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Obituary – A homily for Br Nathanael’s Funeral

“No eulogy”, wrote Br Nathanael sometime ago when preparing instructions for his funeral. “No eulogy” underlined three times!  Down to earth, no fuss, no trimmings – very Nat!  So this is not a “eulogy”; this is a “homily” – on the scriptures that we’ve just heard.   But even a “homily-that-is-not-a-eulogy” will allow us to acknowledge that we’ve come from far and wide today to remember and give thanks for our brother Nathanael.

Some, of course, will remember him by his baptismal name, Kenneth.  We’ve come from Bolton, from our Franciscan friaries around the country, and especially from the Principality of Wales for which Nat had so great an affection and where he ministered for more than thirty years.  We remember him as the loving brother of his sister Joyce, as the uncle of his nieces and nephew, and as the widower of his wife, Sally, to whom he was married for three years before joining the Society of St Francis.  We remember him as a family friend, as a Franciscan brother for more than fifty years, as a priest, a pastor, a teacher, a spiritual guide, a gardener and handy-man, and above all as a faithful Christian man.

“I thought I said ‘No eulogy”‘, I can hear Nathanael saying!  He’s right, of course, a funeral isn’t the place for heaping praise on the one who has died as though on account of his merits we are commending him to God.  Our merits, as Nat would want to remind us, are God’s mercies, and we enter and live in God’s kingdom by faith in the grace of God alone; and the praise, likewise, belongs to God.  So let’s look at the scriptures that Nathanael has chosen for his funeral.  The first reading, from the Old Testament, tells of a young man on the run – Jacob, fleeing from the anger of his brother Esau.  Coming to a certain place, and lying down for the night, he has a dream of a ladder between heaven and earth and of the angels of God descending and ascending: ‘The Lord is in this place’, cries Jacob, ‘this is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’

‘Young men shall dream dreams’, says the prophet Joel, ‘and the old shall see visions’.  The world has always needed – and today more than ever needs – a dream, a vision, which opens our hearts, which stretches our imaginations, and which takes us beyond ourselves.  Such a dream or vision lies at the heart of all Christian vocation – evoking our wonder, our obedience, and our service.  It’s what gives our vocation its purpose and direction; it’s what sustains it day by day.  Without the vision of God daily before us our vocation easily turns into a career path in which our energy and attention are focussed on our own advancement, our own achievement and our own success.  Praise God that Nathanael has been given this vision of God’s glory on which he has focused his life, and by which he has been sustained over the past eighty-two years.

Then in the epistle reading St Paul speaks of the treasure of the Gospel, the vision of the glory of God, being held in clay vessels, in earthenware pots.  Paul is very well aware of his own fragility and vulnerability – the Corinthians, to whom he is writing, have never let him forget it.  All of us, Nathanael no exception, are earthy creatures, people with cracks, but the Good News is that those cracks, fault lines and fragile places can be, and often are, God’s opportunity – the opportunity for grace, gift, miracle to be at work in our lives and in our world.  Neither the world nor the Church needs super-heroes – people who are always right, successful and powerful; celebrities who wow the crowds.  Rather, what seems to be required are those who have the gift of humility; who know their own origin and rootedness in the earth and who therefore can allow the transforming life of God in Jesus Christ to be at work in them.  As St Paul says: ‘grace at work in us (in Nathanael) increases thanksgiving to the glory of God’.

And lastly, we come to the Gospel reading, and we can see why Nat chose it because it’s about another Nathanael, one of the Twelve, in fact one of the very first whom Jesus called to be a disciple.  At first he’s sceptical: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’, he says to Philip – I can hear Nat saying that in his Lancashire accent!  But that Nathanael came and saw and believed: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God.  You are the King of Israel.’  And what Jesus replies to him is significant – for him and for us – ‘You will see greater things than this’ (in effect, you ain’t seen nothing yet).  As with Jacob, heaven is going to be opened and ‘you will see the glory of God descending and ascending on the Son of Man.’  That’s Jesus’ promise to Nathanael and it remains Jesus’ promise to us.  We may not see God’s glory in all its fullness – that would be too much for us to bear at present – but what we’ve seen in the face of Jesus Christ gives us the encouragement to hope for more, to hope for nothing less than to share and to live in the glory of God, the same glory revealed to us in Jesus, crucified and risen.

Our Brother Nathanael lived in that hope, and I believe that it probably increased in him during the final months of his life.  When I last saw him a few weeks ago he told me about the doctor giving him the news of his diagnosis.  “We believe that you’ve got lung cancer”, said the doctor.  “Thank you, doctor” said Nathanael.  “Do you want to ask any questions about it?” said the doctor.  “No thank you”, said Nathanael.  “Do you have any concerns about it?” asked the doctor.  “Doctor”, replied Nat, “I’ve been a Franciscan brother for the past fifty years, and if I’m not ready now to welcome Sister Death things have come to a pretty pass.”  A very “Nathanael way” of going about it!  Well, Sister Death has now taken him from us and, praise God, Nat will see heaven opened and will now know the vision of God fully revealed in all its glory. f