Sermon Library

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Sun, Jun 21, 2015

My Brother's Keeper

Our second reading for this morning comes from the book of Genesis, chapter 4, verses 1-16. This is the second week of our summer worship and Sunday School series: Faith and Family. With personal testimonies in Sunday School we are hearing wonderful stories of faith from our own members in relation to their family and their church family. During worship, through the lens of the families found in Genesis, we are exploring what it means to be part of the family of God and how that primary relationship impacts our relationships with one another and with the world.

Last Sunday, Kim Jackson began our series with a look at Genesis 3, the conclusion of the story of Adam and Eve. Despite their disobedience, God does not abandon God’s creation and God’s people. We live outside the Garden, but God goes with us still. Today we continue into the fourth chapter of Genesis as the first family expands with the birth of children. Let us hear this Word of God.

1Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the LORD.” 2 Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground,4 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, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 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.”
8 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. 9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”15 Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Have we heard this story before?
In our own family?
In this church?
In our community and nation?

In the days after the man and the woman are exiled from the Garden, they begin to fulfill God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. So, the family of God grows with the birth of children. Their first son Eve names Cain. The second son she names Abel. Two boys. As the boys grew, they pursue different vocational paths. One becomes a shepherd and the other a tiller of the fields, a farmer. Two brothers, different vocations, and those vocations have the tendency to intersect. Long before they make an offering to the Lord, the stage is set for tension and conflict with these two boys.

In the course of time, the two boys bring an offering to the Lord. One brings the fruit of the ground and the other the fat portions of the firstlings of the flock. Without any explanation, the Lord accepts Abel’s offering from the flock and rejects Cain’s offering from the field. It happens all the time, right? Life is unfair. One is rewarded and the other is not. The tension rises.

Have we heard this story before?
In our own family?
In this church?
In our community and nation?

The Lord recognizes that Cain is very angry and his countenance has fallen, so he speaks directly to him. “Why are you angry? Why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be rewarded? If you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you. You must master it.” Life is unfair. Bad things, sometimes very bad things happen. One is rewarded. The other is not. Anger. If that anger is fed, it will become a lion, a beast, ready to pounce, devour, and destroy. That is the metaphor for sin here – a wild animal lurking at the door with a desire for you. We might note that this is the first use of the word “sin” in scripture. Not in the garden as their parents eat forbidden fruit, but here in the midst of tension between brothers, tension that threatens to destroy the family of God, sin rears its ugly head.

Have we heard this story before?
In our own family?
In this church?
In our community and nation?

Cain must make a choice and he chooses poorly. He chooses to allow murder to enter God’s good creation. He feeds the anger, sin pounces, life is devoured and destroyed. Cain takes his brother into the field, rises up, and kills him. In no time at all, merely a single space on the page, the Lord asks Cain about his brother. Cain responds, “I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper?” I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper? As his brother’s blood cries out to the Lord from the ground, Cain denies neither any knowledge of his brother nor any responsibility for him. I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper?

Have we heard this story before?
In our own family?
In this church?
In our community and nation?

We awoke on Thursday morning to the news that this is not just a story from the pages of scripture. It is a story lived, experienced, and known in our community and nation every day. Wednesday evening at the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the pastor and a small group were getting ready for Bible Study. A young white man walked in. According to reports, he intended to create havoc in a place where blacks feel safe and thus to stoke the fires of racial tension in our nation. The pastor and others invited the young man to join them. The young man did. After an hour of listening to the bible study on Jesus’ parable of the sower, the young man pulled out his handgun, opened fire, and killed nine black men and women.

Their blood cries out to the Lord from the ground. When the Lord comes looking for these nine children of God, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and asks you and me where they are, what will our answer be? “Sorry, I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Today, just days after the attack we might recoil at the idea of such indifference. But what about next week? Or next month when the headlines in the paper or the 24 hour news channels have turned to some new tragedy? When the politicians decide meaningful legislation related to gun violence is impossible? When the churches determine that working together to address real issues in the community is too controversial? When communities fall back into familiar patterns of race and class and economics that allow anger to continually simmer and boil? When historic interpretation of this scripture text is used once again to justify violence and slavery against African Americans because they “bear the mark of Cain” and thus are not to be trusted?

Yes, we have heard this story before.
In our own families.
In the church.
In our community and nation.

My friends, how do we respond when bad things happen in general and especially in particularly when unspeakable tragedy threatens the very fabric of our human family?

