Torch Trust Speech
Given at Torch Holiday & Retreat Centre, Hurstpierpoint
19th September 2015
Reverend Jane Willis
There were two Bible readings preceding this speech, they are as follows:
‘Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.’ Romans 12:9-13
‘Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ Hebrews 13:1-3
Thank you so much Gail, and it’s absolutely wonderful to be here with you today - and I am a new girl here I really am! I’ve been here for not quite a year. And really early on in my time here I came down and met with Gail and she gave me the tour and I discovered… well, it’s funny: I’d known about this place for many years and had a real interest in it. My grandmother lost her sight towards the end of her life, she never knew braille, but she benefitted so much from recorded books and things like that. So it’s wonderful, just fabulous to be here worshipping with you all.
I just wanted to say a few words about hospitality, because that was the word that came into my head when Gail asked me to speak today, and when Gordon phoned me up a few weeks ago and asked what bible verses would I like to speak on. These two came to my mind, and I must say Gail: as I saw the ‘unless the Lord builds the house’ verse that has been your motto, I also thought that those verses from Romans would just describe so very well what actually happens inside this house.
As you come in the door, ‘welcome’ it says, doesn’t it? Great big letters, writ large on the wall. But there’s no doubting, it’s hard not to feel welcome at Torch, it really is, but not just because it’s written large on the wall but because it’s written large on the hearts of everyone here. And even just this afternoon I’ve whizzed in from a wedding and I’ve had to kind of delete wedding mode and get into Torch mode - I do that several times in most days, that sort of shift! It was just lovely to have a drink and sandwich and I just managed to sort of reboot ready for this. And there’s a wonderful, wonderful welcome everywhere you go.
The beginning of those verses from Romans, it says ‘love must be sincere’ and I have to say that that welcome and hospitality and all the qualities in these verses are written through this place like the letters through a stick of rock, it’s genuine, it’s authentic and actually I think today with so much available to us, it’s authenticity that speaks most loudly to people’s hearts and minds, love must be sincere. But of course the practice of hospitality begins not with ourselves but with God. In the beginning, in the act of creation, God created space for that which was not God and we only have to look around us or listen around us and we are aware that he has created a beautiful place for us to live. Hospitality begins with God at the beginning of time. And at the end of time our destination is the great wedding banquet - going back to where I’ve just come from! Better than where they all are partying at the Hassocks Hotel at the moment, I promise it’ll be better than that! The great wedding banquet and we have Jesus: the way, the truth, and the life, who goes ahead to prepare a place for us.
So hospitality begins and ends with God, and it extends from the beginning of time to the end. And in between he calls us, his people, to practice hospitality – that might mean practise because we’re still trying to get it right, we’re all learning! But we are called to practice hospitality and why? Well, first of all because when we do, as people made in the image of God, we reflect the nature of God to everyone around us and also I believe because hospitality in its essence is transforming. It’s transforming for those who receive but its also transforming, astonishingly, for those who give.
As I was preparing for today I was reminded of an occasion a few years back when I’d had a bit of rough time as a vicar, that happens sometimes you know. And I had a lovely bishop, Bishop Bob, bishop of Crediton in those days, he’s retired now, most lovely man. Apparently he’d been Archdeacon Bob and when he was made a bishop they said ‘you can’t be Bishop Bob, you have to be Bishop Robert.’ He said ‘Well, I tried to be Bishop Robert for a week and it wouldn’t work!’ And when you went to see him in his office he’d got all this Bob the Builder stuff on his shelf and so he was Bob the Bishop. Lovely man, and if you met him, he just didn’t seem very you know… well he was quite unassuming. You’ve heard the story haven’t you about Justin Welby in his early days, I think right at the beginning of him being archbishop, he did all these services around cathedrals and sort of days of prayer in them. And it was at either Coventry or Chichester, I can’t remember which, that he was wandering round in black clericals as he does, and somebody came up to him and said ‘I’ve heard the Archbishop’s here!’ to which he smiled and said ‘Um, yes he is actually.’ At which point the person said ‘Could you tell me where I can find him?’ to which Justin Welby went ‘Um well, actually it’s me’ at which point they looked at him and went ‘Oh’ and that was it.
So Bishop Bob actually, like Justin Welby, he’s not a big man; he doesn’t look impressive when you meet him but he’s deeply impressive as a person. And I’d gone to him on sort of ‘vicar’s really bad day’ and I’d written all these notes of what I was going to want to say because sometimes it goes out of your head, and I walked in, sat on a chair in his office, and he looked at me and said ‘If you were God, what would you say to the Reverend Jane Willis?’ And I abandoned all my notes and had the most amazing hour and a half with him that was just from God and when we got to the end I said ‘Thank you so much Bishop Bob, I didn’t just meet with my bishop, I met with God today’ and then he said ‘And so did I.’ And that just completely threw me, yes tears!
But that’s the astonishing thing: when we practice hospitality we meet with God in each other. I’ve got to take you now to a favourite character of mine from history: St Benedict. Now, back in the 4th century St Benedict founded a Christian community that’s the origin of the monastic communities around the world and the origin of certainly a lot of Anglican and other denominations’ worship. Benedict had a really rough time the first time he tried to found a community and it all went terribly wrong, and I think he swore never to do it again. But when he did found another community, because he was a person of prayer and people just gathered around him, he, in the end, wrote this rule for the ordering of that community. And it was written many, many years ago but people are people aren’t they? And even today people find that rule really useful for the ordering of any kind of Christian community, not just monks but it could be a regular worshipping church, it could be anything, it could be this place. But right at the heart of Bendict’s rule – and it’s a rule as in a ruler, a measure, a rhythm, a regle, rather than any sort of – well, it is a set of instructions – but it’s a gentle rule, he says, it’s a gentle rule for us frail people. But right at the heart of that is the practice of hospitality.
Our second reading from Hebrews is based on that wonderful story in the Old Testament, and it’s that story of Abraham isn’t it, entertaining those three strangers who arrive and offering them hospitality and in that he has an encounter with heavenly beings and some would even say of the pre-incarnate Christ. Just by simply offering food and welcome. And Benedict teaches, like that, that Christ is to be found and even adored in other human beings, in the monastic superior, in the sick, in the guest, in the poor. And so the sick are to be served as Christ and guests are to be welcomed as Christ. Benedict writes ‘Let all guests who arrived be received as Christ because he will say “I was a stranger and you took me in.”’ Benedictine hospitality means unconditional welcome into a place of prayer, with absolutely no pressure or expectation on the guest. And so as we welcome the stranger as Christ, we meet with God through them. And where we think we are called to minister to them, we find they minister to us, and there we find ourselves on holy ground, because we cannot encounter Christ and remain unchanged. And so, because this is a place of hospitality in the name of Christ, this is a place of transformation. And we’ve heard all sorts of stories today, I suspect that if we tried to write them all down – and there will be so many things that you may never know of that God has done in the secrets of people’s hearts – but my prayer today is for God’s blessing on this place and on all of you in the name of Christ, amen.