Sunday, September 2, 2012

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Am I My Brother's Keeper?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 2, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:13a
Luke 10: 25-37
Genesis 4: 1-9
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

This week our passage from the marks of a Christian is "Contribute to the needs of the saints, and I want to take this opportunity to look at how we take and care for each other. It seems like you cannot turn the tv on any more in this election year without finding the phrase brother's keeper, and at Blue Ridge the powers that be have decided that Brother's Keeper is going to be our theme and emphasis for the year. What we are going to get at is seeing if "contributing to the needs of the saints" and being a "brother's keeper" are the same or at least compatible. After choosing the Old Testament passage, from where we get the term "Brother's Keeper" I chose the classic parable of caring, The Good Samaritan. So we'll have all three in our freshly heard as we begin. Here is the Good Samaritan Luke 10: 25-37.

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” [1]

Ok, so brother's keeper, it's a phrase that surrounds us in the modern lexicon, and it is used most often to imply that human beings have a responsibility to care for one another in this world. Of course we do, but I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with this phrase: Brother's Keeper. Here are a couple of reasons.
This phrase does not come from an example of the best of human relationship, but instead from the worst. It comes from the Cain and Abel story, the first murder in the Bible. Cain has just killed his brother Abel, and when confronted about it he replies with, "am I my brother's keeper," a smart alek way of evading the question, and from this we have taken the slogan for kind feeling and caring for each other.
And if this wasn't troubling enough we also have this issue of "keeping." What does it mean to keep? Keep what? Keep fed? Keep out of trouble? Keep in a cage? Keep in a zoo? The first thing I think of when I think of someone who keeps is a zookeeper. What does keep mean? The Hebrew word that we translate "keeper" is shamar, which can be used to describe a guardian, but also can be used in the same way that  you would "keep" the Sabbath. Fascinating.
The other thing that I find difficult is the idea of "I" am my brother's keeper, in that all the responsibility rests on me. I must do it, and if I fail, he fails. There is an exclusiveness in the phrase I am my brother's keeper because it's not we are our brothers keeper, but I am. That's a lot of pressure. Not only do I have to figure out my own way through this often confusing world, but also I'm responsible for "keeping" my brother. I think this is reflected in what Cain is saying. There is frustration in Cain's response to God alongside the shame he feels. Remember Cain is already upset with God for not accepting his offering. So you don't like my offering, and now I'm supposed to care about where my brother is? What do you want from me? Can I not do anything right? And yet, we choose brother's keeper as the care slogan.
The biggest issue that I have with the idea of keeping is the fact that many times we use it as an excuse to insert our own selves, our own values, and our own way of thinking into a situation that many times has nothing to do with us. Being our brother's keeper sometimes turns into a carte blanche to jump in and meddle, because it's not just love your neighbor, or help out a friend, there is "keeping" involved, and keeping seems to allow for I know better than you, or I'm trying to keep you out of trouble. I'm going to protect you from yourself. It is not a relationship of equal partnership, but of the keeper and the kept. At worst it leads to resentment, and at best you get the problem we've talked about the last few weeks: what if suffering, what if struggle, what if mistakes are important pieces of a person's development, and that by keeping the other safe we are not allowing them to live. You get that consistent problem of human action, unintended consequences. How are you going to know? It is possible that our human flaws and weakness render us incapable of being our brother's keeper in a positive way. God responds to Cain's question by saying, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!" Perhaps we are not as bad as Cain, murdering our brother with a rock, but we can look around at our world and hear the blood of our brothers crying out to us from the ground."
I want to pose that this morning's phrase, "Contribute to the needs of the Saints" is a more positive idea of what we as Christians are called to do, what loving our neighbors means an active and more concrete way. Specifically the first word, "contribute." A tribute in Roman times was a tax, and to contribute meant with the tribute or alongside. I like this because because there is working together. The aid that we are doing is not on an island but part of a larger program. We are playing a role, and an important role, but we are not all by ourselves. This is more important than may be apparent.
I chose as the prayer of preparation in your bulletin this morning, the closing lines from Act 1 of Hamlet. Hamlet has just seen a ghost, he has just confirmed some of his suspicions about his uncle and his mother, and has vowed to right the wrongs, but he says with regret, "The time is out of joint, O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!" He must insert himself into the relationships of others, and in other words it's all on him. He is alienated by his vision and alienated in his mission. How often do we feel this way about our mission in this world? There is something within us that makes us see the world revolving around ourselves, even when our attention is placed upon other people and their problems. We can put the weight of the world on our shoulders, feeling we are it. This is what Hamlet does, he even further alienates himself by "acting crazy." He does not confide in any one about what he is trying to do, but goes about it completely alone, and it almost destroys him. It is not until he breaks out of his prison, sees more of the world, sees how he must depend on others and on God, that he finally realizes there is more to the world than just him. O cursed spite turns into "let be," he can now focus on things outside of himself. It is one of the great ironies of the world that sometimes those on a mission of selflessness become the most selfish. They believe that their role to play is so important that they can do whatever it takes, even if it challenges their ethics and morals. You see this all over the place. It is one reason that power corrupts. Human beings have trouble with self importance, even when being selfless.
But no we are called to contribute. The Greek word that is translated contribute is even cooler. It is simply the word community stated as a verb. Greek is cool like that. The word for Community in Greek is Koinonia, the word that we translate as contribute is koinoneo, the verb form. Pretty cool huh. Who would have ever thought community could be a verb. I guess it would be communitize. So Communitize the needs of the saints. But the word that we translate as "needs" could be translated as duties, and of the saints could be translated of the Holy, or the Holy one. Communitize the duties of the Holy One. Be a part of the holy work. The verb itself suggests that we are not out on an island, but part of something bigger than ourselves. Imagine if Cain had seen his relationship with Abel in this way. Instead of competing with each other and their sacrifices to God, trying to outdo one another, leaving one winner, and one loser crying out from the ground, you get two individuals freely giving what they can, communitizing.
So now let's look at the Good Samaritan parable in this light. The religious leaders who all walk by the man lying in the ditch probably felt that the work they were doing was so much more important than that one guy. Perhaps. They might have felt that their congregations depended on them for so much that the business could not wait. They were probably doing good work, but at what cost. Then the Samaritan comes along. Helps the man. Does what he can, but then takes him to the inn and leaves him there. Leaves him for others to take care of. He did his part, but also understood that there was a point in time when his services, having been rendered, were finished, and that it was time for another to take over. How hard is this to do? Not only to help, but also to disappear, depend on others to finish, possibly allowing the other to get the credit for what you did.
So back to brother's keeper? Am I my brother's keeper? I don't think so. Instead let's lose the I; let's lose the my; let's lose the keeper; and let's lose the question; what is left? Simply, brother. I'm not my brother's keeper, but simply my brother's brother. Brothers, communitizing, figuring it out piece by piece, serving God, allowing His will to be done, for God is truly our keeper, an uniquely capable of the job. May we let God do the keeping and we can focus on the loving, the building up of community, communitizing, the freeing of each other to make mistakes, and to live because life is too precious, bumps and all, let us live, not be kept safe from life. May it be so, amen.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 10:25-37). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.