Sunday, October 19, 2014

Love and Respect

A Charge to the Couple, 
given to: 
 John Beckman and Lindsey Counts
at their Wedding on 8/2/2014

St. Timothy Lutheran Church
Charleston, WV 
Pastor Rafe Allison
and 
Rev. Andrew Counts
Officiating

John and Lindsey, as I put on this stole, I step out of my role as father of the bride and into my role as a father in the Church of God. The symbol embroidered on this stole is that of two gold rings intertwined around the cross – a mini- homily itself about the nature of Christian marriage – specifically that two individuals, male and female, are united by God in Jesus Christ to become one.

At the moment you are pronounced Man and Wife, you are no longer separate people pursuing your own destinies , but one unit, joined together metaphysically in Christ. Body, Soul and Spirit join to become one with each other and also one with Christ and His body, the Church. That’s why we’re here and that’s why I’m really pleased, as both types of father that you have asked to be married here in this church.

By coming here to this building and being married in a Christian worship service, you are saying that you desire to live your married life within the community of this church locally and within the universal church globally.

Those of us who are gathered to celebrate your joy are also members of this one great community and witnesses to your desire to live in and be supported by the community.  So this simple ceremony draws you out of your individual lives, singly pursued, into shared life with one another and with Christ and His body – and we couldn't be happier!

I assure you that countless prayers have been offered for you both by your biological families and your new church family. And on behalf of all of us gathered here to rejoice with you, I welcome you and pray for you every blessing in heaven and earth!

I also charge you with two great Missions – to Love one another, and to Respect one another. Although two become One mystically in Christ, it’s perfectly obvious that you are still two unique and complementary – and contradictory(!) human beings – and that many of your differences, 69% to be precise – will never be resolved!

That’s why you need Love and Respect. It’s not enough to be attracted to each other and to cherish attributes you admire. You also have to respect your differences and to accept that these differences make you who you are. In fact, you need these 'irresolvable' differences to help mold you into something more than you can be individually: the family we will now call John and Lindsey Beckman. And if God grants you children, the Beckmans with the little stick figures on the back of the SUV or mini-van of your choice.

John and Lindsey, Love one another! Be Kind to one another, tender-hearted and forgiving, even as God in Christ has forgiven you. Be quick to listen and slow to defend yourself, Quick to forgive and loathe to resent. Respect each other as Persons made in the Image of God, accurately matched and MISmatched for the task ahead of you – to live out your lives together as one in Christ and members of this gathered community – a community that pledges to you our support in this noble calling to be Husband and Wife.


Love one another and be assured of our love for you. Receive our blessing, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. AMEN! 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Humusology

A sermon delivered to St. Timothy Lutheran Church,
 Charleston WV
July 13, 2014
Based on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Parable of the Sower
13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.” 

The Parable of the Sower Explained

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (ESV)
The Gospel of the Lord!
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

When I was completing my Master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I also worked at Trinity College across the road, on the Grounds Crew. Here’s a picture of me on my mobile office during the time.
 That’s my daughter Leah assisting me (She’s now 35 years old! Parents, they do grow up! )

In addition to mowing the grounds, part of my job was taking care of the plants and flowers around campus – mostly a pretty good job if you like gardening, but with one rather significant drawback – the native soil at the college looked like this:

Hard packed clay. Even the weeds had a hard time coming up in it! Needless to say, this was not the most ideal medium to plant flowers in. It’s like trying to get something to grow in the pot with no soil at all!


So, we had a challenge to get things to grow – and I think we succeeded rather nicely. Here’s a picture of a large bed of Verbena plants after we improved the soil. (That’s Leah again modeling for us.)


Looks beautiful and lush – a veritable carpet of color….What you don’t see is what we had to do to produce this kind of result: dig out all the clay soil with a backhoe/front end loader, install drain pipes and then create  a nice crumbly, well-drained soil with lots of nutrients for the flowers to feed on.


