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Br Nicholas Alan’s sermon at the Profession in Alnmouth

Saturday 13th December 2014                                                                                                                                  Alnmouth Friary

Profession in Vows                                                                                                                        2 King 2: 9-14; Matthew 17:10-13

From now on, call nothing you own. As you are bound to Christ, so in him you are set free.

Today is a very important day for our four brothers: Cristian Michael, David, Micael Christoffer and Robert. They are about

Br Nicholas Alan preaching.

Br Nicholas Alan preaching.

to dedicate themselves to the service of our Lord Jesus Christ within the First Order of the Society of Saint Francis. Of course it is not a complete beginning; more than three years of training, first as a postulant and then as a novice, have hopefully given them a good idea of what they are committing themselves to. This is not a leap in the dark, but a clear-eyed decision and a commitment to take this next, significant step along the journey that we are already travelling together. So today we give thanks for your vocation.

It is also an important day for the whole community. Here in Britain we are known as the European Province of the Society of Saint Francis. As we steadily retreat to the heartlands of England, closing houses in Ireland, Wales and Scotland, calling ourselves the European Province has been something of a notional designation, an aspiration rather than a reality. But today Europe has come to us, and we are immeasurably enriched by the diverse life-paths of the brothers making their vows here today. In the early days of the Franciscan order, back in the time of St. Francis, language skills were not high among the accomplishments of the friars. Those going on the mission to Germany knew little more than the word ‘Ja’ for Yes, which was alright when people asked them if they were hungry or tired, but was not quite so useful when asked if they were heretics. Today we can count on missioners fluent in German, Swedish, Romanian and Arabic, not to mention various other European languages along the way.

Perhaps more significantly, here are four young men who have had time to get to know the community, and still feel that this is the place where God is calling them to be. This community, they and we believe, is the environment in which they can most flourish as people and as servants of God. That is a tremendous compliment to pay to your brothers and sisters in community: to say that this place will do, these people are good enough (if nothing more!), here are companions with whom to find true happiness and the salvation of our souls. It is a statement of faith, both in the God who gives us grace to live this life, and in this particular community, that it will continue to nurture your growth into the full stature of Christ, and enable you to give yourself most fully in the service of others. So I say ‘thank you’ for your faith in us, and for the faith of your families and friends who have entrusted you to us.

IMG_2005And we also have faith in you. Although the service we are enacting today is framed around your profession in vows, still it remains an expression of mutual commitment. Towards the end of the service the previously professed brothers and sisters affirm: ‘As we receive you into our fellowship and are united with you in the bonds of love in this earthly life, so may we, at the last, by the mercy of God, be joined together with all God’s faithful people in heaven.’ We receive you into our fellowship, though of course in so many ways you are already there, a part of us that we do not want to lose; and we pray that by God’s mercy this act of commitment may bring us all to full membership of God’s faithful people in heaven. Jesus once said that there will be no marrying or giving in marriage in heaven, so presumably there will be no Professions in Vows either, but our professions on this earth are none the less the expression and living out of a fellowship that will bring us all, together, through the good times and the bad, to rejoice in God’s company and the company of each other in God’s Kingdom forever. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you that. Maybe it has taken all your courage to work up to this one provisional first vow and the thought of eternity with these brothers and sisters may be more than you can cope with right now. But don’t worry; Jesus also said that there are many mansions in his Father’s kingdom, many friaries and hermitages. Somewhere up there is a friary built for you, or at least a cell with your name on the door, and a chapel at the end of the cloister that reaches up into the universe and beyond.    

From now on, call nothing you own. As you are bound to Christ, so in him you are set free.

I quoted that phrase at the beginning of this sermon, because for me it sums up so much of what is happening here today. It is IMG_1959spoken by the Minister, at perhaps the most dramatic moment of the service, when he throws to one side the single knotted rope of a novice, and replaces it with a rope knotted three times to represent the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Newly tied, and hopefully still able to breath, you will hear these words: From now on, call nothing you own. As you are bound to Christ, so in him you are set free. This is really our Rule of Life, our Bill of Rights and our Charter of Freedom. From now on, call nothing you own. What can that mean? Call nothing your own? Well, practically speaking, some things will inevitably remain your own. Please do call your socks your own, if you have any: that way they are more likely to get washed. Call your habit your own, if you wish, and make sure that it doesn’t get too frayed at the edges. (That is bound to happen in other ways during the course of community life.) But these words of the Minister are rather more radical in their implications.

