By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 12:13-21
Sometimes after church on Sunday, I go home, grab lunch and plunk down in front of the TV. I’m not a sports fan and I don’t want to get held captive by a plot that is going to glue me to my recliner for the next two hours, so I flip on CNN. As is the current nature of our world, most of the news is focused on wars, terror, erratic governments, and natural disasters; a parade of refugees and victims of our world’s suffering. Yet, in between those sad stories, I am peppered – might I even say, accosted – with commercials about investing my money so as to “secure” my future. In a matter of just a couple seconds I am transitioned from the face of a child, alone, dirty, hungry, and frightened to a well-dressed, distinguished-looking investment representative reminding me of the importance of planning for a secure, “risk-free” retirement. We are advised; we can never have too much squirreled away – just ask the little Voya squirrel – as the investment professionals proclaim their version of the gospel that the more we stash away, the more we have insured ourselves against that which threatens to do us harm. While a young child stands impotent at a border, hungry and desperate, I am urged to secure my future by investing wisely so I can live in ease in my retirement. It is a distorted, yet all too common, version of the American dream… and it sounds remarkably like the character in this morning’s parable from the gospel of Luke.
This morning we continue our fall sermon series: Building, Growing, Connecting: Living God’s Vision for Trinity. This morning, like last Sunday, we focus on growth and the generosity that is needed for growth to occur. Growth requires the generous giving of our resources: time, money and talents. The opposite of generosity is greed and Jesus cautions us: “Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life is not composed of the abundance of one’s possessions.”
The parable Jesus tells comes as response to a man who is attempting to drag Jesus into a family squabble, an inheritance dispute. Rare is the family untouched by such squabbles. And the circumstances behind the man’s request illuminate the danger that results from such an unhealthy obsession with stuff. Greed jeopardizes our relationships. Greed jeopardizes our relationships and it jeopardizes our eternal soul. This man is at odds with his brother. What should have been a loyal and intimate relationship is now strained; clearly damaged by greed.
But the parable reveals that our attachment to wealth, our desire for abundance, threatens to destroy a wider, more-encompassing social fabric. Allow me to explain…
Two important factors in interpreting this parable require a better understanding of ancient Palestinian culture: 1) patron/benefaction and 2) the concept of limited good.
First, patron benefaction: In Jesus’ culture, there were no governmental services; so-called “entitlement programs.” The poor were cared for through patron/benefaction. Those who were wealthy were expected to provide for the poor. There were only a very few rich; most of the population were peasants. So, they relied on the generosity of the wealthy. Those who had wealth and did not share it were considered dishonorable, shameful. The respect that a wealthy patron received was based on their degree of benefaction or generosity. Now today, generous giving to charities can provide the giver with a nice tax write off. But in Jesus’ time giving to the needy provided the giver with honor… a social currency of far greater value than a tax write off. Such wealthy patrons were held in high esteem within their community because of their generosity; because the lives of the poor in their community were, quite literally, at their mercy.
So, at the start of Jesus’ parable, a Palestinian peasant in the audience might assume that this man whose lands have produced so abundantly will behave in an honorable way and many of his community’s more vulnerable citizens will be blessed by his windfall. Surely this man will be generous with his “ample goods” so that the poor and needy in his community can be blessed by his abundance. His unwillingness to share, his selfish hoarding, makes him a disgraceful social anomaly.
In addition, ancient Palestinian culture believed in limited good; that is, they viewed all resources as inherently limited. In America today, it’s hard for us to think of things in this way. We rail against limits. When something runs out, we go to the store and get more. But, in Jesus’ time, everyone understood limits. Resources were limited; they just were. And, if this landowner had excess, his greed meant that someone else didn’t have enough. If he was hoarding, someone was doing without. Even the land was subject to this kind of thinking. The people assumed that, if land produced a larger than average harvest one year, that would eventually be balanced out by a smaller harvest. Remember the story of Joseph in Egypt? It provides a perfect illustration. The Pharaoh has a dream and Joseph interprets it. The dream’s meaning is that there will be 7 years of bountiful harvest followed by 7 years of bad harvest. And so the Pharaoh, as benefactor for his kingdom, does what is expected of him. He puts Joseph in charge and the surplus is stored up in a responsible fashion, so that – when famine arrives – his people can go to Pharaoh to get food. Joseph and the Pharaoh act in an honorable way, a way that is fitting one who has been blessed with abundance.
