Benedict and the School for Service of the Lord

A sermon preached by Stacy at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel (University of Chicago) on Sunday, July 12, 2015:

St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129

St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129

The readings:

From the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict

And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord.  In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.   But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow. For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love. Thus, never departing from his school, but persevering in the monastery according to his teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ and deserve to have a share also in his kingdom.

From the Gospel according to Luke 14:27-33:
Jesus said to the crowd, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

The sermon:

When we decided to use the readings for the commemoration of St. Benedict of Nursia for today’s service—he is often commemorated on July 11th—it seemed like a no-brainer. Everyone seems to like Benedict. Benedictine spirituality has enjoyed a bit of a revival lately. This will be easy, I thought.

But first, a bit about the man himself:

Benedict lived from 480 to around 545 CE. He was the son of a Roman nobleman, probably a Christian. He was sent off to Rome for his studies, but after a time, disillusioned by the dissolute lifestyle of his fellow students, he left, taking his housekeeper, to live with a community of men at a church about 50 miles away. Benedict eventually leaves the town and his housekeeper and, under the mentorship of the monk Romanus, he becomes a monk and a hermit, living in a grotto for three years, with food being lowered down from a rope, fighting temptations and demons—in pretty expected ways.

Eventually he is asked to become the abbot at a nearby monastery. At first he demurs, knowing that, as Pope Gregory I writes in the only history of Benedict that we have, “their manners were diverse from his and therefore that they would never agree together: yet, at length, overcome with their entreaty, he gave his consent.” It did not go well, possibly because Benedict was too strict for them. Really. It did not go well. The breaking point was when the monks, having turned against him, serve him a poisoned cup of wine. Before taking the cup to drink from it, Benedict blesses the wine with the sign of the cross, at which point the glass shatters as if a stone had been thrown at it.

He returns to the town where he had been a hermit, only to be threatened again with a loaf of poisoned bread from a jealous local priest. He discerns that it would be wise to leave town (again), and in subsequent years founds twelve monasteries before founding his most famous community in Monte Cassino.

Benedict is most known for his Rule, a small book of instructions for the ordering of a monastic community, from how to pray the Psalms to organizing the kitchen shifts to the character required of the monastery’s cellarer (the one in charge of the provisions of the monastery).

The rule is striking for its practicality, its gentle balance of discipline and tolerance, its understanding that, for a community of people to be able to live and grow in Christian discipleship, room must be made for rules and exceptions. There is a wonderful pattern of sleep, work, prayer, and study that makes the life of the community not only sustainable but also, as we heard from Benedict today, “a school for the service of the Lord.”

A couple of excerpts from the chapter on the cellarer give a good illustration:

As cellarer of the monastery
let there be chosen from the community
one who is wise, of mature character, sober,
not a great eater, not haughty, not excitable,
not offensive, not slow, not wasteful,
but a God-fearing man
who may be like a father to the whole community.
Let him have charge of everything.
He shall do nothing without the Abbot’s orders,
but keep to his instructions.
Let him not vex the brethren.
If any brother happens to make some unreasonable demand of him,
instead of vexing the brother with a contemptuous refusal
he should humbly give the reason for denying the improper request.

I love that last line. The person who is probably second only to the abbot in power, when faced with an unreasonable request, one which his responsibilities require him to deny, he is to respond gently and clearly, without contempt or anger. (If only customer service departments would read Benedict’s Rule!)

Then there’s this:

Let him regard all the utensils of the monastery
and its whole property
as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.
Let him not think that he may neglect anything.
He should be neither a miser
nor a prodigal and squanderer of the monastery’s substance,
but should do all things with measure
and in accordance with the Abbot’s instructions.

The goods of the monastery—the dried meats and grains, the stores of wine and herbs, the cooking pots and carving knives—all of these things are to be treated with the respect and honor given to the chalice and paten, the sacred vessels of the altar. The care of his fellow monks is in the same category as the highest ritual of their shared faith.

So. That’s great. There is much to reflect on, much that is edifying. I had plans to preach on the balance of discipline and flexibility in the life of the spirit, or the balance of a defined community and generous hospitality, or prayer, study, and physical labor.

