When Rev. Dee asked me several weeks ago to preach on this particular Sunday, I went home and looked up the lectionary scriptures, and I groaned. Christ the King Sunday, and the suggested scripture from Matthew’s Gospel are far from favorites of mine. Usually in my experience of preaching, the Sunday after Thanksgiving has also been the first Sunday of Advent. So I’ve usually gotten to skip over Christ the King and the last judgment, neither of which I feel comfortable with. Will you be disappointed if I do NOT preach a sermon about judgment?
What does judgment lead to but God’s kingdom, or as I now prefer to call it, God’s kin-dom? , I pondered. What does that look like? And then an unlikely story popped into my head. And unlikely and unexpected as it was, I decided to begin by sharing with you that story, and then maybe talking a little about what it might suggest about God’s kin-dom present and future.
It’s a story called The Rabbi’s Gift. I first found it many years ago in M. Scott Peck’s book called The Different Drum, although he made clear that he did not write this story. The author is unknown. Let’s see what this story might tell us about how to find, or get to God’s kin-dom.
The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, 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 welcomed 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 the 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, which 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, he 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??
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 the 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.
I’d like each of you to say that to yourself—the messiah is one of us.
Is that hard to do? Perhaps we think the term messiah belongs only to Jesus,
and it would be blasphemous to use it for ourselves. And so we let ourselves off the hook. But I think in this story the term describes a spirit, perhaps the Holy Spirit. Describes the spark of the holy, the divine, that is within each one of us
In this story, when the monks begin to ponder the rabbi’s words seriously and to treat one another with extraordinary respect, an aura begins to radiate out and permeate the atmosphere around them, and to draw people to them, and they began to grow again until they became a thriving order and “a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.” That describes, I believe, the atmosphere of God’s kin-dom. Is this something that could happen in another community, perhaps in our congregation, as well?
I’ll come back to that.
I chose the passage from Ezekiel because it used less harsh terms than Matthew’s gospel. It describes the kingdom of God without kingly imagery, but the values God cares about that make it into God’s kin-dom, are pretty much the same. Because human shepherd-leaders have failed to do their jobs,—by not gathering in the weak sheep, by not seeking the lost or healing the sick, God decides, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed and bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.” God leaves the throne room and the life of comfort and ease, and goes out to join the search for the lost and downtrodden, to engage in the challenging, sometimes dangerous work of shepherding.
God has left the building. I picked up that phrase from some study materials that I was reading last week before leaving for the Central Atlantic Conference meeting. And there I listened to Executive Minister and President John Dorhauer’s keynote speech. It was no more comforting or soothing than today’s scripture passages are. He spoke of how our denomination has been losing members, shrinking in size constantly since 1961. And how little we are accomplishing in our churches in our feeble efforts to turn that around. He talked about how comfortable we tend to be within our churches, where we aren’t threatened, where it’s beautiful and familiar and safe.
But the Holy Spirit, Dorhauer said, has moved toward a new horizon. And I heard an echo of “God has left the building.” It was also clear from all he said that he believes that the Holy Spirit is trying to show us that God’s work will involve our moving beyond the boundaries of church as we tend to practice it today; and finding new ways of reaching out, gathering people in, and working toward love and justice out there in the world among people who may look at things differently and want to do things differently.
“What does a denomination truly committed to love, welcome, and justice look like?” Dorhauer asked. “YOU are going to help us answer that question, as we continue to practice this life-changing, Christ-centered love and as we follow where the Holy Spirit leads. And let the world steady herself for the transformation, as we (in the United Church of Christ) find new ways to continue the practice of such love. God is leading us still and anew,” Dorhauer would remind and encourage us, “ to reach out and love our neighbors and to build a just world for all.”
I believe there is within each one of us, within every human being, at least a spark of the divine. It is up to us to find it, to open our awareness and our lives to it, and then to choose whether we will listen and follow where it leads. If we dare to believe, as did this dying order of monks in the story, that the messiah, the still speaking spirit of the living God, is among us, showing us the way to build God’s kin-dom right here and right now, who knows what transformation can take place among us!