Call nothing you own. This is really about the letting go, gradually or suddenly, of everything we hold dear, everything we are attached to, for good or for ill. It is a way of practicing for the great letting go that will happen to all of us when we pass from this life to the next.   Call nothing your own: this applies even to your sense of vocation, to the vows you are making today. Our vocation is not a personal possession to be defended at all costs. It is a communal process of discernment, a working out together of that which we believe is the will of God. Call nothing you own. That applies to your time, your talents, your energy, the overflowing gifts with which God has blessed you, which we have recognised within you and which you have shared with us. In the Eucharist at the offertory we often say: All things come from you, O Lord, and of your own do we give you. This making of vows which we practice together is a way of making an offering of our lives, making ourselves a Eucharist, a thanksgiving, and a place where Christ is made real in flesh and blood.

And we cannot do this on our own. We need the example of St. Francis and St. Clare, in their self-abandonment to God in poverty and joy; we need the courage of our Blessed Lady Mary, and her Yes to the incredible call to let God come to birth within her through the Holy Spirit; and we need each other to realise that we truly are all in this together, that there is no individual salvation to be worked out on our own, that we live or die as a fellowship, a communion, a community made one in the body of Christ.

In our readings from Scripture today we are given another role model to help us on our way. Jesus speaks, briefly, of John the Baptist, his cousin and forerunner, who lived out the role of Elijah preparing the way of the Lord. Francis himself was baptised John, in honour of the Baptist, according to the Franciscan theologian St. Bonaventure. And Francis saw himself as a messenger of peace and reconciliation, beginning his sermons with the words Pace e Bene, Peace and all Good. One of the stories about Francis tells how in the early days of his conversion he was confronted on a lonely road by a group of robbers who demanded to know who he was. ‘The Herald of the Great King’, Francis replied, and being penniless was pushed aside into a snowy ditch for his pains. Francis, like John, was a herald, a forerunner, someone who points to someone else, who deflects attention away from himself to another more powerful than he.

John the Baptist is in many ways an exemplar of the religious life, and particularly of the Franciscan friar. Here is someone who dispossesses himself of all things, who goes out into the desert to fast and to pray, but then returns to preach the good news: The Kingdom of God is at hand! God’s presence is in our midst! In John’s Gospel, the Baptist says of Jesus: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ (Jn.3:30) That would be a good motto for us all as Christians, but especially for those of us who are professed brothers and sisters of St. Francis. In icons, John the Baptist is always seen pointing away from himself, deflecting attention to Jesus. Don’t look at me, he seems to be saying, Look at Him, look at Jesus. He must increase, but I must decrease. This is still what we are being called to do: to show people Jesus, to lead people to the one in whom they can find salvation.

And John the Baptist, proclaiming the way of the Lord, was himself re-enacting the role of another archetype of the religious life, the Old Testament prophet Elijah. In our intriguing reading from the Second Book of Kings, Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, leaving Elisha his disciple gazing up in wonder at the fast disappearing chariot and horses of fire. Elijah, like John, was one who went out into the desert, and it was there that he found God in the sheer silence at the mouth of a cave. At our monastery in Worcestershire we used to have a hermit living not in a cave but in a hut at the bottom of the garden. His name was Brother Ramon. He rarely came up to the house, but he did come up to preach at my own profession in first vows 15 years ago. I can still hear his rolling Welsh consonants echoing in my head. I always wanted to say to him before he died: ‘Grant me to inherit a double share of your spirit!’ But I never did, nor did I see him ascend into heaven in a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire. Perhaps he did, but I wasn’t there.

But in a way we are all Elisha’s to the Elijah’s who go before us. We all of us have a chance to pick up the mantle, or the habit, of those who have gone before us, and to strike the waters before us with a cry of: ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Ramon?’ Or the God of Martin? Or the God of Nathanael? Perhaps you should try this with these new ropes after the service: go to the causeway leading to Holy Island at high tide, strike the water and cry: ‘Where is the Lord, the God of St. Francis, of Fr. Algy and Br. Douglas?’ Perhaps the waters will part; if you wait long enough it will happen anyway with the turn of the tide. (Most things do.) But don’t wait too long or you might get swept out to sea. In fact I think you would do better to find first the true River Jordan that each of you has to cross. Because now the journey begins in earnest. It may feel as though at last you have arrived: you are about to become a professed brother in the Society of St. Francis. But that is only the beginning. Now you have to cross the river, whatever the river is to you: to call nothing your own, and to let everything else float away down the river and out into the vast ocean. Now is the time to stand alongside Moses at the Red Sea, Joshua at the River Jordan, and Jesus as he crossed the icy waters of death to re-emerge new-born on the other side. But hold onto this habit and rope. Treat it as a heavenly garment fallen from a chariot of fire, entrusted to you by the prophet Elijah himself. May this rope bind you to Christ and so set you free; and may you in your freedom bring all people to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.