I read a book by Gil Rendle last summer as a lead up to our engagement with Gregg Carlson at Convergence US; Gil was a consultant for many years with the Alban Institute, a group that worked with congregations on planning, health and vitality. Laterally, he has worked (and is possibly now retired) with a stewardship organization called the Texas Methodist Foundation. One of the many ideas that struck me about his book regarding courageous leadership in a changing world was for congregations to create a meta-narrative, an overarching story, that helps a congregation articulate its purpose more clearly.
The story I immediately thought of was one I’d heard many years ago and which I’ve repeated once or twice in the 25 years I’ve been with you in Nelson. I don’t know who wrote it and many people have repeated it. I share it again because it gets at what the Gospel is teaching us in this moment of history on June 28th, 2020—a focus on radical hospitality, inclusion and welcome.
There was a wise abbot of a monastery in the Middle Ages; the abbey had fallen on hard times and the monks were cranky, fearful and anxious about the future. An equally wise rabbi would often visit the abbey and stay in the guest house on his own for some retreat time; the Abbot and Rabbi would often talk and
support each other during these visits.
The Abbot, encouraged by the monks of the Abbey, went one day to the Rabbi on one of his visits to ask about what they might do to turn things around. The Rabbi listened to the concerns and sorrow of the Abbot, comforted him, and after pondering what to say, said “There is something you need to know, my brother. The Messiah is one of you.”
“What,” exclaimed the abbot astonished, “the Messiah is one of us? How can this be?”
“There’s no going back now,” thought the Rabbi. “Yes, it is so.”
The abbot left the Rabbi wondering and praying. Once back among the monks, he has pestered anxiously for the words of wisdom shared by the Rabbi. The Abbot at first didn’t say anything; he looked around at the monks and again wondered how this could be. Who could it be? The grumpy old cook whose arthritis bothered him? The pharmacist who was always criticizing? The young monk, innocent and full of energy? Must be him. The chapel musician? Maybe? He sang like the angels after all. One by one, in the silence, the Abbot looked at them all. Could it be this one? Or that one? Finally, the Abbot said that the Rabbi told him that the Messiah was one of them! They were incredulous and looked around at each other with lots of questions.
Time went on as time does and a gradual shift took place among the monks. The abbot had always been kind, but now began to treat them all with profound kindness and awe, ever deeper respect, even reverence, and they, in turn, did they same to each other. They took greater care in the grounds of the abbey. They fixed things that needed fixing without complaint; they grew vegetables and had a flower garden. They treated the other as if the other was the Messiah. The monastery gradually became full of a new life, a new sense of worship, and a renewed love and grace.
Soon, the surrounding villagers came to the services, listening and watching intently, and many joined the community of monks. They began to treat each other as if the Messiah truly was one of them. This mystery became an important truth and became the source of their strength and their increasingly rich life together: The Messiah was one of them.
Even though the monastery is long gone, people say that when you go to the place, which is now in ruins, you’ll encounter a mystery there; one feels a renewed sense of life and hope, a new kindness and graciousness, and just maybe, if you’re open to it, the belief that the Messiah is one of us.
What a difference it makes when we treat one another as if the other was the Messiah or that the Messiah lives in you and me, and thus all life is sacred. Especially today facing systemic and institutional racism, where violence is the go-to tool to supposedly create peace. What if we were to reimagine what it meant to be human based on the idea that the Messiah is one of us? What if we greeted one another with open hospitality and interest in the other? What if we set aside a focus on differences and instead were curious about another’s perspective? What if we set aside our acquisitiveness and focused more on gratitude and sharing of our abundance so that all experience abundance? What if we made decisions together and I responded to you, not out of my white male privilege and power, but out of humility and grace? What if… (Fill in your own blanks.)
A couple of weeks ago in a sermon, I spoke about my belief that the old, repressive order is crumbling and there is a new beginning happening. Anthropologists are better than I at describing what happens when a dominant and domineering culture crumbles. But maybe it is happening. People of Spirit from whatever religious affiliation—and others who care deeply about humanity—are saying there is a different way… Humbly, as Christians, we might say, “The Holy One is among you!”
As a follower of Jesus, I would suggest that Jesus offered a new way—loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, radical hospitality, welcoming the marginalized, creating new communities of equality, economies of justice and fairness. Jesus built on the tradition from within Judaism, a tradition of distributive justice. You’ve heard of retributive justice, which is more an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. You’ve likely heard of restorative justice, which is partly about restoring broken relationships and restoring the balance of equality. Distributive justice begins from the moment of creation and informs the world that no one being, especially human beings, is more important than another. All are equal in God’s design and more than that, all are equally deserving of an equal share of the resources of the earth—animals, plants, human beings—all together.
So, welcome to the new world where the resources necessary for life are equally available and distributed to all fairly and justly. Welcome to a new beginning where, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “we are not judged by the colour of our skin but by the content of our character.” As people of faith and hope, we can create a new world. And remember, “the Messiah is among you!”