An old story, told by the rabbis, is still told today:
A long time ago, in the place that is now Jerusalem, but long before that holy city’s streets were laid, there lived two brothers who had inherited a farm from their father. Each had built a house to live in and a barn in which to store wheat, on opposite sides of a hill in the middle of the land they shared and tilled together. The older brother was single and lived alone. The younger brother had a wife and children living with him in his house. The brothers loved each other dearly and did not want to divide the fields between them. So together they plowed and planted and harvested the same crop in the same fields. After they cut the wheat, they shared equally in the produce of their labor, and each stored his half in his own barn.
One year at harvest time, this time of year, the two brothers, each in his own home, beside his own barn, on opposite sides of the hill, found themselves lying awake at night, thinking.
“Here I am,” the older brother thought to himself, “all alone with no wife and no children. I don’t need to feed or clothe anyone. But my brother has a family to raise. Is it right to share our harvest equally? After all, he has greater need than I do.” So at midnight he arose and took a bundle of wheat from his barn and carried it to his brother’s barn and left it there. Then he returned to his bed and slept in peace. And he did this night after night, during harvest time.
Also troubled in his sleep, his younger brother thought to himself, “Here I am, my wife looks after me, and when I grow old my children will take care of me. But what will happen to my brother in his old age? Who will take care of him? He has greater need than I do. It isn’t right to share the harvest equally.” So shortly after midnight he arose and took a bundle of wheat from his barn and carried it to his brother’s barn and left it there. Then he returned to his bed and slept in peace. He, too, did this night after night during harvest time.
For years, every harvest time, each brother would consider the other’s needs, and would wake night after night in the small hours to carry some wheat from his barn into his brother’s barn. And for many years neither brother knew of the other’s generosity.
One year, on a clear and starry night, around this time of year, the two brothers met each other coming over the hillside, with sheaves of wheat bundled in each other’s arms. When they realized what they had been doing all these years, they dropped their sheaves, held out their arms and embraced.
Long after the brothers were gone to heaven, and their children had sold the land and subdivided it, as Jerusalem was built up around it, the story continued to be told about the two brothers, and the spot on the hill was remembered as the place where they met and discovered the gift of their generous love toward each other. And the rabbis say that that is the place where King Solomon decided to build the Temple, for it was fitting that the holiest place of the holiest city should be a place that had long been remembered for extraordinary generosity and grace between brothers.
It is now almost harvest time here at Saint Mark’s. It’s time for us to lie in bed and think at night about one another, and about our brothers and sisters who are not a part of this family yet, or who have no place at all to build a house or a barn, who don’t even know how to find their way to the hillside. Its time to be troubled in our thoughts as we try to fall asleep and to wonder if it’s right to keep so much of the harvest for ourselves since we know so many whose needs are greater than ours. It is a beautiful thing to be kept awake at night by the thought that you might be able to do something for someone you love; that all you have to do is get up and carry a bundle of wheat in your arms and deliver it in secret, sharing what you have with someone whose need is great.
When Saint Mark’s was built, it was one of the first buildings on this side of Broad Street, the city had not yet grown up around it. Quickly the streets were filled in and the city of brotherly love made its way here. We’re not in the exact middle of the city here, but we are close; and there is no hilltop here, but I think, I hope, I pray that we occupy something like the space where those two brothers met, before Jerusalem was builded, so long ago. I hope we are a place where brothers and sisters, kept awake by their consciences – by their love – bring their gifts for each other, and for the brothers and sisters who have yet to join our number, or who simply need our care. It might even be that like Zacchaeus we’d like to give half of all that we have to those who have greater need than we do – believe it or not there are people in this world even now who do just that.
We are the vibrant, happy, lively and faithful community we are because generations of brothers and sisters before us left their sheaves here, while they were living and when they died. And although Philadelphia may not quite be a holy city, we are standing on holy ground, consecrated by the prayers of God’s people over more than 160 years, and by the care of God’s children, and by the visitation of the Holy Spirit.
We are so many more than just two brothers, who have been so abundantly blessed in our many ways. And we come here week by week, from our various edges of the fields we work in. And when we get here, do we realize that no matter what we do for a living, in God’s eyes we are all tilling the same soil, tending the same crop? Have we begun to suspect in the small hours of the night that it would be good for us to share what we have with someone whose need is greater than our own?
And I believe I see you coming over the brow of the hill toward me, carrying something in your arms, and I have something in mine.
Let us decide to leave it here, where an altar has already been built. And may future generations know why this temple stands here at a place on Locust Street: a place of extraordinary generosity and grace, where brothers and sisters lay down our offerings, and spread our arms wide to embrace.
Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
31 October 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia