Sermon for October 7, 2007
Texts: Genesis 4:1-10/Luke 16:19-31
Title: “My Brother’s Keeper”
Even as the blood of his brother soaked into the ground, Cain was confronted by God. “Where is your brother Abel?” was the question. “I do not know [he responded]; am I my brother’s keeper?” The response was likely made dismissively, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
From the Lord’s perspective, Cain was his brother’s keeper. Unfortunately, he no longer had a brother to keep. The murder had been committed. The deed was done. Yet the question Cain put to God lingers as a very important one to this day: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” What responsibility, if any, do I bear on my brother’s behalf?
The issue of my responsibility for my brother confronts us on a daily basis. For instance, what responsibility do we have to care for the homeless? What percentage of our tax dollars should be allocated to programs to support the underclass? Is taxpayer funded universal health care the answer? Answers to these questions have real life consequences.
Nearly everyday Congress debates proposed legislation where issues bearing on the welfare of our brother, or sister, come into play. We all know that strong feelings are likely to be expressed when the issue of responsibility for my neighbor is debated.
There exists no broad consensus across the nation on how you and I are to respond to the brother or sister in need. What we in America have never said is that my brother or sister’s welfare is irrelevant. We do not debate whether or not we bear responsibility for each other, the vast majority of us freely acknowledge such responsibility, the real issue concerns the degree of responsibility we are willing to accept.
It is fair to say that the United States, among the developed nations of the world, has been progressive in accepting responsibility for the needy brother or sister among us. While our ancestors brought no social service network with them when they colonized North America, the nation’s founders soon recognized that poor houses and debtors’ prisons offered no solution to meaningfully address the needs of those who for whatever reason were being marginalized. Those same founders soon recognized that the churches, synagogues, and other faith-based organization being formed were providing the only real relief being provided.
The nation’s founders recognized that the churches, synagogues and other faith-based organizations could not be expected to be the principal sources of relief for the brother or sister in need.
Our forebears faced a practical dilemma, as well as a moral one, dilemmas that continue to engage local, state, and federal officials. Predictably the dilemmas concerning the form in which assistance should be rendered, and the degree to which responsibility should be assumed, have been resolved most easily in times of national crisis, at those times when people of all ranks in society experienced vulnerability. Think of the Great Depression.
In a chapter from his book “Freedom From Fear,” entitled “The Ordeal of the American People,” author David M. Kennedy, quotes a voice from the depression, Frank Walker, president of the National Emergency Council, “I saw old friends of mine—men I had been to school with—digging ditches and laying sewer pipe. They were wearing their regular business suits as they worked because they couldn’t afford overalls and rubber boots. If I ever thought, ‘There, but for the grace of God—’ it was right then.”
“But for the grace of God.” The Great Depression of the thirties that reduced Walker’s friends to ditch diggers was one of those moments in American history when men and women of the upper echelons in society were forced to re-examine the source of their good fortune. They discovered that they were vulnerable to the very forces that forced their neighbor to the margins. “But for the grace of God.”
Seizing an opportunity to capitalize on this period of national vulnerability, Huey Long, then a U.S. Senator from Louisiana, “launched the Share our Wealth Society.” The platform was simple, “every man is king.” He advocated the confiscation of large fortunes, “levying steeply progressive income taxes, and distributing the revenue to every American family in the form of a ‘household estate’ of five thousand dollars—enough, he suggested, for a home, an automobile and a radio.”
Long insisted that his “Share our Wealth Society,” was wholly consistent with religious values, declaring, “God invited us to come and eat and drink all we wanted. He smiled on our land and we grew crops of plenty to eat and wear….” Solidly aligning himself with the less fortunate neighbor, he insisted that the Rockefellers and the Morgans [people of great wealth] were depriving millions of their fellow citizens of the “good things” God created.
For all of his rhetoric aimed at the wealthy, Long was accumulating a substantial fortune himself. Be that as it may, the rhetoric caught on. His “Share our Wealth Society” program enjoyed great popularity.
“But for the grace of God,” even those who enjoyed a steady, if reduced income during the depression, were forced to look over their shoulder. Tomorrow might be the day when they shared their less fortunate neighbor’s plight.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” The impulse to help the brother is strongest when I myself feel his pain. Fact of the matter is, however, there have been only relatively isolated periods in our history, notably the depression and World War II, periods in our history fewer and fewer of our citizens remember today, when the great majority of our citizens pretty much shared a common plight.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” I hear Cain disavowing any responsibility for his brother’s welfare. No, his response didn’t sit well with God.
Again, the impulse to see my brother as my brother is strongest when I recognize his worth as being equal to my own. When I fail to do that, God gets very upset.
Our New Testament lesson offers strong testimony as to how upset God can get. There are just three persons in the lesson Jesus taught, one of them described as a “rich man.” Notice whenever Jesus introduces a rich man into one of his lessons, that rich man seldom shows up very well. Such certainly is the case here. Three persons in the lesson Jesus taught, a “rich man,” Lazarus, and Abraham.
