26 June 2011
Evensong at Woodchurch
May I speak this evening in the name of God Almighty, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Before I was ordained, indeed while I was going through the process of thinking about whether I should pursue the call to ordination, I went on a number of retreats to a wonderful place called Alton Abbey in Hampshire.
Alton Abbey is sometimes called one of the best-kept secrets of the Church of England – it is a Benedictine monastery which houses six brothers full time and also has an extended community of oblate or part time monks who live out their normal lives whilst being joined spiritually with the monastery. It also hosts many people like me who wanted to spend some time on retreat, concentrating on, or perhaps better, contemplating what God is doing in their lives.
The monks there are Benedictines, which means that they follow the Rule of St Benedict, which was written about 1500 years ago – not long after the very first monastics in the deserts of the middle east started to live together in communities and they had to decide how best to live together in a life which was both honourable to their calling and meant that they didn’t drive each other mad. Anyone who has ever been on holiday with their in-laws will know the dangers of that.
The Rule of St Benedict is a treasure trove of wisdom and its longevity is testament to its value. Some of you may know that most Cathedrals, including Canterbury, have a Chapter House, where the Dean and the chapter of clergy meet – what you may not realise is that the reason it is called a chapter house is because that is the place where the brothers used to gather together to hear a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict being read.
The reason I am thinking about this monastic stuff tonight is because this evening’s gospel from Matthew reminds me of one of the most important Benedictine values, which is hospitality to all in the name of Jesus. Chapter 53 of the Rule says:
“All who arrive as guests are to be welcomed like Christ, for he is going to say: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” ‘
And this is very much the sentiment we find in tonight’s gospel:
“Jesus said to the twelve: ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
And you will doubtless all be familiar with the words of Hebrews 13:2
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
By welcoming and entertaining the stranger in the name of Christ we are told that we are welcoming Christ himself and if we welcome Christ then, of course, we are welcoming God. To look into the eyes of the stranger and to see there an angel or a messenger of God or God himself may put a very different spin not only on the value we place on that person but the way in which we treat them.
But of course that doesn’t mean that we are hospitable to strangers somehow in the hope that they are Jesus or an undercover angel paying a surprise visit. In my view that is not the intention of the scripture and that way lies both a devaluation of the real person we have in front of us and a disappointment when it turns out that they are only human after all. On the contrary I believe we are being encouraged to welcome, to see, to treat and to value real, ordinary human beings as if they were angels, as if they were Christ, as if they were God himself. And that reminds us that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God, and that God created himself in the image and likeness of humanity when he was born as Jesus and that if God values us that highly the only appropriate response is to value one another as fellow creatures made in the divine image.
But, as English people, I wonder how easy we find that? We like people to make appointments before calling, we like to be properly introduced to people, we like to have known people probably for years before we call them friends. If a stranger arrives unannounced on the doorstep how hospitable would we be?
The question is, do we use our English reserve as an excuse to shut the door and shut our hearts to those we don’t know or do we accept the challenge of Jesus, of scripture and of the rule of St Benedict to overcome our reserve, to look into the eyes of a stranger and to see the image of God looking back at us?
I hope to get back to Alton Abbey soon, to spend some time contemplating the next stage of my journey with God. If you have never been on a retreat and would like to spend time in a place of prayer with people dedicated to a life of prayer then I would commend the experience to you.