Love's Authority - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Love's Authority

A couple of weeks ago now Sandra and I took a week's holiday on the Norfolk Broads sailing a 25ft Gaff Rig sailing boat built in the 1930s, a Hustler from the Hunter's boat yard in Ludham. Those names will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of you, but if I said we spent the week in a beautiful but very cramped sailing boat with no engine exploring what we could of the Norfolk broads you'll probably get a reasonable idea of our week.

It was not without incident but neither was it without moments of serenity. In particular we spent a night moored at St Benet's Abbey, St Benet being a shortening on St Benedict, a beautiful spot of slightly raised ground on the river Bure isolated in flatlands with big skies. St Benet's was the only monastery in the country that was not deconsecrated at the reformation, the title of Abbot passing to the Bishop of Norwich, although the religious life and buildings were soon swept away nevertheless.

The major remains on the site are the gatehouse of the former Abbey and it includes some stone carvings apparently inspired by the legend of the seal. This is a version recorded by local resident that I'd like to share with you:

Many years ago, in the reign of King Henry I there was a young monk of the Abbey named Edwin who wanted to follow his own will with an easy conscience.

The Godly discipline of the Abbey was irksome to him. Many were the chastisements which his unsatisfactory conduct brought down upon him. He had to carry the lantern of penance. He was whipped and sentenced to punishments without end. He was repeatedly sent to prison but all in vain. He remained unhumbled and knew no sense of shame.

It was during one of these imprisonments that a pious brother monk, having obtained permission from the Abbot, visited him to try to move him to a better state of mind. He might as well have tried to move a rock. To all his warnings, entreaties, arguments and expostulations he received only one answer: his own will and pleasure were the only laws the monk would obey.

The good brother in despair turned to leave him, but first put into his hand a small relic. It was a single hair of St Benedict, and bade him ever to keep it on his person in remembrance of a friend. This touched the right chord. Edwin preserved, for a friend's sake, that which he otherwise would have thrown away as worthless.

It was well he did so, not that he seemed the better for it, but rather waxed worse and worse. Till one day he took the last fatal steps and ran away from the monastery to which his vows bound him. Far he wandered, following the proud instincts of his carnal will, neither pleasing God nor regarding man.

It so happened that as he journeyed on, footsore and weary, a gallant knight mounted on a noble steed overtook him.

"Weary monk, whither goest thou?", said an insinuating voice.

"I go no whither", replied Edwin.

"Then follow me", said the stranger. "I have need of an esquire and thou, by thy manly looks and well-built frame, art made for better service than the life of a nomad. Thou shalt have thy fill of pleasure and a share in many a noble enterprise and plentiful wage. Lo - here is thy first coin."

Edwin gazed on the heavy purse which the strange knight held towards him.

"I will serve thee", said Edwin, taking the purse. As he did so for the first time he beheld the countenance of the stranger. It was that of a hideous dragon!

Edwin dropped the purse and cried out in terror.

"Ha! It is too late", said the fiend triumphantly. "Thou hast taken the coin. Thou hast promised to serve me. Thou shalt follow thy will, for thy will is my will."

He then seized the monk with an irresistible grasp. At that instant, a sword thrust and pierced the dragon from whose armour there flowed a shower of sparks and fire. With a howl of rage the fiend vanished.

Swooning with fear, Edwin could just distinguish in front of him a bright figure in a close vest and gown. A lofty cap was seen issuing out of a coronet, in his right hand was a great broad sword.

Then he heard a sweet voice saying, "Those that bear about with them a remembrance of me, I remember, but thou must return and do the will of God lest worse befall thee".

It was St Benedict and the relic given to him by a pious brother had saved him. So Edwin returned to the Abbey and became obedient to his vows.

During the period of lockdown with our movements so curtailed, we have reflected on monastic stability as indeed did our Lent books this year, focused on Benedictine practice. We have noted the apparently paradoxical nature of monastic obedience because it aims not to curtail freedom but rather to secure it. By settling where and how to live out one's days within a disciplined regime, members of religious communities seek freedom from those distractions so that they are able to give themselves entirely to Christ in lives of prayer.

The legend of the seal, of the relic, resonates with this teaching but as a tale with apparent medieval origins, it includes references to the enforcement of monastic obedience that to us look to be entirely inappropriate - whipping and imprisonment. Whilst I think the monastic traditions continue to hold great treasures for the church their history is certainly mixed and the church as a whole is no different. After revelations of sexual abuse and its handling by churches of different dominations, the failings of the church have never been more apparent. Indeed for many, understandably, those failings entirely obscure everything else that might be said about the church and its blessings.

In today's Gospel reading we heard Jesus' teaching - Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

This has traditionally been pointed to in defence of the church's authority but as Stanley Saunders, a New Testament scholar points out, if we look to the rest of this passage of teaching, to Matthew chapter 18, we see that Jesus outlines the foundational values and practices that are to distinguish the community of disciples - solidarity with one another as "children", avoidance of actions that cause others to "stumble", care for the most vulnerable and restoration of those who go astray, as we heard this morning.

In other words, the church and its leaders are not granted arbitrary power, rather it is called to pay ceaseless attention to the interests of the least in our midst and to create the space and conditions for forgiveness and restoration to flourish.

Jesus strongly objected to the Pharisees insistence on minutiae of ritual observance. He was really not concerned with such things. In Luke, Jesus says that the purpose of the Gospel is "to proclaim liberty to the captives" and "set free the oppressed". The church is true to its calling when it strives for release, freedom and forgiveness for others.

As we seek to ease social restrictions whilst containing rates of COVID infection we should reflect deeply on our freedoms, individually and collectively. Life in all its fullness will not be secured in unfettered fulfilment of our individual momentary desires. Rather, we need to look beyond them, to a collective discernment guiding us to balance the freedoms in our lives to do those things we want to do, with the need to preserve our own, and others, freedom from fear of infection and from infection itself.

This balancing act is far from easy, of course. Indeed, public health agencies, of which I'm a part, increasingly seem to be criticised for overly complicating things leaving people unsure how they are meant to protect themselves and others.

It's perhaps not an uncommon failing. A similar charge is often levelled against the church as disagreements over gender, sexuality, marriage and the like, play out. The wisdom of the monastic tradition is how it seeks to simplify things. The Gospel points us in that same direction. As we heard today in our epistle reading to the Romans - Love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Amen.

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