Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, B, May 3, 2015
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?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Jesus said:] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
I do not know which scenes of the riots in Baltimore that we watched on TV stick with you, but two will not leave my mind. The one is a helicopter view of a swarm of people, mostly males, it appeared to me, desperate to get into the local liquor store.
The other was the scene of that short, stocky, mother chasing and catching her man-sized adolescent son, whom she recognized, despite his ski-mask. She repeatedly delivered bare-handed blows to his head, so angry was she that he was a participant in the rioting.
Then I thought of a random article I read years ago in Time magazine, about a problem in Kenya that they were having in the villages on the edges of the great game preserves. Apparently gangs of adolescent male elephants were marauding and trampling the villagers’ farms and primitive mud-and-thatch homes. This was unusual behavior for young male elephants; something new was happening.
Upon investigation they discovered that these young males had one thing in common: their mothers had been killed for their ivory, so they were not raised in families. I never forgot that story.
As I watched the events in Baltimore unfold, and those two scenes of the swarm and the mom were being re-shown on the media, another story came to mind. It was from when we were in a seminar for missionaries preparing to be sent overseas. We were taken to a variety of places around the Chicago-land area to be exposed to different cultures, religions, and ministries.
After visiting a Buddhist temple, an Islamic Center and a Catholic charity, we ended up at a small Lutheran church, literally in the shadows of the surrounding Cabrini Green public housing project. Pastor Enfield had served that congregation for several decades. He had performed funerals for more young men who died of gang violence than he ever dreamed possible.
He said that when he was new to the community, as a young white man from the suburbs of Wisconsin, he saw all the young men getting sucked up into gang activity and assumed that he knew already the root cause. Clearly they were not receiving the kind of proper strict discipline at home that he had received.
But as he was invited up into the high rise projects he began to see for himself how the children were raised. Often a single mom, who was probably raised without appropriate kinds of discipline herself, scared to death that her son would be unruly and end up another gang-banger, would discipline him by striking and even beating the child for any and every infraction.
By the time these boys were 6 years old, they had no spinal fortitude. They caved under commanding authority from mom or from whomever. So, outside, on their asphalt playgrounds, by age 10 the gangs were ordering them to stand watch, and they dutifully obeyed.
Remembering that insight, the scene of the righteous mother in Baltimore, striking her rioting teenager on the head gave me a lot to consider.
What do we do? How do we respond? How do people of Christian faith react when we see such scenes? Should we join the people full of moral outrage? I have observed plenty of moral outrage on both sides; outrage at the violence and destruction of the rioters; outrage at the death of another black man at the hands of police.
Or, we could ask, is moral outrage a proper foundation for response? Brain scientists tell us that outrage comes from our lizard brains; it is an emotional, even visceral response. A person feeling outrage is not reasoning; certainly is not seeking understanding.
The outraged people on both sides, I have noticed, immediately look for targets to blame. It is the undisciplined youth who are to blame, or it is the police with authority-issues at fault. It is race, it is poverty, it is the thugs, it is the system.
Is moral outrage followed by blaming the path of response for people of Christian faith? Does not our faith inform us and, in fact, call us to a higher standard? Despite the people with all the outrage who pretend to speak for us as Christians, oddly enough the answer is yes, we are indeed called to a higher standard than simplistic outrage and blame.
Cain’s Question as Starting Point
We start with one of the most basic commitments our faith calls us to live by: the answer to the question of Cain is also “yes.”
“Am I my brothers keeper?”
Yes! Yes I am. I am my brother’s keeper. We who shared a common womb have a common bond that cannot be broken. We who were given birth by Eve, whose name means the “mother of all the living,” are brothers and sisters. Everyone who shares the breath of life with me has a common mother; we are human, made in the image of God. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yes, we are.
But are those people swarming the liquor store my brothers?
This is a huge problem for us. If we pause, take a deep breath, and let go of the moral outrage, we can begin to start asking questions that may lead to insight, maybe even to positive hope.
One of the places we turn is to the people who have studied how we got into this condition as a nation; in Baltimore, in Ferguson, in New York and LA and in every urban center in our country, including Mobile Alabama.