But not so for the wealthy land owner of Jesus’ parable; he does not share his abundance, he selfishly and foolishly hoards it thereby jeopardizing the well-being of others and the stability of his community.
This man is an island unto himself; who thinks only of himself. I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases the last verse of this story in The Message. Peterson writes: “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”[i] Perhaps he has succumbed to the fear so prevalent in our 21st century culture: the fear of outliving one’s money. What could be a worse fate? Well, the good news is, this land owner won’t outlive his money. And the bad news is this land owner won’t outlive his money. That very night, he will die and what will happen to all that excess stuff? Well, exactly what should have happened to it in the first place: it will be passed on to those who need it because “you can’t take it with you.”
Friends, the vast majority of us are – by global standards – wealthy. If we have a reliable roof over our heads and a bed to sleep in and more than one change of clothing, if we own even an old economy car, we surpass many of the world’s citizens. And yet, we are tempted on a daily basis to buy into our culture’s message that squirreling away our assets can somehow insure, can guarantee, our well-being; that it can insulate us from disaster. Now, don’t misunderstand me, even Jesus in other parables encourages financial shrewdness. If everyone went out and gave away everything they had, it wouldn’t amount to a very logical solution. But, I’m not worried about that possibility because most of us will never consider that option. But what we should consider is this: do we have more than what we need? Are we holding on to abundance; storing up, warehousing, excess? Or, can we let go of that stuff so that our lives and the resources God has blessed us with can bring blessing into the lives of others? Fear and greed are like ugly monsters that must be continually fed. They will never get enough to be satisfied. When we hoard abundance, it reveals a lack of trust in God. When we hold on to more than we need, we are placing our faith in stuff, not God. Greed is idolatry as we succumb to the lie that something other than God can secure us and provide for our future. When we hoard abundance we jeopardize our own souls; and we jeopardize the well-being of others who need those resources we are squirreling away; and we jeopardize our relationships… and it is those relationships – with God and with others – that actually do secure our well-being in this life and the life to come.
Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story entitled “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” about a Russian peasant named Pahom.[ii] Early in the story the devil overhears Pahom remark that, if only he had sufficient land, he would not even fear the devil. That’s “game on” for the devil who decides to put Pahom to the test. He is a tenant farmer and when the old woman who owns the commune’s land decides to sell, the peasants want to buy it for themselves. Initially attempting to buy it jointly, they cannot come to an agreement, so the land gets divided up into small individual parcels. Initially, Pahom delights in this land that is his. But neighbors sometimes tromp through his pastures or let their cows stray and graze in his meadow. He takes some to court… which makes life in the village anything but pleasant. A traveler tells him of a commune in a more remote area. Land parcels are so much larger for there is abundance space. Pahom travels to check it out and discovers it is true. So he sells all that he has, uproots his family and settles in this distant region. But there, as well, he soon determines that the space is insufficient; he just doesn’t have the room he needs. Eventually, another traveler engages with Pahom and tells him of an even more distant land inhabited by a primitive and simple-minded indigenous tribal people. Their land is virgin soil and they will sell it at a ridiculously cheap price. One can offer these tribal people, the Bashkirs, gifts like tea and wine and blankets in return for which one can gain the title to as much land as can be walked from sunup to sundown. It is hundreds of miles away but Pahom is giddy with the thought of it. He sets out on the trip, leaving his wife to mind the homestead and land. When he arrives, he finds it all as the traveler had said.
