The Rev. Tom Niehaus
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
And Jesus said, “Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.”
I need to tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was an abbot of a monasterywho was very good friends with the rabbi of a local synagogue. It was Europe, and times were hard. The abbot found his community dwindling and the faith life of his monks shallow and lifeless. Life in the monastery was dying. He went to his friend and wept. His friend, the rabbi, comforted him and told him:
“There is something you need to know, my brother. We have long known in the Jewish community that the Messiah is one of you.”
“What?” exclaimed the abbot, “the Messiah is one of us? How can that be?”
But the rabbi insisted that it was so, and the abbot went back to his monastery wondering and praying, comforted and excited. Once back in the monastery, walking down the halls and in the courtyard, he would pass by a monk and wonder if he was the one. Sitting in chapel, praying, he would hear a voice and look intently at a face and wonder if he was the one, and he began to treat all of his brothers with respect, with kindness and awe, with reverence. Soon it became quite noticeable.
One of the other brothers came to him and asked him what had happened to him. After some coaxing, he told him what the rabbi had said. Soon the other monk was looking at his brothers differently and wondering. The word spread through the monastery quickly: the Messiah is one of us.
Soon the whole monastery was full of life, worship, kindness, and grace. The prayer life was rich and passionate, devoted, and the psalms and liturgy and services were alive and vibrant. Soon the surrounding villagers, including young men, were coming to the services and listening and watching intently, and there were many young men who joined the monastic community. After their novitiate, when they took their vows, they were told the mystery, the truth that their life was based upon, the source of their strength and life together: The Messiah is one of us.
The monastery grew and expanded into house after house, and all of the monks grew in wisdom, age, and grace before the others and the eyes of God. And they say still, if you stumble across this place, where there is life and hope and kindness and graciousness, that the secret is the same: The Messiah is one of us.
Someone forgot to tell the people of Ferguson, Missouri,that the Messiah is one of them. And by “people” I mean the citizens of the town AND the police. Everybody, “The Messiah is one of you.”
When they believe that, they will treat one another with respect,with kindness, with awe, with reverence.But Ferguson is not the only place that needs to do that. We all need to do it. And then we would treat one another withrespect, with kindness, with awe, and with reverence.
Today at communion time, when I distribute the bread to you, I am going to use the words of Augustine, the bishop of the 5th century. When he distributed the bread, he said, “Receive what you are, the Body of Christ.”
We are the Body of Christ. Our Post-Communion Prayer says it all:
Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
That’s it ! We are living members of Christ.
So then how are we to interpret the story about the abbot and the rabbi? One way is for me to tell you the words of writer Hannah Arendt: “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” Let’s just say that when people treat one another with great respect, it changes them for the better. It transforms them.
So then…how do we apply these things to the people of Ferguson, and to ourselves? Actually, I think Milwaukee and Ferguson have some things in common. Some people call Milwaukee “the most segregated city in the U.S.” There is a 2009 book about civil rights in Milwaukee with the title “The Selma of the North.” This summer we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the summers of civil rights in 1964 and 1965. I am thinking now of two persons whose actions in those years are models for us. We celebrated the feast of one of them a few days ago on August 15,on our liturgical calendar. He is Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who went to Alabama, in August 1965. A deputy sheriff pointed his shotgun at a black teenage girl,
his finger on the trigger, and Jonathan stepped in front of her to protect her, and was killed instantly.
Nowadays, every August people go on pilgrimage to Alabama,and honor what Jonathan did, as a symbol of the challenges we still face in achieving racial harmony. The other person I think of is a Milwaukeean who went to Selma in the 1960’s, and came back to Milwaukee to work for fair housing in our city. He was Jim Groppi, a Roman Catholic priest, who led marches of African American youth for 200 straight days in 1967. He was a very controversial figure: both loved and hated. In fact, the Archdiocese tore down his parish, St. Boniface. I asked some of my Catholic priest friends and they said it was done to avoid having it turned into a shrine.
The most famous march was the one across the 16th-Street Viaduct, in which 200 black youth marched north on the viaduct in August 1967 and were met by 12,000 whites from the Polish neighborhoods. The following year the U.S. Congress passed the fair housing law,that opened housing to the blacks. Today the viaduct is named the “Groppi Unity Bridge.”
Jim Groppi left the Catholic priesthood, got married, and had a family. He went to an Episcopal seminary for a while, and even worked in an Episcopal parish in a poor section of Detroit, but in the end he decided not to seek ordination in the Episcopal Church. He died of a brain tumor at 56 in 1985. Interestingly, his widow, Peggy Rozga, this summer took a group of African American youth from Milwaukee to the South to learn of the events of the 1960’s and the civil rights movement. An article this month in the Journal Sentinel tells that a gallery on 5th Street contains the art work that the young people made as a result of their trip. We still have much work to do on racial issues in our city.
But you at St. Paul’s are involved in these issues. Your participation in Common Ground is a major element of that. As you may know, Common Ground has gotten five major banks
to provide $31 million to maintain and rehabilitate foreclosed properties in Milwaukee. Amazing work. Common Ground has established a health care cooperative to provide health insurance for residents of the center city, as well as helping to add 3000 jobs to the Youth Jobs Program
Common Ground has worked for years to improve the public schools, including expanding playgrounds for youth. In a recent meeting on the issue of how much city money should be put into the new Bradley Center, Common Ground spoke up and said before we spend millions in public funds on the Bradley Center, we need to have excellent playgrounds in every public school. St. Paul’s is a part of everything that Common Ground does.
Your ministry with the Interchange Food Pantry and with The Gathering are other ways that St. Paul’s is contributing to the improvement of life in the city. So you are living out the story of the abbot and rabbi. You are telling the secret that “The Messiah is one of us.” Keep your eyes open as you continue to search for the Messiah among us For in doing your search, you will treat everyone with respect, caring, and love. And your search will transform you, as well as those around you.
“The Messiah is one of us.” For we are the Body of Christ. Amen.