Well, first, we look up. Many of you know that my family and I spent the last week on vacation in Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia. For those of you who have not been to Seattle, the tallest mountain in Washington State, Mount Rainer, is a prominent piece of the Seattle landscape. We noticed Mount Rainer as we flew into Seattle, but then essentially forgot about it until we visited the Space Needle the next day. Walking around the observation deck, we saw a sign about Mount Rainer. We found the proper direction, looked into the distance, but could not see the mountain. We looked toward the horizon at a level equal to the height of the skyscrapers. Still nothing. We determined that the haze must be hiding the mountain from view.

Just as we were turning away, my son Will pointed up in the sky and said, “There it is!” Far above the skyline stood the snowcapped peak of Mount Rainer. It towered over the city. We had not looked high enough.

So, my friends, in the face of tragedy and blood crying out to the Lord, we first look up. We look up to the Lord who is higher and more powerful and more faithful than we think or imagine. If we are not careful, we look too low, we stop reading the story of Cain and Abel with Cain’s murder of his brother and his astounding question to God. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” But the story does not end with violence and disregard for human life. Remember, the Lord hears the cry of the very blood of those who are slain. The Lord hears, so God comes.

God comes to give Cain an opportunity to explain – which Cain does not. God comes to hold Cain accountable for his violent actions – he is banished from the ground and must now wander the earth. God comes to show mercy to Cain. Yes, show mercy to Cain. This one who murdered his own brother says that his punishment is too severe. Cain fears for his own life. So, God hears not just the cry of the blood from the ground, but Cain’s cry as well, and thus places his mark of protection upon Cain so that no one will harm him. Violence and hate will not have the final word. By the mercy of God, Cain will not be subject to the same fate as he inflicted upon his brother.

Could it be … yes, could it be that is what it looks like to be my brother’s keeper? Dialogue, accountability, mercy.

That is what we saw on Friday at the bond hearing for the shooter in the Charleston attacks. Appearing by video with heavily armed guards behind him, the shooter, Dylan Roof, verified his name and heard the charges read against him. Then family members of the victims were allowed to speak directly to Roof. Dialogue, conversation, direct address. Their family members and their church had welcomed him into their midst and they were not done talking with him yet.

The words they spoke, time and time again, were words of accountability and mercy. Perhaps you have read or heard them in the last few days. But they are worth hearing again:

The daughter of 70 year old victim Ethel Lance: “You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. I forgive you.”

The mother of the youngest victim, 26 year old Tywanza Sanders: “Every fiber in my body hurts and I will never be the same. We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. As we said in the Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.”

The husband of 59-year-old victim Myra Thompson, “I forgive you, and my family forgives you. But we would like you take this opportunity to repent. Change your ways.”

The grandson of 74-year-old Daniel Simmons said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won't win.”

Dialogue, accountability, mercy. So many of the media reports about that hearing have expressed shock and disbelief that the victim’s families would offer these words of mercy and forgiveness. But should we really expect anything less from those who know and follow the faithful and merciful Lord; the one who draws near to us in Jesus Christ to bring us life in the midst of death?

Yes, the God whose mercy is bigger and greater than we expect or imagine who gives us hope as we shift our eyes and our hands and our feet from the heavens and gaze upon one another. With the faithful and merciful Lord as our guide, a choice is open to us in Christ. We can be our brothers and sisters’ keeper. Sin is lurking at the door, but we must master it. In Christ we can choose to live an active life of dialogue, accountability, and mercy with those who suffer from injustice and violence and those who perpetrate it.

So, I ask you this morning to take a moment to silently pray. Is there one person of a different race, a different faith, to whom God is sending you? Is there one broken relationship in your own life which God is calling you to mend? Is there one situation or part of our community here in Augusta to which God is calling you to go and work? Are there those in prison who need to hear a word of grace and life that God is calling you to speak?

Pray, my friends.

Because we have heard this story before.
In our own families.
In the church.
In our community and nation.

Yes, we have heard this story before. So pray, my friends, and may your prayers have hands and feet so that they might be accomplished. For violence and hate will not have the final word. Dialogue, accountability, and mercy. We are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

Silent prayer

Almighty God, our gathering together for worship and prayer is, this day, both an offering of praise and a show of courage. We bow our heads remembering our brothers and sisters in Christ whose last earthly act was prayer. We give thanks for the lives of your faithful servants: Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons and Depayne Middleton Doctor. Comfort their families and friends and strengthen them in the difficult days that are ahead. We pray, too, because Christ commands us to, for Dylan Roof and his family. Bring peace, transform hearts, show us again your resurrection power in places we cannot imagine it can come. Lead us, inspire us by your spirit for in you violence and hate do not have the last word. Your love made known to us through Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, always has the last word.

We yield ourselves to you, O God. Make us our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. May your perfect love in us and shown through us, cast out fear and help transform the world.
Amen.

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