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Where Is Your Brother?
Dr. Bruce Lancaster
February 21, 2016
A reading from Genesis:
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’
Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’
We continue our journey through Lent guided by questions on the mind of God as signposts along the path of our journey to Easter. As we make our way, one of the problems we have in reading these signposts in Scripture is that we are so familiar with the story, we glance at the story…we don’t really listen.
So listen again to part of this story, but listen as if you’ve never heard the story before: Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord God said to Cain, “Where is your brother?”
Stop right there – because if this is your first time hearing the story, I can imagine the story teller pausing after the question, and we’re waiting: “What will Cain say?” The questions God asks are acts of grace that open the door for us to come close, or if you will, in terms of the Old Testament – to come clean with God.
What might have happened if Cain had been honest with God – had accepted responsibility for what he had done? Would the world have been different if he had only told God the truth – Abel is dead; I killed him; he is in the field; his blood is on my hands. What could have been an act of confession and repentance – Cain lied, “I don’t know.” Or as Eugene Peterson has it in “The Message”: How should I know? Am I his babysitter?
But the truth is, as Burt Visotzky, Old Testament scholar, notes: This answer “turns out be the seed of all our ethics because the answer for every reader is: “Yes, of course, you’re your brother’s keeper.”
In the midst of what is now a violent world, God has raised the question of what it means to be human in God’s creation, of being in community with other creatures of God.
The word translated “keeper” is the same word God used in the creation of human beings. God say that humans were to work and to care for–that is, to keep–God’s creation. But Cain has not guarded God’s creation. He’s not taken care of his brother. He has destroyed his brother and, thus, destroyed the creation of God.
What’s at stake is our humanity. Cain gives us his version of humanity, of living with other human creatures of God.
The brothers Cain and Abel build their altars. They make their offerings, and send their praise and thanks to God. Then comes the word from heaven. Abel is accepted, but Cain is rejected. The question that jumps to the front of the line in our minds as readers of the story is clear: Why did God accept the offering of Abel and why was Cain’s offering rejected?
But that’s our question, not God’s question.
It’s our question because God knows we live the story of Cain’s answer. Cain is the story of the world we live in. We live in violent times. We do violence to one another.
I recently signed a letter, along with many who worship here, entitled “An Appeal to Christians in the United States.” The body of the letter spoke to the political climate that seeks to divide us as citizens and tempts us to deny our call to discipleship. In part, the letter states that “a fundamental conviction of Christian faith is that God is sovereign over our lives, over all nations, and over the course of human history. When we abandon that faith, we surrender to fear on the one hand and to pride on the other. Both pervasive fear and overweening pride violate our commitment to the lordship of Christ.”
I think that’s the story of Cain we live – it’s a matter of, on one hand, being afraid that if God loves somebody different from me, like you, God might not love me; and, on the other, pride that God loves me more than God loves you.
So we build walls and weapons to keep out the others; we stereotype and stigmatize them so there’s no connection with them, or we demonize them as enemies, in any case, and then we can blindly let them languish or wallow on their side of our borders. So much violence in our world comes because we know nothing or we don’t want to know anything about “those other people.” Disagreement has become a battle to the death, with the other guy not just wrong but inhuman, dangerous even. It’s easy to put horns on their head and to exact retribution whenever possible. Our fear and our pride are a toxic mix that bubbles up into a volcanic eruption of hate and anger, in terms of our story – we leave them lying to die in the field.
And it is because we live Cain’s answer today that we cannot hide from God’s question, “Where is your brother?” This question does not repress the violence of our world, but unmasks it, condemns it, denounces it.
Look at the story: God warns Cain about his choices: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door…” Ironically, in our story from last week, Eve had to be talked into her choice by the serpent. But not even God is able to talk Cain out of his choice. The choice belongs to Cain. The choice belongs to you and me.
That’s what is at stake as human “keepers of creation.”
John Steinbeck, in East of Eden, describes that ability to choose. He writes: It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself onto the lap of the deity, saying, “I couldn’t help it; the way was set.”
What Steinbeck is saying is this: Cain has a choice on whether or not to act on his fear, his pride, his anger. This is the reality that life with our brother and sister is not lived in a vacuum, but in relationship with God. How we treat God’s creation matters to God. And whoever violates that creature must face the question from God.
“Where is your brother?”
What this question does is to affirm that all human beings are connected as God’s images. A radical, revolutionary, redeeming question for how we live with one another in this world. Neither animals nor laws nor nature, nor any armies or governments provide an answer as a powerful representative of God’s creation. It is a human being: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. This biblical question sets the framework for the foundation of all our social and political and economic and emotional relationships.
As Alden Solovy puts it in his prayer:
The man in the gutter,
The woman on the street,
They are my sister and my brother.
The frail and the meek,
The lonely and the lost,
They are my father and my mother.
The soldier under fire,
The girl in a wheelchair,
They are my son and my daughter.
The widow and the orphan,
The confused and the lost,
They are my cousins and my friends.
God of justice,
Only You know why one man is born for silk
And another man is born for sand.
Only You know why one woman is born for castles
And another is born for cardboard.
God of mercy,
Grant me the wisdom and compassion
To see all men and women
As my family and kin.
Help me to use the gifts of my life
As blessings to share.
Grant me compassion for those in in need:
The suffering, the hungry,
Those in pain,
Those in fear.
Lead me to a path
Of love and healing.
In service to Your Holy Name.
Every man, woman, and child is a human being. Not this one more and the other one less. Not this one is valuable and the other one is worthless.
Where is your brother?
Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass lived and died to that question. Mahatmas Gandhi and Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. — all devoted their lives to that question.
It is the question for Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin, for Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell, for Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Pope Francis, for Steve Adler and Greg Abbot.
What if they were honest to God?
Would the world be different?
It is the question for Bruce Lancaster, a question for all of us…What if we were honest to God? Would the world be different?
I hope our answer would be radically repentant, redeemingly honest to help us stay on that path of love and healing, that the world might be different.
TO GOD BE THE GLORY.