The holy gospel according to Matthew.
Glory to you, O Lord.
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ 39But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.
The Gospel of our Lord
Praise to you, O Christ.
Many of us woke up Monday morning to news that was both chilling and, in many ways, expected. We’ve woken to these kind of stories before. A gunman, Stephen Paddock, opened fire on a country music festival crowd in Las Vegas, killing at least 59 people and wounding more than 500 in less than 1 hour. Over these last few months, it has been this news, along with earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, people crying out for help after natural disasters wiped out their access life saving supplies, white supremacists walking the streets of Charlottesville with tiki torches, story upon story of another shooting of a black person in our streets, other gun massacres like the Pulse shooting in Orlando… it is hard not to become simply numb to these news reports. How do we face tragedy, trauma, evil and violence as a community? What do we say in the midst of a world that looks like ours?
Given our experience with mass shootings as a society, what happens afterward often looks chillingly similar. People tweet, give money, pray. Government officials offer words of condolences and visit sites. The media searches for a motive. A great divide begins between those who say the guns are to blame and that as a society we ought to regulate these guns in some way, and those who start talking about how we can’t legislate evil in people’s hearts, and since these events are just evil, we shouldn’t focus on the methods at all.
And, so here we are, again. Again. Another shooting, another death toll. Another desperate search for answers, and another stalemate about how to move forward. So, like faithful folk have done through our history, we turn to scripture, with some hope that perhaps what we learn here might cast light on what we experience in this world of brokenness.
Violence is not unknown to our ancestors in faith, and it is no more apparent than in our Genesis reading for this day. We are given two scenes, both of which are worth digging into a bit deeper. The first begins after Adam and Eve, living in paradise, decide to partake of the apple from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Suddenly aware of their own nakedness, when God comes to walk in the garden, they hide, covering themselves in fig leaves. When God calls for them, there is no hiding anymore, something has been radically altered. Immediately God questions them- did you do this? Did you eat from the tree I forbade you from eating? Some call this the fall, the very first moment when these two perfect earth creatures, living in paradise, serving the earth out of which they were made, disobeyed God, ate from the tree God told them was forbidden. Some suggest this is the very first moment when humanity put their own desires ahead of God’s. Through our history, we hear people saying that this is the origin story not only of humanity, but the origin story of why we experience pain, and violence, and evil even now.
And almost immediately, we jump forward twelve verses into the story
of Cain and Abel and the relationship between them, these two brothers born of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were pushed out of the garden, clothed by God, but removed from the promised land, and they conceive and bear two sons- the first, Cain, is a tiller of the ground. In fact, if you remember back to last week, when we heard the story of Adam’s creation, and his first vocational assignment to care for and serve the Earth, that job has now continued on in Cain. But, the second son, Abel, doesn’t till the ground, but is rather a keeper of sheep, a shepherd. The time comes for them to offer sacrifices to the Lord, and Cain, as a tiller of the ground brings an offering of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, the shepherd, brings the fat portions of the firstlings of his flock. Both pretty reasonable offerings to bring forward as a sacrifice to their God, but that isn’t how things go. Cain’s offering is rejected. God chooses only to regard Abel’s offering for some unknown reason. The text tells us nothing. God chooses Abel, and Cain is angry. And suddenly, almost without reason, Cain says to Abel- let’s go out into the field, and there he overwhelms him and kills him. And in that killing, the very land opens up its mouth, crying out over the blood of Abel that has been spilled. Even the Earth cries out that something has gone terribly wrong.
These stories have gotten a lot of play over the history of Christianity. Many an important theologian has sought to make some sense of our theological anthropology by examining what happened in these early creation stories. The desire to explain pain, violence and evil in the world leads us to the natural inclination to find an answer about why- why do people murder, and steal, why does someone randomly seek to hurt another? What went wrong, either in them, or in the history of all humanity to lead to this way of living together in the world?
But our text doesn’t end with Cain killing Abel, so that we might be able to sit back and say, well, that Cain, he’s pretty evil. Thank goodness we aren’t like him. Because immediately after we hear what Cain has done, God is back on the scene, asking Cain where Abel has gone. I don’t know, says Cain, and it is almost like you can hear the audience gasp- of course you know where he is, you just killed him! But within the same breath, Cain asks the question that ought to haunt all of us, “am I my brother’s keeper?”
And, the answer, is yes. Yes, you are your brother’s keeper. Yes, in fact, that is what we’ve been learning in all these stories. From the beginning, Adam, this creature of the Earth, was set on it to care for it. From the beginning humanity was here to keep the Earth and the creatures that God has made. And even when we came to know bitter toil, even when we came to know rejection, and pain, and anger, and jealousy, we are both keepers of the earth, and keepers of the other. This is what Cain somehow forgot, maybe in jealousy, maybe in rejection, maybe in shame, that he was always made to be his brother’s keeper, in fact, we all have been made the same way- to care not just for the land, but for each other. We are the keepers, the ones set here to care for the earth, for the land, and for each other. We are our brother’s keeper, the ones who are called to do good in the face of risk, to love with abandon even when the world doesn’t seem to deserve it, to care for the people around us, even when logic suggests that the smartest course of action is to close the doors and shut the windows, to turn inward and protect those we love.
You see, being keepers, this is risky business. It means that we have to care for the people who are innocent and the people who are guilty, it means that the other, the ones that we have been called to love and serve, they often don’t deserve it, and they will hurt us, and they will dismiss us, and they will make it far too difficult. It means that we don’t just get to call some people evil, and to forget them or disregard them, because when we hear this call, to keep not just the Earth but each other, we don’t get to decide who is in and who is out. It’s all in. The whole world is in.
Because it is easy to focus on these stories as ones that tell us about evil at the heart of humanity, but on this day, given all we have carried into this worship space, all we wake up to when we roll over and read the news in the morning, I don’t think these texts are telling us about where evil comes from, but rather, the kind of people we have to be in the midst of it. Because sometimes we are the cause of what has gone wrong, and sometimes we are the bystanders, and no matter where we are, the answer is, you are your brother’s keeper. And so we really don’t have to be at a stalemate when we hear that something absolutely wrong has happened again, because the question is not, can you erase the evil around us, can you legislate away the evil in someone’s heart? The question is, how is the best way for us to care for humanity now? How will we be our brother’s keeper now? How will we wake up tomorrow and say, this is the way we will care for the earth and for our fellow humans now in this moment, in the face of this tragedy?
But we aren’t alone. God is with us, in this work of keeping, in this work of finding a way to live in this broken world. God is with us, unexpectedly, in those very humans we are caring for. In our neighbors and our friends, in the people we’d rather not see God in, and the one’s that surprise us. God is in the land, and the human being next to us, God is in the earth and the face of the one we would love to imagine is outside of that love. Because in being the keeper of the earth, in being the keeper of humanity, we are also brought into the presence of God, we are brought face to face with the one who is as deeply present in our own lives as in the life of those around us. And for that, we can sometimes with trembling say, thanks be to God.