Partners in Service

A Sermon on Matthew 23:1-12

I am not sure where this story, “The Rabbi’s Gift” originated so I cannot give proper credit.  I first heard it this past September at a Church Service. The story is not original to me and I make no claim as such.

There is an old story about a monastery that fell on hard times. Once it had thrived, but over the years it had become so decimated that only a few old monks were left living in an even older house. People no longer came there to be nourished spiritually and only a handful of the brothers shuffled through the cloisters.

Deep in the monastery woods was a little cabin where an old rabbi occasionally came to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared the word would be passed from monk to monk: “The rabbi walks in the woods.” And, for as long as he was there, the monks would feel blessed by his presence.

One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and open his heart to him. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi in the doorway. It was as if he had been awaiting the abbot’s arrival. The rabbi stood with his arms outstretched in welcome. Though they had never spoken, the two embraced like brothers.

The two entered the hut and simply sat in the stillness. Then the rabbi began to weep. The abbot covered his face with his hands and began to cry too. The two old men sat there like lost children, crying their hearts out, filling the hut with their shared pain and tears.

When the tears ceased the rabbi lifted his head and spoke, “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said, “and I know you have come to ask a teaching of me. But it is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” Very little else was said.

When the time came for the abbot to leave, he embraced the rabbi once again and said, “It has been a wonderful thing that we should talk after all these years. But is there nothing you can give us that would help us save our dying order?” The rabbi paused and said quietly to the old abbot, “Well, there is one thing I have to tell you: One of you is the Messiah.”

The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back. The next morning, the abbot called his monks together. He told them he had spoken to the old rabbi from the woods and then he looked at his assembled brothers and said bluntly, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”

In the days and weeks that followed, the old monks began to think about the rabbi’s words and wondered whether it could actually be true – the Messiah is one of us?

Thinking like this, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them just might actually 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.

A gentle, warm-hearted, concern began to grow among them which was hard to describe but easy to notice. Over time, as people visited the beautiful forest in which the monastery was home, they sensed the extraordinary respect that now began to surround the old monks and seemed to radiate out from them.

There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, people began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to meditate, and pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place, 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 old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. And it happened, that within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and light to the community, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a gift that taught them to look at and love others expecting the very best.

The instinct I have when I hear the story of Jesus calling out the heretics is to get excited and say “you go Jesus.” But then I pause and think, “What if I am the heretic and Jesus is calling me out?” Eastern Orthodox theology says that the priest is responsible, on the day of judgement for all of the souls he has gained and for all of the souls he has lost. He will be called to account for each and every one of them. In the passage from Matthew, Jesus is concerned not only for those he is calling out but also for the damage that can be done by just one of these people. He tells those listening that they are to listen to them because they are teachers of the law but they are not do what they do. They teach the right stuff but they do not practice what they teach. But what if I am the one Jesus is talking about?

I claim to be a follower of Jesus but does my life tell that story? Do I speak of one thing and do another? Do I behave in the right way but is it for the wrong reason? Do I judge others for their behavior and thus keep them from the kingdom of God?

The story I told at the start of the sermon today is about recognizing the divine spark in each person it’s about looking at each other in a deep and spiritual way and not reducing others down to what they do or what they don’t do and whether or not they measure up to our version of the faith. The antidote for hypocrisy is grace, the unearned favor and love of God for everyone not just a certain group of people.

God forgives infinitely and loves unconditionally. Jesus will forgive the denials of Peter and the disciple’s cowardice and will even abide their post resurrection doubt to entrust them with his message for all the world.

Jesus keeps loving and loving us despite our failings and blemishes and if we claim to love God then we have to love the way God loves, and that is seventy times seven. Imagine that someone in this room is the messiah, how are we going to treat each other and those that we might come into contact with on the street. If we keep that in mind they we can never be called out as the heretic.