Every family has one, don’t they, the ‘interesting’ relative that you don’t quite know what to do with, where to sit him or her at family gatherings.

It’s a bit like that with the Virgin Mary. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches esteem and venerate Mary, the Protestant Churches keep an acquaintance of sorts, remembering her in and around Christmas, and the Church of England – as a Reformed Catholic Church, for that is our self-descriptor – doesn’t know quite what to do.

The Anglo Catholic constituency within the C of E family venerate the Blessed Virgin on a week by week basis and whilst their Evangelical cousins make sure that they remain in touch on an annual basis at Christmas time. Maybe this is an oversimplification, but you get my drift. As someone who stands in what I would describe as the Modern Catholic tradition I esteem Mary highly, for it seems to me that there is no escaping the fact that she is ‘the Mother of God.’ This makes her special. Mary’s vocation was to give birth to Jesus, and if you think about it that too is our job. So we should be, at the very least, deeply inspired by Mary and her life story. In being inspired by and in looking up to Mary we can perhaps learn a little bit of what it means to live as a Christian, for she is in many ways the prototype Christian.

First, I would suggest, it simply means being open to God and then saying ‘yes,’ to His call on our lives. We should never forget that when Mary is given the unique vocation to be the Mother of Jesus her response is ‘let it be with me according to your word.’ Is this our response, or do we quietly whisper to God, ‘terms and conditions apply?’

Then we can learn from Mary’s simplicity and humility. She has no airs or graces. She doesn’t regard herself as superior to anyone else, even though she has been given the job of giving birth to Jesus, our saviour; which if you accept the Christian story, must be the single most important job ever. Listen to her words, ‘for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant, surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.’ Mary recognises that her blessing is simply in being the privilege of being chosen to bear Jesus. Do we recognise that this is where our real blessing lies? Or do we look for kudos and prizes? I know I sometimes do.

Finally, I think Mary has a lot to teach us about constancy and fidelity. Her young Son, our Saviour, must have driven her to despair at times; don’t our relatives and friends to just that? And yet Mary, despite her highly unusual Son, hung on in there, and was there for him. She nurtured Jesus, she facilitated the process of Jesus maturing into His role and His vocation. Do we nurture others, even when they behave in seemingly bizarre and unorthodox ways? Or, do we occasionally succumb to the temptation to insist that folk would behave as we would have them behave and take on the job, roles and responsibilities that we think would be good for them? I am sure that Mary must have felt that Jesus wasn’t really headed in the right direction, and yet she didn’t stand in His way and insist that he changed track. Instead she nurtured him and let him go.

And, she remained faithful. When we arrive at what must have seemed like the end of the Jesus story, there we find, yet again, Mary, stood at the foot of the Cross. However, as we all now know the Cross wasn’t the end of the story. However Mary does remind us that in order to experience Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost we first have to go the Cross. We have to look agony, defeat and death in the face and remain faithful to the story. How prepared are you to do this? Again sometimes I don’t want. Sometimes if I am honest I would prefer Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost on easier, softer, cross-less terms. The trouble is that it just doesn’t work like this.

 

So here is the challenge:

Let’s not be embarrassed by Mary. Instead let’s welcome her and learn from her life story. Let us remember that she was the first person to say ‘yes’ to Jesus, to give birth to Jesus – which remains our vocation – and that she did it with simplicity, humility, constancy and fidelity. Surely these are the qualities that we should aspire to as we seek to grow the Christian story in this generation? Amen.

 

Rev. Andrew Lightbown

 

2016 has been a remarkable year; a year where hatred and violence have dominated the news, a sad year, one for which we must lament. It feels like a godless year. This week’s savage murder of Fr. Jacques in some ways adds to the feeling of godliness-less; there is something truly awful, sadly not unique, about a priest being murdered in the sanctuary. Brother Roger of Taize was murdered whilst at prayer,  Oscar Romero was brutally murdered in El Salvador in 1980. All three men, Fr Jacques, Brother Roger and Archbishop Oscar Romero were simply doing the things that men and women of God do each and every day; reading from Scripture, praying for the world, celebrating Christ’s presence amongst us in word and sacrament. They were doing the ordinary business of the Church, through which the extraordinary love of God is declared.

The offering of God’s love is, put simply, your vocation and mine.

It strikes me that the events of 2016 and, especially those of the last week invite us to answer to answer a very straightforward question:

‘When times are tough, when violence and injustice seem to reign supreme, how should we respond and relate to the world around us?’

And, maybe, today’s readings help. Both Paul and Jesus inhabited a deeply troubled world, a world where people were often put to death for their religious and political beliefs. Indeed, both Paul and Jesus were put to death. In fact, they both knew that they would be put to death.

 

St. Paul writing to the Colossians suggests that whatever else is going on around them that they ‘seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.’ To my mind the things that are above include perfect justice and, perfect peace. If we were to wind the reading from the epistle on a few verses Paul suggests the following as a rule for Christian living: ‘As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion and kindness, humility, meekness and patience……... above all clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’

St. Paul insists that the Christian community, even in the face of atrocity, must always be open, inclusive and outward looking. It is to be an example to the wider world simply through its very existence; meeting together, praying together, participating in the sacraments together are in themselves all acts of Christian mission;  but they also the goods which equip us to go out into the world, free from fear, and get on with the ‘dirty work of holiness.’

 

The only alternative choice to compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness and love, is isolation and withdrawal. We can, like the rich man in the gospel, seek to cut ourselves off from the world and focus solely on our own happiness and enjoyment. We can regard material security as a safe guard. We can, like the rich man, deceive ourselves pretending such an approach will benefit our very souls:  ‘And I will say to my soul, Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But, ultimately this is the strategy of the ‘fool.’ Our real goods are prayer, scripture and the Eucharist, or word and sacrament, if you prefer. These are the things that sustain and equip.

The opposite of foolishness is wisdom, and so if we are wise our response, in the midst of darkness, should be to recommit ourselves to living as God would have us live; relationally, with compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness and love.  These should be the characteristics of our common life as the Church and they should also be the virtues we take out into the world as we engage in the ‘dirty work of holiness,’ Amen.

Rev. Andrew Lightbown

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!

 

Amen.

 

Rev Andrew Lightbown