It turns out that the elephants are growing up without mothers; or without mothers who know how to mother. Fathers are missing from families. Jobs, especially well paying manufacturing jobs started disappearing in the 1970’s. Kids who were not guided by parents to do their homework, who were not encouraged to take the prep classes and aim for college or trade school, wound up without viable opportunities. And the ones with proper parental guidance, discipline and opportunities, moved a way, never to return. A huge social fissure was developing.
Long ago we stopped thinking of us as “us”. Our sense of solidarity and community has been on a steep decline now for years. We “bowl alone” as social scientist Robert Putnam has shown us. He has graph after graph – he calls them scissor graphs – illustrating the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in our country. Like the two sides of the scissors which get further apart the longer they are, our shared space is diminishing.
Am I my brother’s keeper? I do not ever see him, except on television, when he riots in the street. I never meet him. I never drive in his neighborhood. I do not interact with his parents. I have no idea what his school looks like, let alone how he interacts with the local police.
But as a person of Christian faith, that is not, that cannot be the last word. I have been called; we have been called to answer the question “yes! We are “our brother’s keepers.” This is foundational for us, not optional.
We may not have instant answers, but we will not settle for simplistic moral outrage and blame targets. We will not make the instant assumptions that we already know what is going on and why.
If we begin from a moral emotion, let it be mourning and grief for our brothers and sisters who live in the conditions that we see when the riots turn the spotlight on their communities. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus taught us, for they shall be comforted. The comfort of a solution only comes after grief over the damage done by the problems. Instead of outrage, we begin with broken hearts.
But mourning is not an answer, only a feeling. Where do we go for answers as people of Christian faith? Where is our source? What hope do we have that good fruit can grow out of the soil of such toxicity?
In the mystical version of the life of Jesus we read in the gospel of John, we hear Jesus soliloquize about fruitfulness.
“I am the vine, you are the branches,”
he tells us.
“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”
This is not soft-headed pious, escapist advice. This is a call to an alternative set of commitments that changes everything.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower”.
This is where we start. We are committed to the view that this is the Father’s project; this is God’s world. We are committed to the perspective that God has certain goals and designs for this world. God’s will for this world is for fruitfulness, for human flourishing, just as it was in the story of the beginning for Adam and Eve. The original creation blessing “be fruitful” is God’s will for all breathing life.
So, people of Christian faith are called to continually “abide” in the source of our faith, Jesus, the vine, continually absorbing life-giving nutrients. The ancient practices of the Christian, daily silent meditation, prayer, reflection, study, worship stewardship and service keep us connected to the source.
It is from that place of constant connection we develop the fruit of compassion. Not partisan compassion, but comprehensive compassion. Yes, compassion for the immediate victims like Freddie Gray, but also compassion for all of the decent police who put themselves on the line for our safety.
The fruit of compassion extends to all of the people of inner-city Baltimore, and Ferguson, and all the other blighted, hopeless, inner cities in our country where poverty, crime, drugs, violence, unemployment and addiction are now the expected and nearly inevitable outcome.
The fruit of compassion that comes from an abiding attachment to the Jesus-vine produces people who look around and ask, where can I make a difference?
I cannot solve Baltimore’s problems by myself, but, I can ask, “Are there kids who need a mature adult to mentor them right here in Gulf Shores? Yes, there are. In fact, Robert Putnam’s recommendation about how to begin to address these tragic social problems includes a call for churches to marshal an army of mentors for at-risk kids.
As people who bear the fruit of compassion, we ask, “Are there single moms who are nearly desperate to give their kids a fighting chance, right here in our neighborhood?” Yes there are!
Are there schools that need to be funded at least at current levels instead of less? Yes there are.
The only outstanding question is, are there people who will live, so attached to the source, to the vine, that they are able to rise above the outrage and blame, and instead, be their brothers’ keepers, bearing the fruit of compassion?
By God’s grace, let the answer for us, be Yes!
We have already made a huge difference in the lives of many kids whom we have tutored over the years. In these days we are planning a way to help kids work on basic skills like English and math over the summer. All we need is people willing to step up to the task.
We will never fix the world. But we can light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. This is our high and holy calling.