The Messiah Is Among You

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 27th 2013.)

There was once a monastery that had fallen on hard times.  As the years passed there were fewer and fewer novices and some of the younger monks began leaving in dissatisfaction.  Few people from the surrounding villages would even visit any more.  Eventually only a handful of elderly monks remained and they argued amongst themselves, each blaming the monastery’s decline on the faults and failings of the others.  Their leader, the abbot, didn’t know what to do.

Now an old friend of the abbot’s was a rabbi who had recently retired to live in a small cottage near the monastery.  After years of only seeing one another when the abbot had cause to travel into town, they were able to renew their friendship with more regular visits.  The rabbi and the abbot would sit together, drinking tea and remembering the good old days back when they were both students.

On one of his visits to see the rabbi, the abbot brought up the problems at the monastery.  This was not the first time the rabbi had heard about the situation that so troubled his friend, but this time the abbot specifically asked for advice, particularly something that he could share with the other monks that might encourage them and perhaps even stop them from fighting with each other.

Hearing the abbot’s question, the rabbi was quiet for some time, sipping his tea as he thought.  As the silence stretched on, the abbot couldn’t contain himself.  “Don’t you have some advice that might save my monastery?” he begged his friend.

“Your monks will not listen to my advice,” the rabbi replied, somewhat sadly, “but perhaps they would benefit from an observation.”

“Yes?” said the abbot hopefully.  “Have you noticed something about the monastery that we ourselves have not?”

“I think so,” answered the rabbi, “and it is this: the Messiah is among you.”

That abbot was initially lost for words.  It seemed an outrageous claim, but he trusted his friend, so when he regained his composure he asked, as respectfully as he could, “The Messiah is among us?  But who is it?”

“As to that,” the rabbi replied, “I cannot say.  But I know that it is true beyond all doubt.  The Messiah is among you.  Share this with your monks and in time the truth will be revealed.”

Well, the abbot couldn’t wait to get back to the monastery.  Taking one last gulp of tea, he thanked his friend profusely, jumped up out of his chair, grabbed his coat and, without even taking the time to put it on, ran out of the cottage and across the meadow.  Arriving breathlessly back at the monastery, he managed to convey to the first monk he saw that he wanted everyone to meet in the chapel.  By the time they arrived, he had recovered enough to address them.

“My brothers,” the abbot said, “I have incredible news.  I have just been told, without any room for doubt or question, the following.  The Messiah is among you.”

The monks immediately started talking.  “One of us?  Here?  But who?  How can that be?”  Raising his hands to quiet them, the abbot explained what the rabbi had told him, and then instructed them to be about their work while they reflected on the amazing news.  And as the monks did their chores, each wondered to himself.

“It couldn’t be Brother Samuel, could it?  He always forgets when it’s his turn to do the washing up after meals.  But then, he brings such lovely flowers to decorate the tables.”

“Surely it’s not Brother Albert!  He’s always muttering to himself, and when he’s not muttering it’s because he’s being rude.  But then, he’s always the first there to look after us if we get sick.”

“What about Brother Leo?  He’s always dirty, and he smells bad, too.  But then, that’s because he works so hard in the field, growing the most delicious vegetables.”

“And I can’t believe it’s Brother Thomas!  He always spills ink all over the desk where we write out the scriptures.  But then, his drawings and decorations of the scripts are so vivid and beautiful.”

The monks continued to try to figure out who amongst them might be the Messiah, but none of them came to any conclusions.  Still, they realized that they could sometimes see the Messiah in one another’s faces; they could sometimes hear the Messiah in one another’s voices.  And they began to treat one another more kindly and more fairly, just in case.

And as time passed, the villagers noticed that something was different about the monastery, and they began visiting more often.  And more of the young men who came to inquire about training as novices decided to stay.  And the elderly monks and their abbot found themselves at peace, content to enjoy their golden years doing what they loved while all about them the monastery thrived.

[This is one variant of the same story found in many places, including Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World by Elisa Davy Pearmain.  Some story-tellers give credit for the original story to Francis Dorff, O. Praem, of the Norbertine Community of Alberquerque NM.]

I first heard this story a few years ago and it stuck with me.  It speaks to what we all want in a healthy community, I think, which is people treating one another kindly and fairly in spite of their faults and failings, the kind of spiritual health that is not only good for the community itself but is also a beacon of hope to the wider world.  The story does use one idea that is specific to Christianity and Judaism, though it can always be re-told in different cultural settings.

That idea of the Messiah comes from the Hebrew word “mashiach”, which literally means “anointed one”.  It refers to a king or a high priest traditionally annointed with holy oil, and in the Hebrew Bible is used to refer to a number of people, including the non-Jewish king, Cyrus of Persia, who released the Jews from their exile in Babylon and commissioned the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.  More often, though, the Messiah refers to a future Jewish king, of the line of David, who will rule the reunited tribes of Israel and usher in an age of world peace.  As such, there are many passages in the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Isaiah, that describe the qualities and actions of such a leader.

