Sermon for December 30, 2019
Texts: Genesis 4:1-10/1 John 1:5-10
Title: “Brother Keeping”
God has a lot to answer for in explaining how this episode with Cain and Abel ever came to pass. Born to parents recently expelled from Eden, one of the boys grew up to be “a tiller of the ground,” and his brother became “a keeper of sheep.” Here things get a little strange. You see, when each of the boys presented his offering to the Lord, Cain’s offering was rejected. Here things become even stranger. Having rejected Cain’s offering God offers the following words of consolation, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Cain becomes history’s first probationer, something that pleased him not at all.
Refusing to be consoled, Cain vented his anger on Abel. Shortly thereafter God shows up on the scene to pose a question; “Cain, where is your brother Abel?” The earth being populated by less than a half dozen souls at the time, it is not as if Abel could have gotten lost in the crowd. “Cain, where is your brother Abel?” No confession of guilt was forthcoming. Instead he posed a question with which his name will always be associated, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
God’s answer came in a torrent, “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.” Let’s focus on those first three words, “your brother’s blood.” “Your brother’s blood, the very blood from which you both drew upon as the source of life, cries out from the ground. He was your brother in blood. It was not only his blood you shed, but you shed your own. In murdering him you severed a connection with the source of life from which both of you drew.”
As I was preparing this sermon I came across an article in “The Christian Century” magazine. It recounted a tragedy that befell a church in a Rwandan village in the 90’s. Five thousand people were killed as a result of a tribal clash between Hutus and Tutsis. The church is now a memorial to the dead. Blood-stained clothes of the victims hang from the rafters and walls. Bones, rows of skulls are displayed on shelves, along with possessions that once belonged to the victims. Above the skulls a single sign hangs, “If you knew me, and you knew yourself, you would not kill me.”
Cain murdered Abel. It was the first act of homicide in human history. And what precipitated that act of homicide? The argument could be made, following on the statement posted in the Rwandan church, that Cain neither knew his brother, nor himself. His anger, presumably in this case, rooted in jealousy, deprived him of that knowledge.
Anger, but also ignorance, provoked Cain to kill his brother. He was victimized by an unbridled passion to vent his anger on his brother. Cain shed his brother’s blood because of something that really had nothing to do with his brother. But then, of course, we mustn’t expect anger to be rational, because anger is not only harmful to the person(s) or circumstances against which it is addressed, but harmful to the one who harbors it.
Anger parasitically breeds in the shadows of our lives, the parts of our lives where reason, compassion, forgiveness or reconciliation are, for a critical moment, or in some instances, days or even years on end, barred entry. “We’ve built a world that’s extremely good at generating causes for anger [Oliver Burkeman has written], but extremely bad at giving us anything constructive to do with it.”
Cain mocked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And why did he mock God? He mocked God because he was angry, his anger giving him all the justification he needed to strike down his brother.
What a precedent was set with that first deadly blow. Would it not be better if our anger were directed at the evil within ourselves that provokes us to find objects outside ourselves to assault? If only we could turn our anger against the attitudes and behaviors upon which anger feeds, things like, jealousy, lust, greed, injustice, bigotry, or selfishness. Instead anger takes refuge in a string of rationalizations through which it attempts to justify the evil it inflicts.
The Bible tells us that Cain was angry. It is the first instance where the emotion is identified in the scriptures. He spilled his brother’s blood, which was his own blood. In effect, he killed a part of himself. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” To his lasting regret he would learn that he was, indeed, his brother’s keeper. The blood he spilled was dead, the blood that bonded him with his brother was dead, and by his action a part of himself was dead also.
Homicide is in the moral, religious sense really an act of suicide. To kill someone is to kill a part of myself in the process. His death diminishes me, for regardless of how I may choose to think of my brother, or act toward him, he and I are, by God’s holy ordinance, bonded in blood. “If you knew me, and you knew yourself, you would not kill me.”
Anger, provoked by many, many causes, frankly many of them righteous and just, has been a fixture in human history, with homicide, brother killing brother, being the all too frequent result. No era has been spared.
Homicide flagrantly violates God’s will, but the human conscience has found a way to justify it. But have we really had a choice? Homicide and the hate and anger that precipitate it are “in your face” realities we can’t ignore.
Homicide, however justified, is alien to God’s plan. But what about acts of homicide in the defense of freedom and human liberty? Is homicide necessary under certain conditions? Most certainly. But homicide, even when committed by courageous and God fearing women and men in defense of freedom, justice, and liberty, should not obscure the fact that brother killing brother is alien to God’s purposes. In God’s eyes all lives are precious, even those whom evil has corrupted.
Yet people like us, people who acknowledge God’s sovereignty and seek to be obedient to his will, have for the most part conceded the inevitability of homicide as a fact of life. The homicides in our city streets, and the wars that each generation have been forced to confront, have maintained such a entrenched presence in our lives that we can’t conceive of another reality.
