Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Adjacent Possible

The Adjacent Possible
Text: Genesis 12:1-4a
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 3-12-2017)

A few years back, I read a book by Steven Johnson called, “Where Good Ideas Come From?” In his book, Johnson introduced me to the concept of the adjacent possible. He borrowed the phrase from research in prebiotic chemistry being done by Stuart Kaufmann. For Johnson and Kaufmann, the adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
          Johnson helps explain the concept with this fascinating metaphor:

“Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. . . . The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.” (pp. 31-33).

As Chapter Twelve of Genesis opens, we meet Sarai and Abram for the first time. So far, in Genesis, all the stories have been a series of disappointments. Adam and Eve are promised the good life, but opt for wanting more. Cain kills his brother out of jealousy. Noah is rescued from the great flood only to stumble off the boat in a drunken stupor. The world is united by one common language, but when they reach beyond their means, babel results.
As readers, we do not expect too much from Abram and Sarai when God instructs them to: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” So far in Genesis, human behavior has been all too predictable; no one has been willing to step into God’s adjacent possible.
After an invitation to enter into God’s adjacent possible, I can imagine Abram and Sarai having one of those difficult “couple’s conversations” during which temperatures rise and voices soar:
“Abram, if you think I’m leaving home and family to head off to God knows where, well, you’ve got another think coming!”
You say that it was ‘God’ inviting us to pull up stakes, leave our friends behind, and head to destinations unknown. And, I say, ‘You and God have a nice trip’.”
And, if not a “couple’s conversation,” I can imagine one of those “crossroads conversations,” especially since the city Haran from which Abram and Sarai are called to leave, literally means “highway” or “crossroads”:
“Sarai, maybe we should go, but if I am honest, I am not even sure what I believe about God, much less believing promises from God about life on the other side of Haran.”
“God seems to have more confidence in us than we have in ourselves. Maybe God is making a mistake choosing us?”
The remarkable thing about the story is not that Abram and Sarai are invited to walk into God’s adjacent possible, several characters in Genesis have already declined the invitation. The remarkable thing about this couple is that they choose to walk forward through the mysterious door of possibility that God holds opens for them, having absolutely no clue what awaits them on the other side of that door. On the journey ahead, they will walk into rooms that look as expansive as a starlit sky on a crystal clear night, but also into rooms that will make them wonder why they ever left Haran. Into each room, they will walk into a future about which they have only God’s promise.
   It is no surprise, then, that years later, when the Apostle Paul talks about faith, he points to Abram and Sarai, who pack their bags, leave their expansive homestead, and walk into God’s promised future. On their journey, they learn what the scientist discovered in his research in prebiotic chemistry; you cannot leapfrog the adjacent possible. You cannot leapfrog from God’s promise of land and progeny into the reality of land and progeny. Doors have to be opened, rooms explored, and trust maintained.
By the time we meet Abram and Sarai, they are long past their childbearing years. What God holds out to this aging couple is well beyond their estimate of what is possible. God invites them on a journey into new rooms of promise that will lead them far beyond being “barren” into God’s fecund future. In a decision that comes as a surprise to everyone, Abram and Sarai accept the invitation and set out into God’s adjacent possible.   
The season of Lent has long been pictured as a journey into God’s adjacent possible, but this season, I find myself stuck in the Lenten starting blocks, stuck in Ash Wednesday, unable to find the door into the adjacent possible, much less to walk through it. I find myself stuck in sorrow over the violence being done to mosques and synagogues across the nation and the violence we never hear about being done in the depths of our inner cities. I am stuck in bewilderment at how quickly and easily we use social media as a launching pad for vicious assaults on others with complete impunity. I am stuck in grief over national attitudes that punish the victim for being female or gay, bi-sexual or transgender, a person of color or a person who lives on the streets.  
To speak of God’s adjacent possible on this second Sunday in Lent feels a little hollow, maybe like telling a barren couple that they were going to have the world’s largest family. And, yet, this is the very couple to whom we tie our hopes when we follow Jesus on the Lenten journey into God’s adjacent possible. This is the very couple that inspired Jesus to resist the temptation to leapfrog rooms of deprivation and suffering, as if he could ever know his full humanity without walking into the same rooms of suffering and grief that Sarai and Abram and you and I walk and walk with others all too often.
In many ways, it is easy for a comfortable, white, male to opine about walking into God’s adjacent possible. The obstacles before me are so few. It is so much harder for many of my friends to dare to do so. On our recent drive to the Outer Banks, Jennell and I passed two enormous Confederate flags, prominently placed next to the highway. As I looked at those flags that were not waving for National Confederate History Month, but as a visual sign of intimidation to people of color, I was reminded of a poem by Langston Hughes, a black poet from Joplin, Missouri, who dreamed about walking across the landmines of racism to enter into God’s adjacent possible.
In his poem, “I, Too,” Langston dreams:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll sit at the table.
When company comes
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen.”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –

I, too, am America.

