2016 has been a remarkable year; a year where hatred and violence have dominated the news, a sad year, one for which we must lament. It feels like a godless year. This week’s savage murder of Fr. Jacques in some ways adds to the feeling of godliness-less; there is something truly awful, sadly not unique, about a priest being murdered in the sanctuary. Brother Roger of Taize was murdered whilst at prayer,  Oscar Romero was brutally murdered in El Salvador in 1980. All three men, Fr Jacques, Brother Roger and Archbishop Oscar Romero were simply doing the things that men and women of God do each and every day; reading from Scripture, praying for the world, celebrating Christ’s presence amongst us in word and sacrament. They were doing the ordinary business of the Church, through which the extraordinary love of God is declared.

The offering of God’s love is, put simply, your vocation and mine.

It strikes me that the events of 2016 and, especially those of the last week invite us to answer to answer a very straightforward question:

‘When times are tough, when violence and injustice seem to reign supreme, how should we respond and relate to the world around us?’

And, maybe, today’s readings help. Both Paul and Jesus inhabited a deeply troubled world, a world where people were often put to death for their religious and political beliefs. Indeed, both Paul and Jesus were put to death. In fact, they both knew that they would be put to death.

 

St. Paul writing to the Colossians suggests that whatever else is going on around them that they ‘seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.’ To my mind the things that are above include perfect justice and, perfect peace. If we were to wind the reading from the epistle on a few verses Paul suggests the following as a rule for Christian living: ‘As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion and kindness, humility, meekness and patience……... above all clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’

St. Paul insists that the Christian community, even in the face of atrocity, must always be open, inclusive and outward looking. It is to be an example to the wider world simply through its very existence; meeting together, praying together, participating in the sacraments together are in themselves all acts of Christian mission;  but they also the goods which equip us to go out into the world, free from fear, and get on with the ‘dirty work of holiness.’

 

The only alternative choice to compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness and love, is isolation and withdrawal. We can, like the rich man in the gospel, seek to cut ourselves off from the world and focus solely on our own happiness and enjoyment. We can regard material security as a safe guard. We can, like the rich man, deceive ourselves pretending such an approach will benefit our very souls:  ‘And I will say to my soul, Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But, ultimately this is the strategy of the ‘fool.’ Our real goods are prayer, scripture and the Eucharist, or word and sacrament, if you prefer. These are the things that sustain and equip.

The opposite of foolishness is wisdom, and so if we are wise our response, in the midst of darkness, should be to recommit ourselves to living as God would have us live; relationally, with compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness and love.  These should be the characteristics of our common life as the Church and they should also be the virtues we take out into the world as we engage in the ‘dirty work of holiness,’ Amen.

Rev. Andrew Lightbown

Let me start with a question. Does anyone here have a favourite saint? ………..

Well, I am not sure I have an absolute stand-out favourite, but St. Benedict would certainly be in my top few. Like St. Laurence he is a non-biblical saint. He is probably along with Francis the 'non biblical saint' who has had most influence over European Christianity. 17 Popes have named themselves Benedict, only John, with 21, outscores Benedict.

So, there is definitely something about Benedict.

Benedict wrote his monastic rule in around the year 520. He was writing for men and women of faith into a highly uncertain and dangerous socio-political context, for he was writing just as the Roman Empire was beginning to unravel.

1,600 odd years later men and women around the world, still living in a highly uncertain and dangerous socio-political environment, continue to live a life based on the Rule of Benedict and the wisdom it offers. I am one of them. So, as I said there is definitely something about Benedict.

I could give an entire lecture series on St. Benedict and his Rule, but I won't (promise), so this morning I want to consider just three very Benedictine concepts: orientation, silence and hospitality:

Benedict is keen to stress that Christ must be the focus and orientation of our lives. In the Prologue to the Rule he wrote: 'My words are addressed to you especially, whoever you may be, whatever your circumstances, who turn from the pursuit of your own self-will and ask to enlist under Christ.'

In the Gospel reading (Luke 18, 18-22) the question is asked 'what must I do to inherit eternal life,' The answer given is to 'follow Me,' and, for the rich young ruler this requires the throwing off of wealth and earthly status. Although he is asked to sell all his possessions he is also being asked at a much deeper level to give up all pretensions to be a 'Ruler.'

We can't be both a follower of Jesus and the ruler of our own lives. Follower or ruler what's it to be is the question Jesus poses to each and every one of us; it is the question Benedict also asks us to confront.

