Scott Peck recalls the story of a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. He writes: “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 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’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 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 this 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” (The Different Drum, pp. 8-11).
Maybe Peck’s old fable is no more than a silly myth, hardly worth telling in these divisive and uncivil times. Maybe, though, his fable speaks an essential piercing truth to our divided nation today and to many divided religious communities within our nation.
What if we were to take the essence of this fable to heart? What if you and I were to live with profound respect toward our peers and even toward strangers? What if Republicans stopped claiming the high ground and if Democrats stopped doing the same? What if we saw that everyone without housing, everyone living in prison, everyone looking for medical and mental health services as people who may have something critical to teach us about the nature and love of God? What if you and I saw everyone we meet – friend and foe – as people created in the image of God and beloved by God?
In today’s Gospel lesson, for instance, what if Peter had treated Jesus with profound respect? What if Peter had listened to Jesus and listened well before he spoke his first words? What if Peter had grasped that playing life safe when others need us to live out our faith boldly and compassionately is a sure-fire way to make life empty and meaningless? What if Peter had not instructed Jesus on how to live but had paid all his attention studying how Jesus chose to live?
What if you and I do not fault Peter, but learn from Peter as we dare to watch and listen and follow Jesus when many in our world, many in our nation, shake their heads at our silly, arcane faith? What if in following Jesus we found ourselves living more wisely and more gently on this planet, so it can breathe and can provide a healthy home for generations to come?
What if our labor as followers of Jesus is not so much what we do with our hands but with what we do with our hearts? What if you and I who follow Jesus start curbing our critical tongues and start treating everyone like the monks in the monastery started treating each other, with profound respect? What if one of us in the Messiah?
Maybe if we start living that way nothing will ever change in the world. Maybe we will continue to do things in the same divisive ways as we have always done them. Maybe we will still miss the road that Jesus has cleared for us to follow, a road that leads to new life, new hope and new ways to live in peace and compassion.
Or maybe if we really listen to Jesus, maybe if we adopt a posture of profound respect, maybe . . .