Sunday, January 07, 2024
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Brother’s Keeper?
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, January 7, 2024
Reading: Genesis 4:1-16

Good morning, everyone. Happy Epiphany. In the history of the church, this is a feast as important as Easter or Christmas. Somewhat neglected now. At Epiphany the magi visit Jesus, bringing gifts. The magi are not Jewish. They’re following some other religion, taking their direction from the stars, not the Bible. And the stars lead them right to the newborn king of the Jews. Epiphany is a sign that the good news of Jesus Christ is for all people, of whatever religion. So, the three are often depicted as three different races: European, African, and Asian. You’re getting the point. Epiphany is a sign that God is after all of us. Epiphany means “light shines.” It’s the moment when the penny drops. ‘Oh, God is pursuing everybody, healing all things.’ We’ll celebrate communion later as another sign of God’s voracious appetite to get to every single creature.

The story you heard didn’t sound very celebratory though, did it? It’s the first in a new series on sibling rivalry. Appropriate given where we are in the world. War in Europe and in the Middle East, rumors of war in Asia, the US straining at the seams. I also keep hearing stories of sibling rivalry in your lives. I was with folks on new year’s, not from our church, and a recent death came up. The widow didn’t invite the dead man’s brother to the funeral. Didn’t call. Kept him away. Brothers alienated even at the grave. That’s our world. People who should love one another loathe one another. That’s the world Christ came to heal. We’ll be in this series through Easter. The Bible has a lot of material on this.

We Christians think of the fall in Genesis Three as the start of humanity’s ruin. But I’m not the first to suggest that places too much weight on that story. An apple, a snake, it all seems a little too harsh a punishment for such a minor offense, doesn’t it? But this story, for today, rings truer. It’s more properly ruinous. We often say a parent’s worst nightmare is something happening to their child. But this is actually worse. One child doing harm to another.

When they were in diapers, one of my boys pushed another down the stairs. He didn’t mean to, and the other was fine, but imagine being left with one less child, and the one you’re left with is the killer? The comedian joked that you only really become a parent when you have more than one child. Because when there’s only one, you know who broke the lamp. Well, it’s less funny when we’re talking about fratricide. Adam and Eve are the only parents in existence. They have two sons, and one kills the other. That rings true to who we are as human beings. And it’s ghastly. And it’s what we’re doing in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and in ordinary families like yours and mine.

I got the idea for this series from the late Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain. He wrote about how Freud found all our problems in the relationship between fathers and sons. Freud was off by a generation. All our problems are due to the relationships between siblings. Sacks sees this in Genesis. Almost all the Genesis stories are about siblings at odds. It starts here with Cain and Abel. But it doesn’t stop there. Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob and Esau. The twelve sons of Jacob and their descendants, the twelve tribes of Israel. They all squabble over birthrights and blessings and marriage, and they’ll use violence to get their way. Here’s the thing, Sacks says. God plays favourites. God chooses. Abel’s sacrifice, not Cain’s. Isaac, not Ishmael. Jacob, not Esau. Joseph, not his brothers. Scholars call this the scandal of particularity. It rubs against our human sense of what’s fair—surely God should have no favourites, right? You’ve seen the bumper sticker: “God bless all nations, no exceptions.” It’s aimed against American exceptionalism. But you could aim it against God’s election of Israel, crowned in Jesus Christ. The God of the Bible chooses a people. Everybody else is not chosen. It’s not fair. But it’s how God saves the world.

Here’s what else Sacks points out. And what we’ll come back to again and again in this series. God has a chosen people. But the Bible’s sympathy is with the not-chosen. Esau is robbed of his birthright by his conniving brother Jacob. And Esau wails: “bless me too father!” And our sympathy as readers is with the not-chosen. Jacob is not a good man. Esau is. And Genesis goes out of its way to say God has a blessing for Esau too. And when it comes down to it, it’s Esau who shows us what mercy is. Not the chosen. But the not-chosen. Sacks sees this as the answer for all conflict. He’s one of those wise heads who says there’ll be no peace on Earth until there is peace between religions. Sure, we’re chosen, in Christ. That probably means we’re the bad guys. And God is using the not-chosen to bring blessing. You’ve heard me say this before: God only ever chooses the wrong people. And works through them to save all the others.  

