Monday, November 5, 2012

Neighbor Parables

November 4th, 2012    “Neighbor Parables”         Rev. Heather Jepsen
Psalm 146 and Mark 12:28-34
          Our gospel reading for this morning is so familiar that it can be a challenge to hear it with fresh ears.  Of course we are called to love God with the whole of who we are; and of course we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.  This is the foundation of our faith, and to preach it from the pulpit is to say nothing new.  Rather than tell you what you already know about these verses, I thought that today I would follow Luke’s example and tell you a parable instead.  Luke tells us the story of the Good Samaritan to help us better understand love of neighbor.  That story too, is well worn ground, so today I hope to find a neighbor parable you haven’t heard yet.
          Our first story comes from Jewish folklore and it goes like this . . . Rabbi Haim of Romshishok was an itinerant preacher.  He traveled from town to town delivering religious sermons that stressed the importance of respect for one’s fellow man.  
He often began his talks with the following story: "I once ascended to the firmaments.  I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying.  Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger.  As I came closer, I understood their predicament.  Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth.  It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.
Next I went to visit Heaven.  I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell – row after row of long tables laden with food.  But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal. 
As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows.  How, then, did they manage to eat?  As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him!  The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.  I suddenly understood.  Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions.  The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other.
I ran back to Hell to share this solution with the poor souls trapped there.  I whispered in the ear of one starving man, "You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbor, and he will surely return the favor and feed you."
“You expect me to feed the detestable man sitting across the table?” said the man angrily.  “I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating!” I then understood God’s wisdom in choosing who is worthy to go to Heaven and who deserves to go to Hell."
This is a powerful parable that offers a great example of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  In the rabbi’s vision of heaven, folks are happy to share what they have with each other.  They are happy to help one another, to receive help, and to work for the benefit of all.  In the vision of hell, folks would rather starve then help out someone who is in need.  The parable beautifully illustrates the good, perhaps even the wealth, that comes to us when we are willing to help others. 
To be honest, as modern believers and as a church invested in social justice, it is not very challenging to relate love of our neighbor with feeding our neighbor.  In fact, many of us will spend this month doing exactly that as we give our time and energy to work in the Food Center.  
In our gospel reading Jesus teaches us that love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand.  In our reading from the Psalms, we get a good idea of just who our neighbor is.  From the widow and orphan, to the blind and lame, to the prisoner and the outcast, these are the ones that God is working for.  These are our neighbors.   
Now there is a good chance that you have heard the parable of the long spoons before; I know I have told it before, so let’s try another one.  This modern parable comes from the writings of Megan McKenna:
“There was a woman who wanted peace in the world and peace in her heart and all sorts of good things, but she was very frustrated.  The world seemed to be falling apart.  She would read the papers and get depressed.  One day she decided to go shopping, and she went into a mall and picked a store at random.  She walked in and was surprised to see Jesus behind the counter.  She knew it was Jesus, because he looked just like the images she’d seen on holy cards and devotional pictures.  She looked again and again at him, and finally she got up her nerve and asked, “Excuse me, are you Jesus?”
“I am.”
“Do you work here?”
“No,” Jesus said, “I own the store.”
“Oh, what do you sell in here?”
“Oh, just about anything!”
“Yeah, anything you want.  What do you want?”
She said, “I don’t know.”
“Well,” Jesus said, “feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”
She did just that, walked up and down the aisles.  There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources.  She wrote furiously.  By the time she got back to the counter, she had a long list.  Jesus took the list, skimmed through it, looked up at her, and smiled.  “No problem.”  And then he bent down behind the counter and picked out all sorts of things, stood up, and laid out some packets.
She asked, “What are these?”
Jesus replied, “Seed packets.  This is a catalog store.”
She said, “You mean I don’t get the finished product?”
“No, this is a place of dreams.  You come and see what it looks like, and I give you the seeds.  You plant the seeds.  You go home and nurture them and help them to grow, and someone else reaps the benefits.”
“Oh,” she said.  And she left the store without buying anything.”
I really like this parable.  I think that it’s a good one because so often we say we want good things for the world; peace on earth, justice for the oppressed, a healthy environment, but really we want are those things for ourselves.  To work a lifetime and not see the results of her work, to not reap the benefit was too much for this woman to bear, she couldn’t do it.
Today we are celebrating our stewardship commitments.  Making a pledge of time and money to the work of the church is a lot like shopping in Jesus’ seed shop.  Like Rick reminded us last week with our windows, we are making an offering of ourselves.  Rather than sowing our wild oats, we are scattering the seeds of our time and treasure in this congregation and in the world.  In time we will harvest some of our gifts, but other things won’t come to fruition until we have gone. 
This makes me think of the lasting gifts folks have left in our endowment funds.  Those folks planted the seeds for a future harvest, a harvest that continues to this day making a dramatic difference in the life of this church.  Generations into the future will still reap the benefits of their generosity.  That is a great example of love of God and love of neighbor.
I don’t know the origin of the last parable I am going to share this morning.  A photocopy of this was given to me by a friend.  It is simply called, “The Diamond” . . .
“The sannyasi had reached the outskirts of the village and settled down under a tree for the night, when a villager came running up to him and said, “The stone!  The stone!  Give me the precious stone!”
“What stone?” asked the sannyasi.
“Last night the Lord Shiva appeared to me in a dream,” said the villager, “and told me that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk I should find a sannyasi who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever.”
The sannyasi rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone.  “He probably meant this one,” he said, as he handed the stone over to the villager.  “I found it on a forest path some days ago.  You can certainly have it.”
The man gazed at the stone in wonder.  It was a diamond, probably the largest diamond in the whole world, for it was as large as a person’s head.
He took the diamond and walked away.  All night he tossed about in bed, unable to sleep.  Next day at the crack of dawn he woke the sannyasi and said, “Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.”
It is my prayer today that we might use our spoons to feed our neighbors, that we might plant seeds that future generations will harvest, and that we might give away our greatest treasure.  These are the two greatest commandments; to love God and neighbor.  If we understand these things then we are not far from the kingdom of heaven.  Amen.


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