Sermon Text: The Rabbi Who Walks in the Woods
Here is part of my philosophy:
Stories are interesting. Stories are accessible. Many people feel out of their depth with heavy, conceptual language. But all people tell stories and listen to them. And church is all about telling stories.
Here is one of my all-time favorite stories. I've told it before, but it's been a pretty long time. It's a story for any church congregation, especially now.
Once there was a famous monastery, a community of monks. At one time, the monastery was full of young monks, and the big church was full of the sound of chanting. But now the community had fallen on hard times. People no longer came from far and wide to pray together. And just a few elderly monks were left, saying their prayers with heavy hearts.
Now, on the edge of the monastery woods, there was a little hut. An old rabbi had built it. Sometimes he would go to the hut for solitude and prayer. No one ever spoke to him, but whenever he appeared, the word would spread from monk to monk: "The rabbi walks in the woods." And for as long as the rabbi was in the hut, the old monks would feel sustained by his presence and his prayers.
Well, one day, the leader of the monastery, the abbot, decided to visit this rabbi at last.
So after the morning Eucharist, he walked to the hut in the woods. The rabbi was standing in the doorway, smiling. He welcomed the abbot, and offered him some tea.
These two spiritual men sat together, mostly in silence.
And finally, the rabbi spoke. He said, "You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts. You have come to me for teaching. And I will give you a teaching. But you may only repeat it once to your brothers. After that, no one must say it aloud again."
The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, "The Messiah is among you."
There was a silence. Then the rabbi said, "Now, go back to your brothers." Without a word, the abbot walked back to the monastery.
And the next morning, the abbot called the monks together. He told his brothers that he had been given a teaching by the rabbi who walks in the woods. And he told them that the teaching was never again to be spoken aloud. He looked at each of his brothers and said, "The rabbi says one of us is the Messiah."
The monks were startled. They asked themselves, "What could this mean? Is Brother John the Messiah? Or Father Matthew? Or Brother Thomas? Am I the Messiah? What could this mean?" They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi's teaching. But no one ever mentioned it again.
As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a very special reverence.
They prayed together like people who seek a treasure. They lived together like people who have found a treasure. There was a gentle, wholehearted, human quality about them now which was hard to describe but easy to see.
Occasional visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Before long, people came from far and wide to be nourished by their life of prayer and meditation. And young men were asking once again to become part of the community.
In those later days, the rabbi no longer walked the woods. His old hut fell into ruins. But the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt sustained by his presence and his prayers.
Religious communities have life cycles. We are in a difficult part of the cycle right now. We cannot even shake hands or hug right now. But we can still reverence one another. We can still see that Christ lives in everyone around us. We can still know that the Messiah is among us.
In eastern religious traditions, there is a greeting. It looks like this, with folded hands and a bow. It also looks like a gesture of prayer, doesn't it? That's because in these eastern religious traditions, there is a recognition of the god, the divinity, in the other person. With this gesture, the divinity of the other is recognized.
Well, our own Christian tradition agrees. In some of the high churches, there is a custom of bowing toward an altar, or toward the reserved sacrament in a tabernacle or aumbry. The so-called lower churches prefer The New Testament over ritual. But the New Testament often talks about "being in Christ," or "Christ in you," or, as Jesus said, "Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me."
Christ is in the person we meet. So in a time when we cannot shake hands or hug, we can bow toward another person with folded hands. We offer that person our greeting, and our respect, and even our reverence.
Why? Remember the story of the rabbi in the woods. The Messiah is among us. Christ is hidden in plain sight in your neighbor.
So...look for him there.