I wish I had the faith fortitude of Abram and Sarai and Langston. I do not. I need you to help me get unstuck, so together we can walk into God’s adjacent possible. I need you to remind me that God is calling us into new rooms, into new possibilities of mercy and love, forgiveness and forbearance, new rooms that expand with our faith and imagination.  
What would it mean to pray FULLY: “O God, may I have the courage, resilience, and imagination to walk into God’s beautiful, and sometimes terrifying, but always trustworthy, adjacent possible? I intend to find out, for that is my Lenten prayer.

AMEN

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Transfiguring Touch



A Transfiguring Touch
Text:  Matthew 17:1-8
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 2-26-2017)


The season of Lent arrives around this time, every year on the heels of the Transfiguration story. In that strange story, no sooner do Jesus, Peter, James, and John make it up the mountain then Jesus’ face starts to shine. Then, more than his face, Jesus’ entire body is transfigured, in the Greek, is metamorphisized, by God.
It is one thing to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” when Jesus is someone much like us, a person we can relate to, someone who laughs and cries, who occasionally loses his temper and raises his voice. It is quite another thing to make sense of an eerie, glowing Jesus, who looks not like he has seen a ghost, but who looks like a ghost himself.    
Read on and the story only gets stranger. Just as Peter and the Zebedee boys set sights on the transfigured Jesus do the time travelers Moses and Elijah arrive. Peter tries to bring some reason to the surreal setting by offering accommodations for everyone. It is the first concrete, common sense  thing that has happened since the boys went up the mountain.


Before anyone can book a room or pitch a tent, though, a cloud, a deep fog, sets in and the scene shifts from sight to sound. A voice from above declares, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
The three disciples, who earlier felt privileged to be the only ones among the twelve to go with Jesus into Jairus’s house and are the only three invited up the mountain, now feel terrified. There is something about the voice of God throughout Scripture that brings people to their knees.
And if not strange enough already, what happens next strikes perhaps the oddest note in the entire story. The whiter-than-white-face-shining-like-an-angel-fully-transcendent-no-one-like-we have-ever-known Jesus reaches down to this terrified trio, touches them, and tells them to: “Get up and do not be afraid.”  
Neither Mark nor Luke say a word about Jesus touching anyone on the mountain; for them, Jesus is transfigured, transcendent, untouchable. For Matthew, though, whether standing transfigured on this mountain with Peter, James, and John or later risen from the tomb and standing on the mountain with all his disciples, Jesus never stops being “Emmanuel,” God with us, a God who is never too distant to enter our fear or too aloof to soothe our worried brows.    
 I said earlier that Lent arrives on the heels of this story. Actually, for most people today, Lent does not arrive at all. Unlike Christmas – a key economic engine of the American economy – Lent has little commercial value.  We can quite easily ignore this season and most people do. Even in the church, many skip Lent and avoid all the tough texts ahead, ones that speak of Jesus coming down the mountain and walking right into the heart of darkness in Gethsemane and finally in Golgotha.   
I would suggest that this is not a good year for anyone to skip Lent. There is way too much fear in the air. It is tangible and it is devastating and it is everywhere you turn. For our first several months at Cove, Jennell and I lived atop Afton mountain where fog is a regular guest. We would often wake to find ourselves surrounded by a vast, natural, cotton ball of fog. If someone were to ask us, “Just where is the fog exactly?” my response would be: “It is everywhere you turn.” That is the way it is with fear today – it is everywhere we turn.
Some fear an assault from radical Islamist terrorists. Some fear a federal assault on the earth and air and water. Some fear a press that is out of control. Some fear an administration that is out of control. Some fear that the chemo will not work. Some fear that sobriety is about to end. Some fear that the sands of time are slipping through the glass too quickly. Some fear that they will never be old enough to be taken seriously. Some fear that we are approaching a nuclear winter. Some fear that they will never be forgiven. Some fear that they will never be able to forgive. Fear is everywhere we turn.
Fear shuts us off and shuts us down. It isolates us and insulates us from others who may be in pain. Fear gives us permission to be ugly and to shout obscenities and to send eviscerating emails. Fear is a malignant tumor that eventually will kill you, kill the church, kill the nation.
It is no accident that the two most popular words in Scripture are “fear not.” These two words are not spoken by enlightened humans who have assessed the situation and then decided, with FDR, that “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.” These are words spoken by God, again and again in Scripture, and precisely in those times when there is every reason to be afraid. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus not only speaks these two words of comfort, he puts his arms around his friends; he touches them in their time of overwhelming fear.
 In just three days, on Ash Wednesday, we will gather here again at noon to worship God and to be marked with ashes. We will come into this sanctuary, fears and all. We will once again be reminded that “from dust we come and from dust we shall return.” A big black ashy smudge on our foreheads will be a telling sign to the world that death is not optional. As we feel the ashes touch our foreheads, we will also be reminded of the God who brings life out of death, even death on the cross.
For the past couple of years, two of my young colleagues at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and I would put on our pulpit robes, get our ashes ready, and head to the nearby campus of Georgia State University and to the nearby MARTA station. We were an odd sight by our robes alone, but even more so by the sign we carried that read:  “Get Your Ashes Here.”
Some people would pass us by much like I often pass by a homeless person who is holding a sign on the street corner. Some would engage our eyes, smile, and walk right by us. A surprisingly number of students and even some busy transit riders would stop and ask for ashes. Many would preface it by saying, “Now, I’m not religious, but this couldn’t hurt.”  
When we walked back to the church, we were met by a large crowd of men lining up to get into the Central Night Shelter. They were ready for us. I nearly ran out of ashes, with Shelter guest after Shelter guest asking if they could be marked with the cross. They not only asked for ashes, but they asked us to pray for them and more than a few tears fell along weathered cheeks. A few of the guests told me that this was the first time someone had touched them in months. Then I joined them in the weeping. God was present in this holy touch in a way that I cannot begin to explain.