The “rich man” is, of all the characters in the parables and stories Jesus taught, regarded the least sympathetically. His comeuppance comes in Hades where its fires torment him day and night. It is the only instance in the gospels where the final reckoning for sins committed on earth is portrayed. The rich man’s fate makes us shutter.
The rich man’s suffering is so extreme that all he can think about is water. “Father Abraham have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” How much water could the tip of a finger carry? Not much. But even that small amount was withheld, and for two reasons. First of all, Abraham reminded the rich man that “during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things. Second, and importantly, “a chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
A chasm. Think of a ditch or ravine. “A chasm has been fixed.” We all are familiar with chasms. Chasms separate and establish boundaries.
A chasm existed between Lazarus, now enjoying the good life at Abraham’s side, and the rich man, forced to suffer in the fires of Hades. A chasm existed. And that chasm was man made. For his failure to be his brother’s keeper, for ignoring the plight of the suffering of his brother, the rich man had created the chasm, and for doing so was doomed to a terrible fate.
We are all familiar with chasms. Chasms in this instance represent the distance we create between ourselves and those God has charged us to care for. From time to time chasms close substantially as when during periods in our history like the Great Depression and the Second World War when most of the citizens feel united in their plight. Unfortunately, the chasm between the races refused to close during those two periods, with African Americans deprived of basic human rights.
In refusing to acknowledge the rights of our brother to enjoy the quality of life we ourselves so often take for granted, we, in effect, assume a prerogative that belongs to God alone. By our failure to help him where we can, we decide what expectations he can realistically maintain and what dreams he may ultimately harbor.
Our wealth as a nation gives us extraordinary power. It gives us the ability to, if we choose, substantially close the chasm existing between our brothers and ourselves. We may not choose to accept that responsibility, but in failing to do so can we realistically assume that God will treat us more mercifully than the rich man in our lesson?
Do you realize that nearly one billion people across this globe remain in extreme poverty. Nearly one-third of all children in developing countries are underweight or stunted. Half the people in developing countries lack access to improved sanitation. The poor in our own country fare little better as food insecurity, substandard housing, and inadequate health care keep millions of the margins.
There are many more statistics that could be produced to document the chasm that exists between the rich and the poor across the globe. But such statistics do not really convey at all the pain and suffering the numbers document. Joseph Stalin, the brutal dictator who oversaw the death of millions, is quoted as saying, “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.”
Lazarus is a tragedy, the million Lazarus’ scraping by on a dollar a day are a statistic.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” We know what God’s answer is. But what are we going to do about it?
World Communion evolved during the depression as a way to promote a global consciousness as we gather at the Lord’s table. Leaders of our major religious denominations chose to use World Communion Sunday as a vehicle promoting global unity.
World Communion Sunday came into being as a means of affirming and celebrating God’s overarching commitment to all his children, as a means of reminding us that God shows no partiality, but that each child of his creating is precious in his sight and enjoys equal standing at his table.
We largely feel disconnected from our neighbor because her suffering is hidden in statistics, and only on rare occasions represented in our experience as a person in desperate need.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” The rich man who feasted everyday as Lazarus lay prostrate at his gate, never asked that question, and it’s a pity he didn’t. He may have spared himself great suffering.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s a question worth pondering, particularly for people who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ.
Loving God, whose love is not allocated by continent, or race, or station in life, but is a free gift to each child of your creating, we confess the prejudices we maintain toward those who do not match our profile. Even as the one we call Lord and Savior modeled inclusivity, we are fearful of the stranger we do not know, the person who doesn’t look like us, speak our language, or share our values. Grant us the courage to live by your values, O Christ, a willingness to confront our prejudices and strive to disarm them.
As we break bread and share the cup today may our vision carry us to that place on the far horizon where people are gathered as we are to do what we are doing, but around a crude table in a mud hut or an open pavilion at the edge of the forest. It is one bread, one cup we share extended to us by the hand of one Savior who presides at every table. May we, with a renewed sense of solidarity, share the elements grateful that in your kingdom, O God, no one is a stranger.
Lord, we lift up our nation in prayer, a nation that has been for so many generations a beacon of hope for the world’s people. We pray that beacon we always shine brightly for people yearning to live free. Even, O God, as we celebrate the generosity of spirit that greeted immigrants to our borders, we are forced to acknowledge the prejudices and slights certain racial and ethnic groups have been forced to bear. May this nation continue to be a land worthy of the reputation our forebears have built over successive generations.
Lord Jesus Christ, founder of the church, strengthen the witness of this congregation of Christians that in the efforts we undertake your will may be done, your name praised. Recipients of gifts and talents to use in your service, O Lord, may none of those gifts or talents remain unused but give visible expression to our love for you and our neighbor.
We give thanks for the lives we are privileged to live, and for this Sabbath and meeting place where we gather. For the grace and love that sustain us, for the holy sacrament and fellowship we enjoy here, we give thanks praying…