Sermon in CR Chapel

Zachary CR: Requiem, 24 September 2010

I Thess 4:13-18. John 11:17-27

Just occasionally, when you think of some of the people Jesus met, called and cared for in the Gospels, you can’t help wondering whether some of them tried his patience just a little. There is the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman who pushes Jesus to go beyond the boundaries of a Jewish teacher; there was Nicodemus who couldn’t be part of the crowd but came to Jesus late at night and in today’s Gospel there is Martha who plunges straight into a theological argy-bargy with Jesus: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again” but Mary almost says “Don’t give me that old theological spiel: do something useful!” (what she actually says is, “I know my brother will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” but we can almost feel her frustration). Yet time and time again, what we see in Jesus is that deep, persistent attention to each person, seeking to do for them the one thing that will enable them to find that fullness of life, that abundance of life of which the fourth Gospel speaks.

Today, as we gather to pray for our brother Zachary, to give thanks for his life amongst us and to commend him to our heavenly Father, we are bound to reflect on the many ways in which Zachary taught us something of the mystery of the Gospel. First and perhaps most importantly, Zach was a model of stability, a mirror of that steadfast love of the Lord that never fails. He arrived at Mirfield in 1956 and, apart from one brief spell in Barbados , lived out his community life here. Although his pattern of stability was not easily woven into the habits of the community, something of the irresistible call of the Lord never left him. There was a time when he could have left the community but he chose to stay. His coming to Mirfield was influenced by accounts of successful missions and the work in Southern Africa but what kept him here was a much more profound, awkward and barely expressed confidence in God. In all this, Zachary’s example demands that we never let ourselves rest content with mere churchiness but always seek a deeper rootedness in God, whose ways are not our ways.

Then Zachary was always, uncompromisingly himself. This could be both good and bad news. It meant you never quite knew what response you might get but it also meant that you could be entirely confident that he was saying what he intended. Because of that gentleness that was also there, his contrariness was more a reminder that the world is more puzzling and incomprehensible than we should like it to be. Once again we are brought back to the figure of Martha in today’s Gospel. As the evangelist portrays it, Jesus was friends with Martha, Mary and Lazarus but they were very different people. Martha just hints at a measure of injustice that she has to do all the work in the kitchen while Mary swans around being contemplative. So often, Zachary’s questioning of things in community proved to have an importance that was not evident at first sight. His insights were often oblique and difficult for us to grasp but again and again we were reminded of the need to pay that kind of deep attention to one another that God in Christ gives to us.

As with other brothers, life in community brought Zachary into contact with many outside the community and deep friendships were formed, not least from his time as guest-brother. This, too, was not simple and straightforward: some encountered a brusqueness, even a rudeness that was a stumbling block, while others found nothing but warmth and kindness. Most of us were used to a mixture! At the heart of the Gospel is the recognition that getting from here to there, overcoming the limitations of life in the world, involves a radical change, a transformation. The cross of Christ and the death of the Son of Man is our constant reminder of just what is involved. In each of us, there is resistance to such complete change; there is anxiety in the face of such loss, such risk. Monastic life with its structures and understanding of mutual obedience seeks to help us prepare for the moment when we can do nothing but accept.

Here too, we each develop our own particular strategies: Zachary’s were less open to scrutiny than many but again there were many signs that he knew he was accountable to his heavenly Father, although he appeared less able to see the patterns of community life as preparation for that giving account. It is the hope of the Resurrection that is our guide and inspiration; that confidence which Christ has indeed made all things new and that this transformation is truly possible. Jesus was not put off by Martha. He persisted in the dialogue, making himself the guarantee of the promise: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Once, when flying to Bermuda with Kathleen Taylor, Zachary announced that he wanted to sit at the back of the plane. Kathleen was less sure and asked whether this was a good idea. “The seats in this plane all go to the same destination” was Zack’s characteristic response and, in a way, that captures his slightly uneasy, slightly amused but fundamentally accepting recognition of the Lord’s claim on his life - enfolded in the hope of the Resurrection.

So we pray for him and thank God for his encouragement to us to persevere to our life’s end that we may say with Martha, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Peter Allan CR