Once the flowers were planted, we added fertilizer and watered it regularly. And because we gave those plants every advantage to thrive –  they rewarded our efforts by growing into a beautiful display – a hundredfold return on our investment! 



Well, I think this was rather what Jesus had in mind in telling the parable of the soils. The soil is an overt metaphor of our heart condition. But as we start out, there is something of a paradox to note: Soil is supposed to represent our spiritual condition – and by implication, we are held responsible for the condition of our heart. But the last time I checked, soil doesn't actually do anything to itself to improve. 

When I walked the grounds of Trinity College I didn't see great swatches of ground undergoing self-improvement projects. There were no little shovels toiling away to aerate that impenetrable clay.  No, -  soil is basically passive. If it’s going to improve, something has to be done to it – either naturally over time, or ‘unnaturally’, by the aid of human beings. In other words, we have to do something to our hearts to improve their condition!

So what I’d like to propose is that we do a little study of soil and its improvement so that we can draw parallels with our spiritual lives and understand some things we can do to improve the soil of our hearts.

 And I’d like to propose that we call this study ‘Humusology” after the Latin word for ‘earth’ or soil – where we get our word for Humility – the essential condition for us to be ‘Hundredfold Souls’ – People who yield a hundredfold spiritually.

Recipe for Good Soil 

So, I understand that a recipe for good soil is basically an equal mix of three elements: Humus, Sand and Compost. The mix is important. Too much compost and the active decay of the organic material might burn your plants. Too much sand and all the water drains out quickly. Too much humus, and the plants won’t have enough nutrients to grow.

Let’s look at each element a little more closely:

Humus is basically the part of organic waste that has broken down as far as possible and has become very stable – but also rather sterile. It remains part of the soil for hundreds of years and can only be destroyed by an intense fire.

Sand is pretty self-explanatory. It’s what you get when rocks break down into smaller grains. 

And compost is what you get when organic stuff such as leaves and grass clippings break down. At Trinity College, we made compost in 9- foot wide bins, and turned it periodically with the backhoe/front end loader until it had broken down into a rich dark substance that looks and feels like coffee grounds. That’s the fast way.

You can also pile up your organic materials in a pile and let it sit there for a year or two and then sift it to get the same product. It’s great stuff and it makes every gardener   


happy, happy, happy.

Mother Nature makes soil, in a slow, but rather amazing process that can be seen in these pictures I took in my back yard.

Much of the soil in WV was built up like this:  Weather erodes and cracks the rock, creating bits of sand – into which plant seeds fall and begin to grow. The plants help to break down the rock and create organic waste as they grow and die.
Vines can trap the organic material and hold it, allowing it to mix with the bits of sand and eventually create a soil. In this picture we can see that soil has been held vertically against the rock face.

 Trees can then take root and further contribute to this process. 

Eventually you get a lush forest.

Now, of course, this is only the briefest scratch on the surface of soil science, but it’s good enough for our purpose – and that is to help us understand how to be Hundredfold Souls: those who are truly Humble – down to earth- and who produce an abundant harvest in God’s kingdom.

To be humble is a First Principle of the Spiritual Life. It’s not an option. Either you voluntarily get with the program, or it will be done to you, just like it says in Luke 14:11: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Humility starts with reckoning correctly about: Myself and God. [slide] Psalm 100 (v.3) puts it very eloquently: “Know that the LORD, he is God!  It is he who made us, and not we ourselves…”



The Humble person knows that, like soil, we did not make ourselves, but that we were made by Him, and that only in Him, do we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

The Humble person also knows that we live “In Conspectu Dei” –‘in the sight of God’ and that because of this, we have a healthy respect or ‘fear’ of God and his opinion of us and our actions. At the same time, living in the sight of God means living in the LOVE of God.

This Creator God LIKES us and wants us to succeed in becoming Hundredfold Soil people! He knows that we are essentially weak - that we can’t really do anything truly Good on our own, - and that we are stupid, like sheep.
 But we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture (Psalm 100:3).  He is our Shepherd (Ps. 23) and he will guide us even in the darkest of times.

So, with all that as background, I’d like to suggest that our three basic soil components can be matched with three basic spiritual practices to assist in our journey to Humility. 

Silence – links with Humus
Prayer – links with Sand
Holy Reading – links with Compost

Silence
Remember what we said about Humus? It is the organic part of the soil that is the stable because it has finished the decomposition process. Practicing Silence is like tapping into the ‘Ground of our Being – God Himself.” It is where we find the essence of our existence – the pure nakedness of being. It is in quiet listening that we confront our own inner noise, and connect with God face to face. But for that very reason, practicing Silence is scary, especially for those of us tied to our digital devices.

On July 3, just 10 days ago, Yahoo news reported on related studies done by the University of Virginia and Harvard University about how people respond to spending time alone (http://news.yahoo.com/time-alone-many-rather-hurt-themselves-185257727.html). Here’s the opening line of the article:

“Many people would rather inflict pain on themselves than spend 15 minutes in a room with nothing to do but think…” !!! 


 “Researchers asked [people] to sit alone in an unadorned room, with no mobile phone, reading or writing materials, and then report back on what it was like to entertain themselves with their thoughts for between six and 15 minutes. Turns out, more than 57 percent found it hard to concentrate and 89 percent said their minds wandered. About half found the experience was unpleasant. …

Then researchers wondered how far students would go to seek some stimulation while sitting alone with their thoughts… each subject went into a room for 15 minutes of thinking time alone. They were told [if the silence became too uncomfortable] they had the opportunity to shock themselves…


[Two-thirds of the male subjects …gave themselves between one and four shocks while they were alone.]


A quarter of the women … decided to shock themselves, each between one and nine times.


All of those who shocked themselves had previously said they would have paid to avoid it!”


Silence can be very uncomfortable! And those who have tried to practice it over the centuries are no stranger to this fact. Yet, at the same time, sitting in silence is where we hear from God, 
just as the Psalmist says,”For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Him comes my salvation.’(Psalm 62:1) Learning to be comfortable in silence is like tapping into the stable part of your internal soil, the place where you can rest and find renewal. It’s a vital practice for those who wish to become Hundredfold Soil people.

Prayer- the Grit of Daily Life

Moving on, let’s consider Prayer as Sand. Sand, as we all know, is gritty. In the wrong place – like your gas tank, sand can be very destructive. A Sand storm can do great harm.
Yet ‘sand-blasting’ can rescue a rusty old piece of metal and return it to service as a shiny, almost-new wrought-iron fence or car body.
It’s the abrasive quality of sand that we both fear and admire. And that’s why I’m likening Prayer to Sand. I call it the ‘grit of daily life’ because one of the best ways to pray is in a daily rhythm – day in day out, morning and evening, persevering through thick and thin, making a habit of seeking the Lord for His will and His strength in all things. Moreover, the Goal of Prayer is to KNOW God.


We've talked about Silence already, and it’s readily apparent that in Silence we spend time with God, we listen and we talk to him about our joys and concerns. But I’d also like to talk with you a little about the value of corporate prayer because as a culture, we've become so individually focused that we tend to discount the value of praying with others in a formal way.

Early in Church History, the Desert Fathers and mothers read these words in Psalm 119:164: “Seven times a day I praise you…” and they thought “It would probably be a good idea to actually do that!” Out of this conviction came the “Liturgy of the Hours”, a series of ‘offices’ or corporate prayer services, based on key hours of the day.
 Each one of these offices has a particular theme and particular Scripture verses, corresponding to the ‘need of the hour’ as it were: 

At 2 am, in the middle of the night, comes ‘Vigils’ with its theme of attentive and expectant “Keeping Watch” for the coming of the ‘dawn from on High”, Jesus Christ. 

At Daybreak, ‘Lauds’ (Latin:‘Praise’) is celebrated.  It’s a service of praising God as a new day dawns. 

