Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

by Kurt Nelson

Rollins Chapel – 9/29/10
Am I My Brother’s Keeper.  Genesis 3: 2-11

I’ve been on what can only be described as a spiritual journey,
with this text, this past week,
As, I suppose, one would hope from sitting with any good, big question.
I wanted to make sense not only of this strange story in Genesis,
but also of the various uses of the phrase,
"am I my brother's keeper?"
within our popular and political context.
We are - I've come to the undeniable conclusion -
We’re not really sure if, or to what extent,
we are our brothers keepers.
Though that doesn’t stop us from quoting the passage frequently.
The phrase "I am my brother's keeper" or
"I am my sister's keeper" is a popular one with our current President.
Though, like most of those who quote this line,
 the murderous context seems all but forgotten.
But we’re just as likely to hear the phrase,
"brother's keeper" style politics uttered with scorn and disdain,
to highlight a more conservative vantage point,
on various social and entitlement programs.
Indeed, the only consistent use of the phrase,
relates to literal relationships of brotherhood.
So, of course, I pondered my own younger brother,
whose name is Carl. 
he's 4 ½ years younger than I,
And he was a great source of difficulty for me growing up,
as I was for him.
I don't consider myself much of a Cain figure,
nor him much of an Abel.
Neither of us ever murdered the other out of jealous rage.
But we had our challenges,
our dust-ups,
and our difficulties.
I suspect, as the younger brother,
that Carl got the worst of it.
For he was the young, brash, obnoxious one.
But I was the older, wiser, more malevolent one.
Thus, I was asked by parents fairly often,
in good biblical fashion,
"Where is your brother Carl?"
Maybe it was because I had a robust sense of parental authority,
or perhaps due to my good, Lutheran upbringing,
I knew that Cain's response didn't work very well –
but I was much more likely to give an honest response to this question,
such as:
"He's probably still stuck in the laundry chute,"
or, "I convinced him to hide in the dryer a while back,
and I haven't seen him since,"
than I was to utter Cain's sarcastic question,
"Am I my brother's keeper?"

It is a strangely profound question,
which no doubt continues to play on the public imagination.
But let us note that it comes from a deeply strange
and troubling text.

Richard spoke last week of the challenges of shame,
and the defenses we put up.
But this story, immediately following, is a story of jealousy and violence.
A story of the escalating narrative of human sin,
carrying through to Noah's flood,
and the Tower of Babel.
Stories that frankly I don't usually care to linger on for too long.
It's easy for me, and many of us I expect,
to get caught up in the details of these pre-histories of Genesis,
and lose sight of some of the truths that they speak about humankind.
The first, and I think most obvious of which
is that we have great capacity to harm.
And must live and deal with that simple fact.
We have a perhaps unique ability to harm ourselves,
those close to us,
and indeed the world at large.

Even more troubling for me,
than the violence of this text,
however, is God's treatment of the brothers' offerings.
which seemingly instigated this series of events.
Cain, the farmer offers his fruits.
and Abel the shepherd offers a nice, fat lamb.
 And God looks with favor upon one, but not the other.
And it doesn’t seem fair.
Various commenters have suggested at various points,
that perhaps Cain was too proud, and thus his offering was unacceptable.
Or perhaps that God demands a bloody sacrifice.
Or perhaps Abel just had it coming,
and Cain was looking for an excuse.
That, we might call the "older brother" reasoning.
But the text itself offers us no explanation.
It would perhaps be easier, or at least simpler,
if one of those were true.
But instead we are faced with the fact that it just doesn't seem fair.
Faced with the ugly and difficult notion,
that God might simply prefer some to others,
we thus confront this text's second great truth -
That the world is,
at least in the context of mortal affairs,
 an unfair and inequitable place.
For Cain and for millions around the world,
the universe seems not to offer justice and equity.
I have been known to stay up nights,
wondering if the privileges and opportunities I’ve been offered in my life,
are a matter of providence and divine favor,
or a matter of luck and accident.
Honestly either seems terribly appealing to me.
But either way, the world is not very fair.
There are those with too much to eat,
and those with too little.
There are those with many opportunities,
and those with few.
And it is in that context,
that I suspect we must really come face-to-face with this big question:
Am I my brother's keeper?
We are, undeniably, at a place such as this,
people of privilege.
We've received the good end of the unfairness.
That doesn't mean we won't face hardship and struggle.
We still toil, and feel pain, and must confront mortality.
Our lives are not lived in an Edenic paradise.
But we have, I think, each of us here,
been offered many opportunities to succeed and thrive,
whether by providence or by accident.
We are perhaps lucky, and perhaps favored.
And are thus certainly burdened and faced with this question,
are we our brothers' and sisters' keepers?
To what extent are we responsible for those who have been given fewer opportunities and gifts and resources, given all that we have?

Now within the text itself,
Cain's question goes essentially unanswered.
"That's hardly the point,"
replies God. 
"Your brother's blood cries out from the ground."
There are many moments,
when I confront scriptures’ big questions,
that I wish they had been posed differently,
under better circumstances,
and certainly sometimes wish for unambiguous answers.
It might have been nice,
if at another point,
not related to the murder of his brother,
Cain had asked God,
"Am I my brother's keeper?"
Or better yet,
"To what extent am I my brother's keeper?"
Perhaps with a series of follow up questions,
about who precisely constitutes our "brotherhood"
and how this should play out exactly,
when it comes to questions of public policy,
vs. questions of private interaction or charity.
But alas,
it was not meant to be so.
And thus we wonder,
Am I my brother’s keeper?
Confronted as we are,
with our own privilege and ability and responsibility,
and with the various issues and troubles of the world.

And to that question,
I suspect there is no easy answer.
But take heart, for we are not left alone.
I find myself drawn in particular,
to two of the other big biblical questions:
From Luke, Jesus is asked,
Who is my neighbor?
which prompted Jesus’ telling of the story of the Good Samaritan –
that unholy foreigner who showed us what it means
to love our neighbor as ourselves.
And in Matthew,
“'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

To which Jesus replies:
“whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.”

And herein lies the root of our confusion,
I suspect,
about today’s question - am I my brother’s keeper?
For indeed, the response might well be:
Maybe, but that’s hardly the point.
It’s not so much that we are not duty-bound to care for our siblings.
Nor that we are asked to stay up late,
feeling guilty about our privilege.
Rather it’s that we are called to love our brothers and sisters and neighbors as ourselves.
And we are called to care for the poor and the sick,
the stranger and the alien,
as if it were an act of worship and praise.

We too easily forget,
that God is a God of grace,
more than a God of guilt.
Even Cain continued to walk the earth,
to thrive, and toil, and raise a family.
And we too easily forget that we can do much,
in the context of this seemingly unjust world.
For loving our neighbor and caring for the least of these,
is a matter of acts of daily kindness, and compassion, and charity,
for our friends and colleagues and classmates.
And it’s a matter of bold programs for social change.
And it’s about everything in between.

We are called to love,
and indeed see the presence of God,
in all people.
Even those who annoy us as much as only a little brother can.
So we go, perhaps still wondering if we are meant to keep our brothers.
But sure that we are meant to love our neighbors.
And it is my hope and prayer,
that love and grace will always be better motivators,
than guilt and duty.
And thus we are on a life-long journey,
to use the gifts we have been given,
to love our brothers and sisters and neighbors,
and indeed the whole world better.
Through work and study,
through friendships and family,
through acts of charity
and work for justice.

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