(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 8-13-2017
Evil happens. It is never as far away as we deceive ourselves into thinking. Luke makes this point when at the end of the temptations of Jesus, Satan exits stage right, with the tag line, “Until the opportune time.”
We do not need to wait for Jesus before evil takes the stage in Scripture. Evil happens in the primeval garden called Eden and no sooner do the first humans get expelled from Paradise than the first murder happens. We know next to nothing about Cain and Abel, but we know everything we need to know. Cain was the eldest brother, a farmer by trade, and his younger brother Abel was a shepherd. Cain was the child of privilege according to ancient customs and Abel was not.
As the story unfolds, for whatever the reason, God is pleased with Abel’s thanksgiving offering and not so much with Cain’s. Cain does not spend time in self-reflection about how his offering could improve in the future. Cain is indignant and calls God on the carpet and wants an explanation, but instead, he gets only a divine pep talk and lecture, “Try better next time, Cain, and watch out, for sin is strapped to your back.” “Watch out, Cain, do not let evil happen.”
Cain is not impressed with God’s words. He is angry. He is the eldest son. He deserves divine preference and what he gets is a lousy lecture from God. He is so angry in fact that killing his younger brother seems like the most tenable solution to his unfavorable situation. When it doubt, take your brother out. So, he does.
The Cain and Abel story just never seems to end. When I was in Charlottesville in July for the KKK rally, I saw sign after sign and heard speech after speech from those who consider themselves the eldest in our land, the Cain clan, privileged white folks, the David Duke devotees, who feel like they have lost their deserved privilege or that their privilege does not matter like it used to matter. What they always fail to grasp is that the eldest in our land are Native Americans, and we white folks have been stepping on their privilege for centuries now.
The White Supremacists and White Nationalists who came to Charlottesville in July were ready for a fight. They got their fight this weekend. They came not only to spew hateful rhetoric; some came to act on their anger, actions that included using a car as a weapon of mass destruction of defenseless counter-protesters. Abel died again yesterday because white nationalist anger could not be quelled and evil could not be contained.
To be clear, people with conviction and who deserve respect can and should debate the role of Confederate history in our ongoing national identity. People with conviction and who deserve respect can reach different conclusions on how and where and whether to relocate statues and rename parks. In the Cain and Abel story, though, there is a dramatic paucity of conviction and respect. In our city’s streets on Friday night and yesterday, there was a dramatic paucity of conviction and respect. In our national rhetoric, there is a dramatic paucity of conviction and respect.
The first story of fratricide in Scripture continues and God wants to ask Cain a question now. God wants to know: “Where is your brother?” Cain gives a nuanced, politically savvy, non-answer. He responds: “Don’t really know, God, hey, am I my brother’s keeper?” God does not fall for Cain’s sophistry. God says, “What have you done, Cain?” Cain does not answer, but it is clear that he has killed the one person in the way of keeping his privilege.
I stand before you as a child of privilege. Never have I had to persuade others to give me the benefit of the doubt because I had a different skin color. Never have I had to convince others that I am worthy to marry someone because I am gay or lesbian or bi-sexual or transgender. Never have I had to be anyone’s token participant in a club or in school because I was noticeably different in color or culture from the majority of folks around me.
When I heard protesters shouting, “White Lives Matter,” I thought of ole Cain, who was convinced that someone was stealing his privilege, like Jacob would later steal Esau’s birthright. Cain was angry and he was not going to take it anymore. If God was not going to insure his privilege, he would take matters into his own hands. As Cain killed Abel, Abel was no longer his biological brother; he was just an obstacle in the way of making sure that he remained in the privileged place into which he was born.
“Hey, God, am I my brother’s keeper?” What a pitiful, pathetic response coming from someone who has lost all sight that we are all privileged to live in the grace and by the grace of God. The same sorry question comes off our lips too easily still in 2017, especially from those of us who have basked most of our lives in privilege. “Hey God, are we our sister’s keeper, our brother’s keeper?” How can we possibly be held responsible for and care about those who spewed such evil in the park this weekend and incited and engaged in such violence in the name of privilege? You go ahead and love them Lord, but right now, they are anything but our sisters and brothers. God, do not give us divine lectures on love or forgiveness or caring for those who we would not call a brother or a sister if our life depended on it.
So, here is the tough and ultimately life-changing Gospel news, sisters and brothers. Our life does depend on it. Our spiritual life depends on it. When we spiral down into the abyss of evil, Abel is no longer our brother. He is a just privileged punk who is getting our rightful attention from God. When we spiral down into the abyss of evil, every person of color is taking away the privilege that is rightfully ours and we, like Cain, will no longer sit quietly by and let them take what is ours. When we spiral down into the abyss of evil, everyone who loves in a different way than we do cannot be allowed to pretend their love is anything like ours.
When God calls Cain on the horror of what he has done and tells Cain that he will forever wander the earth and no longer till it, Cain whines like a three-year-old. He whines that he will be too vulnerable now and someone will kill him in his wanderings. God does not say, “Cain, you want me to be your keeper. You should have thought of keeping your younger brother, rather than mowing him down.” No, instead, God puts a mark on Cain, ostensibly the mark will protect this murderer from being murdered by others.
The story does not say, but my prayer is that the mark changed Cain. My prayer is that after some days, maybe weeks, maybe months, maybe years, Cain woke up one morning to realize that he is his brother’s keeper, and for Abel, it is too late. He has failed his brother and God in the worst possible way. But, on dawn of that new day, Cain woke and may we wake to recognize that there are sisters and brothers who are just waiting for us to keep them, to love them, to pray for them, to provide for them, even brothers and sisters whom we detest the most, with whom we disagree the most, and even with those we pray will never darken our doors again.
Maybe the mark of Cain is not so far removed from the birthmark of all who follow Christ, the mark of baptism, the mark that never lets us suffer from the illusion that we are privileged people, but that we are redeemed people and that every last woman, man, and child on this planet is our sister and brother.
“Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?” In more nuanced words, God’s answer to Cain is nonetheless unambiguous and echoes across the ages until this very day.
“Absolutely and never forget it!”