Maybe that is the invitation of the strange Transfiguration story, to come down off the mountain, to come out of our safe sanctuaries, and to go where people are cowering in fear and to touch them with a holy touch. Not to shout them down. Not to shut them up. Not to pass them by, but to listen to them, to embrace them, and by our presence to assure them that they need not live in fear.  
Ready or not, Lent is almost here with all its stories of betrayal and entrapment, denial and death. But on Wednesday, whenever you splash water on your face to wash away the ashy smudge that was imposed on your forehead, remember that there is no cleansing agent strong enough to wash away the transfiguring touch of the One who loves us and who leads us out of the dark shadow of fear by word and by touch.    
May God grant you and yours a holy Lent!
                                        AMEN

         

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Holy

Holy
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 33-37
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 2-19-2017)

As a boy, our church sang “Take time to be holy” with great gusto. Congregations that listen to Leviticus never sing that hymn, not because it is wrong, but because it is incomplete. Holiness, for Leviticus, is not something that occasionally we “take time to be”; holiness is what those created in the image of God do, every hour, every day. Why? Well, Leviticus answers that question sixteen times this one chapter alone. Why? Because “the Lord your God is holy.”
So, just what is holiness? It is not a measure of how often we say grace over a meal, but how often we act graciously toward others; not a measure of how many times we sit in church on Sunday, but how we stand for those who need us to raise our voice on their behalf every day. Holiness does mean “to be set apart,” “to be set apart” from petty pursuits that distract us from living into God’s grand vision. It must also mean “to be set apart for,” “to be set apart for” life lived on behalf of others, because our God is holy, so we are to be holy, every day, every hour.
While “Holy” is a frequent visitor to Leviticus, unfortunately, Leviticus is an infrequent visitor to Christian pulpits. Even when Leviticus does visit, it is often dismissed as being a part of the archaic and arcane Old Testament. Too many Christians believe with the heretic Marcius of the 2nd century that Jesus arrived to delete the first half of what we know as the Bible, especially to delete such ridiculous books as Leviticus. The only problem with that approach to reading the Bible is that one of Jesus’ favorite chapters in the Bible is Leviticus 19!
 So, for better or for worse, Leviticus and his friend “Holy” are back today. I must confess that I have mixed emotions about her arrival, because I too am a bit uncomfortable with the whole notion of “Holy” and holiness. When I think of “Holy,” I picture people like Mother Teresa and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, people of extraordinary spiritual grace. Or, far less inspiring, I picture those folks who drive me crazy, the “holier than thou” crowd, always pretending to be more spiritually enlightened than the rest of us. Either way, “Holy” is a word I use sparingly and reluctantly and her arrival today gives me pause.  
Fortunate for us, “Holy” is not waiting for an invitation, not hoping for a favorable public approval poll before she unpacks her bags and settles in to stay. “Holy” is not shy. She is no recluse. She lives not only in the homes of those with extraordinary moral character, but with anyone who is willing to let her in. Pay attention even a little and you will see how “Holy” really gets around.  
My first memory of meeting “Holy” was as a young boy. I grew up in Newport News but my cousins grew up in rural Eastern North Carolina. In the late spring, my brother and I would often head to Mt. Olive to harvest everything from melons to cucumbers to tobacco. Early on, I was struck by how inefficient my uncle and cousins were in harvesting crops. Never shy to share my opinion, I remember asking one cousin why they did not go back through the field to collect all the melons missed the first time through. He looked at me with that “you city fool” look and said, “Ain’t you ever read your Bible, Gary? Those other melons are for folks who need to eat them more than we need to sell them.” He was, of course, citing Leviticus 19:9-10 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.” Who would ever think that my first encounter with “Holy” would come from a conversation with my filthy, from head to toe, cousin?
