Tending to One Another"

A Sermon by Charles Blustein Ortman
The Unitarian Church of Montclair NJ

There's a story, perhaps familiar to some of you called The Rabbi's Gift. This is my spin on the story, based on M. Scott Peck's spin, based on an old medieval tale. This is one of my all-time favorite stories.

There was an abbey that had once been the site of great learning and spiritual exploration. It was known far and wide for the gentle monks who lived there and worked together. Its gardens were beautiful as well as bountiful. The generous monks graciously provided produce to those who were hungry for food, and solace to those who were hungry in spirit.

But recently the abbey had fallen upon hard times. People from the village stopped visiting the brothers. The gardens didn't look as nice. Singing in the chapel services became most discordant. The monks rarely sought one another's company, and often at meals they snapped at one another.

Abbott Thomas didn't know what to make of the situation. No matter what he tried, the monks just got more surly. Off a ways, in the deep woods surrounding the monastery, there was a little hut that a Rabbi from a nearby town 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 to each other.

As he agonized over the imminent demise of his order, it occurred to the Abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the Rabbi, by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery. So he decided to visit his old friend, Rabbi Jacob. He left early one morning and told the monks he'd be back in time for vespers.

Rabbi Jacob was delighted to see his friend. It had been far too long. The two men visited over a hearty lunch and then Jacob asked, "What's wrong Thomas? I can sense something is troubling you. What is it?"

Thomas, relieved by the invitation to the rabbi's counsel, told his friend all that had come to pass at the abbey. When he finally got to the part about the insults he'd overheard in the dining room, he was surprised to see an expression of puzzlement on his friend's face.

"I had expected to hear quite a different story," Jacob confessed. "I had it on good authority, that a magi (which is a person of great wisdom and understanding) had come to live in your abbey. I'd have thought things would be going quite differently for you. This is quite a mystery."

The two men talked for a while more and then it was time for Thomas to head for home. All the while on his walk back, Thomas thought about what the rabbi had said. Jacob had it on good authority that a magi (magus) had come to live in the abbey? There might be a magi?! Could it be one of the monks? Which one? None of them seemed likely.

Over the next couple of days, Thomas called each of the brothers into his office. He told them about his conversation with Rabbi Jacob, and asked if they had any idea of who might be the magi. Of course they all honestly denied any awareness whatever.

In no time at the entire abbey was abuzz. Who could the magi be? No one knew; it could be any of them. Some even suspected that they them self might be the magi.

Things began to change over night. One mustn't be rude to a magi, better to err on the side of graciousness even to a non-magi, than to come up short with you know who. Those that thought there was a possibility that they were the magi began to think that, not only should they extend their best friendliness to those around them, but they'd really ought to try to live up to the standards of a magi. Yes, things began to change around the abbey.

Once again the monks' singing became harmonious. So did their meals and their greetings. The flowers and the vegetables in the gardens even began to bloom and grow in greater abundance. The people in the village once again returned to the abbey seeking succor and sustenance.

One afternoon as the townspeople were heading out of the gate, Abbott Thomas heard one of them comment to another, "I don't know what happened here, but this place is filled with the greatest joy I have ever seen. And the brothers are the most loving people I have ever met." It was then that Abbott Thomas recognized the gift his old friend had given.

And 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.

I recently had the opportunity to visit a church in another city. It was an eye opening experience. I'd heard about this kind of church culture before, but I'd never really experienced anything quite like it.

Soon after my arrival, the minister lit into one of the custodians, right in front of me, tearing him up one side and down the other. Then shortly after that, the two custodians started going at each other. Then the two custodians and the minister were, all three, engaged in a squabbling match.

Finally, several members of the congregation joined in to the fracas. I'm not talking about theological or even political debate. I'm talking about bickering over how and where some chairs were going to be set up for a program that was going to take place. There was an immediate impasse that looked insurmountable. This was a very surly group of church people.

I'm usually always grateful for our own congregation, but I've got to tell you my appreciation for this church and for the way we do things, here, soared during my visit to the other church.

We do have something special here. At times it's more pronounced than at other times. At times we do it better than at other times. And what it is that we have, I think, is a strong sense of community.

