* The following text is taken from a sermon given in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN), on February 14, 2016, for the First Sunday in the Season of Lent. Please note that the below manuscript was written with the intention for it to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And Cain replied, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said to Cain, “What have you done?
This brief exchange from 4th Chapter of Genesis is both expansive in meaning and brimming with complexity, as it features fundamental elements of the human experience, such as pride, anger, jealousy, fear, and of course, the causes and consequences of violence and death. As a result, one could elaborate upon various aspects of this profound text from the first book of Scripture.
Today we focus on that which may be the most profound portion of the Genesis creation narrative, verses eight through ten, and more specifically, verse nine, when immediately after Cain murders his brother Abel, God strategically and rather shrewdly interrogates Cain in an attempt to explore the details of the crime that just occurred.
Where is your brother?, God asks Cain.
And Cain’s response to his inquisitive God is one that continues to drive deep into the core of what it means to be most fully human, and in doing so, such a statement serves as a mirror by which we examine our ethical, spiritual, political, and even educational selves.
“Am I my Brother’s Keeper”?, Cain responds.
Am I my Brother’s Keeper? Perhaps, the defining question found within the arc of Scripture. Am I my brother’s keeper? A question that inevitably forces us to consider many other questions, such as: What is our responsibility to and for each other? How do we live alongside people with whom we do not agree? How do we care about (and for) each other when the world is filled with fear and violence, and how do we make conscious decisions to cooperate when we have increasing access to the increasingly deadly tools by which we can act upon our fears?
How do we resist the tragic temptations of relativism and extremism? And more specifically, as scholars and students in and of this place, grounded at an institution of so-called higher education: If civilization is indeed in “a race between education and catastrophe” as H.G. Wells professed, then how might education possibly equip faithful citizens to respond to the world’s most pressing challenges during such complex and challenging times?
Am I my brother’s keeper? Am I my sister’s keeper? Are we our community’s keeper? Are we called to care about anyone or anything outside of ourselves?
As we consider such questions, the Lord responds to us in ways similar to the response given to Cain in Genesis 4: “What have you done?”
What have you done?
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”, we ask God? And God responds, “What have you done?”
What have you done?
During this Season of Lent, in which we examine the complexities and consequences of our brokenness, and when we question whether or not we are each other’s keeper, I do wonder how many times per day God asks this of us?
“What have you done, my people?”
Violence? Warfare? Death? Racism? Sexism? Homophobia?
“What have you done to this good world that I created?”
Inequality? Individualism? Religious violence in God’s name?
“What have you done?”
Poverty? Climate Change? Inequitable access to health care and suitable education?
What have you done?
Selfishness? Greed? Putting profits before people?
“What have you done?”
What have we done? What have we done?
I suppose the ways in which we increasingly put “self” as a prefix to an increasing amount of our words mirrors the ways in which we continually put ourselves at the center of the world. In doing so, we care less and less about others that we live alongside in this world. And like Cain, who took the life of his brother Abel, we so often do the same.
When we turn our attention away from each other, we do the same. When we justify our direct and indirect back-stabbing of each other, we do the same. When we passively and aggressively gossip and spread lies about each other, we do the same.
Like Cain, each day we take life away from other people, and God looks down upon us, and asks, “What have you done”? And like Cain, we are left like restless wanderers, toiling in the fields of life, wondering when and how God might possibly be with us.
This all, of course, does not sound like Good News. But it is good to hear such news.
Because, at a time when religiosity in North America gradually turns to the prosperity gospel and moralistic therapeutic deism, the Season of Lent waters a small seed of truth within a large field of mass deception. Because, instead of merely celebrating human greatness in a post-Enlightenment milieu, during this Season of Lent we point toward an ever-present and ever-problematic reality that we too often refuse to admit, which is the reality that:
The world, and we humans that inhabit it, are thoroughly messed up.
The story of Cain and Abel points it out to us, and our daily actions remind us of it: The world, and we humans that inhabit it, are thoroughly messed up.
In the face of our common calls to self-accredited importance and infallibility, during these forty days leading to Good Friday we repeatedly learn that we in the human community are “captive to sin” and “we cannot save ourselves.” Which means, despite what the latest self-help book or motivational conference may promise and peddle, we claim the inconvenient truth that, like toddlers in a playground, when left to our own devices and desires we ultimately succumb to the self, harm others, plunder the planet, and (eventually) self-destruct.
Because, quite simply, the world, and we humans that inhabit it, are thoroughly messed up. And the reason for it, is that we have messed it all up.
For us to hear of humankind depicted in such sobering ways is a shock to our system, as such statements of human limitation are by no means easy to hear or enjoyable to comprehend. As a result, the topic of “repentance”, in which we seek “a change of mind” in response to our moral confines, is also tempting to ignore and avoid altogether. Because, as 21st century North Americans who so often receive a participation medal for nearly everything we do, we hate to hear of our human failures, let alone engage in human repentance, as the subject of actually confessing our sins messes with our big heads, and in doing so, effectively dampens the good vibrations we treasure from our culture of affirmation constipation.
