The Very Rev Dr Andrew McLellan
St Andrew’s Jerusalem 31/03/2019, Lent 4
Genesis 4:9 & St Luke 15: 1-3 & 11b-32
Am I my brother’s keeper?
Here’s a story from the Jewish Talmud about sisters and brothers. Two brothers owned a fertile field and each took half the grain. One night one brother said “This is not fair. I have a wife and five children who will look after me in my old age, while my brother has no-one. He needs to save more for the future”. So he would get out of bed, take a sack of grain over to his brother’s place, and pour it into his granary.
Meanwhile the other brother woke one night and said “This isn’t fair. My brother has a wife and five children to support, while I have only myself to feed. He should get more of the profit. So every night he would get out of bed and pour a sackful of grain into his brother’s granary. One night they ran into each other – each with a sack of grain on his back! They laughed out loud and promised each other they would always be there to help each other. And the story goes that when King Solomon heard the tale he announced that it would be on the spot where the brothers met and embraced that the Temple would be built – for that was holy ground. What if the original site of the Temple – a twenty minute walk from this church and one of the most inflammatory places in the world today – were originally a site of brotherly love?
Ask the Torah, ask the Book of Deuteronomy “who are my sisters and brothers?” and you will get as different answer. We are told that the ancient telling of the holy story of the people of God which they recited over and over again in worship begins with the words. “My ancestors were wandering Arameans”. and in that translation you pass it by with eyebrows unraised. But in the Authorised Version it makes you sit bolt upright: for there Israel’s faith is confessed in the words “A Syrian ready to perish was my father”.
How does that sound today? My wife works with a Scottish charity which supports Syrian refugees. What stories they have to tell! And every child he comes to them for help could begin the story by saying “A Syrian ready to perish was my father”. For the Book of Deuteronomy my sisters and brothers are refugees who have travelled a hard, hard road.
So here is a little story about brotherhood which comes from Islam. Shuaib received a horse from his brother as a present. He found a street urchin was walking around the magnificent new horse, admiring it. “Is this your horse, Uncle?” he asked. Shuaib nodded. “My brother gave it to me.” The boy was astounded. “You mean your brother gave it to you and it didn’t cost you anything? Boy, I wish…” He hesitated. Of course Shuaib knew what he was going to wish for. He was going to wish he had a brother like that. But what the lad said jarred Shuaib all the way down to his heels. “I wish,” the boy went on, “that I could be a brother like that.”
Who is my brother? Right at the start, on page three of my Bible, two brothers go out to a field. One of them, jealous of the other, suddenly attacks his brother and kills him. As Abel’s blood cries out to God from the ground God asks him Cain where his brother is. Then the lie “I don’t know” Then Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God does not answer the question and those who have not thought much about sometimes think that the correct answer is “Yes. I am my brother’s keeper”, and the Bible is teaching that we should look after each other. But the right answer to Cain’s question is “No. You are not your brother’s keeper. You are your brother’s brother”.
You are your brother’s brother. Seven times in eleven verses in the story the word brother is used. Seven times Genesis reminds us that God gave Cain and Abel to each other to be brothers. The horror of Cain’s story is not just that he killed the son of Eve. It is that he killed the one God gave him to be his brother.
And that is the terrible judgment of God on our world and our history. We refuse to own the brothers and sisters God gave us. Human history tells a sinful story of brother set against brother in pain and blood. But it is also the promise of God on our world and our history. Each one, every single one, is your sister, is your brother. O that we could learn to enjoy them as Cain never learned! O that we could live with our brothers and sisters as God created us to do!
So here is a story which comes far away. It is an Eastern story about brothers. A Guru asked his disciples how they could tell when night has ended and the day begun. One said “When you see an animal ion the distance and can tell whether it is a cow or a horse.” “No”, said the guru. When you look at a tree in the distance and can tell whether it is a neem tree or a mango tree”. “Wrong again.” “Well the, what is it?” asked his disciples. When you look into the face of any man and recognize your brother in him, when you look into the face of any woman and recognize in her your sister. If you cannot do this, no matter what time it is by the sun it is still night”.
All these stories about brothers and sisters. Above them all the story we read this morning. A certain man had two sons. The young one was a waster and took what he could get and left home and ruined everything. Later he dragged himself homewards to throw himself on his father’s mercy and then – Jesus said “While he was a great way off his father saw him and ran to meet him and threw his arms around him and kissed him and organised a party.
And the other son? The other son, grumpy, grudging, unforgiving? He rebukes his father for giving the party for the wastrel. Did you notice hthat he says to his father “this son of yours” He could not bring himself to call the lad his brother. Ask this son “who is your brother” and he might even tell you he has no brother. What is to be done with him? What is to be done with this family when even at the party the grumpy, grudging, unforgiving one lurks outside, hearing the music and nursing his wrath to keep it warm?
What is to be done with a grumpy, grudging, unforgiving world? Here is a story from Christianity. The Remembrance Day bombing in a town in Northern Ireland called Eniskillen in 1987, killed 11 people and injured 64. The IRA planted a bomb behind the town’s war memorial and it exploded during the Remembrance Sunday ceremony held to honour those who had served in the Armed Forces. I hope I will never forget that day because of one lesson it continues to teach. That lesson is found in the words of Gordon Wilson who lost his daughter, Marie, a nurse, in the bombing.
In a radio interview shortly afterwards, Gordon Wilson described his last conversation with her as they lay buried in the rubble awaiting rescue. “She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say.” To the astonishment of listeners, Gordon Wilson went on to add, “But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for the men who did this tonight and every night.” He also begged that no-one take revenge for Marie’s death and pleaded with loyalists not to engage in acts of retaliation.
The BBC would later describe the bombing as a turning point in the Troubles because the attack shook the IRA “to its core”. Pivotal to the change in attitude towards this sort of attack after 1987was Wilson’s reaction to the death of his daughter.
My brother, my sister, is the one who forgives me. My sister, my brother, is the one I forgive. Forgiveness is what works. Forgiveness is the command of God.