Sermon Sunday 10th July – St Benedict
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!
Rev Andrew Lightbown
Sermon – Sunday 3rd July – The Apostle Thomas: Proof through community
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.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
Peter and Paul; 2 Timothy 4, 6-8 & Matthew 16, 13-19. Fallibility, faith and legacy.
Lets cast our minds back a few years to the summer of 2012 and the London Olympics. It was of course a great summer for British Athletes – I hope Rio this summer is just as good. Team GB did really, really well, in London.
But what I found really interesting and uplifting was that behind many of the gold medals were real tales of trial and tribulation; heartache even. For me Katherine Granger the rower was the epitome of someone who had given their very all and kept going until she received the greatest of Olympic prizes, the gold medal. In Olympic terms she 'fought the good fight and finished the race.'
Those organising the London Olympics spoke time and again about the importance of creating a lasting legacy. Legacy goes beyond individual glory, but is dependent on role models inspiring others to give it a real go. There can, in my mind, be little doubt that very large numbers of people have taken up cycling because they were inspired by the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
Jesus appointed a group of men and women to create a legacy. And because we are here just over 2000 years later in church today, I think it is fair to say they succeeded. The legacy they created is built on one simple article of faith summed up in the words of St Peter: 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.' It is this belief that will lead us to the ultimate glory, our destiny, that St. Paul refers to when we, in the words of St Paul, 'finish the race.'
But in the meantime, we need to build on the work of the apostles, we do after all affirm that 'we believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,' to ensure that the legacy continues. We need to 'fight the good fight.' We need to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, we need to strive to be a blessing for all, and to pursue all that leads to 'justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.' We like Peter have been given the 'keys to the kingdom,' and need to unlock something of the kingdom 'here on earth as in heaven.'
And, I think that after this weeks referendum we need to really think about what this means. There is no doubt that this nation is deeply and bitterly divided. There can be no doubt that feelings of anger, resentment and bitterness persist. People are worried, and they are also scornful. Many feel let down and disfranchised. Society is in many ways polarised and divided; and this is sad.
As the Church we need to emerge ourselves with reality as it presents itself, we can do no less. We need to work for justice and the common good, we need to take the concepts of charity and hospitality, which are divine concepts seriously, we need to redouble our efforts to do the 'dirty work of holiness,' just like Peter and Paul, just like our patron saint St. Laurence. We need to be people of reconciliation and forgiveness, we need to be humble, we need to be as Christ, for that is what it really means to stand in the Apostolic Tradition.
And, we need to be inspired by the likes of Peter and Paul. We need to be inspired yes by their heroism leading to their martyrdom, but above all we need to be inspired and encouraged by their sheer human fallibility. God shows his strength when we allow ourselves to be weak and when we own our fallibility. Its when we regard ourselves as strong that we become a problem to God.
They didn't always get it right, they weren't perfect, far from it, we know that from Scripture. But they had faith and they kept going to the end. So can we and we must if we want to stand in the apostolic tradition and play our role in growing the legacy, so that with St. Paul we too can say 'to him be the glory for ever and ever,' Amen.
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