The question in the sermon title is based on the one found in one of the earliest stories in the Bible, the story of Cain and Abel. You may remember that Cain and Abel were brothers, the first children of Adam and Eve. Both of them make an offering to God, but God seems to favor Abel’s offering more than his brother’s, which infuriates Cain, so much so that he murders Abel in a fit of rage. God comes on the scene and asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” But of course, God knows all, and Cain is punished.
The answer to Cain’s question is Yes! – for him and also for us. We are called by God to be our brother’s (and sister’s) keepers. So, what does this mean for us? What are the implications for those of us who call ourselves Christians in the 21st century? Before we get to answering this question more specifically, let’s take a closer look at our Gospel lesson for today, for there are some textual issues that need clarification.
As you may have guessed from other sermon’s I’ve preached, while I strongly believe that the Bible is sacred scripture, I do not believe it is the literal word of God. I am not a biblical literalist. The Bible is a human product of two historical communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement, and it consists of their responses to God, their witness to God, and how they viewed their life with God. It was written by humans, but is sacred in its status in the faith community and among believers. The Bible is a treasure trove of spiritual and practical resources to help us live our lives better. In most passages, even the hardest to understand, I believe God is teaching us something of value, if we would but have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Most scholars agree that the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – were written well after the crucifixion, the Gospel of Matthew, probably sometime in the last third of the first century, well after the lifetime of Jesus. Some of the sayings attributed to Jesus may in fact not be his exact words, but rather, are the construct of the Gospel writer, perhaps based on the oral traditions about Jesus. Matthew was written to a particular audience, primarily to those of Jewish background, thus for example, there are many references in Matthew to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, some not found in the other Gospels.
Three other examples in today’s text prove my point. First is Jesus’ references to church members and “the church.” The church did not come into existence until some time after Jesus’ death and resurrection. We often refer to Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, when the Holy Spirit came upon all the people with wind and tongues of fire as the birthday of the church. It is unlikely that Jesus would have used this term, but Matthew’s “audience” would have been familiar with the early church.
Second, the judgmental tone and limit to forgiveness to be given to the wayward church member does not sound like Jesus, and in fact is completely contrary to a few verses later (which is in the lectionary for next Sunday), when he suggests we forgive a multitude of times.
As we have come to know him, Jesus is not someone who would suggest limiting the amount of forgiveness to be offered to others. The reference was probably written for the early church to set some guidelines for church discipline – ironically, much stricter than Jesus himself would have dictated.
Finally, the negative attitude toward Gentiles and tax collectors doesn’t sound like Jesus either.
He goes out of his way to include such people in his ministry, showing mercy on them, and even suggesting that they may get into the kingdom of God faster than many of the so-called religious folks.
In spite of our questions and textual concerns, what can we learn from our lesson? I believe that the main point of the passage is the need for reconciliation between disagreeing members of the Christian community. If a breach should occur, there are steps we can take to mend the tear.
We are to take action – “go and point out the fault …” says Jesus. Letting a dispute, anger, or hurt, regardless the cause, fester under the surface, ultimately does no one any good. Better to confront the person and get the issue out on the table where it can be faced and dealt with.
Sometimes we’ll need a third party, a wise person or persons who can help in the process of reconciliation. What’s important is that we’re persistent. Whether the wrong’s been done against us personally or not, it is our duty to keep trying not only for reconciliation, but also for repentance, if necessary.
In Ezekiel God charges the prophet to be a “sentinel for the house of Israel,” warning the people to turn from and repent of their wicked ways. The common theme shared by Ezekiel and our Gospel lesson is that whether we are looking at a personal sin or a corporate one, we are ultimately responsible for the well-being of our brothers and sisters. We are their keepers.
We can understand the need for reconciliation between persons; we can accept this kind of responsibility. Even when there has been no wrong committed, we easily see the need for mutual responsibility among people. An army chaplain recounted conversations he’d had with some of his men during battle times. When he asked them what it was that kept them going in times of crisis, surprisingly perhaps, it was not so much the desire to preserve democracy, or maintain the American way of life, or even an abstract love of country – as important as these motivations are. Rather, what made them fight on, they said, was the strong urge to not let other people down, especially their fellow soldiers. Their buddies were counting on them. “In their responsibility to one another these soldiers supported one another, and even corrected one another when something was done that could have been potentially harmful to the group or any member of the group.”[i] They were their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
I read about something that happened a number of years ago in New Orleans. An elderly woman walked out of a bank just after cashing a check for $500, when a gust of wind took the money out of her hand, sending the $20 bills in all directions. She stood there shocked and stunned, not knowing what to do. Two men nearby stopped to help her, and managed to retrieve only nine of the bills. The others either blew away out of sight, or were picked up by people who thought they were experiencing a real “windfall.” The men brought her back inside the bank, where the distraught woman explained that she had planned to use the money to buy Christmas gifts and also to go to the doctor and to get some medicine. Soon everyone in the bank, customers and employees, knew about her plight. The men went outside and returned shortly with a few more bills they had “found” (actually they took them out of their own pockets). Others in the bank quickly figured out what they had done, and surreptitiously, they also contributed. Before long, the entire $500, converted to $20 bills, had been miraculously “found.” The woman had no idea. She just thought they had found it all in the parking lot.[ii]
We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.