But of course, to be mindful of our brokenness is only one side of a more complex and complete theological coin. In other words, we do make dirty mistakes, but we ourselves are not dirt! Thank God! We are sinners indeed, but we are also saints that are freed, thus even in our fallen state we possess qualities of being created in the Image of God, which means, we are both confronted by the law and comforted by the Gospel. As Martin Luther described, we are simul justus et peccator, thus fully justified by the grace of God, and in turn, set free for completeness and wholeness, regardless of what we have done or left undone. Which means, we do not, because we cannot, earn God’s favor as both Cain and Abel tried to do, yet we receive God’s love through Jesus Christ, whether we like it or not, fully and in abundance, because of God’s grace, sola gratia.
This amazing grace of God is all free gift, thus we need not endure this earthly life trying to earn divine fire insurance for the afterlife (as far too many Christians are motivated to do). Which in turn means that, despite our brokenness, we never lose our dignity in God’s eyes, as we are beloved for what God made us to be, not for what we have too often made of ourselves. In other words, what makes our story different from that of Cain and Abel, is that for us, we no longer see the need to earn God’s love through such feeble attempts at sacrifice, for God already is fully present through the sacrifices of Jesus, and in this story of Good News, God has stepped into the center of it all, and not only says to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as you wish to be loved yourself, but Jesus also shows us the way.
In the words of Benjamin Elijah Mays, Jesus reveals that “The love of God and the love of humanity are indeed one love”. Which in turn means the ways in which we love God are revealed in the ways in which we love our neighbors as ourselves. Which also means, in the world of here and now, the means by which we live out this one love and affirm our responsibility to each other is by serving the common good as our collective vocation, alongside each other.
Like a Trinity of ministry: Love of God, Love of others, love of ourselves. Three in One. One love expressed threefold in service to the common good. And this is what the story of Cain and Abel directs us to consider: Despite our human brokenness and capacity to cause great harm to one another, we are called to One Love in service to the common good, by the Triune God who expresses one love for us.
One Love in service to the common good.
Now, what is the common good? For starters, the common good is a notion that originated many years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, the contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are…equally to everyone’s advantage”. Furthermore, the Catholic social teaching tradition, which has a long history of seeking to define and promote the common good, defines it as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment”. In light of such thoughts, the common good includes a range of social systems, institutions, and environments that benefit the good of all people. Which means, the common good can be summarized with the classic African proverb that I love to repeat whenever possible: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
From a Lutheran perspective, the commitment of serving the common good is a collective vocation that derives primarily from Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, an all-encompassing social ethic that continues to inspire reconciliation, transformation and empowerment to this day. Of course, this “great commandment” is by no means exclusive to Lutherans or even Christians, but such a command is indeed authentic to Christians in general and Lutherans in particular. Which means, similar to the message found in the parable of the Good Samaritan – we are called to embrace people of various faith and philosophical traditions as an expression of Jesus’ love. Therefore, serving the common good as our collective vocation is a way for us to be “each other’s keeper”, as an effective way to find common ground, which in turn offers valuable opportunities for creative alliances above and across the various divisions of society, all for the sake of “life in its fullness” among the global community.
So what does this all mean? What it means is that, yes, we are each other’s keeper, despite the various times that God wonders what it is that we have done to each other. We are called to care for each other because God in Christ shows us that we belong to each other! Which in turn means that we are called to our collective vocation as being in service to the common good with and for each other. And there is no better time to offer such a gift to the world! There is no better time!
As a growing number of people in North America and beyond feel politically, religiously, and intellectually homeless within the raging and toxic battles among various extremes, an opportunity has emerged, and we are called by God during this Season of Lent to explore how we can be a gift to the world, rather that throwing more oil on the fire that continues to divide our world. By engaging ethical issues, building peace, inspiring justice, exploring faith, developing as leaders, empowering others for service, fostering your own knowledge and wisdom and sparking it in others, transforming conflict, honoring human worth, and celebrating the diversity and unity of community, all of us, in response to the ways in which God seeks a common good with us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we can develop a strong and sustained embrace of vocation in service to the common good.
But of course, this all is not easy. If the story of Cain and Abel reminds us of anything, it is that we not only possess the capacity for great good, but we also possess the capacity to commit great harm, even against those who are closest to us. But the story of Cain and Abel also reminds us that an open acknowledgement of our limits allows us to receive the grace and peace to be taken far beyond them. As Parker Palmer so brilliantly articulates in his book, “Let Your Life Speak”:
Our lives are not only about our strengths and virtues; they are also about our liabilities and our limits, our trespasses and our shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for ‘wholeness’ is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.
Yes, we must embrace what we dislike or even find shameful about ourselves, as well as what we are confident and proud of. As this is the Good News, that God accepts us as we are, but does not leave us as we are. And while captive to sin, we are set free by grace through faith.
And so, during this Season of Lent and beyond, for us to “let our lives speak” in service to the common good, we all are invited into an assessment of who we actually are:
Both greedy and giving. Both beautiful and brutal. Both excluded and embraced, and regardless of our finest efforts, both captive and free.
In all of our diversity and distinctiveness, we are human beings trying to create a world just a little bit less messed-up than the one we were given. And through such humble and bold faithfulness we recognize the presence of God’s grace in its abundance, we are liberated to live and to learn, and through such a solid foundation we collectively pursue wisdom and justice wherever the path leads, for the good of all people, and of the whole person.
Are we each other’s keeper? Yes indeed, with the help of God.
May this all be so, this day in always. In Jesus name, we pray. Amen.
The Rev. Brian E. Konkol serves as a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. An ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), he holds degrees from Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI), Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN), and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). He blogs at http://briankristenkonkol.blogspot.com and tweets @BrianKonkol