If you have been taught in church that the Bible is a spiritual book uninterested in such mundane earthly affairs, like economics, like picking melons and tobacco, like foreclosures and fair labor practices, like avoiding slander and libel, then your Bible teachers skipped much of the Bible, and certainly skipped the third book of Bible, Leviticus. Just read Leviticus 19:35-36:  “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances. . . . I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus knows that we will never get our economics and public policy right until we get our theology right. We will never “be holy” if we treat neighbors – human or creation – as if they are something other than “Holy.” I love how Walter Kaiser defines “Holy” in Leviticus: “To be holy is to roll up one’s sleeves and to join in with whatever God is doing in the world. . . . In Leviticus, if you want to be holy, don’t pass out a tract; love your neighbor” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 2, 1136).
Leviticus invites any who would welcome “Holy” as the “Lord your God is holy” to hold a broad and generous notion of “neighbor.” Read Leviticus 19 alone and “Holy” resides in us when “neighbor” is more than the person living next door or the friend at school, “neighbor” includes the poor, immigrants, refugees, laborers, the deaf, the blind, and the good earth itself.
“Holy” is not here to help us care for those of similar advantage as ourselves; “Holy” is here to make sure that we care for those who are most disadvantaged. “Holy” lives wherever we make sure that the powerful cannot prey on the powerless and the vulnerable cannot be consumed by predators. I fear that much of the current political rhetoric around immigration, the environment, and public education has “Holy” ready to pack her bags.   
Holiness is not about wearing haloes, but it is often about wearing the scars that result from listening to God and following Jesus and acting on behalf of our neighbors. As long as “Holy” is confined to church sanctuaries, she is really no bother and frankly, of little interest. When we walk out of the sanctuary with “Holy” into God’s beloved world, we often are met not with adulation but resistance and disdain.


The late, Appalachian preacher, Fred Craddock tells a story about holiness-resistance that he experienced in his first church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. When Oak Ridge itself was built, the little town was suddenly overrun by construction workers who lived in hurriedly assembled trailer parks.
Craddock writes, “After church one Sunday morning I asked the leaders to stay. I said to them, ‘Now we need to launch a calling campaign and an invitational campaign in all those trailer parks to invite those people to church’. ‘Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here’, one of them said. ‘They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon’. ‘Well, we ought to invite them, make them feel at home’, I said. We argued about it, time ran out, and we said we’d vote next Sunday.
Next Sunday, we all sat down after the service. ‘I move’, said one of them, ‘I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county’. Someone else said, ‘I second that’. It passed. I voted against it, but they reminded me that I was just a kid preacher and I didn’t have a vote (Craddock Stories, p. 28). 
Maybe Leviticus is such an infrequent visitor to the pulpit because “Holy” comes along too, more often than not, she is a trouble maker. The symbol of the Iona Community in Scotland, a community committed to revitalizing Christian worship and Christian life, is the wild goose, which is itself an image for the Holy Spirit. “Holy” does not calm the waters, but stirs them up when they are far too calm.
As a child of the 60s, God knows how many times I have listened to and sung Simon and Garfunkel’s, “The Sound of Silence.” The lyrics that will never shake free from my memory are “No one dare disturb the sound of silence.” “Holy” dares. “Holy” sings when others wish she would not. Maybe that is why she is here today and in pulpits across the land, across the globe. Maybe she is here to confront the deafening sound of silence?
“Holy” will not rub our backs and whisper soothing things to us while we refuse to speak on behalf of our neighbor, whether it is our neighbor being sent to substandard schools or living in substandard housing or having no housing at all, our pre-teen neighbors being sold into sexual slavery on the street corners of Atlanta and D.C., Chicago and L.A., our sea and sky neighbors being polluted by our waste and wasteful ways, our without proper paper neighbors being targeted and rounded-up, families and children alike. “Holy” will not condone our silence when hateful speech becomes the standard speech on the right and on the left.
William Sloane Coffin once said, “Christ came to take away our sins, not our minds.” To that saying, I would add “and not our voices.” Earlier this week, Polly sent me a church sign that she and Walter saw in their recent trip to Charleston, S.C. I am convinced it is a sign that was written by “Holy.” It reads:
BE THE CHURCH. Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.
At risk of editing “Holy,” I would change the last line to read:
          Embrace diversity. Choose Welcome. Love God.

