you were and where your life would take you. And I want you to look at where you are now.
Are you able to remember that moment clearly? Are you able to remember and hear the call of God begun in those moments, and trust that today, you are closer than ever to answering that call?
Like Samuel, perhaps it took a while before it sunk in that it was God speaking. Take a look around you at this room full of men who will, like Eli, help you to answer when God calls and you don’t quite recognize that it is him. “Go back,” we will tell you, “and say, ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’”
I listen to today’s Gospel and I recognize you in it, in James and John: men with ambition in the Kingdom, who do not realize what they are asking for when they ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand.
I remember asking you once, early in your Postulancy with the brotherhood, “If this is all that God has planned in you – this parish, this small town, the members of this parish, this family, the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory – if this is all there is, is it enough? Are you able to accept it, if this might be all that God has planned for you, and see it as a gift? Are you able to drink this cup?”
I know that this is a question that you’ve wrestled with, to discover what it means to be content where you are until God calls you elsewhere. Unlike James and John, perhaps you now recognize that power and authority are different in the Kingdom than they are in the world. And I am so very, very proud of you.
Are you able to be a brother among brothers? With our faults and flaws and drama and all the normal things that come with human communities? There is a song that I love by a contemporary pop artist named Jason Mraz titled “A Beautiful Mess.” It is about the depths and realities of relationships and ways that they change and challenge us, and sometimes in the process of that change or challenge, we experience pain. Sometime deep pain. But listen to these words:
Through timeless words and priceless pictures
We’ll fly like birds not of this earth;
And tides they turn and hearts disfigure
But that’s no concern when we’re wounded together.
What a beautiful mess this is.
It’s like taking a guess when the only answer is yes.
Are you able to drink this cup? Are you able to love us, and be challenged by us, and to challenge us, and be messy with us as we continue to grow and learn how to love one another? When you or I or any of us is wounded…God is with us.
I have so admired watching you over the last three years as you’ve embraced the perspectives of the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. And to embrace them not as ends but as means. Means of transformation, means of spiritual growth, means of answering the call of God so that you can show the world what the love of God looks like from the perspective of one who has received it.
And now, you are prepared to take these vows up. Or rather, you are ready to take up the struggle with them, and the pains and joys of the transformation they will bring to you. To your family. To your parish. To your friends. To the world.
God lit a fire of love in your heart on that snow bank, and God will work with you to stoke that fire until the flames can warm your heart enough should you ever reach another time or moment in your life where pain or sorrow make it feel cold.
You and God, with the love and help of your brothers, will stoke those flames until they refine you like silver, helping you to burn away the dross – of ambitions, and assumptions, and attempts to do all you can to determine the outcome… of the future… or of our present circumstances.
You and God will stoke those flames until they dance on your very head as you spread the Gospel in the part of the world that God has set aside for you.
And, as you near the passage from this life to the greater life that waits for us all, you and God will stoke the flames of that love until they become so powerful that they consume your spirit and carry your remains on the mighty rushing wind to the throne of God.
Are you able to be baptized with this baptism? Are you able to drink this cup?
My brother – we have all taken up the cup. And we all take it up daily. And able or not, we trust in God to help us. We have taken up the baptism that Jesus shows us, unsure of what that holy fire will do in us. But, unlike James and John, we know where it will lead us. All of us, through this life and inexorably to our death and our entrance into the greater life that waits. We know that it may lead to struggle and messiness. But we also know that it WILL lead to joy. Inexpressible joy. We are so glad you’ve chosen the road ahead. We don't know where it will take us, but we are with you, should God will it and you persevere, whatever happens as we travel together.
Let us pray:
O Holy One, watch over the times of your beloved children, and grant us peace as we step into the joys and anxieties of unknowingness. For all things find their moment in you. And nothing is until it is. But you always are. Amen.