Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What Happened When The Messiah Came?

It’s October, and in many of the churches I know that means it’s time for the annual stewardship campaign.  Church finance boards huddle to assess their present financial circumstances.  Someone, often the pastor, may mention that discussing stewardship ought to be a low-key year round project, designed to help members understand giving as a normal part of their spiritual lives.

That suggestion is often brushed aside as “impractical,” and the committee gets down to the “realistic” task of presenting a picture to the congregation that makes the future of the church seem as uncertain and endangered as possible, hoping that by hosing the congregation with the cold water of fear the members will step up and fund the coming year.  Others will suggest that if only the church could “recruit” new members, everyone else could relax because they would fill in the anticipated budget shortfall.

This rarely if ever produces the desired results.  More likely the cold water of “reality” spawns guilt amongst members who are already giving all that they can, and antagonizes those who are not.  Folks become cranky, and the next couple of months grow tense, as everyone braces to see what kinds of budget cuts the finance board will present at the congregation‘s annual meeting in January.  Not surprisingly, this puts a crimp in the new member “recruitment drive” as well.

It’s at such times that I like to share an old story.  It’s not a story about how to raise the budget, or “bring in” hordes of new members.  Rather, it’s a story about who we are as gathered communities of faith, what makes us flourish and what just might make us the sorts of places to which visitors and strangers would be drawn.

The story is set once upon a time in a kingdom far away.  In that kingdom, and at that time there was a monastery.  It was a good monastery, with faithful, dedicated monks and an Abbot who was both kind and wise.  The monastery had once been a center of learning, and made fine wine that was coveted even beyond the borders of the kingdom.  Travelers liked to stop there, and a surprising number inquired about entering the order.

Over the years, however, the monks came to take what they had for granted.  They lived their common life of worship, study and labor with dignity.  They were kind to the stranger at the gate.  However, over time they stopped going out of their way to strive for excellence.  They generally kept their order's rules for worship, though a busy day in the vineyard, or a lively chat with a visitor could take precedence over chapel.  They pursued study, but often found themselves catching naps in the library stacks.  They continued to produce fine wine, but some found other things to do when it was time for heavy lifting.

Resentment grew.  Hard workers saw themselves carrying too much of the load.  Others saw the hard workers as power-driven, trying to run the whole show.  They made private assessments of one another’s commitments, and some compared notes with others.  In time they lapsed in the small courtesies that make life in community bearable.  Occasions of rudeness grew more frequent.  There were few actual outbursts of conflict, but tension was palpable, the times between visitors grew longer and fewer and fewer visitors asked about entering their order.

At length the Abbot determined that they needed an uninvolved neutral observer to help them understand what was wrong, and so he invited a wise old rabbi from a nearby town to come and stay for a week.  The rabbi came, and spent the week observing the monks, having conversations, sharing labor and meals.  At the end of the week he called the whole community together to report what he learned.  They should rejoice, he said.  The Messiah was living at the monastery, and they just didn't realize it.  With that, the rabbi left.

At first the monks didn't know what to think.  Was the old man just showing his age?  But some of the monks wondered.  Was it Brother Augustine?  What about Brother Paul?  The Abbott?  What about that quiet Brother Joseph?  One by one, individuals began to treat this or that brother in the way they thought Jesus would want to be treated. 

Gradually, without anyone even noticing what was happening, they treated more and more of their number in this way, until over a period of several months each monk treated every other monk as if he were the Messiah.  The small courtesies returned to the monastery; the labor grew easier as they bore one another’s burdens, and in time their worship took on a vibrancy and glow it had never had before.  After months of the new atmosphere, the Abbott's logbook showed that more visitors were coming, they were staying longer, and some were once more asking to become members of the community.  All because they decided that just maybe the Messiah really was among them.

It’s just an old story, but is there a lesson here for us?  Jesus told us that as we behave toward one another, so we are behaving toward him.  He also said that when two or three of us are gathered in his name, there he is in our midst.  Does our behavior toward one another take that seriously?  How about our relating to the visitors and strangers who drop in?  The old rabbi was right - the Messiah is indeed living with us, wherever we might be.  Look around, and see what changes that awareness might make.  Some of the changes might even be seen in our budgets or on our membership rolls.

Howard MacMullen
© October, 2012

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