Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sermon for August 19, 2007

The Messiah is Among You
Matthew 10:40-42

A famous monastery fell on hard times. Once its buildings filled with young monks and its huge chapel resounded with the singing of the choir. Now it was deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer. A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters with heavy hearts. On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a tiny hut. He would come there from time to time to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared the word would be passed from monk to monk: The rabbi walks in the woods. And, for as long as he was there, the monks would feel sustained by his prayerful presence. One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and open his heart to him. After the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome. It was as though he had been waiting there for some time. The two embraced like long-lost brothers. Then they stepped back and just stood there, smiling at one another with smiles their faces could hardly contain. After a while, the rabbi motioned the abbot to enter. In the middle of the room was a wooden table with the Scriptures open on it. They sat there for a moment, in the presence of the Book. Then the rabbi began to cry. The abbot could not contain himself. He covered his face with his hands and began to cry, too. For the first time in his life, he cried his heart out. The two men sat there like lost children, filling the hut with their sobs and moistening the wood of the table with their tears. After the tears had ceased to flow and all was quiet, the rabbi lifted his head. “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said. “You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once. After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.” The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, “The Messiah is among you.”

For a while, all was silent. Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.” The abbot left without ever looking back. The next morning, the abbot called his monks together. He told them that he received a teaching from the rabbi who walks in the woods, and that this teaching was never again to be spoken aloud. Then he looked at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.” The monks were startled by this saying. “What could it mean?” they asked themselves. “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. 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?” They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi’s teaching. But no one ever mentioned it again.

As time went by, though, something unusual began to happen at the monastery. The monks began to treat one another with a very special reverence. There was a gentle, human quality about them now which was hard to describe, but easy to notice. They lived with one another as brothers who had finally found something. They prayed over the Scriptures together as those who were still looking for something. Visitors found themselves deeply moved by the genuine caring and sharing that went on among the brothers. Before long, people came from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of these monks. Young men were asked to become part of the community. The rabbi no longer walked in the woods. His hut has fallen into ruins. But the older monks who learned his teaching still feel sustained by his prayerful presence.

The followers of Jesus, both then and now, are sent to find the presence of the Messiah among us. Today’s reading represents Jesus’ closing comments to his disciples before he sends them out on a missionary journey. Let’s remind ourselves what’s happened in this passage up to this point. First, Jesus gives his followers their mission: preach, heal the sick, raise the dead, and drive out demons. What you have heard from me, Jesus says, shout it from the rooftops. Next, he warns them of the dangers ahead: People will turn against you. They will hurt you. Your family relationships and social network will be destroyed–but God is watching out for you. So do not be afraid. Then Jesus says, take up your cross and follow me.

Jesus concludes his pep-talk by telling his followers what the outcome of all this will be. Even though they have a difficult task ahead, even though they will be rejected by many, there are those who will receive and welcome the disciples as guests. To receive one of Christ’s followers will be just like receiving the master himself. Jewish people would have been very familiar with this concept. The Rabbis used to say, “He who greets a learned person is as if he greeted God.” The Jews always felt that showing hospitality to the ambassador was the same as receiving and welcoming the king who sent him. Now the disciples are being sent as Christ’s ambassadors. Any honor paid to the disciples will also overflow to God the Father through Jesus.

Jesus reminds us that if you welcome a good person who walks in step the will of God, you are agreeing with that person’s basic ideas. You recognize the truth of the message or the truth of the person’s lifestyle, and you make yourself ready to bring about goodness in your own life. You may not be the great prophet. You may not even be the person walking closely with God. But, if you can notice how God is working in others and receive God’s presence in another–if you can welcome and respond to it, then you will be rewarded.

Jesus then turns his teaching to how a follower should treat a person with no status–God’s little ones. Jesus talks about giving a drink to a person who is usually ignored. He’s speaking about giving the smallest imaginable gift to the most undistinguished of people. God notices even the smallest acts of service to those who are dismissed by the rest of the community as inconsequential and unimportant. You know, it’s nice to be recognized by the greatest, but Jesus reminds us that those who respond to the smallest needs of the humblest of his people will also be rewarded.

Wonderfully surprising things can happen when we take some time to look at those around us and notice that the Messiah is among us. Our perspective changes when we take time to see the Christ-like qualities in one another.

This is harder than it sounds. I am likely to find a person’s bad qualities before I look for the presence of Christ. I will think of ways to criticize another, or find reasons to convince myself of how I am better than the other person. I think this attitude saddens the heart of God and stifles the presence of the Spirit. Biblical hospitality is about welcoming the stranger, seeing Christ in the insignificant, and humbling myself in the presence of greatness. The twist is that the greatness I need to recognize in others comes from the presence and calling of Christ, not a person’s social status, family reputation, or job title. My job is to order my inner life in such a way that when I meet any person, Christian or not, I am looking into his or her eyes, walking in his or her shoes, and opening myself up to the possibility that this person is an embodiment of God’s presence for me today.

I’m looking at a person and seeing Christ-like qualities.
· “Wow, that mean old church person really sacrificed something important to so that this could be possible.” OR
· “Every time that person speaks to me, something stirs inside of me and awakens me to the movement of God in my life.” OR
· “I didn’t know that person has such a gentle, giving spirit. I never took the time to find that out.” OR
· “That teen-ager has such an inspiring faith.” OR
· “That child has such spirit-filled, simple wisdom.”

When we reach out and serve one another, we serve Christ. And the environment changes. We receive God’s reward. There will be a gentle, human quality about us which will be hard to describe, but easy to notice. Visitors will find themselves deeply moved by the genuine caring and sharing that goes on among us. We will be nourished by our prayer life together, and our need to explore Scripture together as we are sustained by the presence of God. It all begins with a simple but unnatural act of welcome. Remember, the Messiah is among us. In the name of God the Father who forms us, Christ who calls us, and the Spirit who opens our eyes, ears and hearts.

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