At 6 am comes “Prime” – or the First Hour of the day as it was reckoned by the old Roman system. Its theme is Adoration and dedicating one’s day to God. 

 9 am signals Terce, the third hour, with its request for strength to meet the challenges of the day. 

12 noon is called Sext, the ‘sixth’ hour, when Jesus was nailed to the cross. It’s obvious theme is conflict and the apparent triumph of darkness over light. 


None, the ninth hour comes round at 3 pm our time. Its theme is Perseverance in the heat of the day, through the difficulties of the day. 

At 6 pm or thereabouts, Vespers celebrates the fulfillment of Christ’s finished work on the cross and returns thanks for that work.


Finally around 9 pm, Compline marks the completion of the day and re-dedication of oneself to the Lord as we submit to the mini-death of sleep. 

As the Liturgy of the Hours moves proceeds each day, a similar thematic pattern can be seen across the week, always beginning again with the Lord’s Day, and the celebration of the Resurrection, the central truth of our Faith. 

We in the Liturgical tradition are very familiar with the Seasons of the Church year as well, which traces Christ’s life and ministry through Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. 
These thematic patterns are similar to the gears of a fine hand-made watch, which interlock and reinforce each other as the tick along. 
While we don’t have any more time to explore this now, I encourage you to Google ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ for more about this ancient spiritual practice. 

Holy Reading: Composting the ‘Organic Material’ of Life 

Our last practice is Holy Reading (‘Lectio Divina’ in Latin).  . 
This is first and foremost understood as the daily reading of God’s Word. It’s a slow and deliberate process of reading a passage until something ‘stands out’ or speaks to me. Then, I slowly mediate on this like a cow chewing its cud, asking what I hear God saying to me about my own life and about God’s kingdom life. Praying, I respond, to what I have heard, hopefully saying ‘Yes’ to what God is doing in my life. In the process, I allow myself to be conformed into the Image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ (contemplation).
  
The necessary precondition for Holy Reading is the willingness to enter into my own discomfort – to look at the things that might be decaying in my life, and need to be infused with Christ’s life. I call this “Composting the Organic Material of Daily Life’ – and as the image implies, it may be an odiferous process.


As we noted previously, decaying organic matter becomes compost. This is living stuff which heats up as it dies and decays –and makes a stink while doing so. It’s a pretty good picture of the suffering and struggle of our lives. It’s smelly, messy business; painful to live through. We’d rather run away from it, but if we can submit to the process, the Lord uses it to create richness and depth in our souls.

It should be noted that to feel dry or arid during this composting process is normal and to be expected. Nothing spiritually valuable happens in our lives, but that it is hot, stinky and difficult.

Our constant comfort in the midst of this pain is that Jesus is with us always – even when we don’t feel his Presence.
 He told us he would ‘never leave us or forsake us’, that he would always be with us, even to the end of the age. (Deut. 31:6; Mt. 28:18-20) It’s this great Truth that we strive to hold on to as we share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, and one that will ultimately reward us with the Knowledge of Him, and the power of his resurrection. (Phil. 3:10: “…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death”).

So there we have it, Humusology 101, the down and dirty guide to becoming Hundredfold Souls
– those who ‘hear the word and understand it, who bear fruit and yield thirty, sixty or even a hundredfold harvest of the ‘fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God “(Phil 1:11).

May God, who intends this great thing for us, also give us the power to fulfill it in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN. 

As our prayer response to this message, let us stand and sing the hymn, “Simple Gifts’. 

1) Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right, 
  'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd, 
  To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight, 
  Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.


2) Tis the gift to be giving, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to give love as it ought to be,
And when we give ourselves in the place just right, 
  'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true humility is gain'd, 
  To serve one another we shan't be asham'd,
To serve, serve will be our delight, 
  Till by serving, serving we come 'round right.


3) Tis the gift of the Spirit, 'tis the gift given free
'Tis the gift to love God as he ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right, 
  'Twill be our Salvation, our love and delight.

