My Brother’s Keeper

Sermon Preached on September 29, 2019 – Creation III
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Genesis 4:1-8
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
Genesis 4: 9-16
Matthew 18:1-7, 10-14

My Brother’s Keeper

This morning’s verses from Genesis aren’t included in the lectionary cycle. This story of Cain and Abel is not a story we tell in polite company, in ‘church’. As if church were a fancy living room set aside for guests. But if church is going to matter, it’s got to address the reality of the messy and difficult places where we actually live and help us do the work we need to do. So, let’s roll up our sleeves, and dig into this messy work.

In chapter 4 of Genesis we meet the first brothers and hear this story of the first murder. We have first born Cain, and Abel. We have sin that lurks at the door and blood that cries out from the ground; players that are real forces in the story, like cultural bias, or systemic injustice, or First World elitism – distinctly part of the drama, but difficult to hold accountable for the resulting action.

There are the implicit assumptions here as well – why would one offering be more acceptable than another? How is that fair? What does that say about God? Then there are the implications about how we are to live together – “am I my brother’s keeper?” In the kingdom of God, the answer is clear, “YES, we are one another’s keeper.” Then there’s the finale, Cain cries out to God for mercy, and receives it 7-fold. Marked by God, as God’s protected one.

I used to teach this story at St. Paul’s School for Boys in Maryland, to a room full of very privileged white boys, with one or two inner city black boys on scholarship, bused in.

I remember hearing them exclaim in frustration because Cain was set up. And the comments from the boys about how unfair it was. Hearing one white boy exclaim that God wouldn’t be so unfair, and hearing a black boy from inner city Baltimore mutter, “Oh yeah, since when?” I explained that when Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he is accusing God letting this happen to Abel. Because no one but God ‘keeps’. Cain’s implying that if God had been keeping Abel a little better, then this wouldn’t have happened. But God doesn’t rise to the accusation. Rather, God points out that Abel’s blood is crying out from the ground, demanding justice. The boys always got worked up about that, with righteous indignation, “See?” and “Cool… blood crying out from the ground, awesome!” And then the end – the mark of Cain. “Gotcha, so there. God wins that one…” Except, I would point out, that’s not what it means, does it? And then watch their growing concern as they wrestled with this concept. A mark of guilt, maybe, but not really… more a mark of protection, a mark of warning to others so that Cain might live, a man marked and therefore protected by God. And wondering whether that’s fair? The kids who lived lives of power and privilege thinking it’s definitely not fair, why should Cain be protected? And at the same time, watching the realization dawning on those who lived lives of injustice and poverty – God protects and marks Cain, God forgives Cain, God might even feel badly about the unjust set up in the first place, that it’s not fair, and what that might mean. There aren’t any clean, easy answers, just questions… which really frustrated them, and I know frustrates all of us. But this is a difficult story about accountability and responsibility and being in relationship with one another.

Because we are in Creation season, and there’s selection involved when it comes to texts, I chose these verses from Matthew as our Gospel, because they address many of the same core issues – accountability to and for one another, paying attention to situations that perpetuate injustice, the deep and abiding compassion of God for all of God’s children – and what is expected of us in response.

Given last week’s Climate Strike, with more than 4 million people in thousands of cities around the globe, led by children and youth calling for dramatic climate change for the future of this planet, it seems timely to be reminded of this Gospel.

The text from Matthew doesn’t need a lot of unpacking, except for needing to check our implicit biases, and make sure we are not standing in a circa 1950’s parlor with the image of blue eyed, white skinned Jesus, surrounded by little white children. Jesus was not white, or American, nor privileged. When God became incarnate in the person of Jesus, that person walked this earth in the first century, an impoverished, Middle Eastern Palestinian Jew. We can be certain that he had brown skin and dark hair, and when he spoke of little ones, he was picturing the brown and black skinned children who lived in
that region. So those are the little ones, the particular little ones, that Jesus is speaking of this morning. Picture the children of our Compassionate Housing Initiative families, or the children in refugee camps or detention centers, many of whom are climate refugees – that’s probably a pretty accurate image.

My point is not to make us feel guilty, but to check our temptation to make this all about us, about people and children who are similar to us, First World children – who enjoy options and resources, even as the climate crisis creates desperate situations for others. Because, in truth, it’s not always about us, often, it’s about our brothers and sisters who aren’t US, and whose keeper we are called to be on behalf of God.

These two texts hold some hard truths that might help us find our first steps forward: toward reconciliation, toward the restoration of God’s creation… toward becoming God’s new creation. But to get there we are going to have to face some really difficult questions. (Are you ready?)

We have impoverished Third World children, through whom Jesus is trying to show us what it means to be the greatest in the kingdom, and what is required of us? Not to put a stumbling block before them. In our own day, most of these children live in situations that are already unjust, already set up against them, already unfair, destitute, and without much hope. 

Consider what climate change has already done – creating drought, warmer oceans, destroying habitats on land and sea which provide food, increasing the intensity of storms; destroying communities, causing famine, and forcing the most disadvantaged into mass migration. Is it enough to not put a stumbling block before these little ones? Don’t you think Jesus would want us to make the path smooth for them? Find ways to make sure they have enough food, safe water, and the chance to live without fear of losing their homes and communities? That seems like the least that is required of us for these little ones who mean so much to the Father. “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

Does treating climate refugees as criminals sound like going in search of the one that was lost? And even more sobering, what about those who have died in our care, or those who have died waiting at our borders? With this much blood on the ground crying out for justice, dare we turn to God and ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

I appreciate that we as a community have responded, that we know we are truly called to be our brother and sisters’ keeper. And have been doing something to make that a reality. Through YCHI we have been doing what we can for those who are arriving here from our boarders. We are welcoming people with open arms, providing food and shelter, dignity, respect and relationship. And doing our best to walk alongside them as they rebuild their lives and establish a hopeful future. This is our version of rejoicing that they are no longer lost and bringing them into the safety of this fold.

But this is just the beginning of the climate crisis migration – and in order to do more than respond after the fact, we need to consider our part in causing the situation in the first place, take responsibility for the stumbling blocks and hardship caused by our massive carbon footprint. And be willing to dismantle the systemic injustice at the roots of climate change. It will take the will and the courage of the First World, major contributors to carbon emissions, to make the changes that need to happen immediately
in order to stem rising global temperatures. While none of us is personally able to drag this Nation back to the table of the Paris Climate agreement, nor to any serious global conversation about climate change – we are in position to respond as individuals – to more toward the healing and restoration of Creation. As prophets of a new way of living, paying attention to how our actions affect the least of us, those now in harm’s way, those who are least able to respond to rising waters, to drought and disease, and to violent weather… we can begin to smooth the way for these beloved little ones of God, and it will make a difference.

We can change the way we live, if we choose to. Whatever we can do for these little ones, God’s own, will matter. Will matter to God, and to US. Because they matter to us.

May we be attentive to our own actions, and accountable for the changes we need to make, demonstrating our respect for the value and dignity of every human being. May our care become the protective mark, the statement of God’s value placed upon their skin, a sign to the world that their lives are marked and precious to God. And to us. Amen.