To serve can mean so many things. Kindness to someone you know, kindness to someone you don’t know. To be of use, to help, to make a contribution, to make a difference.
To serve can mean so many things.
And because this is so, it gets to the point that a generic word like “service” only goes so far. For example, one kind of service is charity, where the act of kindness is some direct action meant to relieve the suffering of a specific person. Then there is a second kind of service, where the act of kindness is directed more at changing the oppressive social policies and structures that cause people’s suffering to begin with–call this form of service social justice. Both are forms of service. But both need their own names, because they are very different.
Be that as it may, for this sermon today, we are talking about service of every form and kinds. We are talking about how all are called to serve.
All and everyone.
Part of the reason why is that it is a main way to learn and grow. Service opportunities put you in places that may be new for you, and you discover things about yourself, you witness unknown talents emerging, you meet people who bring blessings into your life. You get as much as you give.
All are called to service because all are called to growth.
And then there is this reason. All are called to service, because each of us has a stake in everything and everyone else’s well-being. When I hurt others, I want to make amends through service. I may not be able to make amends to the particular person I hurt, so let me make amends as best as I can to some other. When another’s kindness heals me, my gratitude is a call inside me to pass that kindness on to another.
Everyone has hurt others.
Everyone has been the recipient of kindness.
Therefore: All are called to serve.
But now we must go even deeper into the thought of this, and to do so, I want to use an old teaching story—not factually true, but psychologically and spiritually true–that will support further and needed reflection on this topic.
So here is the story: it’s about a monastery down on its luck, shrinking in terms of numbers, shrinking in terms of spirit. It is led by one frustrated, burned-out Abbot. At times, this Abbot would bring his fellow monks to his mind’s eye, one after another, to count their flaws and failures. They were to blame for everything.
This was the burden on his mind and heart when, one day, he left the monastery to go over to the nearby Jewish temple, to visit with his good friend the Rabbi. The Abbot just couldn’t carry the weight of these thoughts and feelings anymore, all by himself. He poured out his heart to his good friend the Rabbi, and then he started crying. At which point the Rabbi handed him a tissue, comforted him with a hand on the shoulder, and then found himself moved to say this: “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. In the community I lead, we have long known something about your monastery, and now it’s time that you knew. It’s this: that the Messiah is one of you.”
That’s what the Rabbi said, and at first the Abbot thought it was a joke. Some time to make a joke! But there was no smirk on the Rabbi’s face, there was no mischievousness in his eyes. Seeing this, the Abbot, wiping way his tears, started to laugh. “The Messiah is one of us? Listen, I know a thing or two about Jewish theology. The Messiah is supposed to be a hero who restores justice and peace to the world. And let me tell you, I know my fellow monks, and none are hero material.”
Despite all these objections, the Rabbi held firm. “The Messiah is one of you. I don’t care how unlikely it seems. Believe it.” Now, the Abbot had never experienced the Rabbi as one given to exaggeration, or irrationality. He came away from the temple feeling amazement. A burden had been lifted. Maybe the Messiah really is one of us, he thought. Entering the monastery, familiar sights and sounds were charged with new possibility. Walking down the halls, walking through the courtyard, he would pass by a monk and wonder if he was the one, the Messiah who would restore justice and peace to the world. Every different monk he saw brought this same question to his mind. Is he the one? Soon enough, the blame he felt towards every one of them fell away, and what was left was anticipation, openness, respect.
And it did not go unnoticed. Eventually, one of the brothers came to him and said, “Sir, what has happened to you? You are so different….” It took a bit of coaxing, but his fellow monk persuaded him to share his experience with the Rabbi, which he did. The revelation was stunning. His brother monk caught “the Messiah is one of you” vision, and soon enough, it spread all throughout the monastery, until every monk was wondering about every other monk, Could he be the one? Is he the one?