To live into that “Holy” sign means that we will do more than sit here on Sunday. We will also use our feet to march and our voices to shout and our emails to protest and to advocate on behalf of our gay neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, our river neighbors, our mountain neighbors, our people of color neighbors, our impoverished neighbors. We will dare to disturb the deafening sound of silence.
          So, Cove friends, do not “take time to be holy.” Instead, make room for “Holy.” She has unpacked her bags and she is here to stay!

                    AMEN

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Synergy



Synergy
Text:  I Corinthians 3:1-9
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 2-12-2017)

 Synergy is a term in vogue in businesses today. Most English dictionaries define synergy as “the interaction of multiple elements in a system to produce an effect different from or greater than the sum of their individual effects.” True faith, says Paul, is to live in synergy, to work together to carry out God’s good purpose.
Paul writes letters to the church in Corinth precisely because they are NOT living in synergy, NOT working together. The sin eroding community in Corinth is the same sin that erodes community in churches today and not just churches. It is also ripping apart our country. The sin is the appalling lack of synergy.
Rather than celebrating the diversity of people and gifts and perspectives alive in any congregation, church people far too easily rush to their particular interest corner. Some say:  “I don’t care much for preaching, I come just for the music.” Others say, “I am not a big fan of church music; I’m just here for the mission.” Still others say, “I don’t get much out of worship; I’m just here for the community.”  
When Christians divide into special interest groups, inevitably, community erodes. Paul fears that is happening in Corinth, so he reminds them: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe . . . I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth . . . For we are God’s servants, working together, synergia.” A church is as healthy, says Paul, as its commitment to live into God’s synergy.
 True synergy happens whenever the community celebrates every gift-giver working together, whenever it honors the member who gives up a Saturday to hammer and sheetrock at the local Habitat House as well as the member who fills all the trays for communion as well as the member who sits on the preschool board as well as the member who sends out notes of consolation to those who are grieving as well as well as those who produce the Sunday bulletin as well as those who stand up to sing every Sunday, as well as those who protest and advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable, as well as those, who, like Sharon and Jessica, accept the call to serve as ruling elders, and the list goes on.
In the early years of the church, Irenaeus of Lyons commented on this text from Paul:  “The church has been planted in the world as a paradise.” For those of us who have lived in, worshiped in, worked in, battled in, and sometimes have been scarred by the church, it seems that Irenaeus was exercising some serious poetic license here.
Most spouses who have been together for many years can quickly point out all the bothersome habits and annoying tendencies of their partner. Usually, the list is rather long and grows longer whenever tension arises. The same is true for churches of every size.
Maybe, though, Irenaeus was not talking about the church he saw but about the church God was calling into being. Maybe Irenaeus was calling the church to a greater vision, not unlike the vision offered by the Apostle Paul to the Church in Corinth, a vision of true synergy alive within the church, where all gifts are valued and every gift giver is treasured, a church able to rise above petty annoyances, to set its sights higher, to celebrate what is right and invaluable and precious about each person in the body of Christ.
When we live into God’s synergy, something special happens, as Scott Peck illustrates in his marvelous parable, “The Rabbi’s Gift.” Peck writes: “The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of antimonastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth . . . it [the monastery] had become decimated to the extent that 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 from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. . . As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

“The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. ‘I know how it is’, he exclaimed. ‘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 quietly spoke of deep things.
“The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. ‘It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years’," the abbot said, ‘but I have still 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 whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that is the case, 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 somehow 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 manner, 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.
“Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now 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 more frequently 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 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. 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 in the realm.”
When synergy happens, amazing things like a revitalized monastery, a revitalized church, happens. When Presbyterians are at their very best, they lean on each other, count on each other, celebrate each other’s gifts, debate respectfully, and they learn that working together takes longer than simply working with those of like mind, but it is so much more satisfying, so much more life-giving.
I do not need to tell you this, because Cove could teach courses on synergy for churches of every size. Maybe, though, I need to remind you of your gifts, because maybe synergy is our calling in 2017. Maybe God is calling Cove to demonstrate to a fractured society and a divided church the amazing things that can happen when we work together despite our differences and sometimes because of our differences.
To live into this calling will require the cooperation of every last one of us. I’m in. How about you?
AMEN