We can’t conceive of another reality, yet the Scriptures which describe the mighty acts of God in human history, and the reign of Jesus Christ as the world’s Lord and Savior, repeatedly and exhaustively demonstrate that another reality is possible. Scripture promises deliverance from all that is alien to God’s will, the overcoming of anger and hate that spawn homicide. Scripture is adamant, promising that God’s will will be done one earth as in heaven.
In the international relief efforts that are mounted in the aftermath of national and international tragedies we witness the great power that can be tapped to support the brother and sister in need. So, could not that very same power be tapped to address the conditions that set brother against brother in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and war? Or are we prepared to say that the powers that inspire that cycle of violence and war are more powerful than the powers at God’s command to create a world where humans may live at peace?
If we truly believe that God in Christ wields that greater power, what, but our resignation to homicides in our streets, and wars raging and peoples suffering, is preventing us from tapping into that power? In a word, nothing. There simply is no reason why we can’t tap into that power. To tap into God’s power or not becomes a matter of personal choice.
The moral authority that God commands in our lives through the power of God’s divinely inspired word and Jesus, his word enfleshed, is inert and inactive as a force in the world without people who make the conscious moral decision to live from that authority, and draw upon the power it confers. To live from that authority, or not, is a choice you and are called upon to make.
The check many of us will write for relief aid is a moral statement, and the volunteer support we may be privileged to offer furnish, are a mighty force. Now suppose for a moment that the moral energy of such a mass of humanity could be turned to brother keeping, to addressing the conditions that breed anger and hate in our world. Imagine what a moral force that would be. You and I must not allow current reality stifle our imaginations as to what might be.
We have lived so long with anger and hate, literally from the time of Cain, that we can’t bring ourselves to believe that the curse they impose on us can ever be lifted. Let us give thanks for those who have gone before us, and those who live in our midst today, who have lived their lives believing, and acting from the conviction, that their efforts, small as they might be, could roll back the curse that saw Cain slay Abel, and has seen hatred and war entrench itself in human history.
Though he died before terrorism thrust itself upon us, before 9/11, the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, or the other wars that have conspired to oppress freedom loving people in the last five decades, Martin Luther King, Jr., clearly addressed the circumstances in which we are living today when he wrote, “The chain reaction of evil begetting evil–hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars–must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” King strove to break that chain, expending the all the force of his energy and will in that effort, right up to the very moment he became a victim of homicide.
There is a way, friends, to stop the chain reaction, and it’s Jesus’ way. Jesus came to earth to start a different chain reaction. Alvin Currier writes, “Jesus took the command to love our neighbor [here we might insert brother] as ourselves, and pushed the definition of who is our neighbor [brother], out, out and still further out, until reached to the ends of the earth and included all of humility—all of God’s children.”
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” The question is answered affirmatively in the aftermath of tragedy where people unite with a compassionate response. But how do we summon that moral force at other times? How will we break that chain reaction of evil begetting evil that Martin Luther King describes? That, friends, is a miracle that has already happened in the incarnation. God has taken up residence on this earth in person of his son, Jesus. The Almighty has come to us in human flesh to overthrown the powers of darkness. The stain of Cain and his homicide are yesterday’s news, God, in Christ is doing a new thing, and we have a front row seat. Be alert, be attentive, you don’t want to miss it.
Lord Jesus Christ, you know each one of us by name, for each of us is your sister, each your brother. In our baptisms we became members of your family. May our lives as members of the Church you founded bear witness to your grace, and may our ardor to share that grace grow as we mature in faith. Grant us courage when confronting the anger and hatred that breed dissension and violence in our relationships and in our world, looking to your example in managing the stress and uncertainty we face.
Lord of hope, we pray for those around the world who believe they have no reason to hope. We lift up the millions of people who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of war, famine, or lawlessness. We pray for those the unemployed and the underemployed who lack the means to pay for basic necessities. We pray for those whose hope and confidence have been crushed as a result of personal loss or emotional trauma.
Heavenly Father, we pray for peace in the world. May peace be a vision more and more of the world’s citizens and leaders are willing to embrace. Prone to demonize our enemies, while denying his essential humanity that makes him my brother in blood, the spiral of violence continues to stain civilization. Embolden us to work for reconciliation, to believe that the individual actions we take possess a moral authority to change the conditions in which we live.
We pray for our nation as passions vent over the impeachment of our president. May the country rebound from the trauma caused by this event with a renewed commitment to engage in dialogue and reconciliation.
A year ends and a new one is prepared to begin. Lord, we do not know what to expect of the days and months that lie ahead, but we do know that what lies ahead is no mystery to you. Grant us the confidence of faith to place the future in your hands, entrusting our world, our lives, to your continuing care. Strengthen for the tests that may lie in our future, relying on your love and mercy to sustain us.
And finally, we give thanks for your nurturing love and goodness embodied in your Son whose birth we so recently celebrated. Form our minds and direct our deeds after the example Jesus, our Savior. And now, in his name we pray the prayer he taught us….