So early the next morning, the tribal chiefs gather at a location Pahom selects to stake the ground. Pahom is to walk throughout the day, digging a small hole to stake each corner of his new property. He must return to his point of origin, marked by a cap laid on the ground, before the sun sets or he will gain nothing. He must walk the full circuit from sunup to sundown. Pahom walks quickly and covers a vast area before he makes his first turn and so it continues throughout the day. But he becomes anxious when the sun begins to drop and he recognizes that the tribesmen are miles away. He fears he has become too ambitious. So he walks more quickly and then begins to run, fearful the sun will drop and he will have nothing to show for his efforts. He is out of breath and feeling ill but still he runs and runs, desperate to reach his point of origin. He sees the chief and other tribal leaders laughing. He races toward them, heart pounding. And at this point, I quote Tolstoy:
[Pahom] uttered a cry: his legs gave way beneath him,
he fell forward and reached the cap with his hands.
“Ah, that’s a fine fellow,” exclaimed the chief. “He has gained much land.”
Pahom’s servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw
that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead!
The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity.
Pahom’s servant picked up the spade and dug a grave
long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it.
Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”[iii]
[i] The Message by Eugene Peterson; NavPress; 2002; p. 1883.
[ii] Taken from Walk in the Light and Twenty-Three Tales by Leo Tolstoy; Plough Publishing House; 1998.
[iii] Ibid, p. 282.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 6:1-13
This morning at Trinity we continue with our Stewardship series entitled: Building, Growing, Connecting: Living God’s Vision for Trinity. This morning we begin to look at what is necessary for growth. I can only assume that all of us want Trinity to be a growing faith community: growing numerically, growing spiritually (bearing spiritual fruit), growing in our outreach to our community. Growth, for any living organism – including the Church, is normal and healthy. But, growing requires resources. When I was a child, we had dogs; but they were small, generally under 30 pounds. A few years after Britt and I got married, we adopted a puppy. We got her from the pound and she’d been found on the streets. She was scrawny. As best we could tell she was a shepherd, setter, Collie mix and her paws were enormous. The first six months we had her, we could not believe how much food Charis required. Eventually, she would grow to be about 78 pounds. When she lay on the floor and stretched out, end to end, she was longer than I am tall. That girl could eat! Charis required enormous resources to fuel fer growth. Some of you have had this experience with children; particularly, a teenage son in the throes of a growth spurt. Mom or dad has barely finished loading the dinner dishes into the dishwasher and wiping down the counters. They turn to leave the kitchen and their teenage son is in the doorway: “I’m hungry. What do we have to eat?” And you think, “You just ate. How can you possibly be hungry?” It takes enormous resources to keep a teenage boy healthy and strong. In any situation, growth requires resources.
This morning’s gospel story is about how life can be sustained, fueled, when we are willing to offer up our resources to Jesus… even if it seems we have little to offer and the need exceeds what we have to give.
But before I unpack the bible story, it might be worthwhile to ask the question: “Why is it important to give our resources to the Church anyway? After all, there are a lot of good and helpful organizations in the world. What’s so special about the Church?”
Well, the Church is the organization entrusted with continuing Jesus’ work, Jesus’ mission. In the gospel of John, Jesus explains his mission, the reason for his coming: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[i] There is insufficient time this morning for me to point out all of the places in John’s gospel that relate to this message of life and the description of the nature or character of this life. But in a nutshell I can say this: the life Jesus came to give has to do with intimate relationship, a connection, with God through Jesus that completely changes the way we live; the way we do life. And it changes not only how we live, but what we give. It replaces fear with courage. It replaces sorrow with joy. It replaces death with eternal life. It replaces anxiety with peace. It is a life that is characterized by abundance, not scarcity. Think for a moment of all the dreadful things happening in our world today: wars, famine, broken relationships, political bickering, addiction, abuse, poverty. I believe we can trace the origin of most of those things back to the way in which those that hold the majority of resources view life and how their view impacts the way they manage (or steward) their resources. One nation fears another nation will take something from it; get the better of them. This concept of scarce resources is the theology behind sanctions, right? Take resources away from people in order to force good or compliant behavior.
When food is in limited supply, the powerful hoard and control it resulting in – or at least contributing to – famines.
People refuse to offer forgiveness to someone who has wronged them out of fear that, in that gesture of grace and vulnerability, something more will be stripped away from them.
