I told a story one of my first Sundays here. There are many versions of this story, but I first read it in M. Scott Peck’s book A Different Drum. It’s called “The Rabbi’s Gift,” which is appropriate today, because I’ve received many gifts from the rabbis from Congregation Beth El whom I’ve known over the years–first Howard Cohen, then Joshua and Vanessa Boettiger, and Jarah Greenfield. You may or may not know or remember the story–
“The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times….all of its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcome the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did th rabbi say?”
“He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving–it was something cryptic–was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.’
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, whic one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, hi might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.” [op cit., pp. 13-15]
In so many ways, this is our story too, isn’t it? Here, in the midst of one of the least religious states in the country, in an age when the headlines say that mainline churches are in decline and the whole Church–the Church Universal–is in the midst of one of those 500 year rummage sales, as historian Phyllis Tickle called it, we too worry about decline. We look around and see more elders than children. Sunday mornings are no longer reserved for church, but rather are prime time for road races, soccer and hockey practice, ski meets, brunches, or simply the one morning of the week when families are not racing around in 20 different directions, to work, to school, to practice, and so finally can enjoy down time together.
But we have also received a gift from the rabbi, haven’t we? “One of you is the Messiah,” or, as our Rabbi or Rabbouni might tell us in our baptisms, “You are beloved, A precious child of God. Beautiful to behold.” “One of you is the Messiah.”
So, haven’t you said to yourself, “Maybe the rabbi meant so-and-so (in my first draft, I named people, but you fill in the blank), some brother or sister here in church…surely they are such faithful, holy people, serving on every committee, always cheerful and kind…Maybe he is/she is the Messiah.
Surely the Rabbi didn’t mean that feisty, cantakerous, grumpy, annoying sister or brother (again, you fill in the blank)…they’re always stirring things up, saying things that push all my buttons…. And yet, darn it, when I think about it, I always learn something, am often inspired by the way they won’t let go of some issue of justice or what’s right…Maybe she is/he is the Messiah?
There’s no way so-and-so is the Messiah. You hardly know she’s there. He never says a word. And yet, it’s amazing how they appear by your side when you look like you need a friend, how they’re there to help without complaining, quietly laughing or making funny remarks that lighten a situation, and when I take the time or have the courage to start a conversation with them, I discover that they are so interesting, have such a story to tell…Maybe he is /she is the Messiah.
And absolutely no way in God’s green earth could the Rabbi mean me. Sound familiar? I have more flaws than anyone. I’m scared much of the time. I’m about the least holy person I know, and who wants to be the Messiah anyway? Look where that got Jesus. And yet, I do want to be the person God created me to be. I know that when I’m doing what I think I have gifts for, I feel so alive, so full, so whole. O God, you couldn’t mean me, could you?
And yet, …and yet, hundreds of groups in our community find a home for their meetings here each year. When the teachers went on strike a few years ago and used our sanctuary as a meeting and gathering place, they remarked, “You can sense the prayers in this place, the peace, the welcome.” I wrote that article for Spirituality and Health entitled, “If You Came to My Church” and described who and what we are, and a young woman in prison read it and found new life in it.
It, of course, is not all sunshine and light. I’ve shared with you the number of times I’ve thought of that other monastic story, from a Benedictine order ruled by hospitality, where the brother came to the abbot and said, “Father Abbott, I know we are to greet and welcome each one who comes to us for help as though they are our Lord in disguise, but sometimes I see yet another person coming up the walk and say, ‘Jesus Christ, is that you again?!’” So we have been challenged to treat those who would sleep under our eaves or live in our parking lot or store things in our closets or hide in our closets with the respect due to Jesus in disguise. “One of you is the Messiah.”
There is an old, old story in the gospel of Luke, which tells about two disciples on the road to Emmaus, trying to make sense of this whole “Jesus thing,” especially the really hard part about his suffering and death and, could it be? resurrection. And then a stranger came alongside them and engaged in that conversation, and when they reached their destination, they invited the stranger in to have supper, to break bread with them. And, Luke says, it was in the breaking of the bread that they recognized the risen Christ, and he vanished from their sight.
The Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan says of this iconic story, “Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.” This is how the story–how the Light–grows–when we invite the stranger to come break bread with us, to come sojourn among us, “Come and see how we live together,” how we celebrate life and death, joy and sorrow, speak and stand up for the oppressed, for justice, for the earth. Come and see.
I’d like to think that even as happened with those 5 old monks, we have begun to treat each other and even ourselves with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among us might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that we ourselves might be the Messiah.
And now a young brother has chosen to join us, and we have chosen him, to move into the role of pastor, and I know you will treat him with extraordinary respect, even as you continue to treat one another. So, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, may we continue to thrive and become a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm. May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark