Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Perfect Host

In Christ we are welcomed, as we welcome him; as his Body, joined with all creation and the Father and the Spirit in the One Needful Thing!

Proper 11c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

All of our Scripture readings today point towards the subject of hospitality, and what it means to be a perfect host. Of course, it’s best to start with what it means to be any kind of host, before moving on towards perfection. Anyone who has brought up children knows that you have to crawl before you walk.

So let’s start with the beginning, with the host. At its most basic and original, a host is someone who welcomes others into his or her home — even if it is just a tent, as we see this morning in the reading from Genesis. Abraham welcomes the Lord — who appears in the form of three men — to tarry and rest with him in his tent, out of the heat of the day, to wash their feet and take a bit of food before they continue their journey.

This is hospitality at its simplest and most direct. It is also hospitality at most ancient, and universal: it is common in many cultures as a sign of welcome and invitation — “please, won’t you come in and rest a spell.” There is a lovely old Eastern European Jewish custom that every guest must be welcomed with sweetness, and so a jam-jar and spoon are kept ready at the door to give a guest a taste of summer even in the coldest winter. From as simple a gesture as a welcome mat, a smile and an open door, all the way to the lavish welcome of a red carpet being unrolled, and a brass fanfare, hospitality is almost universal as a human phenomenon. As the song says, ‘Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome’ — to the tent, to the home, or to the palace.

However, in addition to this kind of hospitality there is another sort. And the clue to this lies hidden in the word hospitality itself — notice that it begins with the word hospital. The first hospitals were not just places for the sick and injured, but resting-places for pilgrims traveling on the road, in particular those pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land. Resting places were set up along the way for pilgrims to take refreshment, and recover from any injuries they might have suffered. Most of these hospitals were operated by religious orders of monks and nuns, such as the Order of Saint John (of which both Brother James and I are members, still supporting the hospital in Jerusalem as part of our ministry).

The secular world also soon got into the business of welcoming people — although they tended to drop the letters S and P from hospital to end up with hotel — and yes indeed hotels and hospitals share a common history, as you can see from the fact that the uniform of even a twentieth-century nurse was not all that different from the uniform of a nineteenth-century chamber-maid. Both of those uniforms ultimately derive from the habits of the nuns and monks who served the original hospitals — as indeed some of the sisters and brothers in the nursing orders still do. I am old enough to remember being cared for by “God’s Geese” when I had my appendix out at the age of five — the nursing sisters gained that nickname because of the large, starched white cornettes they wore on their heads as part of their habit. These were the original flying nuns! Most nurses, by then, their headgear had shrunk down to a small starched cap — now, I’m not sure any nurses still wear even the small starched cap any more — but I remember God’s Geese: they had the whole nine yards.

The point in all this is that the hospitality is about welcoming someone in — into your home, your world, your life: whether they are guests or patients, they become the center of your concern.

For the point of welcome is to serve and comfort the one who you welcome in. There are few things worse than a poorly run hospital or hotel — and their bad examples can tell us a good deal about how not to be a perfect host. I am reminded of the comic irony in the character of Basil Fawlty, the worst hotel manager in the world, who once shouted at his guests in livid anger, “You people swan in here expecting to be waited on hand and foot — well I’m trying to run a hotel!” If anyone ever missed the point of hospitality more than Basil Fawlty, I wouldn’t want to stay in that hotel!

The perfect host is the complete and polar opposite to this — the perfect host is only interested in the guests — their needs, their comfort. One might well say, with our Lord, there is need of only one thing: to focus on the guest.

So, for the perfect host, the guest becomes the center of the host’s life. Of course, no one can do that perfectly — our own lives don’t grind to a halt simply because we have guests; in fact, if we are to serve those guests our lives can become busier. This is the side of hospitality that Martha experienced, busy with many things, resenting her sister Mary who grasped that what Jesus really wanted was to be heard — to be heard, and attended to rather than attended on. He wanted them. He wanted them to be one with him.

For in the long run Jesus is the only perfect host, the one who welcomes us, even as we welcome him. He has been there, done that, in a truly cosmic and universal way. As our reading from Colossians affirms, not only is it in Jesus that all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, all beings and powers — not only is he, in a very real sense, the host to all of creation — but in him “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” And it is because all things in heaven and on earth share in this hospitality of Jesus together with the fullness of God, in him, dwelling in Jesus, that he is able to reconcile all things, drawing them together in him, and making peace through the blood of his cross. He is the perfect host who has reconciled us with God together in him — literally in himself, in his body.