I think sin can be boiled down to this: Choosing to live in a way that reflects a lack of trust in God’s willingness and ability to provide for us and to be generous with us, especially in times of need. We fear immigrants because we think they will steal our jobs. We fear opposing political parties because we think they will rob us of our values.
But John’s gospel proclaims a different experience of life. Jesus came as an expression of God’s grace: grace upon grace, grace stacked on top of grace, as John’s prologue tells us.[ii] This is not a story of scarce life, but abundant life. Jesus demonstrates the heavenly Father’s love by offering up even his own life which results, ultimately, in his resurrection and ours. The way to experience life in abundance is not to fearfully guard what we have but to generously give up what is in our grasp – to release it – so that we and others might experience abundance of life. That is the message of resurrection. So Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[iii]
So, what about this morning’s story? The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle told in all four gospels. We often forget that Jesus lived in a culture where food security was a significant problem. A very small number of people controlled most of the land. Roman taxation was a brutal burden. Most of the population was peasants. So it is easy to understand why preserving the story of this miracle was of such critical importance to the early Church. But John’s account of this story has some unique and significant details. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the disciples report to Jesus that all that they have to work with are five loaves of bread and two fish. But, we don’t know where that food comes from. John, however, tells us that all of it, 5 loaves of barley bread and 2 fish, all come from a child. So we learn that one person, a boy, will need to surrender everything he has – while others contribute nothing – in order for this miraculous feeding to take place.
Now, keep in mind: children had little worth in the ancient world. They were not adored as we adore children in our culture today. They were seen as bundles of chaos that needed to be beaten into submission. They were a blessing only in that they had the potential to grow up to be productive adults. Also, this boy’s bread is made of barley flour. Barley, in ancient Palestine, was the grain of the poor. So, Jesus’ partner in this miraculous work is not someone wealthy, important or powerful. It is someone who is socially insignificant and someone who has few resources of their own. But, what little this boy has, he surrenders. And that, my friends, was an enormous risk. Most of us would have been tempted to hide one loaf under our tunic just in case things didn’t work out. But, this boy hands over all that he has; and his willingness to risk it all results in a miracle of abundance.
And there is one more thing unique to John’s telling of this story. In John, it is Jesus, not the disciples, who distributes the bread and fish. People of God: whatever we have in our lives, we have received from the hand of God. We might think it comes from our employer, the government or a generous relative, but in truth “every good and perfect gift is from above.” Jesus is our provider and he is an abundant, lavish, provider at that. Jesus doesn’t multiply this food so that there will be just enough. Jesus gives so abundantly that there are twelve baskets full of leftovers.
And that, my friends, is in keeping with the message of John’s gospel. In John’s gospel, the very first sign or miracle Jesus performs takes place at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.[iv] When the wine runs out at the reception, Jesus turns water into the very finest wine. When the steward taste tests the wine, he is amazed. The general practice was to serve the best wine first and then serve the cheaper wine… after the guests had already had too much and weren’t so discriminating anymore. Jesus could have gotten by with turning that water into something economical – 2 buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s. But instead, he turned it into something you’d find aged and auctioned off for thousands of dollars from a French wine cellar. When Jesus gives, he gives abundantly and lavishly.
The last miracle Jesus performs in John’s gospel is also a miracle of abundance.[v] It is after his resurrection, but before his ascension. His disciples are out fishing all night, but they haven’t caught a thing. By morning they must have been pretty frustrated and hungry. Jesus appears on the shoreline, but they don’t recognize him. He calls out to them and tells them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. When they do, they catch so many fish they can’t even hoist the net into the boat. They have to drag it along behind them. Now scripture tells us there were seven disciples in that boat. So, they certainly didn’t need that much fish. But it is in the nature of our Lord to provide for our needs in an abundant, even excessive, fashion. Our God is not a stingy God. Our God is generous beyond our wildest imaginings if we can only learn to trust him.
Friends, our God is a generous giver: “God so loved the world that he gave…” And when we are willing to give and share generously of our resources, God uses those resources to sustain and to nurture life; God uses those resources to make things grow. The resources God has entrusted to us as stewards hold the potential to bring life to the world if – if we are willing to trust Jesus enough to offer them up in bold and risky ways like that boy gave up his fish and bread.