Now somewhere in the third century Before the Common Era, scholars in Alexandria began the process of translating the Torah into Greek, since, as legend has it, the Jews living in Egypt at the time were not fluent in Hebrew, whereas Greek was spoken throughout the eastern Roman Empire.  By the time of Jesus, that Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which became known as the Septuagint, was already in wide use by Jews all around the Mediterranean, including those living in Palestine, which is unfortunate because the Septuagint has a number of mis-translations.  One of those, for example, is the sentence in Isaiah that, in the Greek, refers to a messiah being born of a virgin, whereas in the Hebrew the word translated “virgin” doesn’t mean virgin at all but rather means a young woman of child-bearing age.

In any case, the Hebrew word “mashiach” was translated into Greek as “khristos”, which also means “anointed one”.  So when a new religion started to emerge around the idea of Jesus as the anointed savior, he was given the honorific “Christ” and his followers called themselves “Christians”.  And yet, since Jesus hadn’t fulfilled many of the expectations of the Messiah, those early Christians assumed that he would soon return to complete all of the prophecies.

In other words, while the rabbi and the abbot in the story could both come together over the idea of the Messiah being hidden in their midst, the difference was that for the abbot it would be the Messiah’s second coming whereas for the rabbi it would only be his first.  Either way, as the story goes, the possibility that any one of the monks might be the Messiah causes them all to pause before judging one another, to focus more on the good aspects of each other’s character and behavior, something that would be nice, of course, if we could all do it all of the time.

Now in Unitarian Universalism there is no Messiah concept as there is in Judaism or Christianity.  I don’t know when it dropped out of our common theology, though I’m guessing that the Universalist side of our religious tradition held onto it longer, given that the Unitarian side emerged from Christianity around the primary faith claim that Jesus was, in fact, fully human, rather than God incarnated in human form.

Perhaps, though, we don’t need to believe in a Messiah as such to arrive at the place where we can treat one another kindly and fairly in spite of our faults and failings.  There are, after all, other faith claims — or, at least, other religious metaphors — that might work just as well.

For instance, one of the things I remember a former minister of mine talking about was the idea that there’s a spark of the divine within each of us.  Actually I remember hearing that idea from a local rabbi, too.  It’s a more Universalist idea than it is Unitarian, another version of the claim that we are all children of God, and the beauty of that, for me, is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a literal faith claim or a religious metaphor.  What does matter is how we treat one another, and if we can see something of good, of value, of worth, even of divinity in one another, then maybe we’ll treat one another accordingly.

Actually, the same faith claim is already familiar to us, just in more humanist language.  Rather than referring to the spark of the divine within each of us, we can speak of “the inherent worth and dignity of each person”, but it’s just another version of that same classical Universalist claim that we are all children of God.  And it’s no accident that the promise that goes along with that Principle is to “listen actively and speak and act respectfully to others”.

So why did I end our Responsive Reading with what is otherwise the First Principle, and thus the First Promise, rather than putting them, well, first?

There’s a school of thought within and beyond Unitarian Universalism that, out of all Seven Principles, the one that is truly theological is the seventh, which speaks of the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Some people have suggested that it should actually be listed first, since it’s the foundation and context for the other six principles.  That’s why I listed the Promises in reverse order, moving from the interdependent web of all existence, the grandest scale of being imaginable, down to the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

For as I have claimed before, our inherent worth and dignity only makes sense within the larger context of our interdependence, calling us to relate to one another in life-affirming ways.  So I was glad to see that the promise that goes along with the Seventh Principle is to “live lightly on the Earth, beginning with our church community”.  But what does that mean?

Well, in the words of welcome that our lay leader spoke at the start of the service, you heard one meaning of that.  “The Fellowship is working to integrate reverence, gratitude and care for the living Earth into everything we do.  By committing to sustainable lifestyles as individuals and as a faith community, we are on the path to official recognition as a Green Sanctuary congregation.”  Doing the intentional, soulful work required to become a Green Sanctuary is indeed one way that our own church community aspires to live lightly on the Earth.

But there’s another side to what it means to be a church community living with awareness of the interdependent web of all existence, and that’s to recognize that we, here, in this congregation, form our own interdependent web in miniature, and awareness of that relates directly to how well we truly believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

This was brought home to me in a particularly clear way about a year ago, when the Board was evaluating me as part of the final phase of assessing my fellowship as a minister with the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The UUFP Board included this comment in their evaluation: “Rev. Millard needs to continue to remind each of us about the larger mission of the UUFP and that our individual interests can only be met if the UUFP itself is vibrant and healthy and functions as an integrated organization.”

“Our individual interests can only be met if the UUFP itself is vibrant and healthy and functions as an integrated organization.”  I think that’s what the monks in the story discovered for themselves.  They didn’t have any understanding of their interdependence, so they needed someone to point them in the right direction so they might discover it for themselves.  The rabbi’s observation that “the Messiah is among you” prodded them into being more careful in the ways they related to one another, and ultimately that allowed them to be more caring, too, finally able to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of one another, no matter their apparent faults and failings.