The good news simply could not be contained. The Messiah is one of us. Soon enough, the entire community glowed with kindness and grace. The prayer life grew profound and deep; the worship services vibrated with an energy they had never known before.
Like a magnet, it drew villagers from the surrounding town to the monastery. They felt the amazing spirit of the place, and they wanted to be a part of that. In fact, requests to actually join the monastery rose to a number the Abbot had never known before, and he rejoiced. Things had come full circle, from despair towards a community that felt like it was dying, to amazed joy at how it had turned right around and discovered abundant new life. All because it believed and lived a profound vision: that the Messiah is one of us.
And that is the old teaching story, not factually true about any specific actual monastery but psychologically true, spiritually true, for us and everyone.
Let’s dive in and catch a few wisdom pearls.
Start with the story’s beginning: the monastery down on its luck. The Abbot frustrated and blaming it all on the failures of his fellow monks. You better believe that, when a relationship or a community is in a place like this and all do NOT feel called to serve, there is a feeling of scarcity, the relationship or community is on a path towards death. A mutual willingness to serve is life; but a spirit of resentment and blame is death.
Do you all know that phrase about “freezing a person in time,” so that your sense of them always goes back to some mistake they made, and they are never anything but that mistake? Same thing goes with situations or communities. A community might have been the scene of some blow up, or it tries to improve but never quite gets there, and when you think of it, your mind always goes back to that, the community can never be anything other than that.
That’s what it looks like, to freeze a person or a community in time.
It may therefore be the first act of service to forgive. To let your mind and heart be immersed in the vision that we are all in the same cosmic classroom and we exist as an interdependent web of people who inevitably hurt other people as part of our learning journey, and these other people hurt us in turn. We are all just trying to learn. It is not personal. Those monks are not intentionally trying to mess things up for the monastery. They aren’t.
Forgiveness may very well be the first act of service. To forgive the parents who might have hurt us, the siblings, the friends, the colleagues, and yes the church. Forgiveness: which is about unfreezing, releasing, letting another person or another community have back their freedom to learn from their mistake and do things differently in the future.
These words are so easy to say. They are so hard to follow.
One reason why is that we get stuck in our heads. The stories we tell ourselves are too narrow, too limited, and they are set on repeat like a broken record. Somehow, a larger vision needs to break through.
Which, in our teaching story, is where the Rabbi comes in, when he says “the Messiah is one of you.” He puts a very different spin on something that the Abbot already knew. The Abbot already knew that his fellow monks are Children of God. That’s a more Christian way of saying that all people are more than the sum of their mistakes, more than the sum of their social identities. That there is something that remains pure and free in each person no matter how bogged down they might seem to us, viewing them as we do from the outside.
Surely the Abbot had heard sermons about that a million times already!
It just points to the realistic fact that sometimes we need to hear about a truth we already know differently, to really receive it. In my ice-skating life, sometimes I get stuck in a bad habit and my head coach can tell me how to do it differently 20 times and it goes nowhere, but then I work with an assistant coach once and the way he says what he says penetrates, fits, clicks.
Sometimes, when people are stuck, what is needed is a different spin, a different metaphor, a different voice. That’s how the Rabbi served the Abbot, when he invoked the metaphor of the Messiah, rather than using the old “Child of God” metaphor that the Abbot was no doubt already well aware of.
It means that yet another way of serving, when people are stuck in a rut, is to change things up. Don’t just repeat what you’ve already said ten more times, or, even worse, decide that the person is just stupid. Say it differently, shake up how they are imagining it.
Besides forgiveness, helping people reimagine what they are doing or what they are facing is a powerful way of serving.
But now we take a closer look at the impact of what the Abbot heard from the Rabbi, and what eventually spread throughout the monastery: the good news that “the Messiah is one of us.”