When true felicity is gain'd, 
  To bless our Creator we shan't be asham'd,
To bless, bless will be our delight, 
  Till by blessing, blessing we come 'round righ
t.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Receive

A Sermon delivered to St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Charleston, WV
 on 6/29/2014 and based on Matthew 10:34-42

Have you ever felt excited and happy - and terrified at the same time?
I know I have! We used to live north of Chicago, not too far from Six Flags Great America theme park in Gurnee, Illinois. Whenever we went there, we’d immediately head for the latest and greatest ride. Currently, the park boasts the world’s tallest, steepest and fastest wooden roller coaster. Here’s a picture of it. 



Here are some other things that are exciting and scary at the same time.
A Wedding: (Cindy and I in 1977!)


Having a baby (Me with daughter Leah in 1979)

Giving the car keys to your teenage daughter: (Leslie in 200?)

And that’s how I feel about our practicing our subject for today. I’m excited about it, and even blessed when I actually do it, but if I really think about it gives me pause,  to say the least.  

If you haven’t guessed it by now, it involves the word ‘Receive’, from our text in Matthew 10:40,41: "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. the one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person's reward." 

There are two Greeks words for ‘receive’ in play here. The first is ‘Dechomai’ (de kohm a he) – to Give Access to someone – as a visitor.  It also includes the idea of Hospitality, or welcoming someone – especially a stranger.  

The second is ‘lEpsetai’ (Lepset a He) – to obtain or to get.

So the sense of the text is ‘the one who grants access or hospitality… shall obtain or get the reward…

This passage always puts me in mind of the Shunamite woman in
2 Kings 4:8-10. She noticed that the prophet Elisha frequented her neighborhood and because there weren't any Holiday Inns at the time, she used her wealth to build a room in her house specifically devoted to the prophet’s use.  She received the prophet’s reward: namely the gift of a child. God blessed her with a son after years of barrenness.  And when her son fell ill and died, God also blessed her by reviving the boy and bringing her son back from the dead.

This story points to our experience with Jesus. We too can receive the ‘prophet’ – Jesus Christ – in to our home, our heart,  and our reward is to receive a Son – and then also to receive him back from death –presaging our own resurrection life in Christ. But we can also ‘receive the prophet’ by recognizing him in other people – any other people, not just the prophet or righteous people.

One of my heroes of the faith, St. Benedict of Nursia, thought long and hard about receiving people and he wrote some very specific instructions to his followers about how to live it out. Listen to this passage from the Rule of Benedict (RB) chapter 53: On the Reception of Guests…

 “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, 
for He is going to say, "I came as a guest, and you received Me"
Benedict also bases his instruction on another passage from Matthew (Matt. 25:35 – 40), that contains a very similar idea to our reading today: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me...Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.

Based on these verses, Benedict writes that: “In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.”(RB ch53)

Jesus is to be recognized in the person of the guest at the door – especially the poor guest. Benedict again: “In the reception of the poor, and of pilgrims, the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received…”! 

Can you imagine hearing a knock on your door and opening up to see a bedraggled and suspicious looking person standing there? – And then   bowing down in adoration of Christ standing there at the door?!

If you’re like me, your first instinct would likely be to call the police instead!

Incarnational Reality
Anglican writer Esther deWaal comments on this aspect Benedict’s version of Hospitality:

“The Rule presents no abstract or remote theological treatise on God and his mysteries. Instead it is pervaded with the idea of sacramental encounter with Christ in the circumstances of everyday life and in material things, but most particularly in people. (Seeking God, the Way of St. Benedict by Esther deWaal, pg. 115)

Remember, a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality – and a sure and certain means of grace. What we see outwardly is a sign of a deeper spiritual reality – in this case, the basic reality that Christ took on human flesh and dwelt among us. To receive a guest, then, is to practice the reality of the Incarnation, the Presence of Christ in our everyday life – even in the person who doesn’t look much like Christ.
 
