October 17, 2010
Genesis 4:8-9; Matthew 25:40-46
Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way
The Challenge of Being Our Brother’s Keeper
Tyler Clementi is a name we would never know, if not for the circumstances and publicity surrounding the suicide of this young student at Rutgers University.
His death has spurred debate in our society about how we care for and treat others; or perhaps, how we don’t care for others and how we mistreat others.
There is a political side to this debate and it will continue on, I’m sure, for a long time. But when we enter the realm of faith, there should be no debate about how we are to treat one another; we are called by God to treat one another with love. The Old Testament required one to extend care and hospitality to people who were passing through the land, even if it were one’s enemy. The Old Testament writers often reminded the Israelites of their mistreatment and suffering as slaves in Egypt, so they were never to mistreat others (Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 24:17). The New Testament is filled with reminders of loving others, with the command of Jesus to love even our enemies being the greatest example (Matthew 5:43-44).
Continuing on with our theme of Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, this morning we come to The Challenge of Being Our Brother’s Keeper. It is an understatement to say that it can be hard to live together as people. The many factors that divide people – political, religious, social, and economic – can make it less likely that people will care for one another.
But maybe recent events such as the suicide of this young student are helping to bring us to a point of introspection in our society about how we are treating one another. I haven’t gotten my hopes up yet, and I’ll tell you one reason why, aside from the obvious reason that the news is full of evidence that we don’t always treat each other well. I believe that in spite of all the talk of the need to be civil our society really sends very mixed signals. We have a very strange contradiction in our society. On one hand we hear messages of respect and tolerance, but those messages are often undermined by a different message. I think, for example, that it is extremely hypocritical that some media outlets promote a positive message of respecting one another while at the same time making millions of dollars from reality shows whose main premise seems to be the public humiliation of the participants. Forgive my soapbox here, but most of reality television seems to me to be little more than the public humiliation and embarrassment of the participants. So how do you say on one hand, treat people kindly and justly while on the other hand creating an entire format of entertainment based on the humiliation of people? Once you sanction the public humiliation of people it’s only a short step then to more extreme and damaging treatment of people.
Our Scripture readings for today represent two opposing ways of dealing with people. We find Cain, so jealous and spiteful of his brother Abel, that he murders his brother. And when God asks Cain where is your brother Abel Cain responds with a sneer and an arrogance in his voice – I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper? Isn’t that an amazingly cold response? Remember the first time you got that kind of response from one of your children, or the first time you responded that way to your parents? Children are little and sweet and somewhere along the way they develop this mind of their own and one day when you ask something of them and they have a defiant response. Ask them to clean up their room and when they’ve always been compliant they suddenly say, no, and you can’t make me!
Cain gives God a fist-waving statement of I’ll do what I want and nobody can tell me what to do and I’ll not only do what I want but I’ll treat people any way I want. You’re not the boss of me. Things don’t change in humanity. The spirit of Cain, unfortunately, is alive and well in our world today. We see it in the coldness that is demonstrated to others and in the hardheartedness and violence that is so pervasive.
Cain’s words are a declaration of independence from any responsibility toward the care of other people. It is a statement of withdrawing from the calling to minister to others and it is a proclamation of living in self-absorption.
The opposing way of dealing with people is the way of Jesus. In Matthew chapter 25 Jesus talks about the righteous and their pattern of caring for those who are in need of food, drink, clothing; of caring for those who are strangers; of looking after those who are sick and visiting those who are in prison – all the people that are described as the least of these brothers of mine. There is a solidarity that is expressed with those who are in need – Jesus calls them these brothers of mine. They are not anonymous people we pass by or ignore, but people who Jesus says are brothers and sisters to us.
So there are some important matters for us to remember –
Know that everyone is a child of God – even the most low down, spiteful, mean, ornery, hard to get along with, obnoxious (I’m running out of adjectives!) types of people. The Scriptures remind us that we are all created in God’s image, giving everyone a sense of value. But humanity loves to rank people and stratify people according to so many things, and that inevitably leads to a view that some people are of lesser value. And once you see people as being of less value it is a short step to treating them in a harsh and damaging way.
We ought to treat people with dignity and respect – whoever they are. It is not always easy. There are those who abuse the systems that have been set up to help others, but not everyone is out to take advantage. There are people who seem to work hard to make themselves unlovable, but the call of Christ does not let us off the hook on this point.
We must ask who is telling us how to treat others or feel about others? Jesus says the least of these and how we relate to and how we deal with them is the standard by which our faith is judged. The latter part of chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel is a harrowing passage to me. It’s a tough, tough passage because it is a direct challenge to the conditioning we receive from our world about who we value and how we treat those we value or don’t value. We are conditioned to think about people in particular way, and much of the time we are not even aware we are being conditioned to think of people in those ways. Matthew chapter 25 is a plumb line for us, a way of measuring out lives to see how we are treating others.
Remember that we are called into the lives of others. One of the benefits of ministering to others is that it saves us from ourselves and our worst impulses. It’s easy to become self-absorbed and wrapped up in our own lives, but ministering to others is such a benefit for us as it makes it impossible to become obsessed with our own lives and forget about others.
What can we do for someone else? We have to look at the big picture and see the numbers of people that need care, but we have to see the individual picture as well. What can I do for someone who is my neighbor or coworker? And it’s not just physical needs; it’s spiritual needs, and it’s standing with someone who needs someone to stand with them. It’s being with the one who is lonely, it’s expressing solidarity with the one who is an outcast, it’s standing up for the one at school who is bullied.
The other day I was sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. Seated across from me was a mother with a tiny, newborn baby. That baby was so helpless. It couldn’t sit up on its own or even hold its head up. As I was watching that precious little baby an elderly man came in. He had a cane in each hand and was leaning on them very hard. He had a person on each side of him as well, helping him along. What an interesting scene it was, these two people at opposite stages of life, and neither one could make it without someone’s help. I’m somewhere in the middle of those two. Well, maybe a little past the middle, but the reality is I can’t make it alone either. I didn’t get anywhere in life on my own. No one does, no matter how much they believe so. I can say I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps but that’s not true for me or for anyone else. No one makes it on their own. Our lives are interconnected and intertwined in powerful ways and I believe that is exactly what God has always intended. It is, I believe, God’s will and intention that our lives are interconnected and intertwined as a reminder that we are brothers and sisters, and that we are indeed our brother’s keeper.
As a congregation there are many ministries we perform to care for others and to express our love for them. I am grateful for what we do. As the body of Christ that is what we are called to do, and we are called as individuals as well. We are our brother’s keeper; I am my brother’s keeper. We have to face that responsibility as a body and as individuals. May we go, and may we live with solidarity and oneness with our brothers and sisters.