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Entertaining Angels – 10/23/2011

There is a popular story, I’d venture to guess that many of you have heard it before, about a monastery that had fallen on hard times. There were very few brothers left, and each of them was well-advanced in years. After going for a very long time with no one new admitted to their order, not even any prospects, the abbot, the leader of the monastery began to despair. He feared that his generation would be the last to pray and to practice according to their tradition in their little home in the woods.

This abbot happened to be friends with the rabbi of a nearby village, and one day he visited him to share his despair at the slow and seemingly irreversible fading out of his community. The two old men commiserated about it, for the story was much the same with the rabbi’s congregation: each year there were fewer and fewer. They prayed together, and they read scripture and they comforted each other as best they could, and when it was time for the abbot to go, he asked the rabbi if he had any advice for him and his order. The rabbi told his friend, “There is no advice that I can give you; all I can tell you is that one of you is the messiah.”

The abbot went back to the monastery and thought about what the rabbi had said. He told himself that it didn’t make any sense. He thought about each of his brothers, all of their failings and faults – he knew them very well; they’d all lived and worked together for a very long time. But as he thought of each man, and all of the ways that they fell short of the perfect ideal he would expect from the messiah, he couldn’t help but also think of their particular gifts – he knew them very well, after all. Eventually one of the brothers asked what was on his mind, and he told the rest of them what the rabbi had said. Each man went through the same series of thoughts. It could not be this one, he was too foolish – oh, but he was kind; kind enough to be the messiah? It could not be this one, he was too impatient. But he was wise; wise enough to be the messiah. Of course it could not be me. No. Could it?

And because they were thinking about all of these things, the monks began to treat each other, and themselves, differently. Kinder, more gently, and with a deeper respect. There was always that chance, no matter how small, that any one of them could be the messiah. In time, the word spread out from the rare visitors to the monastery that there was a wonderful and peculiar spirit among the brothers there. And more people came to see and experience it, and eventually, some of them even stayed to be a part of it. Once again there were new people to join the community, and the brothers were no longer alone in the woods.[i]

The stories that we tell ourselves about each other determine how we are together. So it matters very much what stories we choose to tell. As Unitarian Universalists we affirm that wisdom can flow from any corner: from the teachings of science and the experience of the natural world, from our own personal stories of living, from the lyrics of poetry and pop songs and the front page of a newspaper. Revelation, for us, is not sealed up in some specific book. But as open as our tradition is in its embrace of many different sources of meaning there are still some stories that a lot of us have trouble with. A lot of them are found in those specific books that other religious people are so focused on. I want to tell you that we have a duty to those stories too. Not to run from them just because they challenge us, and not to surrender them to those who would distort and misuse them to harm other people and the world we share.

I have a particular example that’s been on my mind for several weeks now. It’s a story from the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. You’ve probably all heard the cliff notes version, at least. There were two great cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. They were destroyed by fire, and this is to be taken as a cautionary tale. It is a warning to those who hear the story, not to fall into the same sin as the people of Sodom.

And what was that sin? Right now most of us have the same hurtful, hateful answer ringing in our ears. Some of us have been mocked with it, attacked with it; we have been beaten and battered and bruised by this story before. But rather than conceding that version and its power over us, lets turn back to the story, and see what it has to say.

“Two visitors came to the city of Sodom, as Lot was sitting at the gate.” Lot was a relative of Abraham, the biblical patriarch, and he was not from Sodom, he was an immigrant there. Lot invited the two travelers – two strangers – to spend the night at his house, but before they had a chance to lie down, an angry mob gathered outside of the building. It must have been a huge group because it included “all the people to the last man.” “And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we might know them.” To know, in this case, is commonly held to be a euphemism for sexual contact. And then in one of the most disturbing betrayals of children by a parent in the book of Genesis – and there is some steep competition in this category – Lot tried to bargain with the crowd and offer up his own daughters as alternate victims.

This only infuriated the mob. “Stand back! The fellow,” they said, “came here as an alien, and already he acts the ruler! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” But the crowd is stopped, and Lot’s house protected by the visitors, who reveal themselves to be angels, sent to test the city and see if its sins were as terrible as had been reported. Under their advice, Lot and some of his family were able to escape from the city before its fiery demise.[ii]

So what is the sin of Sodom? What are we being warned against in this morality tale? Two travelers come to the city in the evening, with no place to sleep, and the only person who notices or cares is Lot, who is not actually from Sodom. When the rest of the town does find out about the visitors, their immediate impulse is to try to rape them, and when Lot tries to intervene they immediate turn on him as another outsider. You have been told before, many times, I’m sure, that this is a story against homosexuality. What I tell you is this: it is a story for hospitality.