You and I can easily understand and accept such personal responsibility. It’s not hard to love our neighbor and put that love into action if we know our neighbor personally – or if she is standing right in front of us in the bank lobby. But when we get into the realm of the collective – beyond the personal – then things get murkier. We can see personal sins and personal needs, but the sins of society? the needs of great masses of people? – not always so clear. The problem is that many people do evil without even knowing what they are about. So much is done by corporations, companies, committees; most things of importance seem to be done by collections of people. Much good is done this way; also much that is not good. The most appalling feature of so much modern sin is its dreadful anonymity.[iii]
Since we often are not aware of what we’re doing collectively, it is helpful to hear the call to the prophet, reminding us of the moral conditions in which we live. Few of us are personally guilty, but we’re all responsible. Like Ezekiel, we too are called to be sentinels, to speak a warning to individuals who have broken God’s holy laws, and to speak a warning to collections of individuals – to the church, to a particular company, a nation, society as a whole – if these collections of people have transgressed God’s laws of love and justice.
If we acknowledge that we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers, what then are we to do? And for whom are we responsible? “Who is my neighbor?” we ask. We’ve already answered these questions, but let’s answer them again. All people are our neighbors; all are our brothers and sisters, fellow children of God. Realistically, we need to narrow this down a bit, and then begin to shoulder some measure of responsibility for whomever our neighbors might be. But the needs of the world are overwhelming.
Overwhelming indeed, as Nancy Taylor, minister at Old South Church in Boston, wrote not long ago in a “Stillspeaking Devotional.” She said: “As the world erupts in genocide and epidemic, as the smoldering ashes of ancient enmities are fanned into raging flames, and as airplanes fall from the skies, our hearts break. Is there no end or limit to cruelty and the agony of human desperation? Yet, if our human hearts wither at these miseries and hatreds, just imagine how God’s divine heart is faring. … God’s heart shudders at the relentless advance of Ebola among the world’s poorest and least equipped; at the plight of Yazidi refugees and the murderous hatred of ISIS. God’s heart faints at the sight of children clawing their way to safety at our southern border. God’s heart breaks with the parents of black teenagers cut down by officers of the law. God’s heart bleeds with the peoples of Israel and Palestine whose horns are locked in desperate and deadly combat . . .”[iv] Do not our hearts also shudder, faint, break, and bleed? Our response might be prayer, political action, or financial support. Nancy suggests that we begin by praying for God, keeping God in our prayers, as well as praying for others.
God calls Ezekiel and us to speak out – against injustice, against discrimination, against hatred, against sin in all its forms, personal or corporate. This is a responsibility we are to take seriously, even if we know that we are not personally guilty. Because God loves us, we are to love one another, and care for one another, and be responsible for one another.
And yet, we hold back, we’re afraid – maybe we’ll fail; maybe we’ll be persecuted or laughed at; maybe we’ll suffer. That’s the risk that we take when we embark on the road of discipleship. It’s going to cost something, and it will probably entail a fair amount of sacrifice, indeed, a life of sacrificial service is what we’re called to. But God will be with us and will empower us for the service we are expected to do. The end of our Gospel lesson reiterates this.
Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” God in Christ empowers us when we are gathered in Jesus’ name. This is the essence of the church.
We are empowered to take risks and to assume responsibilities because love is the bottom line, and God’s love for us undergirds all that we do.
Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate in the 1950’s, was a theologian, writer, pastor, doctor, medical missionary, and humanitarian extraordinaire. He felt that the purpose of human life was to serve, and to show compassion to others. He once said that as long as there was one other person in the world who was hungry, sick, lonely, or living in fear, that one was his responsibility. That’s an incredible concept to comprehend or accept. It’s also hard for us to accept that in spite of our best efforts at loving and caring, there’s no guarantee we’ll be loved in return. It’s incredibly risky to commit to love because a lover is vulnerable. To choose the path of love for all of God’s children is to choose the road less traveled by, as Robert Frost would say, and have it make all the difference.[v] As our brother’s and sister’s keepers, may this be the road we choose. Amen.
Rev. Kenneth C. Landall
[i] Pulpit Resource, 9/3/78.
[ii] Pulpit Resource, 9/6/81.
[iii] Robert E. Luccock, Word & Witness, 9/27/81.
[iv] Nancy S. Taylor, Stillspeaking Devotional, 8/14/14.
[v] Linda Robbins, Church World Service News, 9/81.