Trinity 8 - Benedict's Rule

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr Peter Wolton on 10 August 2014

Jesus calls through the storms and darkness of life and says “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”.
Today’s Gospel was the same gospel read at the inauguration of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury in March last year. I was very inspired by his sermon and I would like to share his opening words.

“Our response to those words of Jesus (Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid) sets the pattern for our lives, for the church, for the whole of society. Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human. Uniquely in all of human history Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who as living love liberates holy courage.

“If it is you, tell me to come to you on the water” Peter says, and Jesus replies “come”. History does not relate what the disciples thought about getting out of a perfectly serviceable boat, but Peter was right, and they were wrong. The utterly absurd is completely reasonable when Jesus is the one who is calling. Courage is liberated, and he gets out of the boat, walks a bit, and then fails. Love catches him, gently sets him right, and in a moment they are both in the boat and there is peace. Courage failed, but Jesus is stronger than failure.” That was the Archbishop’s introduction.

I think the story of Peter coming to Jesus on the water can mirror our experience of faith. Our faith can enter choppy waters. We often fail to live up to our calling. But if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, his love will catch us when we fall. We are held and recover. “Jesus is stronger than failure.”
Another influence on me has been the rule of St. Benedict. Interestingly in the same sermon, Archbishop Welby said: “A Christ-heeding life changes the church and a Christ-heeding church changes the world: St Benedict set out to create a school for prayer, and incidentally created a monastic order that saved European civilisation.”

We happen to be considering, at this time, the mission of St. George’s. Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we have the courage to do as St. Peter did and step out of that boat. There is no doubt that wonderful things have happened in the United Benefice of Holland Park over the last twenty years. St George’s is looking more beautiful today than for many years, possibly in its entire history and wonderful things are happening at St. John’s. The congregation at St Georges has grown. It is a parish in its own right with its own identity. How then do we build on all the good things that have happened and proclaim the saving love of Christ to this part of London?

Here, I think the teaching of St Benedict might be of help to us –help to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
Can I do a bit of market research? How many have read the Rule of St. Benedict?  Can I ask you to put your hand up if you have read the RoB?

The first thing to say is, that although the Rule has 73 chapters, it is not a long work like Anna Karenina. It is very short. (Hold up copy of the Rule). In fact Benedict was a great believer in brevity, or “less is more”. This is Benedict on reverence in prayer:
“Let us be sure that our prayers will not be heard for our many words, but because of our purity of heart and tears of compunction. Prayer should, therefore, be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.”

What then is the rule of Benedict and how might it have relevance to us? The Rule is a handbook for the administration of a monastery. It was written in early Sixth Century and underpins the life of the Benedictine order. Today, 1400 communities of Benedictine and Cistercian men and women live under this rule plus innumerable laypersons. So it has stood the test of time.

The hallmarks of the Rule are fourfold: prayer, community, work and adherence to the Rule. I would like to suggest that there is a lot in this handbook that could help us in our mission to help people to know Jesus.

Benedict knew his Bible. Scripture and the saving power of Christ are the foundation of the rule. The community is to be rooted in prayer. One of the longest chapters in the rule is “humility” and this permeates the life of the community.

The Rule gives contains a number of other instructions (or Chapters) that lead to a more loving and caring community and two I wish to focus on today are the Qualities of the Cellarer and the Door keeper of the monastery.

“All utensils of the monastery, in fact everything that belongs to the monastery should be cared for as the sacred vessels of the altar. Nothing should be neglected. Let the cellarer be humble. If a request is to be refused, a kind word should be offered in reply, for it is written: “a kind word is better than the best gift””

Who or What is the cellarer? At Ampleforth Abbey, a Benedictine foundation, the cellarer is the equivalent of the bursar. They have responsibility for human resources, finance, the estate, IT and communications. But I would like to suggest the qualities looked for in a cellarer are qualities we should seek in ourselves.

How we treat utensils and possessions transforms how we live. Note the emphasis on not just doing things but “how” we do them. Recognition of “the work of human hands” and handling the utensils of life with reverence revolutionises how we treat the tools that enable us to live at home or how we behave in the workplace. Waste is reduced, lights are switched off, and floors are kept clean. And from the confines of a building, out into our surrounding community, reverence can permeate our attitude to public property and the wider environment.

Just imagine a car owner caring for their car “as the sacred vessels of the altar.” Imagine the impact on other road users and on insurance premiums. What a transformation there might be.

Imagine a world where everything we handle and use is treated with reverence and everyone we encounter receives a kind word.

The “kind word,” which can have such healing effects on the community, especially if it is broken. A “kind word,” especially after refusal of a request can have inestimable benefits.

Benedict also devotes a chapter to the role of the doorkeeper. “As soon as anyone knocks or a poor person calls out, the porter will reply, “Thanks be to God” or “Your blessing, please” then, with all gentleness that comes from reverence of God, provide a prompt answer with the warmth of love.” At first sight a chapter on how to open the door could appear an exercise in micromanagement. Yet how we answer doors, the telephone, e-mails, how we communicate, is the way we deal with the world. Well run institutions recognise the importance of the receptionist or telephonist who as the first point of contact project the values of the organisation. Psalm 121:8 speaks of the Lord preserving “thy going out and thy coming in.” How we welcome newcomers to our church and the impression they take away of us, is crucial to the growth of our community.

My experience as a new curate at St Georges is that we are a welcoming community. Let me tell you a story. A person visited their local church. They stayed behind for coffee and after six weeks, no one had said hello to them. The RoB says “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” We should be noted for our warmth, acceptance and joy of welcoming others. The person who tried the church for six weeks did not go back. Actually, they came here to St. Georges.

If anyone would like to know more about Benedict do please come and speak to me after the service.
Finally, as we consider our gifts and resources, and our mission action plan for our benefice I would like to conclude with more of Archbishop Welby’s words:

“There is every possible reason for optimism about the future of Christian faith in our world and in this country. Optimism does not come from us, but because to us and to all people Jesus comes and says “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”. We are called to step out of the comfort of our own traditions and places, and go into the waves, reaching for the hand of Christ. Let us provoke each other to heed the call of Christ, to be clear in our declaration of Christ, committed in prayer to Christ, and we will see a world transformed.”
Holland Park Benefice