But then the gospel reading assigned for Benedict pulled me up short. Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” and “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” In the verse just before what we heard, Jesus says that unless one leaves father, mother, wife, children, siblings, even one’s life, behind, one cannot be his disciple.

There is an all or nothing side to Jesus, something we have struggled since the beginning of this Christian venture to figure out—or evade. We have interpreted the sale of our possessions as optional, or symbolic, or a state of mind. We have elevated “family values” to the level of idolatry, despite Jesus’ call to leave family behind. And as far as Jesus’ command to carry the cross—that is, to live in such a way that the powers that be consider you a threat to their existence—we find all kinds of ways to make that less serious than Jesus meant.

So, for those of us who are not called—or not called yet—to sell all of our possessions, or to leave family, or to take a stand that would be considered a threat to the state, or to become celibate and live in a well-structured community of prayer, study, and labor for the rest of our lives: what of us? Must we, like the rich young man, turn away saddened, because we can’t do these hard things—yet?

First: despite what certain folks say, you don’t have to be a disciple of Jesus to be saved. Nor, in case you were wondering, must you be a monk or nun. If I’ve learned anything from reading the gospels and, yes, the apostle Paul and his letters, it’s that grace is free, salvation (a word with lots of baggage, but we’ll save that for another day) is free, healing is free, forgiveness is free. And, according to the gospels, if you follow Jesus around enough, lunch is sometimes free. It’s all a gift.

We do nothing to earn God’s love and can do nothing to lose it. In fact, one of the threads that winds through the history of Christian prayer is that God wants to love us, longs to share Her delight with us, is constantly inviting us to stop and pay attention to His prodigal gifts in creation and in human community.

The first thing that Jesus invites us to know, to understand, and to wrestle with is just that: we are beloved. We are God’s delight. This does not mean that we do not sin, nor that sin does not bring terrible consequence, nor that we need not do anything about it. But Jesus’ teaching and healing show that the sin cannot be faced until the love is embraced.

So for some of us, our lives will be spent learning and accepting that we are Beloved. For some of us it is a hard lesson and will take a lifetime of discipline to overcome the ways we try to make deals in exchange for God’s love, or act out in anger or self-loathing or passivity because love cannot be assumed. It’s possible that some of you are suspicious of this premise, since it sounds like “I’m OK, you’re OK” self-esteem pablum. It’s not. For some of us this is the hardest thing we will ever do.

Some of us, like Jesus’ disciples and the monks of Benedict’s communities, though, by the grace of God, will get it. We will know ourselves beloved and that joy will make us want to go deeper, to help others to learn it, to get closer to the Jesus who lived and died to demonstrate its truth. It’s then that the bar gets raised. Then we are called to take up crosses, find a new family, let go of our stuff, learn obedience and humility, die to self.

And that’s where Benedict comes in. Benedict’s Rule was for the long haul, for the complex process of learning to do Jesus’ work. The school of service is not just about loving God but learning to love neighbor, particularly the neighbor as found in the brother monk who snores, or is a know-it-all, or doesn’t do his share of work. Even when we know ourselves as beloved, we sometimes waver, we sometimes doubt. Even when we know that God loves our neighbor as much as God loves us, we find it can’t find that loving heart. Benedict managed to set the self-sacrifice that Jesus calls his disciples to in a pattern of life that allowed the monks to be reminded of God’s love: by being bathed in Scripture and prayer, in the give and take of mutual forgiveness and graciousness in community, in being able to use their bodies in work and their minds in study—their whole persons.

So perhaps this is what Benedict can offer us this morning: a promise that is possible to do the impossible work for the long haul. That it does, indeed, require a balance of work and rest and study and prayer. That sometimes we do need to suck it up and do the work and sometimes we get a break. The call to discipleship is meant to fall the call to be loved. Embrace the love first. If you’re ready for the next challenge . . . . well, then, it’s time to get to work.

About stacyandjohn

She is an Episcopal priest. He is a Theravadin Buddhist trying to be a playwright. They blog together, on their religions, their relationship, other religions, and about breaching the chasm between Niravanas and Heaven.
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