Although Benedict died somewhere around the year 550 I think he is in many ways a saint for our times. Benedict wrote his famous rule for men and women who were seeking to live well together in community. But, he always recognised that religious or monastic communities have porous boundaries. Yes, they contain a number of fully professed brothers and sisters living together as monks and nuns, but they also had lay brothers and sisters, folk who joined them just for worship, and visitors.
In a similar way churches may well be made up of a community of believers who worship together Sunday by Sunday come what may, less frequent worshippers, occasional worshippers and, visitors. All of these groups have a stake, a very real stake, in the life of the church. Benedict insisted that, in his words, the monastery should be a place ‘where all may flourish and none need fear.’ The church should also be a place where ‘all may flourish and none need fear.’
In many ways Benedict’s concerns, or values, were our present day concerns. He wanted his communities to be places of holiness, healing and hospitality. These of course are our values. This evening I want to restrict any insights that I might have to offer to the value of hospitality. Hospitality has frequently been referred to as the unofficial Benedictine vow with Benedictine monks’ official vows being: stability, obedience and conversion of life. Stability and hospitality are, I think, inextricably linked. Stability implies a deep level of commitment to people and, place and a willingness to stick with those same people through the inevitable trials and tribulations of ordinary life. Hospitality means not just welcoming people, but affirming people. We are only able to be hospitable when our own roots are stable.
Caring and sharing are central to a Benedictine understanding of hospitality. These themes are the central motifs of the reading we have heard from Luke’s gospel: ‘sell all that you own and distribute your money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, follow me.’ For Benedict the exercise of hospitality, and indeed charity, imply the sharing of our very best, the things we treasure. Benedict would very definitely not consider the redistribution of second hand goods or those things that we think have gone passed their sell by date to be the demonstrative of hospitality. Hospitality is about sharing the best of things.
But, why should we do this? Well, St Benedict writes in his Rule that: ‘all guests who arrive should be treated as if they were Christ, for he will say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’’ St. Benedict stressed that ‘each person should be treated with respect,’ whilst also writing that ‘special care and attention should be shown in the reception of the poor and pilgrims because in such people Christ is more truly welcomed,’ he went on to add that ‘when it comes to rich people we are more likely to show them respect because we are in awe of them.’
Benedict’s notion of hospitality asks us to consider our values. Do we welcome the poor and the different on equal terms to the educated and the wealthy? Or in our mind's eye does a hierarchy exist? Are we content to share of our best with everyone, equally, full stop, or is there just the possibility that we might suggest to ourselves that a visitor, or pilgrim, might not really value that which we treasure? I would like to suggest that we need to be very careful when we offer, as part of our hospitality offering, something that might be considered second best because the accompanying subliminal message is that ‘you are second best.’ In the kingdom no-one is second best.
As a church I would like us to become truly excited by Benedict’s understanding of hospitality. I would like us to explore what it might mean for us in this community. I would like us to do this for one simple reason: it is through the exercise of hospitality that we reveal the love of God for each and every person; ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’ Amen.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown