The Benedict Option—sermon for 18 June, 2017
The Benedict Option
June 18, Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6):
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
I want to tell you the story of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. A colossus of military might. A dynamo of economic forces. The pinnacle of civilization. But for all it’s power and grandeur, this empire was falling apart. There were grave threats from foreigners—foreigners who roamed the steppes of central Asia, and who seemed to emerge from nowhere to strike terror even at the very heart of the empire—savagely attacking the great symbols of its economic and military might…its secular temples. Consequently, the military of this empire was engaged in many frontier wars.
There were terrible social ruptures. It was an empire of many, many cultures but very little actual unity. What unity there was was enforced through brutality or coerced through the provision of vapid entertainments. These ruptures were made worse by an immense gap between the haves and the have-nots. The well to do, did pretty well. The rest, subject to floods, droughts, famine, disease, not to mention endemic violence—did not do well. And they became unmoored from their communities. They became refugees, migrants, day laborers. These people were also viewed as a potential threat and were watched, administered, and repressed or imprisoned. The religious leaders weren’t much use. They were either cozied up with the empire, or were too embroiled in their own theological disputes to offer any critique.
Of course, you know which empire I’m talking about.
It was into this world that Benedict of Nursia was born in 480. St. Benedict—known as “founder of western monasticism,” is credited, by many, with no less than “with having saved Christian Europe from the ravages of the Dark Ages.” (Chittister, Rule of Benedict. p. 15) Don’t you want to know how?
At the conclusion of his influential 1981 book, After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, warned of the dangers of drawing “too precise parallels” between historical periods—particularly between Rome and the contemporary US. Nevertheless, he praised Benedict, and the men and women who followed him, saying: “What they […] achieved was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained[…],” and he concluded, that this is what really matters now…“the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us…We are not waiting for a Godot, but for another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” (After Virtue, p. 263.)
New and local forms of community within which the moral life can be sustained…and passed on to succeeding generations.
I’ve long thought, “that’s a really compelling idea for a church.” To be the kind of community within which civility and the intellectual, artistic, and moral life can be sustained. Is that what All Saints is?
One of the core principles of Benedictine spirituality and practice is hospitality. “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, who said: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’.” That is how chapter 53 of the Rule of Benedict starts. And the Rabbis remind us that “Hospitality is one form of worship.” (Chittister, Rule, p.140).
We’re offered two glimpses of hospitality today…Abraham running out to meet these strangers…offering them “a little water,” and “a little bread,” yet providing them with freshly made bread, and tender meat—this lavish feast. And Jesus and the twelve going from town to town reliant on the hospitality of others. We’re given an opportunity to reflect on both giving hospitality (Abraham) and receiving hospitality (Jesus and the twelve).
Which role are you more comfortable in? I don’t even have to think about it. I’m much more comfortable in the role of providing hospitality, than being the one in need. And yet, if we are to be a kind of community that truly sustains the moral life, Benedict and our readings offers us a profound challenge.
Have you seen this cartoon that is a parable of Episcopal evangelism? There’s a fish tank on a beach, right next to the ocean, with a “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” sign right next to it. And the caption reads: Episcopal evangelism “is liked unto an aquarium set by the ocean’s edge. Any fish from the ocean are invited to jump into the aquarium if they happen to be passing by and feel like it.”
But notice what hospitality in the scriptures looks like…Abraham sees the three strangers and runs to meet them…bows down and practically begs them to come in.
Jesus looks at the crowd and sees people who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd…and he sends the twelve out to offer them healing…and hope.
When I look out at the world today, I see a lot of strangers…I also see crowds of harassed people. People who feel helpless, who are trying to make some meaning out of their lives…when they’re not just struggling to get by. People who are hungry for hope, and justice, and peace.
People are come here…through choirs, and pre-schools, and twelve step groups…because of our space…We have a tremendous gift…this building…that we share…but I wonder if it’s just the space…or if maybe people are drawn here because they sense something deeper…something bigger…something life-giving here?
I think we all sense that…and we each have gifts…things that we bring here, and things that we receive here…things that we can share.
It’s dangerous to draw parallels between very different historical eras…our contemporary world is not at all like that of the fifth century when the Roman empire was changing, and Benedict wrote his rule. Our world is not remotely similar to the world of first century Judea, ruled by that same Roman empire, when the twelve went out as laborers into the harvest. Our world is not similar to the mythopoetic world of Abraham and divine visitors…Our would is not like theirs. At. All…except in all the ways that it is.
Benedictine nun and author Joan Chittister says, The Benedictine way of life, the way of hospitality, simplicity—the rhythm of rest, work, and prayer, grounded in the scriptures … “is credited with having saved Christian Europe from the ravages of the Dark Ages.” And then she goes on: “In an age bent again on its own destruction, the world could be well served by asking how.” (Chittister, Rule, p. 15)
How these local communities sustained the moral life was this, she writes:
“Benedict called the class-centered Roman world to community and calls us to the same on a globe that is fragmented. [Benedict’s] Rule called for hospitality in times of barbarian invasions and calls us to care in a world of neighborhood strangers. It called for equality in a society full of classes and castes and calls us to equality in a world that proclaims everyone equal but judges everyone differently. [It] challenged the patriarchal society of Rome to humility, and challenges our own world … whose heroes are…military powers and sports stars, the macho and the violent. Benedictine spirituality calls for depth in a world given over almost entirely to the superficial and tinny…It offers a set of attitudes to a world that has been seduced by gimmicks and quick fixes…[it] is good news for hard times, [because] it teaches people to see the world as good, their needs as legitimate, and human support as necessary. It doesn’t call for either great works or great denial. It simply calls for connectedness[…]with God, with others, and with our inmost selves,” (Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily 3-4).
I don’t want All Saints to become a Benedictine monastery, but I do want us to live as deeply as possible into our call to be a community that constantly strives for depth, that continually fosters the intellectual, artistic, and moral life of our broader community, that that joyfully seeks and receives the gifts of others… that remains hungry for deeper and deeper connections with God, and with others, and that is emboldened to go out and share these gifts with the world.