There is an echo here of Mary and Joseph seeking lodging in Bethlehem. As we open our door to the stranger, we are making room for Jesus at the ‘inn’.  See what I mean about exciting and scary at the same time?

Some Provocative Definitions of Hospitality
So, having considered a brief theology of Hospitality, let’s think about some other definitions, or aspects of Hospitality:

Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun and a noted commenter on the Rule of Benedict. Here are a couple of her thoughts about the nature of Hospitality.
[slide] “Hospitality is the willingness to be interrupted and inconvenienced so that others can get on with their lives as well…[it] is an act of the recklessly generous heart (Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, pg. 131,132)

A recklessly generous heart! What would it be like to live that out?

Perhaps we have a Biblical example in Abraham and Sarah, who entertained angels in their tent and received the message that they would be parents of Isaac, the son of Promise. (Gen. 18). 

Another example would be Mary, who received the angel Gabriel’s message that she would become the mother of Jesus with the hospitable words, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

This is how you receive Jesus - with a recklessly generous and open heart!
Here’s an example of an open and generous reception:

In May of 2000, the Russian Orthodox Holy Cross Hermitage moved from St. Louis to Wayne, WV. Cindy and I read about this in the newspaper, and one Sunday evening when we were taking a drive out in the country, we decided to try to find the monastery. We couldn’t remember where it was, so we went to the local Wal-Mart and asked at the service desk if they knew where we could find the Hermitage. “Oh, yeah”, said the lady at the desk. “Those guys come in here all the time!” And she promptly told us how to find the monks.

The Monks of Holy Cross Hermitage, Wayne, WV.

When we got there, we gingerly knocked at the door of the double-wide trailer that served as the kitchen and dining hall, and the Abbot, Fr. Seraphim, greeted us warmly, told us that they were having ice cream sundaes, and promptly invited us in to have some! I don’t think I've ever had such a warm or incongruous welcome in my life.

As Joan Chittister observes: “Honor, courtesy and love are the hallmarks …for hospitality of the heart (RB 52 Chittister, Wisdom from the Daily, (WDD)pg. 127).

This practice of hospitality requires us”…to pour ourselves out for the other, to give ourselves away, to provide the staples of life, both material and spiritual for one another. (Chittister, WDD pg. 123).

Just by way of contrast, though, here’s a story about what it looks like when the practice of Incarnational hospitality fails:

Kathleen Norris is a Presbyterian lay woman and a Benedictine oblate, or associate member, who has spent much time with the monks of Blue Cloud Abbey in North Dakota. She relates how one time, a friend of hers went to a Benedictine monastery for a retreat and was at the visitor center asking one of the monks some questions. The monk was short with her and finally said to her, in an exasperated tone, “I don’t have time for this; we’re trying to run a monastery here!”

He had missed the point completely. Receiving guests is absolutely fundamental to running a monastery. Even as Benedict himself matter-of-factly states: “A monastery is never without guests RB 53).

Fortunately the monk came back the next day and apologized profusely to the woman. He had finally gotten the message, even if somewhat late.

 As we see from this example, if we are open to receiving Christ in every person, this may cause inconvenience. John L’Heureux (‘loh-row’) expresses this challenge in his poem,
“The Trouble with Epiphanies”:

Christ came into my room
And stood there
And I was bored to death.
I had work to do.
I wouldn’t have minded If he’d been [handicapped] or something –
I do well with [the handicapped]
 – but he just stood there, all face,
And with that [darned] guitar.
I didn’t ask him to sit down:
He’d have stayed all day.
(Let’s be honest. You can be crucified just so often;
Then you’ve had it. I mean you’re useless;
no good To God, let alone to anybody else. )
 So I said to him after a while –
Well, what’s up? What do you want?
And he laughed, stupid,
Said he was just passing by
And thought he’d say hello.
Great, I said, hello.
So he left.
And I was so [… ]mad
I couldn’t even listen to the radio…
I went
And got some coffee.
The trouble with Christ is he always comes at the wrong time!
 (In Monk Habits for Everyday People, by Dennis Okholm, pgs 87, 88 )

