The Rev. Alison Cornish
Sunday, April 12, 2009 –
Now, I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.
– A Native American storyteller’s start to a story …
“Visiting with Jesus” The Rev. Alison Cornish
I had a dream a while back. Jesus came to visit. Yep, right here, right to this very congregation, this exact place.
By the time I got over my shock at being in a dream with Jesus, he had already arrived, so I don’t know exactly how he got here. It could be that he was up all night, telling stories over at Ziggy’s across the street, ambled out into the morning dawn, and sat on our doorstep until someone showed up. Maybe he’d been wandering in the wilderness of the Long Pond Greenbelt – he was, of course, fond of the great outdoors, had some of his keenest insights out there. I definitely don’t think he arrived by car, because then we’d have to go through the “What Would Jesus Drive?” exercise, and that would totally distract us. Personally, I’m thinking he came by the Suffolk County blue bus, even though it doesn’t actually run on Sundays – I think he’d have the most fun on the blue bus.
Anyway, however he got here, here he is, a stranger on the doorstep. A stranger you say? Yes, a stranger. Because I’m dreaming, I know that Jesus knows he’s unlikely to be recognized at a UU congregation – but still, he’s curious. Of course, he’s read up on us on the web, he knows he’s entering a swarm of skeptics and doubters. But he’s curious.
Jesus is warmly greeted by the two volunteers who press him to fill out a visitor card and put on a sticky, temporary name tag. He politely declines both, thinking it unwise to so identify himself just yet.
There’s time before the service begins – as I dream – and so Jesus wanders about, seeing what manner of place and people this is. He peruses the bulletin board, and sees the poster “Find Us and Ye Shall Seek.” He smiles at that. “Sounds like something I would say,” he thinks to himself. An invitation yes, but one that, like any good aphorism, turns perceptions upside down. And he’s always thought of himself as a seeker, really, on a sort of a religious “quest.” He’s beginning to relax a bit.
Maybe he’ll like these people just fine.
Someone has pointed out to Jesus that this building is a meetinghouse (perhaps to pre-empt any reference he might accidentally make to a church, or more likely, a synagogue), and he’s figured out that means that all manner of things take place here.
Maybe it’s a bit like Jerusalem’s temple, he thinks – it seems a busy place – he wonders perhaps if he should look around for the money changers … surely they are here, somewhere.
Next, Jesus wanders into the kitchen, drawn there by the smell of fresh coffee and the sound of laughter. This is familiar territory. He even thinks he glimpses Mary and Martha working side-by-side (he’s glad they seem to have made up). But even as the warmth of the kitchen and the chatter of conversation draw him in, he wonders where the meal will be served. There doesn’t seem to be a table anywhere large enough for everyone to sit down together and share food. How will this work, he thinks? After all, he’s already invited his friends: the tax collectors, prostitutes, aliens from foreign lands, and those folks he met last night possessed by demons – where are they going to all sit and break bread together? That’s a bit of a worry.
There’s a family headed downstairs, and so Jesus follows them. He’s quite taken by all the rainbows everywhere, reminds him of Noah, and so he’s surprised to find children there instead of animals. But, never mind, what better way to feed the spirit then to hear what children – yet untouched by the cares and distractions of the world of adults – have to say?
As I dream on, Jesus returns upstairs. As the gathering grows larger, some people talk, others hug one another as if they’ve traveled miles to be here (little does he know).
Still others are sitting by themselves, alone with their thoughts. Jesus slips into a seat virtually unnoticed, picking one where he can see the trees beginning to leaf out, a perfect view in case whatever happens next is a little bit boring.
As he looks around the room, Jesus wonders to himself, what kinds of lives do these people live? What are their hurts and fears, their struggles and joys? Turns out, it’s not so easy to tell, even for him. He receives some hints when the microphone thingy makes its way around the room and the candles are lit – now that’s a nice touch he thinks! He’s beginning to sense that behind the politeness, the niceness, there are real lives being lived – some in happiness, but others in pain. Someone haltingly tells a hard truth about themselves, and it is a mask slipped for a moment, let themselves be just a bit more real. He notes how quiet the room gets, even the wiggly children. Yes, he thinks to himself, this is people feeling with one another. It’s not about the head, but the heart.
