Sermon for Matins
21 January 2007 at :00 am
Deut 30:11-15; 3 John 1:5-8
I expect many of you here this morning are visitors to London and to Westminster Abbey.
If you had been a visitor here 500 or more years ago, you would have found much of this building as it is today, but you would have found a rather different kind of community here. Because before the dissolution of the monasteries by
Henry V111 in the 1540s, Westminster Abbey was a Benedictine Monastery with an Abbott in charge and a community of brothers dwelling here.
These brothers lived by the Rule of St Benedict, written fifteen hundred years ago in his homeland of Italy. His rule consists of 73 short chapters and it was a simple manual for monks living and working together.
Since the time of Elizabeth 1st, Westminster Abbey has been, what is called a "Collegiate Church" run by a Dean and Chapter; originally with twelve canons, now with four.
Our lives are very different from those of the monks and yet we still try to live by some of the rules and principles laid down by Benedict.
If you visit the Westminster Abbey website you will find that the Dean and Chapter are committed to the following tasks:
- To serve Almighty God by offering divine worship daily.
- To serve the Sovereign by daily prayer and by responding to requests by her.
- To serve the nation by fostering the place of true religion within national life.
- And to serve pilgrims and all other visitors and to maintain a tradition of hospitality.
It is the offering of hospitality to the many thousands of people who come to the Abbey that I would like us to think about this morning.
These are some of the things that Benedict himself said about hospitality:
"Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself, because he promised that on the last day he will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me...
Guests should always be treated with respectful deference...
The greatest care should be taken to give a warm reception to the poor and to pilgrims, because it is in them above all others that Christ is welcomed..."
Communities of monks dedicated to following the Rule of Benedict certainly gained a reputation for treating their guests well and for being very generous in their provision of food and wine!
And if you read some of the historical records of life at the Abbey here in Westminster back in the 12th and 13th centuries, the monks themselves were very well fed and provided for, and it seems that they had plenty to share with their guests and visitors.
But how does all this relate to how we receive visitors today? And why is the subject of hospitality such an important one to us as a Christian community?
Most of our visitors today are very different from those who might have presented themselves at this Abbey during the time the monks were here.
Our visitors today come from all over the world and travel many thousands of miles to get here; they are often with a tour party, going on to visit other sites of interest; many of them are staying in good hotels nearby, are travelling in comfort and will eventually be returning to nice homes.
This is in great contrast to many of the visitors one imagines will have come to the Abbey hundreds of years ago.
Some of those might well have travelled some distance, but they will have arrived on foot or possibly horseback; some of them will have arrived sick & hungry or possibly in other kinds of trouble or need; others are likely to have been destitute in a society which had no social services.
Benedict's rule about receiving them as if they were Christ himself, relates directly to Jesus' teaching: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me".
However, different as those early pilgrims and visitors were from our pilgrims and visitors of today, they all have one essential thing in common ~ something which indeed all of us as human beings have in common ~ the need to be cared for and to receive spiritual sustenance. And this leads on to that second question, "Why is the offering of hospitality such an important part of the Christian tradition?"
Probably most of us have experienced at one time or another, going into a crowded place and not knowing a soul. That is a very lonely experience and for some people a very frightening one.
What a relief it is once someone approaches us with a smile or greeting and makes sure that we are welcomed and included.
And when we are new to a place ~ perhaps in a new job or after moving house, what a difference we feel within ourselves once we have made some friends.
To thrive as human beings we need to have that sense of belonging and feeling included ~ this is not just a question of being physically comfortable; it is a deeply spiritual matter.
This is what a writer by the name of Verna Holyhead says about Benedict's Rule:
The hospitality Benedict teaches is not a social event but a holy event. It is costly, not in terms of money, but in the demands it makes on our hearts, our time, and our personal resources. In each of us there is some inner homelessness, some alienation from ourselves and one another which longs for a welcome.
She goes on: Our own times know much hostility and loneliness. Benedict's call to his monks to offer a special welcome to pilgrims and the poor can be translated in to a call to the wider Christian community for hospitality to those who are both materially disadvantaged or spiritually starved in a world hungry for success at any price.
So offering true hospitality to those with whom we come into contact, although it's sounds a mundane thing, can literally be a life-giving or life-changing experience. And this is what both of our lessons this morning were hinting at:
The lesson from Deuteronomy exhorts people to choose life rather than death. For the people of Israel this choosing of life was bound up with their keeping of the law ~ law founded upon the two great commandments to love God with all your heart, soul and mind and to love your neighbour as yourself.
And they knew that "loving your neighbour" was not just about caring for the people they knew, it was about caring for everyone and offering hospitality to strangers and foreigners.
And in the lesson from the third letter of John, the recipient, Gaius, is being commended for his welcome of travellers and for treating them as friends.
So the way we greet our visitors here at Westminster Abbey is an extremely important aspect of our life.
We hope that all of you who are visitors today have found this a place of warmth and welcome;
and that you will take something of what you have experienced here, with you as you journey on.
I finish with now some more words from Verna Holyhead, who tells this story and relates it once again to the rule of Benedict:
A reporter in an Indian town at the centre of a violent earthquake once described how he sat besides an old man who had just cremated his wife, killed in the earthquake. With tears streaming down his face, the man offered the reporter some tea. Not even the intensity of that earthquake and a husband's grief could shake his hospitality.
Benedict believed that nothing can shake the ultimate and patient hospitality of God, for we are all guests of the One who has welcomed us into the mystery of life; guests before whom God has spread the lavish feast of creation. We are to respond by moving over, making room, and sharing graciously with our sisters and brothers.