It’s the story of a society that hates and despises the vulnerable and the unfamiliar so deeply that its people go beyond merely ignoring those who need their help, to the point of doing direct, violent, terrible harm to them as a matter of course. Later in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Ezekiel, the prophet writes, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”[iii] The lesson of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is that a people ought to be judged by how they treat each other, and in particular the most vulnerable among them

I was thinking about this last Sunday when I went down to Boston to visit Dewey Square. That narrow plaza, across from South Station, is currently home to the Occupy Boston encampment, our local franchise in the protest movement that has spread

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out from New York City’s Wall Street to cities all over the country. Early Sunday evening I saw hundreds of people crammed into a narrow space. Some holding signs along the sidewalk, with slogans like, “I’m not a ‘human resource,’ I’m a ‘human being.’” Others moving about in the patchwork village of tents and tarps. The scene was chaotic and loud in every possible sense. At one end of the park, a group of Jewish labor activists were singing and making speeches, and down at the other side, on the ‘official’ stage, someone was playing folk guitar.

The story I had heard before I arrived was that this group was hopelessly disorganized, without any coherent method or message. What I saw instead was a community built largely out of strangers that had constructed systems to distribute food and clothing, to maintain basic security and hygene. To foster dialog among the different participants and try to build a shared platform, and to provide comforts I might not have thought of but would have been very sorry to do without – including an on premises-library with over 500 books to lend.[iv] There is a system in place for numbering and keeping track of the various tents and maintaining footpaths between them, and all this put together in less than a month. The occupiers have begun to create a microcosm – however messy, jumbled, and still in its infancy – of a society that better matches their own values. Because even if the occupy movement doesn’t have one simple list of talking points that define it, it was clear to me seeing that mixed multitude in person, what rudimentary cause had called them there. Anger at the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots – the sense that the deck is stacked against the majority of people in this country and that the rules of the game we are all caught up in playing are becoming less just and not more so. And at the same time, hope. Bold, fiercely optimistic hope that another world is possible.

I was impressed before I went there in person by the folks who would leave the relative comfort and safety of a private residence and a personal bed to sleep outside, in close quarters, under the very real threat of arrest. Putting your body in harm’s way like that is a significant thing, and there are plenty of people in Dewey Square who match that story. What I failed to imagine was the number of folks I would encounter who do not have safe and reliable places to live or sleep. People for whom sleeping outside in the heart of the city as the chill of the fall settles in is sadly normal. The gathering in Dewey Square has allowed homeless folks to find a way to be visible, to enjoy some rare safety in numbers and to share in the collective voice of politics that they are systematically shut out of. And in return, folks who were living on the street before the occupy movement came into existence are bringing to it all of their numerous and varied talents, including their vital experience of how to survive living outside in Boston’s colder months. In the community on the square, the lines between who needs help, and who can give help become varied and blurred.

Even if you’ve already made up your mind that you’re for or against the movement, I recommend that you visit the square yourself if you haven’t yet. They are holding a mirror up to the world we all currently live in, and it shows a reflection that none of us should feel proud of or comfortable with. It calls to mind for me those words from Ezekiel: they “had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor or the needy.” As individuals, we each have our own stories: how much of this and that we possess, and how kindly or poorly we have used what we have. But as a nation, as a people, we share one story, and the prophetic message coming from Dewey Square is that that story has to change.

It is not my place to tell you that as Unitarian Universalists you must take the side of this faction or that. But our tradition does have something to offer that I believe is relevant here. Our faith tells me, and it tells each of us, that every one of you is the messiah. Now that word has a specific meaning in Judaism, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean it like that. It has a specific meaning in Christianity, too, and I don’t mean it in that sense either. I’m speaking of the basic linguistic meaning of someone who is anointed, who is designated to do something specific and great in the service of something larger than themselves – in that sense, all of you are the messiah. Everyone inside this room, and everyone outside this room as well. For in every person lies the potential to live prophetically, to serve the truth and struggle for justice to the end that all people might have life, and have it more abundantly.

So if all of us are the messiah, how then must we live? How ought we to be together in our families, in our congregation, in our nation, and in our world? Doesn’t the messiah who sits across from us at dinner deserve our patience and our care? Doesn’t the messiah who sleeps in the street deserve not to be ignored, and a better place to sleep than the street? Doesn’t a nation of messiahs deserve a finer system for allocating scarce resources than one in which 1% of the people control 40% of the wealth? Doesn’t every messiah have a basic right to health care? To ask the question is simple enough; to answer it, takes far more courage and hard work. Together then, as a people, let us roll up our sleeves and be about doing some of it.

[i] Retellings of this story are common enough that I wasn’t able to determine its

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origin with any confidence. Probably the most famous version appears in Scott M. Peck’s “The Different Drummer”

[ii] This story is told in the 19th chapter of Genesis.

[iii] Ezekiel, 16:49


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