When I feel frostiness between siblings at a funeral, I assume they’re fighting over the estate. One thinks the other is getting what rightly belongs to them. So, they fume, murder in their eyes. We’re all capable of that. Scripture says this: the not-chosen are the more-beloved. And reconciliation between alienated siblings is what God longs for and will have one day.

When Genesis tells these stories, it’s talking about current people. Esau is the father of the Edomites, Israel’s next-door neighbour, rival, enemy. Ishmael is the forebear of the Ishmaelites, and ultimately the Arabs, eventually Muslims. In the Old Testament, God’s people are always either fighting with or sleeping with their enemies. God’s like, uh, both are bad. The war in Gaza is a war between alienated siblings. Russia and Ukraine are both Orthodox countries, baptized brethren blasting each other. We, God’s children, are a fractious, murderous lot. And so, God becomes our brother in Jesus Christ to teach us mercy, to absorb our violence and give us back grace.

One of the most common objections to faith you hear is this: why would God let bad things happen. I can’t believe in a God who wouldn’t intervene to stop death. Remember reading Catcher in the Rye in secondary school? They made y’all read that right? The main character writes from an asylum, and part of his mental illness is that he wishes he could stop all bad things from happening. He sees a vision of children running off a cliff through a field of rye, and he wants to protect them, fence them off from danger. It’s a crazy-making vision. God running around stopping all ill like a catcher in the rye. We live in a world where siblings murder each other. That’s been our world since Genesis Four. And God has been working since Genesis Four to bring repair. It’s taking a while, isn’t it? But God will have the world he longs for, ruled by mercy and not violence.

Cain and Abel make their offerings to God. Cain, as a farmer, brings grain. Abel, a hunter, brings meat. Now, in Eden all humanity is vegetarian, no death yet and so no meat. But here in Genesis Four we’re carnivores, and so apparently is God. God has regard for Abel’s offering, not for Cain’s. We don’t know why. No one can understand God. This is a dark mystery. And, perhaps you can sympathize, Cain is furious. He hatches a plot. “Let’s go out to the field, brother.” As a farmer the field is his territory. There Cain rises up and kills his brother.

Do you remember the origin of Golem in Lord of the Rings? Two hobbit brothers are fishing, Smeagol and Deagol. Deagol happens upon a beautiful ring. Smeagol wants it. He will have it at whatever cost. Including killing his brother. Which he does. Possession of the ring makes Smeagol a hollowed-out shell of himself. It’s a direct echo of Cain and Abel. So many phrases in our English language come right from this story: “brother’s keeper.” “The mark of Cain.” “East of Eden,” the title of Steinbeck’s great novel.

Scripture is a treasury. And it’s all for you.

God can’t find Abel and is concerned. Cain is cynical: “I don’t know, you’re God, you find him.” Or in the text’s language, “am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain is spitting in God’s face. You’re supposed to be his keeper, God, you’re doing a bad job at being God. But God detects the violation. The ground has opened up not to receive seed for crops, but to receive Abel’s blood. And God lists the consequences. The ground won’t yield crops for Cain. He’s off the land. He’ll be a wanderer on the earth. It’s interesting that the land participates in Cain’s punishment. Do ill to your neighbour, and the land itself spits you out. No more farming. You’re a wanderer now.

One problem with how to be any community of human beings is what we do with those who offend. A classmate of mine’s father had a car wreck one day. And the other driver died. So, my friend’s dad was, suddenly, a killer. He didn’t mean to, but it happened. How do you wash that off? We have courts to deal with such things, and he was convicted, but no court can give back a victim. Every judge and lawyer know that. The best they can do is name an offense, and punish, but we can’t undo the wrong. Some cultures are quicker to kill someone for killing someone else. But that just compounds the wrong. If killing is bad, why would we kill to indicate killing is bad?

