Genesis 4.1-16

Mark 3.31-35


(Summertime On Demand – VI)

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

This morning has the potential to be the shortest sermon I have ever preached. The topic one of you suggested for this morning is in the form of a question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”



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Well, I guess we have a couple extra minutes on our hands, since brunch doesn’t begin for at least another hour or so, so let’s take a look at our scripture lessons this morning and see if they can tell us why my one-word sermon is so brief this morning.

            First, an observation, not about Cain and Abel, but about you. The subjects you all have asked me to preach about this summer have been deep ones, questions that go to the very roots of our humanity. This is the third week, out of six so far, that has driven us to the earliest chapters of Genesis, that place where some deep and fundamental truths are found. We went to the story of Creation and to the Tower of Babel when we talked about science and religion; last week we wrestled with Abraham who wrestled with God when we wrestled with the nature of prayer. And this morning’s topic about our brother’s keeper drives us to the 4th chapter of Genesis and the story of Cain and Abel. All of the early stories in Genesis represent the attempt by the ancient Hebrews to plumb some of the foundational truths of humanity: how did we get here? who are we? whose are we? if God’s creation is good, why is there so much enmity and conflict in the world? why are there so many different kinds of people in the world? why do you and I sometimes make choices that are detrimental to our own well-being? And these are only a handful of the themes of the earliest myths and stories in Genesis, the story of creation, of the first man and woman and their offspring, of the ark and the rainbow and the covenant, of Babel, of Abraham. I think it’s worth noting, and worth celebrating, that the questions you have raised for me and each other are among the fundamental questions and concerns about a) what it means to be human and b) what it means to be in relationship with God and each other.

            Unfortunately, this morning’s reading is not, on the surface, a happy one. In fact the story of Cain and Abel is a very messy one, one that leaves more questions than answers. I think it is tells us something that this scripture never comes up in the lectionary, that prescribed list of readings which covers most of the Bible over the course of three years. So if I were a lectionary preacher, we would never hear the story of Cain and Abel, and maybe, by the time we’re finished this morning, you all might think it would be just as well if we hadn’t.

            Nobel Prize winning novelist Jose Saramago reimagined this morning’s story from Genesis in his final novel, simply titled, Cain. As Saramago tells it, after Cain is exiled to the land of Nod, he travels through time and space – Cain was a wanderer – and bears witness to the near-sacrifice of Isaac, to the plight of Job, to the great flood, to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, every one of these a story where God comes out looking, well, not very godly. Cain wonders, why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? What did Job do to deserve losing everything he had? Was it necessary to wipe out all humanity except for Noah and his family? And I thought Abraham won that card game last week and rescued Sodom! So, as we can read from the excerpt from Saramgo’s novel in our bulletin this morning, Cain feels that he too was treated unfairly by God. Why did God accept Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s? Some readers have suggested it is because Cain’s offering was from his garden and Abel’s was from his flock, surmising that in early Hebrew culture, husbandry was valued more than agriculture, but I’m not buying that explanation. The story in Genesis never says this and gives us no good reason why Cain’s offering is rejected. Still, if Cain has a beef with God, even if he has a good reason for it, it’s a long, long step from being angry with God to taking the life of his brother.

            Then again, maybe I’m looking a little too closely at the story – there is such a thing as getting too granular when it comes to these foundational myths of the Bible. Early this coming Saturday morning, six of us from the United Church will fly out of Logan Airport for a week at the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in western South Dakota. Most mornings we’ll be running a summer camp for the kids on the reservation; in the afternoon are youth enrichment programs that will include hiking, swimming, reading, sports, STEM activities, which cover science, technology, engineering and math. We’ll be hosting community breakfasts and suppers, and generally playing with and living among the kids and adults of the reservation. A few weeks ago I was asked how we plan to deal with the differences in our religion, and the simple answer is we won’t – we don’t have to – we’re not going to talk about our faith, we’re just going to live it, which means both our work and our play will respect everyone for who they are. Because who they are, are our brothers and sisters. And whatever else Genesis 4 says, it is clear that we are brother and sister to each other, and the reason we are going to South Dakota is to share with them our time, our energy, our friendship our hearts and our whole selves.

            The story of Cain and Abel is, as I said, a messy one. But one thing is clean and clear: Cain and Abel are brothers. That word, brother, occurs no fewer than seven times in this morning’s reading: “his brother;” “his brother;” “his brother;” “your brother;” “my brother;” “your brother;” “your brother.” But here is a telling feature of this – did you notice that every time the word is uttered, every time, it comes with a possessive? “His brother – your brother – my brother.” In contemporary Hebrew, it is highly unusual to call someone simply “brother,” in Hebrew, xa (ak). If you do, folks will know you don’t really understand the language. Instead, it is nearly always yka (akhi), or “my brother.” The word is familiar, it is personal and it denotes a relationship. If something is mine, it belongs to me; if something is yours, it belongs to you. Your brother and your sister belong to you; I belong to my brother and my sister. We are in relationship. This is how Jesus uses the words in the passage from Mark that Deb read this morning:

Then Jesus’ mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And Jesus replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Everyone who does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.’

Not a brother and a sister and a mother, but my brother, my sister, my mother. It isn’t just blood that makes Jesus brother to us all; he expands the notion to include all of God’s children.

            So maybe this question from Genesis that occurs how many times in our bulletin this morning? Four times, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ maybe we’re asking that question from the wrong direction or perspective. Perhaps it should begin from the point of view of relationship: whose brother am I? Whose brother are you? Whose sister are you? Jesus’. And therefore everyone’s. And so then by virtue of Jesus my brother, am I responsible for every one of my brothers and sisters? And are they responsible for me?

            In a word, Yes.

            OK, now we can go to brunch. Amen.




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