Notice, first of all, what this good news does NOT mean. It does NOT mean that the Messiah, the bringer of justice and peace, is someone else. The two phrases sound somewhat alike, but they are worlds apart in terms of practical consequences. Affirm that the Messiah is someone else and what you have is an impenetrable obstacle to seeing and receiving the abundance that is yours and is ours, here and now. I mean, if the Messiah is truly someone else, then nothing is going to get better until we get something that we don’t already have—more members, different members, different friends, different spouses, different children, different lives. Something other than what we have right now.
The green grass that’s always on the other side of the fence.
This is being in scarcity mode. Immediately, we are right there, trying to solve our problems with resources that are not already in hand. “The Messiah is someone else” is a small vision that leads to small lives.
It’s the kind of vision that will make us weep.
I suspect that it is exactly the kind of mindset that the Abbot and his monks were struggling with initially. And maybe this other mindset, as well: the vision that “only one of us—or only the few—get to be the Messiah.” Oh yes. The vision that only one person gets to step up, only one of us gets to be brilliant, only one of us can deepen our lives through service.
Now, it is true: in a big church like ours, where some jobs require special expertise, or when the oversight of programs requires the sort of focus and time that are just not possible for most volunteers, we need structure & policies and we need staff and ministers or at least a minister.
But it is a distorted and false vision to allow staff and ministerial leadership to control everything. This is way beyond the fundamental structures and policies and paid leadership that are needed to keep this big institution afloat and going. With a distorted vision like this, you better believe that in the end, everybody’s weeping. For one thing, the people who aren’t allowed to step up to service never get their chance to develop their Messiah-like potentials and step up into Messiah-like action. They must learn to be content just to follow, just to sit-and-soak. When things go wrong, their only option must be to complain and wait for the problem to be solved for them. Passivity and reactivity!
No wonder the monks in the monastery were all shallow and lifeless! No wonder the villagers wouldn’t touch the monastery with a ten-foot pole!
Who’d want to be a part of that?
And as for the person who is pegged as the official one and only Messiah: they are weeping because they are expected to do it all and be all for everyone else. They have to have all the wisdom. They have to have all the answers to solve all the problems. They have to have all the energy to be the change agent and must bear the full burden of that. They, in short, are IT; and they get burned out to a crisp.
Above all, what they don’t have is the right to be human, the right to make mistakes, the right to sometimes take off the Superman cape.
They don’t have that right.
Ever felt like you have been stuck in the Messiah role, like this? That you’ve been pegged as the answer person, the one who must always be strong, the one who must give and give and give without receiving? The Perfect one?
How could someone not be weeping if this is what their life is like?
It is said that without an expansive vision, the people perish. And I believe it. Ultimately, to peg one person as the official one-and-only one Messiah—or to say that the Messiah is always someone else but never me—is to hand ourselves over to a vision of scarcity in our lives, and we will shrink to fit. We will become scarcity. We’ll scatter into separate groups that compete and quarrel. Turn selfish. Be quick to anger and criticize. Quick to despair and to blame. We could be surrounded by every good thing in life, but we won’t be able to see it and receive it. We would starve in a full pantry because we simply couldn’t imagine anything higher than the floor, which is all that our eyes are looking at—the floor.
So much depends upon the kind of vision we give ourselves to. And the expansive vision that all are called, the hopeful vision that “the Messiah is one of us”—now THAT is worthy of our loyalty. Its brilliance is the fact that the identity of the Messiah is forever deferred—we never know exactly who it might be—therefore the door is opened to everyone being able to live out the Messiah-like potentials within them.
For the Abbot in the story, it represents a good news imagination that allows him to see things through the lens of a more positive kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. As the story says, “He would pass by a monk and wonder if he was the one, the Messiah who would restore justice and peace to the world. Every different monk he saw brought this same question to his mind. Is he the one?” Inspired imagination like this is a matter of wondering, weaving and connecting the pieces of our lives together in a way that reveals new meaning and purpose. It’s so different from a burn-out imagination, which instinctively presumes meaninglessness in people and situations.