And it’s not just physical stuff that we’re called to share. Resources are more than physical objects and money. Each and every one of us has valuable resources in the form of our experiences, our time (an increasingly precious commodity), our skills, our knowledge, even our passions. Even painful and difficult experiences you have had in your life can be transformed into a meaningful, life-giving resource to benefit others. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting God inflicts tragedies on us so we can learn something. I’m not saying that. We live in a sinful, broken world. Sometimes bad things happen and, when they do, we have a choice. We can choose to become bitter; angry at God and the world. Or, we can seek to learn and grow through our experience. We can offer that experience back to God so that it can be redeemed and used to help someone else. Catholic Father Richard Rohr, like the apostle Paul,[vi] reminds us that nothing that we experience is wasted by God.
Friends; Trinity has the resources we need to do the ministry Jesus has called us to do. The money, the talents, the knowledge and experiences, the passions and skills needed to do what Jesus asks of us is already here. But the ministry can only happen if we, like that boy with his bread and fish, can find the courage and take the risk of offering what we have to Jesus. Initially, Jesus’ disciples could only see scarcity. They were in the presence of the embodiment of God’s grace and life-giving abundance; they just didn’t see it. They’d taken inventory and named their resources as inadequate. But, in the hands of Jesus, the inadequate becomes miraculously abundant.
Friends; at the end of October, you will be asked to bring forward your commitment card, your estimate of your 2018 financial giving to the church. But I hope that over the next few weeks you will be praying and reflecting not only over what you can contribute to the church’s ministry financially; but about the wealth of your talents, your skills, your life’s experiences; giving of your time and sharing your passions…. All those things are the resources Jesus has already given us. And all those things – placed in the hands of Jesus – can feed a hungry world; bring growth and life; and fulfill our God-given vision of growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.
[i] John 10:10.
[ii] John 1:16
[iii] John 12:24
[iv] See John 2:1-11.
[v] See John 21:1-14.
[vi] See Romans 8:28.
Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15
part of the series “Building, Growing, Connecting: Living God’s Vision for Trinity”
I come from a large extended family. We had multiple clergy and church leaders among us. Growing up, at family gatherings – for holidays and reunions – as the food was placed out on the tables or counters, the question was invariably asked: “Who’s going to say the blessing?” It was often my dad, a Methodist pastor, or my uncle, also a Methodist pastor; although sometimes my uncle, a Methodist church musician. Blessing the food and giving thanks to God for our family and fellowship was the one moment in those boisterous gatherings when everyone grew momentarily quiet and attention turned toward the unseen guest in our midst; the one who had blessed us with life together and woven us together into this one family.
“Blessing” is a religious word that has long been at home in the mainstream culture. Sometimes people conclude their voicemail greeting with the words “Have a blessed day.” Though initially stemming from superstition, few of us give much thought to extending a “God bless you” to someone when they sneeze. But what does it mean to be blessed? Where does blessing come from and what does it look like?
Blessings are pronouncements that solicit, distribute, or celebrate various forms of well-being such as fertility, good health, safety and happiness.[i] Though blessings come to us through a variety of channels, their source or origin always traces back to God, the giver of every good and perfect gift. From the beginning of scripture, God goes about the work of blessing. In Genesis, chapter 1, there’s lots of blessing going on. God blesses the animals, he blesses the man and woman, and he blesses the Sabbath day. God is in the business of blessing. So this morning’s scripture is a story about blessing.
Genesis chapter 12 marks a turn in our biblical drama; our attention is directed toward a central character, an old man named Abram[ii] (soon to be renamed Abraham) and his elderly barren wife, Sarai. Over the course of six chapters, at least three times God will pronounce blessing in the form of a promised child – an heir – upon this old, infertile couple.
But this morning’s story is also about hospitality and how the practice of hospitality can open us to God’s blessing. One decade ago United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase wrote a book called Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. The first practice Schnase named was Radical Hospitality and this morning’s story certainly gives witness to radical hospitality.