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and hero in Alabama, I wish he’d run for president. He’s worked to show the racial inequities in the use of the death penalty in the USA and found that roughly one in ten executed prisoners in the south are innocent. We wouldn’t fly planes if one in ten crashed, would we? Stevenson says this thing so full of mercy I can’t stand it, even if someone is guilty: none of us is reducible to the worst thing we’ve ever done. None of us. For Stevenson, the question for the death penalty is not whether someone deserves to die. Perhaps they do. But the question is, do we deserve to kill? Do we have the moral standing to pronounce someone else’s life forfeit? No, we don’t, he says. And if you ever get that wrong, even just one time, you’re just a murderer yourself. And we get it wrong a lot. I’m lecturing Canadians where the last prisoner was executed in 1962. But you see the point, right? People will kill. That’s who we are as a species. What happens then? Okay, fine, we won’t murder you back, two wrongs don’t make a right, but what do we do?

Here’s what happens in scripture. God says you have desecrated creation by spilling blood, so the ground won’t produce for you, and you’re off the land. And Cain . . . confesses? Apologizes? Begs for mercy? No. Cain . . . whines.

“My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me 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.”

Our courtrooms still expect perpetrators to express remorse. Cain shows none. He’s concerned about himself. He might be killed. Uh, yeah, that would be appropriate right? Karma and all that. You might have seen recently that Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, was attacked, and nearly killed in prison. It’s hard to feel much sympathy in a way: those who live by the sword die by the sword. But in another, that shouldn’t happen, no one deserves death, even those who deal it. There is a bleak justice system within prisons: one of the worst offenders in the Catholic sex abuse scandal, a priest who abused hundreds, was murdered in prison. It’s awful, but who can be surprised? This is the jailhouse justice Cain expects as he wanders the earth.

But it’s not the justice God dispenses.

“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.

God responds to Cain’s pathetic non-repentance with vastly undeserved mercy. Special protection. A mark, we’re told. Folks wonder what the mark of Cain is. Is it a sign that Cain’s a murderer, like the scarlet letter in Hawthorne’s novel, a public shaming? Not in Hebrew. The word is that God puts a sign on Cain. Here are some other signs in Genesis: the rainbow in the sky is a sign (same word) that God won’t purge the earth ever again. The miracle at the Red Sea is a sign—same word—God is with slaves and against tyrants. A sign is God granting life, miraculously, where there should be only death.

Cain deserves death. I think we would agree, no one would be surprised at prison justice here, it’s what Cain expects is coming. But God grants life. Protection. A miracle.

And that’s the gospel y’all. The gospel is not ‘be good and get rewarded.’ That’s terrible news. The gospel is not ‘behave, sit up right, wear the right clothes, don’t use the wrong fork.’ That’s just Victorian manners. They’re fine, but no one is saved by them. The gospel is this. God blesses murderers with undeserved mercy. Most of us think we’re pretty good people. We deserve good things. It’s a surprise when they don’t come. ‘I worked hard for all this.’ No doubt. But that’s not the gospel. The gospel is not that we get what we deserve. The gospel is that we are in the midst of death. And there is blood on our hands. And right in the middle of murder, God births undeserved life. That’s Genesis. Our greatest living novelist, Marilynne Robinson, puts it this way: “In Genesis, the recurring sin is grievous harm to one’s brother. Cain casts a long shadow.” Mercy to the undeserving sibling is the heart of the whole book, of the whole gospel.

Let me conclude with one last sign. It’s the sign of Epiphany, with which I started. We’ll end with another sign—the Lord’s Supper, in just a moment. Often depictions of the magi have not just these three, but a whole train of humanity following the kings. Like the image on your bulletin cover. One monarch kneels to kiss Christ’s baby feet—that’s Jesus patting his bald head. Another takes off his crown, ready to hand it over. A third is still prancing in his finery, not yet humbled. And if you zoom out, this same painting shows after them a whole sea of humanity. Everybody is coming. These three from different races and religions and continents are the first but not the last, they bring all of us in their wake. Epiphany is also a sign, like the one Cain wears: we’re all invited into life with Jesus Christ. Not just kings. Other religions. But murderers. Cain, not just Abel. The wretched sibling, not just the good one. Those we detest, not just those we love. Even human beings at our worst, not just at our best. Make it so Lord Jesus, amen.