7 Questions God Has for You: “Where Is Your Brother?”

7 Questions God Has for You: “Where Is Your Brother?”
Genesis 4:1-10
Louis Timberlake
July 10, 2016

It didn’t take very long. Four chapters in, three stories in--1) Creation, 2) Adam and Eve in the Garden, and this–the first act of violence. Brother killing brother. Over a simple difference in livelihood and the idea that one might have had a little more go his way. There are only four people on the entire earth, and we’re already killing each other! I hate that this is such an appropriate passage this morning.

I think what I find most disturbing is how hardwired we are to respond to violence with violence. And I don’t mean just responding with physical violence. When we encounter violence, we vilify and blame entire groups of people instead of seeking to build bridges. We argue with each other over which laws, backed by which party or interest group, caused this violence. We posture, rather than humble ourselves. We have social media wars. #blacklivesmatter or #alllivesmatter? We seek to argue, to humiliate, to win. Without ever engaging the deep mistrust and systemic injustice. And, at times, some respond to violence with physical violence. Channeling their pain, fear, and brokenness into harming another human being. People are dead, and we are lesser for it. Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the virtues or vices of the people involved, we have lost something this week.

One of my friends posted a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr on Facebook a couple of days ago. “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Anger, suspicion, and fear are not the ingredients of light. Humility, compassion, forgiveness–that is light. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

In the story, Cain is the firstborn and Abel is younger. We don’t really want to identify with either, because one ends up dead and the other ends up exiled. There’s no happy ending for either. And, that’s the truth of violence; there’s no happy ending. For anyone. Abel is dead. Cain is alive, but damaged. And humanity is diminished.

In ancient Israel and the surrounding region, the firstborn son was a position of great privilege (remember, it’s a patriarchal society. We don’t affirm that, but we acknowledge it.). The firstborn son was consecrated to God, and the father actually had to give a monetary offering to God following the birth of that son. It signified that your firstborn belonged to God. Firstborn sons got a double portion of their father’s estate; that’s what the whole conflict between Jacob and Esau was about. Esau was the oldest, but Jacob tricked their father, Isaac, into giving Jacob the birthright of the firstborn. If the father had any official position or special rights, those were passed to the firstborn son. So, it was a position of great privilege.

But, it was also a position of great responsibility. The firstborn son was responsible for caring for his father’s widows (it was not just a patriarchal, but a polygamous society) and for any sisters that weren’t yet married. Now, we fortunately have realized that many of the gender roles of the ancient Near East aren’t something we want to perpetuate. However, there’s something to be said about this connection between privilege and responsibility. The late management guru, Peter Drucker, put it this way, “Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.”

To be in a position of privilege means to bear the weight of responsibility for others. It’s fascinating the way the scriptures tell this story of Cain and Abel. That question, “Where is your brother?” is about responsibility. Cain has responsibility, because he has privilege. His response is an attempt to shirk that responsibility. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

When we talk about salvation in the Christian tradition, we are talking about a couple of things–what God does in us and what God does in the world. They’re linked. One without the other is an incomplete understanding of salvation. It’s about the transformation of our lives. And, it’s about the transformation of Creation. Now, there are times that we focus on one aspect, at the expense of the other. We talk about God working in our hearts or our personal lives. But, when we are overly focused on the personal, we forget that it’s also about our world, our community. Doing the will of God through serving others, addressing poverty, resisting injustice, advocating for the victim, the oppressed. Similarly, we can become so focused on the needs in our community, on feeding the hungry, speaking out for the oppressed, that we forget that, in order for us to be light in the world, we must first let God bring forth light in our hearts.

Salvation is internal and external, narrow and broad. God seeks to transform our hearts AND to transform the world. Cain’s heart wasn’t right, and it was revealed in his actions. His heart was full of anger and envy. His heart is marked by a darkness that manifests in violence.

The video that we watched spoke to the problem of a faith with no external component. I’m challenged by her example of a Christian who seeks to be an honest employee, a good spouse, and a faithful church member--but then she cuts deep with that line, “but you’re the Senior VP of Sales for Apple. Why aren’t you addressing the issue of why kids in one neighborhood don’t have Apple computers at their school, whereas the kids in this neighborhood do?”

It’s challenging. It’s almost a little bit harsh, but only because we feel that nugget of truth. We are a people of privilege and with privilege comes responsibility. Embracing that responsibility means bridging the gap between our hearts and our hands, between our personal salvation and the salvation of the world.

To participate in the transformation of the world, we must allow God to transform our hearts. And, if we are not working to transform the world, then our hearts have not been fully transformed.

You know, it’s interesting. Or maybe interesting isn’t the best word. Depressing, overwhelming--those are perhaps better words.

About 8% of the world holds 83% of the wealth. If your net worth is above $100,000, you are in the top 8.5%. If your net worth is above $10,000, you’re in the top 30%. In the US, if you are born into a lower income bracket, there’s a 70% chance that you will stay there, where median wealth is under $10,000. Most of us enjoy great privilege, relative to the rest of the world. Inequality is a fundamental issue and at the core of many of our local & global challenges.

When I think about privilege, I think about something else as well. To be in a position of privilege means to have a certain immunity or tolerance to many of the problems of our world. When you are, like many of us, in a position of privilege, it is possible to tune out the pain and the suffering. To hear it, but not feel it. Because it doesn’t directly impact you. I am not an African-American man, and I am not a police officer. I am a white, male, middle-class, Methodist pastor. I have the privilege of being able to tune it out. But, as a follower of Christ, I have the responsibility to not tune it out. I have the responsibility to engage with the factors that have led to the deaths of two African-American men and five police officers. The factors that cause people to fear for their lives, based upon the color of their skin or the uniform they wear.

I’m struck by the way that Christena Cleveland frames it in the video. When we make the gospel overly individualistic, our own personal resurrection is separate from everyone else’s resurrection. In the gospel of individualism, we are not our brother’s keeper. The problem with that is that the gospel of individualism is not the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus said, “whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” The greatest commandment, apart from loving God, is loving our neighbors. Who are our neighbors? Everyone, including the people that we don’t always like. Including those we count as enemies. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The Gospel of Christ is about the transformation of our hearts and the transformation of the world. The resurrection is not just for us, it’s for everybody.

I imagine that we’ve been doing a lot of praying this week. It’s a good response to tragedy. There’s a prayer that many of us know well, one that is passed down from Jesus. They’re good words to end with today.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Discussion Starters

  • Talk a little bit about the MLK quote. How does it speak to you?
  • What are your thoughts on the connection between privilege and responsibility?
  • What is privilege? Are there different types of privilege? Would you consider yourself to be privileged?
  • What responsibility do we have as followers of Jesus, when faced with the problems in our world? What is a faithful response to the events of the past week in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas?
  • Do you ever find it difficult to connect your personal salvation with the salvation of the world? How could we better make that connection?