Yes, indeed, He always shows up at the ‘wrong’ time. But the Scripture tells us that ‘in the fullness of time’ God sent forth His Son …(Gal. 4:4,5)
and ‘at the right time’ Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). God’s timing is always just right, even when it seems wrong to us and we can’t control it!  I saw a great poster the other day, shared by a friend on Facebook. There’s a wonderful, tranquil picture of a person sitting on the beach, with the caption: 
 “Relax, nothing is under control! “

To be a people who truly welcome Christ in others, we must realize we are not in control – not of our lives, our homes, our calendars, or our deaths. Therefore, we should relax and entrust ourselves to the tender mercies of God, put up our Christ-detecting radar and await His visitation.

But here’s where it gets scary. If Christ comes to my door one at a time, I’ll be inconvenienced...or worse!  And what if he comes by the trainload? – and keeps on coming day after day, train after train? 

If I am too welcoming, I may become overwhelmed. Benedict recognized this and provided for a ‘Guestmaster’ to regulate the interactions of monks and guests to preserve the order and stability of the monastery and not allow it to be overrun with the demands of guests. Hospitality and good order can and must coincide. 

But despite the dangers, what are the Rewards of Hospitality?
Kathleen Norris writes that “Benedictines often tell me they receive so much from their guests that they could never repay it, and many guests feel the same way about the hospitality they receive" (Norris, Amazing Grace, pg. 266).

Opening ourselves to others often provides a unique experience that enriches our lives and leaves us feeling blessed and challenged.

Dennis Okholm, a protestant College professor, tells of spending a week at a Benedictine monastery with a group of six of his students. At one point, the students were invited to participate in giving their reflections on the readings at the evening Mass – in itself a gracious act of hospitality.

At the end of the week, the Abbot said to the assembled community, “We need to thank these students for coming to us. By their presence in our midst they have challenged us to examine ourselves to see whether or not we live the life we profess.” (Monk Habits for Everyday People, pg. 83, Dennis Okholm).

So, there are two questions to ask in our practice of receiving the guest:
1) Did we see Christ in them?
2) Did they see Christ in Us?

The ‘gift’ of the stranger – the ‘reward of the prophet’ may be the challenge to examine ourselves: Do we live the life we profess?

This applies not only in our private lives, but in our corporate practice as a worshiping and fellowshiping community.

The metaphor of family is important to us as Christians, but often this same way of thinking about ourselves as the Church is oriented towards the nuclear family; those who are single or widowed or without a spouse may not feel as if we are truly welcoming to their needs. The visitor may or may not feel welcome. Therefore, we as the church need to seriously think about how we receive people of all situations in life.

This is not easy for us, because we tend to create a comfortable nest and to gravitate towards those like ourselves. When the stranger, the person unlike us, enters our midst it challenges us to see past the outward appearance, to see Christ, and make Him welcome. This always requires us to look beyond the outward appearance to our common humanity and to remind ourselves that we are made in His image and when we welcome the Other, we welcome Him.

Let me also make a suggestion about Receiving Christ in Communion.
As you hold out your hands to receive the bread, make a cradle to receive the newborn Christ. Think too about what Theodore of Mopsuestia said. Writing in 350 AD, in Homily XV, Theodore wrote, '...do not approach with hands extended and fingers open wide. Rather make of your left hand a throne, for your right as it is about to receive your King, and receive the Body of Christ in the fold of your hand, responding, 'Amen.'  


 So - - -  receive Christ the King, your Savior, come to you as a child in the manger, as you partake of the bread of heaven. Welcome him with a hospitable and open heart as he comes to you in worship, but also as he will visit you tomorrow and every day in the form of other people –and obtain the reward of the prophet: Salvation, peace, and openness to change and growth in scary – but exciting encounters with the Risen Christ. AMEN.