Though we may not relegate it to the religious semantic realm, hospitality – like blessing – is a spiritual concept. Our bible is filled with stories about hospitality. Within our biblical tradition, there is a clear and consistent message that, when we welcome a stranger as a friend and offer them our very best, they, in turn, impart a blessing to us. In scripture, the word itself means “lover of strangers.” The practice of hospitality differed from entertaining friends or family. Hospitality was graciousness shown toward strangers in the hope of transforming them from stranger to friend. Bible stories show us that hospitality is a spiritual practice because God is present in a real, although somewhat mysterious way, when we attend to the needs of strangers. Let me repeat that: God is present in a real, although somewhat mysterious way, through the strangers among us. In the book of Hebrews we’re told: “Do not neglect to show hospitality (to strangers), for by doing that some have entertained angels (or messengers) without knowing it.” In other words, we may find ourselves blessed by God through the strangers who visit us.
But whether or not we receive the blessing they bring us depends on whether or not we receive them in a gracious and open way.
As I’ve already mentioned, Genesis 18 marks the third time that Abraham receives the promise that he and Sarah, old and barren though they are, will conceive a child and that through that child Abraham will become a father to a nation and a blessing to all the people of the earth. And this is a story set in a context of table fellowship and hospitality toward strangers; hospitality so extensive that it seems to demonstrate a passionate love toward these three visitors who turn out to be more than mere mortals.
One of the most interesting things about this morning’s bible story is the ambiguity that surrounds the identity of these guests. Our narrator introduces the story by announcing that it is a story of “the Lord” appearing to Abraham. Yet, when Abraham looks up, what he sees are three men. They appear to be travelers; strangers on a journey. Then, suddenly, in verse 13, they take on the identity of “the Lord” yet again. Even so, as soon as the story wraps up, at verse 16, our narrator explains, “Then the men set out from there.” It is confusing to say the least. Are these men, God incarnate, angels? In the 15th century, Russian artist Andrei Rublev painted an icon of this scene of Abraham and Sarah and the three visitors that is sometimes known as the Holy Trinity.[iii] It’s been printed in your program. Now, I think defining these three travelers as Father, Son and Holy Spirit goes beyond what the story itself presents; it’s a narrative stretch. Yet without a doubt, the identity of these three guests is ambiguous and ever-shifting. And that is, I would contend, the most important point. That the eternal Word of God became flesh in the historical Jesus is essential to our Christian faith. Yet we should not assume that the incarnating presence of God began and ended in the first century. As this morning’s story makes clear – as Jesus’ final parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew’s gospel makes clear – God is routinely in the business of coming among us as one of us and distinguishing God from the stranger in our midst is messy and ambiguous and perhaps a rather wasted effort. So it may serve us well to admit that God somehow, in a way beyond our comprehension, incarnates as the stranger in our midst… a stranger who elicits our radical hospitality, yet also bestows God’s remarkable blessing.
But it is, nevertheless, a surprise to us. It was a surprise to Sarah too. The radical blessing these travelers pronounce is so ridiculous she can’t help but chuckle to herself. Having a child at her ripe old age? But she’s not alone. In fact, just one chapter prior in Genesis[iv] Abraham had also laughed. Both Abe and Sarah struggle to accept that something so big, so miraculous, so illogical and wonderful could happen to them. I mean, no offense, God, but this whole idea is a little over the top, right?
You know, we get visitors to Trinity pretty frequently and I think, generally speaking, we do a pretty good job of welcoming them. We’re pretty friendly. We say “good morning,” we thank them for joining us, we tell them we hope they’ll come back. But that’s really not expecting much, is it? I wonder if some of them might be Jesus in our midst. I wonder if some of them might be sent to us by God. I wonder if some might come to bring us God’s blessing. And, if they do, will we receive it? I mean, sure, we’ll be thankful if they come back to worship with us again; or maybe they’ll start to worship with us regularly; or, if we’re really lucky, maybe they’ll even join our membership rolls. But, I wonder. Maybe it could be something even bigger. Maybe God is appearing through them to announce that something brand new and unexpected is about to be born here: a new idea, a new ministry, a new life coming to fruition; something so big that – like the progeny of Abraham and Sarah – it will be more than we can even count or tally. Does that sound silly? Does it make you chuckle?
