Compassion for Them
Ordinary Sunday 5: 4th February, 2018
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
There is a beautiful story told in M. Scott Peck's classic book, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (NY: Touchstone, 1987). It's been around for a while, as have some other stories we read to each other in this place, but I think it might just have a message for us today.
This story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it 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. 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 agonised 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's 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 Philemon. Philemon 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 Philemon 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 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 centre of light and spirituality in the realm.
At our weekday 7.15am Mass here at St Peter's, one of the congregants often asks me on the way out: "Fr Hugh, did that miracle really happen?" He's not here today, but if he was he'd be asking the same question of today's Gospel reading: the healing of Simon's mother-in-law, and the flood of healings that follow. I love Mark's gospel. He is so sparing with words, but says it all. In verses 32-33, perhaps after word of earlier healings has broken out, he writes: "That evening, at sunset, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was at the door." What a scene. A huge surging crowd, everyone in the town, all trying to get their sick loved ones into Simon and Andrew's little fisherman's cottage for one moment with Jesus. Is this true? Did all these healing happen? Is it an historical account?
My regular response to the early morning post-Mass questioner is to tell another tale about a Rabbi. When asked if a particular story from the Torah was historically accurate, he would always reply: "Well, I don't know if it happened exactly in this way; but I do know that it's true!"
Let's step back for a moment and ask a basic question: what is Mark wanting to tell us? That Jesus is a magic miracle worker? A demon slayer? Today we are in chapter one of Mark, but at Mass yesterday morning (Saturday) our lectionary skipped forward to Mark chapter six. There is a verse there that, in my mind, sums up what all the healing miracles are about (v.34a): "As [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them ... ." He had compassion for them. And his followers across the ages have done the same in response to the gospel: St Francis embracing the leper, Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying, our own Lazarus Centre, M. Scott Peck's tale. This is what Mark is saying to us. Jesus is the Messiah, yes; and our Lord sees the Messiah in every person who comes to his door. Do you?
Today we are Commissioning a fine group of people. Alae Taule'alo as Lay Minister to St Peter's and Chaplain to RMIT; our 2018 Parish Council into their important leadership and governance role in the parish: Nick Browne, Judith Chapman, Stephen Duckett (chair), Catherine McGovern, Jane Munro, Nick Lambarde-Scott, Kelly Shang, Lum Southey, Rwth Stuckey, Peter Wild, Sue Wuttke and Peter Yewers; the 2018 Klingner Scholars: Colleen Clayton (returning) and Lynda Crossley; and two new Priest Associates: Fr Andrew Lang and Fr David Peake.
Is the Messiah among them. Well, yes! I think so. Or maybe the Messiah is one of you. Because what really counts is not some supernatural magic show, or some kingly achievement. What really matters is the compassion and loving respect we have for one another; that is what lies at the heart of the gospel; that is what saves. Love, in a word. If we act in this way — the way that Mark's gospel and our other scriptures set before us — if we follow this way, The Way, then the Messiah is indeed among us, and has indeed come again. Because, as we will say to each other at the peace: we are the Body of Christ; his Spirit is with us. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.