The monks had a big advantage, though.  They were already on the same page theologically in terms of what they believed about the Messiah and what would be appropriate behavior toward the Messiah.  The rabbi’s observation, then, was all that was necessary to help them behave in those same ways toward one another.

I think a similar case can be made for us on the basis of our Seven Principles, but it’s not nearly so simple.  Belief in an anointed savior figure who will return in glory to bring peace to the world is, for many people, very compelling; for some people, in fact, it may be the only thing that keeps them going in life.  Our Seven Principles, however, are not nearly so compelling.

Oh, intellectually they’re very reasonable.  The ideas they contain are certainly big and important, but at face value they’re also mostly abstract.  The words themselves are hardly poetic.  As promises that congregations make to one another in order to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, and even rewritten as promises that we make to each other as individual Unitarian Universalists striving to grow the Beloved Community, we need to find ways to internalize them, to truly make them part of our souls, rather than leaving them as rather abstract ideals with which we agree intellectually but don’t always live.

And I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to Charles Wesley’s hymn, “I Want a Principle Within”, quite apart from the great tune to which it is usually sung.  Because, aside from Wesley’s eighteenth century obsession with sin and temptation and more sin and the blood of Jesus, he really was expressing a yearning for the strengthening of his own moral compass to help him find the good at those times when his own heart and mind would wander away from his best self.  I like to think that one of the most important things we can do as Unitarian Universalists is cultivate such a principle within ourselves that helps us to figure out right from wrong.  Yes, these written Principles, these mostly abstract and regrettably unpoetic words, speak to important truths, but reading them, even saying them out loud together, is only the first step in a journey together, a long journey that involves removing the splinters from our souls.

And how do we do that?  Well, only at each and every moment of our lives.  Let me give you a simple example.

Within the first few months of living about a mile the other side of Warwick Boulevard from here, I became convinced that I knew where, one day, I would die.  And that’s because, on those days when I drove to work, I had to get across the intersection on Warwick to get here, and then to get home again.  And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the turn lanes on the side streets either side of Warwick don’t quite line up, and not having any signals on is, I have discovered, an indication to most other drivers that I intend to turn right.  Or left, for that matter, but definitely not straight, and cars would regularly cut across the intersection in front of me — or screech to a halt when they noticed that I was actually going straight through.  After a while, the urge to honk was too much for me to withstand, and often there was swearing involved, too.

Well, sometime last year I realized that I ought to be better than that.  Rather than getting angry and impatient, I decided to try compassion instead.

If someone didn’t understand what my lack of signaling meant, well, I could wait patiently until I knew what they were going to do first.  If they really had to cut across the intersection in front of me, well, I could hope for them that they reached their destination safely.  If it took me a few more seconds to get to the office or to get home, or even a couple more minutes if I missed the light, well, I could be grateful that my commute was barely one mile.  And maybe it’s just me, but it has seemed to me lately that more of the people coming to that intersection from both side streets, most of whom are turning left or right onto Warwick, are better at letting cars go straight across, and, for that matter, better at signaling their own turns, than they were a couple of years ago.

I’ve tried the same change in attitude in other settings, too — when I’m on the telephone talking to someone in customer service about some frustration, for instance.  I don’t always succeed — I’m the first to recognize that I’m no saint — but whenever I can, I remind myself to look for the spark of the divine in the other person, and to treat them accordingly.

This is something that we can all do, at each and every moment of our lives.  You can start by picking one person with whom you interact and, without telling them, imagine what it might mean if they were the Messiah.  Try looking for that spark of the divine in them.  Think about what it would really mean to truly believe in their inherent worth and dignity.  See how it changes your behavior toward that person if you can see them in that way.  And if you notice that you’re treating that person more kindly and fairly in spite of their faults and failings, try it with other people, too.

For this is the soul work that we are called to do.  In our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, we are called to cultivate a spiritual health that is not only good for our congregation but is also a beacon of hope to the wider world.  Everything we say and do is a chance to grow the Beloved Community, bringing the interdependent web of all existence into our hearts and minds and hands so that we might know one another’s inherent worth and dignity.

So may it be.

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2 Comments »

  1. […] Of course, those same values can be affirmed and promoted by individuals, too, so in many Unitarian Universalist congregations the language of the Seven Principles has been adapted into what is often called the Seven Promises, a covenant that Unitarian Universalist individuals make with each other.  The Fellowship made its own version of the Seven Promises some years ago, and I’ve adapted it for use as a responsive reading.  I start it with what is essentially an eighth promise, based on our Fellowship’s own mission, and the Seven Promises follow, only in reverse order for reasons that I explain elsewhere. […]

  2. […] various prophets.  Matthew really wants to prove that Jewish history had been pointing to Jesus as the Messiah all […]

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