This summer we had three Garden and Grills on our lawn. We designed them as opportunities for us not only to serve, but to break bread and fellowship, with our neighbors. If you attend today’s luncheon after worship, you’ll see on the program that the combined attendance for those three events was 260 and each time it was nearly a 50/50 split of church folks and community folks. I wonder if some of those folks might have been messengers from God sent to bring us God’s blessing. If you’re here in worship this morning and you attended a Garden and Grill and you had the privilege of striking up a conversation with someone from our community as you sat together at the table, would you stand for just a moment right now? I want to say, “thank you” for the hospitality you extended to the strangers in our midst.
Christianity is all about relationships: our relationship with God through Christ and our relationships with others… and, as this morning’s story reveals, sometimes those two are linked in mysterious and astonishing ways. Sometimes God comes as a stranger among us to bring a blessing. But who will we see? Will we simply see a newcomer and a guest? Will we simply see a prospective new member? Or, will we see that – in this one who appears among us – God may well be making his presence and his blessing known? We can never begin to imagine the ways in which the simple show of hospitality prepares the soil for the sowing of God’s blessings. How do we view one another? How do we view the strangers in our midst? How do we view the numerous and nameless people whose paths we cross day in and day out?
Once a great monastery had only five monks left. In the surrounding deep woods, there was a little hut that a Rabbi from a nearby town used from time to time for spiritual retreat. The monks always knew the Rabbi was there when they saw the smoke from his fire rise above the tree tops. As the Abbot agonized over the decline of his monastery, it occurred to him to ask the Rabbi if he could offer any wisdom or advice.
The Rabbi welcomed the Abbot into his hut. When the Abbot explained the reason for his visit, the Rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the Abbot and the Rabbi sat together discussing the Bible and their faiths. The time came when the Abbot had to leave. “It has been a wonderful visit,” said the Abbot, “but I have failed in my purpose. Is there nothing you can tell me to help save my dying monastery?” “The only thing I can tell you,” said the Rabbi, “is that the Messiah is among you.”
When the Abbot returned to the monastery, his fellow monks gathered around him and asked, “What did the Rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the Abbot answered. “The only thing he did say, as I was leaving was that the
Messiah is among us. Though I do not know what that means.”
In the months that followed, the monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the Rabbi’s words: The Messiah among us? Could he possibly have meant that the Messiah is one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one of us is the Messiah? Do you suppose he meant the Abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant the Abbot. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, Elred is virtually always right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. 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?”
As they turned the idea over in their minds, the monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, eager to honor and serve one another on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah.
Now, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the beautiful forest and monastery and without even being conscious of it, visitors began to sense a change at the monastery. They were sensing the extraordinary respect and hospitality that now filled the monastery. Hardly knowing why, people began to come there frequently to picnic, to play, and to pray. They began to bring their friends, 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 older monks. After a while, drawn by their hospitality and kindness, one asked if he could join them. Then, another and another asked if they too could join the abbot and older monks. Within a few years, the monastery once again became a thriving place, a vibrant center of light and life.[v]
How do we view one another? How do we view the strangers in our midst? How do we view the numerous and nameless people whose paths we cross day in and day out? It may serve us well to admit that God somehow, in a way beyond our comprehension, incarnates as the stranger in our midst… the holy “other” who elicits our radical hospitality, yet also bears God’s remarkable blessing.
[i] See The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible; vol. 1; 2006; Abingdon Press; p. 477.
[ii] See Genesis 17:5 for the story of Abram’s name change.
[iii] For more background on this icon, see Hospitality: The Heart of Spiritual Direction by Leslie A. Hay; Morehouse Publishing; 2006; pp. 37-42.
[iv] See Genesis 17:17.
[v] Story found on the website https://www.cityyear.org/rabbis-gift Adapted from the Different Drum: Community Making and Peace by M. Scott Peck
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