A burn-out imagination will see people who are stacking brick upon brick as only doing that, from here to kingdom come; while an inspired imagination will look upon the exact same scene and see what is really happening: people building, brick-by-brick, a cathedral.
“The Messiah is one of us”: sometimes maybe you, sometimes maybe me, but always the maybe. That we are only human is true, and each of us brings limitations to our relationships and jobs and volunteer roles—but what if we refused to allow our vision of ourselves and each other to be defined by our limitations? What if we were to presume the best instead and wonder: Is he the Messiah? Is she the Messiah? Could I sometimes be the Messiah? What happens then? If someone thinks I might be the Messiah and possesses potentials to bring beauty and justice to this world in some unique way? If they treat me as if this were true, with all the reverence and respect this requires, then I will step up to that! I can be that!
Recognize me like this, respect me like this, and I will respond. Recognize the teenagers among us like this, and they will respond. Recognize the children among us like this, people of every age, every person who comes through our door, whatever they look like, whatever their gifts or flaws, and they will respond. The vision will happen.
The Messiah will come.
Let this story speak to us today, here at West Shore. Let it mean that each and every one of us finds a way to love this place and finds a way to give into it with their presence, their time, their money, their talent. It means that no one person is so valuable that without him or her we are lost. It means that all the resources we need are always already here within reach. It means that we are the leaders we have been waiting for!
I want to close with what I take to be an example of a time when church works best. Church works best, I believe, when there’s a project at hand that everyone gets to play a role in. When everyone gets to be the Messiah at some point and in some way.
The story comes from the early 1950s, when our West Shore forebearers were busy helping to finish the first version of the building we are in right now. For the first six years of our existence, we used rental space and faced all sorts of trials; and so, our ancestors were anxious to have a space and place of their own.
Of course, professionals were brought in to do the heavy construction and all the things that required special expertise. But our ancestors believed not only in financial generosity to raise the money needed to do what must be done, but they also believed in sweat equity where possible to save money.
And that’s what they did. Everyone of all ages, finding a way to chip in. Listen to past archivist Roy Walther, speaking from the summer of 1951 when his family could have been on vacation, but were not. Here is what he says: “That was a summer! Our ten-week ‘vacation’ was spent painting and tiling. […] The work was done mostly at night, and on Saturdays the ladies made sandwiches and hot, strong coffee. Church work came before home repair at our house as it did at many others. A large hole in our kitchen ceiling revealed the bathroom, lending privacy to neither as it was not repaired until the church work was done.”
Again, Roy Walther says, “It was a beautiful busy summer. Every evening and every weekend amateur painters brushed and rolled not one, not two, but three or more coats of paint on the walls, while work at home remained undone. […] For amateur painters, we did a pretty good job. I wasn’t fast but I did good work. If I ever have grandchildren and they want to know what I did, I will take them to the Ladies Washroom, open the door and say, “See these beautiful walls? I painted them!”
That’s Roy Walther. That’s the voice of one who has felt the power of the Messiah coming through his paintbrush. That is a voice of abundance.
When people feel like that: anything good is possible.
Can you think of other times in the life of this congregation where people felt engaged like this, and it was all hands on deck, everyone engaged in some way in a project that was not only valuable to the larger community, but the people doing it experienced the value for themselves, could see it and understand it? It doesn’t have to be a “social justice project” per se, though it might.
Take this question with you. Deep dive into it. Take it into your conversations with other congregants. Spend time with it. Your answers will serve us well, as we look to our next 75 years as a faith community and as we actively choose how we see this church, how we see each other as people engaged in building our Beloved Community.
We are all a part of the same cosmic classroom, teaching and learning from each other.
We can freeze each other in time, or we can release each other through forgiveness.
We can stay stuck in imaginative ruts about what is going on, or we can experience renewal by seeing what’s happening through new lenses, new metaphors.
It is our choice, moving forward: to know
–that the Messiah is one of us.
–that all are called to serve.