As Paul goes on to affirm — not only are we held in Christ, the perfect host, but he and his gospel enter into us. By the miracle of grace, we the members of the church are the members of his body in whom he dwells with the Spirit and in the Father. We become hosts to God — just as Abraham invited God into his tent that hot day thousands of years ago, we also, through the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations fro the foundation of the world, but has now been revealed to his saints in him: the glory of this mystery, which is “Christ in you” —the church itself, the blessed company of all faithful people, the body of Christ, in and with whom the Spirit of God dwells and abides.

This is the “one thing,” the only thing we need — not to be distracted by the many things of this world, but to open our hands and our hearts and our minds to accept our Lord and our God as our guest, as indeed he has accepted us — and in doing so we are made One in him.

I know we’re reading from the Luke’s Gospel, but the message here is similar to John’s: reminding us that we are in God as God is in us, made one in Jesus Christ the perfect mediator, the perfect host but also the perfect guest — the one who like Abraham washes his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, who feeds them not just with earthly bread such as that which Sarah baked, but with his lively Word that inspires us day by day, and with the bread from heaven that we receive in the Holy Eucharist — in that bread that is also called a host.

What more perfect host can there be than this, who invites us into his house — God’s house — this house, even with a red carpet — and gives himself to us his guests even as we invite him into our hearts. As the evangelist John quotes Jesus as saying to God the Father, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” This is the one needful thing; this is the glory and the love of God, that Christ, in whom all things exist and were created, all things in heaven and on earth, can be our guest as well as our host. Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome.+

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Fruit Bearing

A Rule of Life is like a gardener's toolkit to help cultivate the planted seed of the Word in one's heart.

Proper 10c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.

A few weeks ago I spoke about how Saint Paul sees us as living in Christ, and today he provides us with another image for that way of living, similar to an image used by Jesus himself, when he talked about the vine and the branches, or the seed scattered on different kinds of soil: the word of God is like a seed planted in us, seed that grows and bears fruit as we remain rooted in the life of God like a fruit-tree planted in good and fertile soil. Through the centuries there have been many ways by which people have been graced to fulfill that great obligation — to live in Christ, “rooted and built up in him,” as Saint Paul will say a little later on in Colossians. And one of those ways people have found to do this is through a rule of life.

Now, it might strike you as a little strange, given that over the last few weeks we have been walking through Galatians with all of its stress on freedom from the law. As we noted in Galatians, however, freedom from the law does not mean lawlessness; and Paul himself cites the same rule as Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Here lies the difference between a law and a rule: a law is designed to tell you what not to do; a rule is a tool to live by.

Let me give you a classic example: that venerable classroom tool, the ruler: It is true that a ruler can be used — or perhaps I should say, could have been used, before attitudes towards corporal punishment changed — to rap someone’s knuckles for misbehavior; and I’m old enough to remember the days of the rapped knuckles. But the primary use of a ruler is not to rap someone’s knuckles. What is the primary use of a ruler; what do you use if for? — you use it to draw straight lines, you use it to measure things. There is no “law” about it — it is a tool. When used to rule lines on a piece of paper you use it to help you to stay on the straight and narrow.

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A religious rule is similarly a tool for keeping your life in order, for living a life in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Some such rules have been around for centuries, written by a great saint of the past: Francis, Benedict, or Augustine. Some of those rules are complicated and detailed, while others are simpler, but perhaps no less demanding: after all, isn’t it true that “love your neighbor as yourself” is easy to say but sometimes hard to do. So a rule of life — a religious rule — can be as complex as that Saint Benedict wrote, or as simple as the Golden Rule, or to ask yourself, in another rule you may hear from time to time, “What would Jesus do?” If you can do no more than this, answering the question posed in that little four-letter rule, WWJD, you are well on the way, so long as you remember to take the next step and do as Jesus did.

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But some people feel they are called to a more formal rule of life, a religious rule. Think of it this way. Remember all the good advice which we got from our parents about keeping healthy? Don’t go out without your coat; or, Remember to carry an umbrella; or even, Eat your vegetables. Compare those simple, homely, household rules; that good and traditional wisdom — which everyone knows about and most people with any sense follow — compare those informal guides to the specific instructions that your doctor might give you after an operation, or the written prescription she writes out, for a specific kind of medication. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t forget the wisdom of eating properly just because in addition you may have been instructed to avoid certain foods or take a certain prescription.

It is the same way with these formal rules of life that many people in the church follow. One of the reasons for having such a rule is the same reason we have a prescription from a doctor — it’s a black-and-white piece of paper, that tells you exactly what you are supposed to do when you admit that you are in need of healing, whether of body or of soul. That rule, that religious rule, is a constant reminder, to those who follow it, of how much they need God in their lives. These are words of instruction for tending the garden from which we hope to bear the fruit of the spirit.