Joan England of the University of Michigan writes, "Community is a state of being together in which people lower their defenses, and learn to accept and rejoice in differences among people. The transcendence of rugged individualism to soft individualism is the basis of community." We have developed much of that basis here.

We began our covenant Group Ministries Program a year ago in order to heighten our opportunities for building community. We're not in danger here, at the Unitarian Church of Montclair, of dwindling to naught or of becoming a surly bunch of self-serving naval gazers. We do know something about community. We do know something about respecting one another.

In this last year we've begun to learn something about being even more intentional, about building community even better, more effectively so that more of us can have access to the connections that will enable us to grow spiritually, and to do the work of our lives with an even greater focus of justice and compassion.

In your Order of Service this morning there is a brochure that gives you a pretty good idea of how the covenant groups are structured and how they function. There is a list of the current group leaders and the various focus topics of their groups. We all owe a debt of gratitude to these leaders for piloting this lay ministry program of our church.

We've learned a lot over the last year about what works and what doesn't. The program is still new; we'll continue to learn and continue to adjust. I'm very proud of our Covenant Group Ministries program and of those who make it work. Still though, I have a concern.

My concern is that there are about 80 members of the congregation participating. That's only about 16% of our membership. If that's all that want or need to be in a covenant group, that's fine. But I have to imagine that there are many more who might benefit.

In our church we can promote the possibilities of transformation that will change our lives and the life of the communities around us. Eventually, what we do here does indeed change the world. Our church is a microcosm of the world and our covenant groups are a microcosm of the church.

There is not only one magi among us here I suspect there are many. And we have the opportunity to know and to be known by those other magi. There is not only one poor soul here who struggles to stay on the path of a meaningful life there are many. And we have the opportunity to know and to be known by those other pilgrims who are also on the path. Heaven knows we that since September 11th we need all the time we can get with both magi and sincere pilgrim alike.

We need one another. And we not only need one another in a general sense, we need to be connected—specifically in deep ways that allow our spirits to be touched and held by others, and in ways that help us to reach outward and touch and hold the spirits of others lovingly and caringly. That happens best in small groups of people and that's why we have the covenant groups. They're here for you to have more meaningful relationships within your church so that you can have a more meaningful relationship with your church so that we can be an ever more vibrant center of light and spirituality.

If your relationship with the Church is all that you want it to be already, that's great. And I suspect that you may be one of the Magi. I don't say that facetiously, I suspect you are truly getting what you need for the journey in your own way.

But if your relationship with the Church isn't all you want it to be, maybe you'd like to get involved with one of the groups. So, call on one of the leaders. Maybe you'd like to make a suggestion for the formation of a new group. There are a lot of possibilities. It's up to you to redeem those possibilities for the experience you want to have here.

The covenant groups can provide a way for us all to minister to each other and to be ministered to. In a congregation of our size, the professional ministers cannot realistically be there for everyone at all times. As a part of a religious community, don't we want to make sure that there is always someone there for anyone who might be in need? In this way everyone can literally share in our ministry.

This is not a new adventure so much as a new way of trying to do what this congregation has always tried to do from the very beginning. It is an attempt to create a community a liberal religious community; to gather regularly; to develop strong personal relationships; to explore the history and the literature of Unitarian Universalism; and to go about creating a new and a better world, for ourselves and for those around us.

So that's the message today. It's not a lot of details and business about this program of the church. It's an invitation to engage on an intimate level with others exploring some of the ultimate questions of a lifetime. We come to church not only to partake of the sacred, but also to partake of the sacred community. And we are the builders of that community.

I do suspect that in this room and in this congregation, we have Magi among us. And if we are wise enough, deep enough to explore that possibility on an intimate level among ourselves, like Abbot Thomas, we too might overhear visitors saying of us, "I don't know what happened here, but this place is filled with the greatest joy I have ever seen…and the most loving people I have ever met."

Our task is the age-old religious task: To love the Holy and to love one another with in it.

Let our plan then be to do that the best we can.


Used by permission of Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman

See this sermon and more at: http://www.uumontclair.org/sermons/20011201CovMinScpt.shtml

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