Jesus sits politely and listens to a story, which he likes a lot, since he is of course like the best storyteller in the whole universe (or, so he’s been told). And he likes the music, too, even though it’s unfamiliar. It gives him time to let his thoughts wander, forming pictures in his mind’s eye. He can feel the music’s delight and sorrow move him deep inside. Maybe, he thinks, he should put some of his own thoughts together with music.
That seems like an interesting thing to try.
Now there’s a time of prayer and meditation, and Jesus begins to settle in, glad for the familiar cues. But before he’s even focused on that still small voice within, the time is up! Good lord, he thinks to himself, how on earth can you hope to touch – and be touched by – the sacred, the spirit, in two minutes? He begins to think about, to remember, those 40 days wandering in the wilderness, that vision quest. Now that’s prayer, he (rather boastfully) exclaims to himself.
But now there’s talking going on again, words, words, and more words. Jesus wonders about all these words. He listens carefully. He listens for signs, for clues. He’s listening, watching.
Jesus wants to know what’s at the center of the lives of the people in this room.
He’s remembering the people he ministered to, preached to, taught. They were good people. They were trying to find meaning and satisfaction in their lives. But they kept turning to what he came to think of as the 3 “A’s” – appearances, achievements, and affluence. No matter where he turned in his world, he felt surrounded, engulfed by a culture that was consumed by the cares of the material world. His own religious search led him to a new understanding of God. He knows, he knows in his bones, that the quality of God that is most key is compassion. And he’s also realized that compassion is the heart, the center point of community, around which all else revolves.
He looks around. This place, these people, it certainly seems a community, an inclusive community, one just like he’s always yearned for. Look, there are two men holding hands. A child on a parent’s lap, and they don’t even have the same color skin.
Someone walks with a cane. Another leans on a shoulder for support. Someone doesn’t see well, someone else can’t hear. There’s someone, he senses, who doesn’t remember much at all. Another can’t sing (but sings anyway). There are people who don’t have a spare penny. There are people who have plenty. Some, he sees, are hungry; others, he gathers, have never been without food, and share what they have.
Jesus rejoices, though inside and quietly, in the ingathering of all these diverse people.
And he wonders, is this the way things really are now? What about outside this meetinghouse, this space? What happens when these people leave here? Have the divisions, the hierarchies and boundaries between people – have they truly been erased? Does the spirit of this place flow out, like ripples on the water?
Jesus ponders all these things in his heart. He remembers that, in his day, in fact for the whole of his ministry, all of his preaching and teaching and healing was, to him, to point to another path, a different way, an alternate vision of human community to the one he lived with – and under. Could it be, might it be, that someone, somewhere, listened? Or, he wonders, is there still a struggle against a prevailing, narrow vision of the world? Perhaps he can talk to someone …
But the gathering is breaking up. Someone approaches Jesus, wanting to say hello, to welcome him to the community, invite him for coffee. They ask again, are you sure you don’t want a nametag, a visitor card, a DVD? They seem, well, a little anxious about whether or not he’ll return, quickly saying, “come back next week, it’s never the same twice here.” And he senses that the wish, and the concern, is deeper, perhaps, more than just if he himself will come back. It’s about something larger … more profound.
And then Jesus does the most amazing thing of all. He sits down in one of those rocking chairs out in the fellowship space, and he tells a story. For real. People put down their coffee cups (really), and quiet down (I kid you not), and they listen to this story. He begins:
This is a story about a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. It was once a great order, but because of persecution, all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation, the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again” they would whisper. As the abbot troubled over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to him to ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice to save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is. The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and spoke of deep things. When the abbot had to leave, they embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me, that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving – it was something cryptic – was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered about the significance of the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us?
Could he possibly have meant one of us monks? If so, 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. Often very 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 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?
As they contemplated in this way, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah.
And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
People still occasionally came to visit the monastery in its beautiful forest to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even to meditate in the dilapidated chapel.
As they did, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Then some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks.
After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality.
After he spoke the last words, and finished the dregs of his coffee, Jesus stood up.
He was immediately surrounded by people who wanted to know … what was the meaning of this story – why did he tell it now? …To them? Was it in the Bible? They couldn’t remember … oh, there were so many questions!
But Jesus didn’t answer. He simply put down his cup, smiled, looked the crowd straight in the eye, and said, “Now, I am going to go fishing – in Montauk.” And he left.
And that, friends, is the end of my dream.
This paragraph draws from the work of Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).
The Rabbi’s Gift as retold by M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1987).