Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Golden Thread of Scripture

Sermon preached at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo, New York on the Last Sunday after Pentecost:  Matthew 25:31-46

There was once a famous monastery in Central Europe which had fallen on hard times.  Formerly its buildings had been filled with monks, but now it was nearly deserted.  Five old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised their God with heavy hearts.

            In the forest beside the monastery were small huts used in the past for solitary prayer.  For many years the monks allowed a local Rabbi to use one of the huts when he wanted to get away.  The monks had an uncanny sense whenever he was in the forest and they would great one another with the knowledge, “The Rabbi is in the forest.

On one of these occasions the old Abbot decided to visit the Rabbi, something he had never done before.  So, after the morning Mass, he set out through the forest.  As he approached the hut, the Abbot saw the Rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome.  It was as though he had been waiting there for some time.  The two embraced like long-lost brothers.

The Rabbi motioned for the Abbot to enter.  In the middle of the room was a wooden table with the Scriptures opened on it.  They sat there for a moment in the presence of the book.  Then the Rabbi, who was as old as the Abbot, began to cry.  The Abbot could not contain himself.  He covered his face with his hands and began to weep also.  The two men sat there like lost children, wetting the wood of the table with their tears.

After the tears had ceased to flow and all was quiet, the Rabbi lifted his head.  “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said.  “You have come to ask a teaching of me.  I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once.  After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.”

The Rabbi looked straight at the Abbot and said, “One of you is the Messiah.”

For a while all was silent.  Then the Rabbi said, “Now you must go.”  The Abbot left without a word and without ever looking back.

The next morning, the Abbot called his monks together in the chapter room.  He told them he had received a teaching from the Rabbi in the forest and that this teaching was never again to be spoken aloud.  Then he looked at each of his brothers and said, “The Rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”

The monks were startled by this saying.  “What could it mean?” they asked themselves.  Is crochety old Brother John the Messiah?  Or saintly Father Matthew?  Or quiet 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.

But something changed that day.  The monks began to treat one another with a special reverence.  There was a gentle and generous quality about them now which was hard to describe but easy to notice.  They lived with one another as people who had finally found something in which they could hope.  They read and prayed the Scriptures as if they were looking for something.  Occasionally visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks.

Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer of the monks and young men were asking, once again, to become part of the community.

Week by week and day by day we read and proclaim an ancient story.  Its relevance is questioned by many and dismissed by others as an arcane collection of fairy tales.  But we tell it anyway, warts and all, and there are plenty of warts.  The story we tell begins that when God made the world, God made humankind, male and female both, in God’s own image.

This notion, this belief, this proclamation, is of radical importance to us.  One criticism of the Bible is that as a story there is little coherence.  But I believe there is a Golden Thread that ties the Scriptures together, Jewish and Christian alike.  That Golden Thread is that we are made in the image of God.

God made humankind in God’s image.  This is the truth from which we begin, from which we live, and move, and have our being.

The whole rest of the story is about humankind’s sometimes embrace and
oftentimes rejection of that truth, of the image of God within and among them.

It is a hard belief system, a hard meaning system.  Oh, that God could be found somewhere else, in a picture, a book, a statue, a majestic mountain, a tree, a whale, in the cash in our bank account, the power over wind and storm, or the power over one another one another.

But, no, the story is, our story is, that God can only be found in one another.  If we are to see God we have only to look in the face of another.

Again, so hard.  Not, of course, in a newborn babe, or a Mother Theresa, or the last person who helped us out when we were down, or the one who regularly says, “I love you.”  There, yes, we see the image of God.  But we also are called to see the image of God in the one we do not know, or the one whose face we cannot look upon for one reason or another, or the one who has hurt us.  Intentionally, in these places, too, we must look for the image of God.

It is such a fundamental part of our lives as Christians that it is one of the high callings of our Baptismal Covenant.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

The image of God is not the goodness in another, our ancient story says, if it were there would be no image anywhere, we would be utterly alone, abandoned.  The image of God is not about good deeds.  The image of God is simple life, the breath, the beating blood, the warm flesh.  Where there is the life there is God, the image, living, joyful, sorrowful, a massive tangle of complexity, simple human life lived in the freedom to choose, the ability to say yes or no to the image of God, and ultimately to God himself.

The story we tell is that there was one who lived the image perfectly, who knew the simple, clear presence of God in the midst of his tangled, complex, human life.  So much the image of God we call him God, the Son of God.  Such is right and good, a joyful thing.

But a dangerous thing too.  Shall the perfect one become the God we have always wanted:  simple, definable, containable, a statue, a picture hanging on a wall, a ritual to perform, a rule to follow?

It is but yet more of the old temptation.

No, the perfect one taught, I am in you and you are in me (John 14:20).  I, too, must be found, seen, in flesh and blood, even after mine is gone, still, in the image of God, the breath, the flesh, the beating heart, the face of woman and man, there, look, if you want to find me.  I have come to help you see, to give you the eyes to see the image, all around you, all within you, everywhere, look.

When you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters you did it to me.

Friend and foe, radiant and plain, fearful and courageous, bright and not so bright, introvert and extrovert, strong and weak, peaceful and anxious, sick and healthy, sad and happy, despised and loved in this world.  All of it, all of us.

When we are true to our calling, we live as though the Messiah is one of us, because indeed we all bear that ancient yet ever new image.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

            Our Orthodox brothers and sisters put it this way:  Before every human being ten thousand angels cry out, “Behold the image of God.”

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