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Sunday Worship 10 July | Sacred Spaces: cloister

Updated: Mar 18

Romans 12:9-18 (NIV)
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, 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. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Today’s sacred space is ‘cloister: a place for interaction’. For those of you not familiar with the layout of monasteries, a cloister is a covered walkway that links different spaces together, often open on one side to a courtyard. As George Lings notes, the word can carry negative connotations as “to be ‘cloistered’ sounds shut away and sad”, but he does not use it to suggest any sense of withdrawing from life. Indeed he emphasises that the cloister is a place of connection rather than separation, and that joining places matter, as we quickly learn when we suffer a knee injury or the pipe under the sink works itself loose.


Joining places open up possibilities, leading to new things and offering opportunities of their own. The Church Army groups Lings interviewed described it as “a thoroughfare”, but also “an exercise yard and recreational space”, somewhere to pass through but also somewhere to stay awhile. It is a place where it is “possible to be alone, escape, meditate, relax and watch”, but it is also a place of “unplanned encounters...including with those we naturally avoid”. Members of the Northumbria Community noted that “you don’t know who might be just around the corner”, which reminded me of that wonderful phrase from the questions that were asked as we welcomed Alex into membership last week, which spoke of walking with God in ways known and yet to be made known. Because the cloister is open in terms of both its design and its function, it is a place which can surprise us.


Joining places can also be seen as liminal spaces, a term I was introduced to while training for ministry. These are places of transition, of beginning and ending, of uncertainty and the unknown - thresholds between what was and what will be. Liminal spaces can be physical or they can be emotional, periods in our lives where everything is shifting and we are waiting to see what settles. That sense of being caught in between can be very unsettling, but it can also be immensely comforting. I have always loved travelling, but couldn’t explain why until I discovered the language of liminality. Whether I’m walking or in a car or on a train, I am not in one place or another, and that relieves me of any anxiety associated with the expectations of a particular space, giving me precious time to pray and prepare or simply to breathe.


I had a run of very bad luck with flute exams as a teenager, and perhaps the worst was my Grade 6, when I became so nervous that I burst out crying halfway through and had to be allowed out for a few moments to gather myself. (It has stiff competition for worst exam, as I fell and nearly passed out fifteen minutes before my Grade 4, and then when I got into the exam room discovered I had damaged my instrument. I became something of a legend among the local music teachers, and I’m fairly certain I passed mostly because the examiners took pity on me.) I remember my dad suggesting that we return the hiking boots I’d hired for my Duke of Edinburgh expedition before he drove me back to school. It was an errand that could have been done another day, but I was so thankful for the extra twenty minutes of driving time, to compose myself before I had to go back into lessons. It’s a slightly trivial example, but my point is that these joining places and liminal spaces really do matter and are worth paying attention to. Sometimes we can be in such a rush to get onto the next thing that we miss the particular gift of the journey.


Let’s return now to the idea of connection, because in the cloister that happens in more ways than one, and this is where we will come to focus on it as a place of interaction. It may have been designed first and foremost to allow movement from one building to another, but because monasteries are communities, such journeys are rarely made alone, and so the cloister soon becomes a meeting place. In the cloister, members of the community are connected not only to the spaces they inhabit but also to those they inhabit them with. Lings sums up the function of cloister like this: “Cloister was where people met informally and sometimes by choice. Here was where friendships were nurtured and conversely where enemies could be made. A parallel would be the school playground. It is not part of the curriculum, but crucial in school social life.” I wonder what the parallels would be in your own life, the places where your path intersects with others and you could find yourself meeting with friend or foe.


I said earlier that Church Army members spoke of encountering those we naturally avoid, and we have just heard Lings speak of enemies being made. That may sound negative but it is important, as communities will always include those we are called to love but would not call friends in other circumstances. Lings suggests therefore that the cloister holds “a special role as the important contact point between people who don’t get on”. In a community like a monastery it is impossible to avoid the person you’ve had a falling out with, or the person whose beliefs you cannot reconcile with your own, or the person who simply rubs you up the wrong way for reasons you cannot fully explain. You could run into any one of them at any time, and you have to be ready to deal with that. As Lings says, “love in community will always have to work with the genuine difficulty of difference”. I think this is true for the church as much as for the monastery. We commit to loving one another, and so we should not hold one another at a distance, but the reality is that we have different tastes and different temperaments, and that means we need to learn how to live well with those we find difficult.


The passage we heard earlier was one Mike and I chose for our wedding, because it spoke of the kind of life we believe we are called to live together. If we want to know how to live well with all those we encounter in the cloisters of our own lives, whether that is here or at home or in school or at work or online or in the street, I think we could do much worse than returning to this verse. Paul is not always easy to read, but I think this passage speaks for itself, and so I want to let it do just that. I will read it again, and as I do I encourage you to think about the places of interaction you will find yourselves in this week, and how you might live out these words.


“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, 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. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”


Lings ends his chapter with these words: “love, humility, generosity of spirit, good listening and mutual learning, reconciliation across genuine differences - wow, that would be a church community I’d be privileged to join!” We’re not perfect because we’re human, but I do believe I have found those things here, and I do feel it is a great privilege and joy to be part of this community. So please be encouraged, and remember the words that were shared with us some months ago, that this is a place where love happens. But also be challenged, to embody the words of Paul more fully and deeply and consistently, and to do so in every cloister in which we walk.


Luke 24:13-35 (NIV)
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.” He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

We have heard that the cloister is a place for surprise encounters, and so I chose that reading because a surprise encounter is at the heart of it. Rather than offering a second sermon here, I want to invite you to reflect on the story for yourself, with a Godly Play style retelling and some time for wondering.


[lay white sheet] Our story begins with a white underlay because it is part of the Easter story. We find it in the gospel of Luke, who tells us that it took place on the day that the women found the empty tomb.


[set scene] Our story also needs a road because it is about an encounter on a journey. This road leads from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus, where we will find a table and a loaf of bread and a cup of wine.


[move two figures down road] On the road to Emmaus were two of Jesus’ friends. They were leaving Jerusalem because they had followed Jesus and now he had been killed and they were sad and confused and afraid.


[add third figure] As they talked about all that happened, trying to understand why Jesus had died and what would happen next, a man began to walk with them and asked what they were talking about. They thought he must be the only person in all of Jerusalem who had not heard the news.


[keep moving figures] The friends told their new companion that Jesus had been killed, but now some of the women of their group were saying he was alive again. It was all so strange and they wished he was still with them, because he had taught them so much and they believed he would save the people. The man told them they did not understand, that the one who would save the people had to suffer these things, and the prophets had said. He explained many things to them as they walked together down the road.


[move figures to table] Finally they reached Emmaus, and Jesus’ friends invited the man who had joined them to stay with them. The three travellers sat down to eat, and the stranger blessed the bread and then broke it. In that moment they recognised the man as Jesus.


[removed third figure] As soon as they realised who it was they had been talking to, and that something special had happened while he had talked to them about the scriptures, Jesus disappeared.


[move two figures back down road] The two friends left at once to return to Jerusalem, to tell the rest of Jesus’ friends that they had seen him, and that he had risen indeed.


I wonder how this story makes you feel.

I wonder what you think is the most important part.

I wonder what Jesus said to his friends as they walked along the road.

I wonder why the friends only recognised Jesus when he broke the bread.

I wonder if you have encountered Jesus without realising.

I wonder what you might need to do to be more open to surprise encounters.


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If you would like to reflect more deeply on the sacred spaces we are exploring this summer, you can find reflection questions in the file below.

Stoneygate Baptist Church teaching series Summer 2022
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