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Who are the gardeners? They are, in the case of a formal religious rule, the monks and nuns, the sisters and brothers, the friars and hermits. Let’s have a little history here for a moment. In the early days of the church, there were a few bold Christians, seeing corruption in society around them, and sometimes even in the church itself as some of its leaders became more like secular princes than men of God, and so these bold few souls went out to live in the desert to live lives of prayer and solitude. Then there arose the first communities, as some of these desert priests and sisters learned that they needed companionship from like-minded people, and they gathered together in small communities. And those communities in the very beginnings of the Dark Ages, as the world was crumbling around them, in those communities they preserved the writings, the music, the history — we’ve all seen the images of the monks copying out documents. It is to them that we owe the preservation of so much of our history that might otherwise have been lost. They preserved the wisdom of the past in manuscripts and music, and they made prayer almost a full time occupation.

And when a brighter age dawned on this old earth of ours, in a warm Italian summer of the 13th century, a poor little man named Francis came along and said that God loved the poor, and he reminded the monks, some of whom had since grown comfortable and fat in their palatial monasteries, that they were in danger of acting more like the priest and Levite than the good Samaritan. He reminded them to serve the poor, and preach the gospel at all times, using words if necessary. And so the first community of friars minor was rounded — a fancy Latin term for “little brothers” — and so it was born, the Franciscan order.

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I could go on and talk of the later changes in the history of the many forms that religious life took, the many different rules, as in the great missionary communities, the orders who ran hospitals or schools. They’re right in our neighborhood: the Jesuits at Fordham, the Christian Brothers at Manhattan College.

And while I’m at it, let’s not forget the Anglicans and Episcopalians! Nicholas Ferrar and his family, back in England in the 17th century, found ways to tend their spiritual garden in life and work and study as a model Christian family. In the 19th century many traditional communities were reestablished in England and America: communities of dedicated people, men and women who strove to serve the poor in the inner city slums, reawakening people in the gray, dull factory towns of Northern England to the beauty of worship — with music and art in an age that had tried to rationalize everything, to mechanize everything; they helped the world to rediscover the deep peace of a life of prayer and common service to those in need.

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Today there are dozens of such communities in the Episcopal Church, of all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of ministries, all following their rules of life as ways to tend their spiritual gardens. My own Brotherhood of Saint Gregory is just one of many of these communities. Some of them live a monastic life, in one large monastery, working and praising God together; others are out in the world, scattered all over the country, in small groups, alone, or with their families.

One thing ties these communities together, one thing they share: they are all made up of people who have vowed to follow a common rule of life. Now, you might say, Why would anyone need to go beyond the simple Golden Rule, or any other such obvious guide to Christian life? And you’re right to ask such a question.

Well, remember what I said of doctor’s orders? Each of us requires different therapies and prescriptions for good health, and some of these ailments fall into broad categories, and people who have similar needs or similar ailments or require certain therapies find similar helps, and they even form support groups, don’t they? There is a solidarity of knowing that others have a condition you share, and can help keep you on the program for recovery.

And it is the same with those who follow a rule of life for their Christian journey: they know that they need this direction and guidance, and fellowship to support them, in strengthening them to persevere in their journey. They have found when they do that, that “the word is very near them” — and their rule of prayer and service helps them to live so as to follow the life that God has prescribed for them, the Great Physician who has given them a prescription written on their hearts.

They have found, for example, that they need one particular helpful prescription: Take one dose of prayer on rising and before retiring, and with meals. And so they’ve recited the Daily Office of morning and evening and noonday and bedtime prayer for almost 1800 years in one form or another.

Rules of life help those of us who are called to them, because we need them to get our lives in order. And don’t we all need that guidance — to listen to that “near word” spoken in our hearts? Doesn’t ever gardener need the tools of rake, and hoe and spade in addition to the seed, if the garden is to be tended and bear fruit? Whether it’s the Golden Rule, or the Rule of Saint Benedict, the rule is a toolkit, an aid in time of need. We’ve been assured that when we need something, and ask for it in prayer, we will receive it. People find these rules of life because they are seeking God, and God provides the way — as Jesus said, he is the Way.

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Such rules are all around us, but if they remain unused they are no better than the heart medicine unopened on the dresser, or the garden tools locked up in the shed. Christ, the good physician, has given all of us our own prescriptions — tailored to our needs — but it is up to us to use them day by day. Each of us has God’s word planted in our hearts, and suited to our abilities, talents and needs, to bring forth the fruit that each of us can bear, as we cultivate it with the tools that God has provided to each of us. God speaks to us as he spoke to the lawyer, to each of us in relation to what he gives us and what he asks of us: “Do this, and you will live.” By his word at work in us, so may it be.+