Silence is, I think, something we need to recapture. Our world is a noisy place. But, Benedict doesn't value silence for its own sake, or even for it's therapeutic value. He offers two reasons for silence; first so that we can 'listen' to the word of God and to each other. Silence, being attentive to what God is saying and what others are saying is one way in which the command to love the Lord our God, with the totality of our senses, and to love our neighbour as ourselves can be fulfilled. Benedict also advocates silence as the glue which binds and sustains community. Listen to the wisdom he offers in Chapter 6 of the Rule, 'Cherishing Silence in the Monastery:'

'In a monastery we ought to follow the advice of the psalm which says: ''I have resolved to keep watch over my ways so that I may not sin with my tongue. I am guarded about the way I speak and have accepted silence in humility, refraining from words even that are good.'' In this verse the psalmist shows that because of the value of silence, there are times when it is best not to speak even though what we have in mind is good. How much more important is it to refrain from evil speech when we remember what such sins bring down on us in punishment. In fact so important is it to cultivate silence, even about matters concerning sacred values and spiritual instruction that permission should be granted only rarely to monks and nuns even though they have themselves gained a high standard of monastic observance.'

Wow! His basic point is, of course, simply this: that when we talk excessively we can't be listening, either to God or to our neighbour.

Speaking and ruling can be, if we are not careful, closely correlated. Just as the Rich Young Ruler was asked to forego his material possessions, following Jesus may involve learning to forego all unnecessary, empty or controlling words. To render ourselves silent, or at least quiet, is to throw off all pretensions and attempts to manipulate, control or even rule.

We must learn to cherish silence and acquire the art of stillness. This for many of us is a real challenge! One final thought on the importance of silence, or of refraining from speaking. Benedict has one absolute pet hate; gossip, which he describes as the cancer of the community. He says to his monks and nuns, 'please don't do it, for it undermines are common life and the common good.'

Finally hospitality. For St. Benedict a faith community exists to do two things: first to help its members find God and, as we have seen, make God the orientation of their lives and secondly to be a living, visible and tangible witness to the love God has for each and every person and especially those seeking hospitality. But what is this hospitality and how does Benedict define it? In Chapter 53 of the Rule Benedict wrote:

'Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself.' Note the stress on the word 'any,' note that Benedict is saying how we meet and greet people is directly correlated with how we 'meet and greet Jesus.' He goes on to say: 'Guests should always be treated with respect and deference' and that 'the greatest care should be taken to give a warm welcome to the poor and pilgrim, because it is in them above all else that Christ is welcomed. As for the rich, they have a way of exacting respect through the very fear inspired by the power they yield.'  This is challenging and radical stuff? Do you see Christ in each and every guest, do we give of our very best to the poorest, or do we just give them our hand me downs, the stuff we now longer need? These are really important questions and get to the heart of what it might mean to take hospitality seriously as an expression of mission and ministry.

 

So, there you have it three very contemporary challenges from a rule of life written some 1,600 years ago:

What is the orientation of your life?

To what extent do you cultivate the art of silence?

Are we a truly hospitable church?

 

Have a think about them over the coming week – in the silence of your hearts!

 

Amen.

 

Rev Andrew Lightbown

We live in a world that likes facts, or is it that we live in a world that likes facts so long as they support what we already think? In the recent European Referendum people were heard complaining long and hard that they weren't being given the facts. Modern secular atheists often argue their case based on the fact that God cannot be factually proved. However, many scientists, some of them atheists are also highly critical of the misuse of science to answer what they regard as a non-scientific question.

'Doubting Thomas' often gets it in the neck for refusing to believe until he sees the hands, feet and wound of Jesus. But, is he so very different from many in our generation; all he wants is facts! He simply wants empirical evidence that Jesus has indeed risen, and he wants to see it for himself. He has heard the evidence of the other apostles, who lets remember have already seen Jesus, and he is simply not prepared to take their word for it. What he really wants is his own encounter and experience. What is so unreasonable about that? Nothing, for surely we want each and every person who enters our church, whether in private or through an act of worship, to encounter Christ, don't we? Wouldn't it be great if many, many people who entered into this building left having said Thomas' immortal words: 'My Lord and My God?'

If this is true the only real question remains how? How do we help others encounter Jesus, on their – not our - terms?

Let's go back to the text. One of the important points, and I think a point often missed, because of the focus on the encounter between Thomas and Jesus, is the importance of the other Apostles, who had already had their encounter with the risen Jesus. They very explicitly told Thomas so. We should never be ashamed of talking about our own Christian experience; even though we know that many folk will not be persuaded on the basis of personal experience alone.

They could have treated Thomas as a second class citizen, and outsider to their elite club. They could have dismissed his 'I will not believe' quips  and used them against him, counting him unworthy to be part of their community because of his unorthodox beliefs.

But they didn't.

They basically took the view that Thomas remained one of them, that this 'unbeliever' remained a friend, that he was welcome to sit and dine with them. They didn't gloat about their superior knowledge and, they didn't dismiss Thomas' doubts. No, they demonstrated two of the most important characteristics of Christian community: hospitality and humility.

And, by the way they had faith.

They had faith. They had faith that if Thomas hung around long enough he would encounter Jesus. Jesus is perfectly capable of revealing Himself.

 

So the story of 'Doubting Thomas' leaves us with three challenges:

To be prepared to talk about our own experience of God – as the Apostles did

To welcome the modern day Thomas' a spirit of true hospitality and humility – as the Apostles did

To trust that Jesus will reveal himself through community – again just as the Apostles did.

Amen.

 

Rev. Andrew Lightbown