Friday, March 21, 2014

Whose Brother and Sister are You?

THE PROPHETIC WORD: Whose Brother and Sister are You?
By the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II
Opening Worship
Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Day
Friday, March 21, 2014
manuscript, as prepared

The 4th Annual CPJ Training Day was held at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.

Genesis 4:8-16                                              John 7:53-8:11

Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9b)

Our text for the morning is an account of two brothers named Cain and Abel.  These brothers are in the sons of Adam and Eve.  This is God’s first family of creation.  Together, they represent the biblical account of the beginning of people-kind.  Some theologians interpret Genesis 4:2 as an inference that the two boys were twins when using the terms “later again” to describe the birth of Abel.  Although this postulation is not firmly substantiated, we are made aware in the text that Cain was the older brother.

The two brothers grew up in an agrarian culture.  Therefore, both possessed skills in farming.  Abel was a herder of sheep and Cain tilled the soil.  On the surface both of these young men are positioned to demonstrate to the world how one can live under a Godly mandate.  The opportunities to earn a living; build a life of satisfaction; embrace ones’ neighbor; and succeed in one’s endeavors is laid before them.  Don’t you hear the possibilities that stand before these two young men?  “What blessedness, what a joy divine!”  However, something goes terribly wrong between these two brothers. 

Both brothers bring their sacrifice for the Lord to the altar.  Abel brings his prime stock of meat to the altar of the Lord.  Cain brings the fruit of the ground from his field.  According to the text, the Lord did not look with favor upon the offering given by Cain.  While both of them brought offerings to the Lord as required, the bible emphasizes that Abel brought the fat portion of his offering to the altar.  Cain brought a few of the fruit from the ground.  From the descriptive phrases of the bible it becomes evident that Cain’s sacrifice did not measure up to that of his brother Abel. 

The writer of Hebrews 11:4 records, “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did.”  When Abel came for worship, it was by faith that he brought his offering, the “fat portions from some of the first-born of his flock.”  And, in Jude’s epistle verse 11, we read, “They have taken the way of Cain,” referring to men who did not follow the law, but wanted to worship in their own way and not by faith.  These texts imply that there was some disobedience among those who refused to follow the way of the Lord.  In short, Cain’s offering was rejected due to some type of disobedience, short-cut, or detachment from the will of God.  However, Cain’s real struggle begins when he takes his eyes off of pleasing God and places them on comparing himself to his brother.  Jealousy emerges! 

The scripture records, “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”  And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.  This is the first murder recorded in biblical scripture.  It occurred within the first family of the scriptures. 

As we come together around a major initiative for Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to eradicate gun violence, we must recognize that we have a serious problem among humanity regarding our relationships with one another.  Beyond the struggles of race, class, culture, gender, and other dividing lines we are falling far short of godly expectations.  We are not living together as one people created in the likeness and image of God (Genesis 1:26a).  Therefore, we are unable to be faithful stewards of God’s creation as we are intended to be.  As a matter of faith, human life (God’s creation) seems to be less valuable among us than ever before.

In the United States today we are witnessing gun deaths of more than thirty thousand persons per year since 1997.  From the Revolutionary War in 1775 to the Persian Gulf War in 1991 which totaled 116 years of foreign combat engagement, there were 650,858 persons killed.  In 18 years from 1979 to 1997 we have experienced 615,697 deaths by guns.  There were 839 more persons killed in this 18 year period in the United States than in 116 years of foreign wars involving the United States.[1]  Over 30,000 persons each year are killed by guns in the United States since 1997.  Although the media has an attraction to mass killings, which are largely focused on European Americans, African Americans die at the hands of guns more often.

We (with the help of the National Rifle Association) have normalized guns today as though they are an American value.  Baseball, apple pie and guns are the slogans on billboards.  There are even theologically mixed messages as the late actor Charlton Heston who played Moses in a television movie held up a rifle at the NRA convention some years ago.  God (Jesus’ Parent) is misrepresented when one mixes God, guns and allegiance to our country.  The challenge for the Church is to recognize that our holy book declares killing a sin.  Thou shall not kill (Exodus 20:13).  The gospel writer John declares the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly.  (John 10:10)

Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis should not be dead today behind Stand Your Ground, a Florida law that is declaring open season on young African American men in that state.  We ought to be pressing for legislation entitled “Yield Your Ground” that encourages us to avoid killing in an effort to change the culture of violence that permeates this country.  How can we be the land of the free and the home of the brave when we cannot walk the streets at night without fearing for our lives?  Fear does not breed freedom. 

I have stopped by to tell you that the Church of Jesus Christ can no longer stand idly by and declare that this is not our problem while innocent children and adults are killed all across this country.  We cannot continue to live in a nation where the culture of violence is reinforced by our federal government, where 57 percent of our nation’s discretionary budget is spent on the military and children go to bed hungry at night; when public education for the masses is failing; when mamas and daddy’s can’t feed their children, because they don’t have a job; when minimum wage is not a livable wage; when poor families can’t afford college for their children. 

The highest incidences of gun violence are suicides.  This is related to mental health and when we assess the failing governmental leaders that attempt to strip Medicaid, which assists persons with mental health issues, it is clear that there is no effective moral and ethical leadership that collectively governs our nation.  Our government is fragmented and blinded by corporate financial contributions to these campaigns.  We need campaign finance reform as a measure to restore government of the political action campaign contributions, for the rich and wealthy and by the politician on the take. à We need you – to take your role as a brother and sister.

In John’s gospel, Jesus encounters a mob of males preparing to put a woman to death who was caught in adultery.  They are ready to stone her.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5The law of Moses says to stone her.  What do you say?”  They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger.  7They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinner throw the first stone!”  8Then he stopped down again and wrote in the dust. (John 8:4-8)

The scripture then records,

“When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.  10Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers?  Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” 11”No, Lord,” she said.  And Jesus said, “Neither do I.  Go and sin no more.” 

The scripture does not record what Jesus wrote on the ground.  I must use my sanctified imagination here.  I believe that when Jesus wrote on the ground, he placed names of men who were also participating in adultery with this woman or others.  He exposed the sin in them and placed before them the challenge.  He reminded them that they too were unworthy of life, but that by the grace of God, we are here. 

We must stop this killing whether by lethal weapon or lethal injection.  Give people a job so that they don’t have to pack a gun and stand on the street corner selling dope to feed their families.  Give children an education so they can see a potential beyond the federal prison or county jail as a way to prove their manhood or womanhood.

When the Lord our God asked Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’  Cain responded, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’  The redress to that question today is No, but we must be our brothers’ brother, and our sisters’ sister.

And in so doing the Church must find its way back to Jesus, who can turn our brokenness into a blessed assurance; Jesus, who reminds us that we are his own; Jesus who calls us to love one another: Jesus who will make a way somehow.  Our claim must be that Jesus will and can fight our battles for us.  Now, let’s put some feet on our prayers!

[1] James Atwood, America and It’s Guns: A Theological Expose (Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012) Appendix p. 227-228