Anyone here still remember the Smothers Brothers Show and the Brothers themselves, Tommy and Dickey? Each week, a part of their shtick, without fail, was Tommy’s assertion to Dickey that “mom always liked you better.” And at our house this assertion of Tommy’s was taken up as a warrant for my sister, my brother, and I to start our own mock squabble, each one of us asserting that “mom always liked you better.” “No, mom always liked you better.” “No, mom always liked me better.” It’s called sibling rivalry, and all of you who are or have been parents know way too well what it’s all about, and it drives you stark, raving up-a-tree. From the front seat of the car: “If you kids back there don’t quit arguing right this minute, I’m going to stop this car right here, right now and blah, blah, blah.”
I don’t know whether sibling rivalry is universal, but I do know that it transcends our time and our culture. One of the first parables of the Hebrew scriptures concerns sibling rivalry – between the brothers Cain and Abel. And their sibling rivalry goes down in legend as the world’s first murderous case of Tommy versus Dickey. Cain somehow got it into his head that God loved Abel better and so Cain had to get rid of Abel. When God, the heavenly parent of the two questions Cain concerning the whereabouts of Abel, Cain utters the infamous question, “Hunh? Am I my brother’s keeper?” The implied answer, of course, is “Yes.” As children of God, all humanity are brothers and sisters – created to be keepers of one another. A part of our original sin, the story teaches us, is our sibling rivalry; and it is neither cute nor funny – which during the Vietnam War era was exactly what the Smothers Brothers were trying to get at through their satire.
It’s not going to come as a news flash to anyone that the church’s general lack of credibility is due in no small part to our twenty-plus centuries of in-fighting, of our grim and gruesome record of savage sibling rivalry. Church history is nothing if not the ugly chronicle of our tragic inability to get along with one another. As a part of my calling, I have opportunities to talk to non-church people, many of whom in the course of our conversation bring up this very issue of our nasty, at-times-murderous infighting. After a person tells me the one thing she most loathes about the church is our penchant for warfare and our general inability to get along, I usually ask if she hasn’t gotten into some nasty back-biting, brawling behavior herself. The answer, invariably, is, “Well, yeah, but you people are supposed to know better.” My rejoinder, in part, is to say, “Yes, but the original sin of me-first-ism knows even the very best addresses in town. It gallops in the DNA of our species and without exception.” Or as our patron, St. Paul puts it so succinctly, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” What part of all don’t we get??
But because we live in this world, however, where original sin knows where we all live, knows this congregation’s address as well as any other, we will be dragged back into our wandering ways, acting with hostility as if we were still alienated from one another. And so we need to come back…
Much of that section of The New Testament we refer to as The Epistles is comprised of letters sent to various congregations in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus and elsewhere, to congregations in which nasty sibling rivalry was taking place. In these epistles we hear the writers telling church people, to “knock that crap off – now!!” In today’s Epistle reading from Ephesians, the writer is addressing some nasty business between older members of the faith community and newcomers to the faith community. Those specifics aren’t the point, however. The point is that various factions in the community have a severe case of sibling rivalry, of Mom likes me better; of we’re more important than that other committee; of our group gets it, and yours doesn’t; of we’re right, and you’re heretics; of he started it, and no, she started it. In the section of Ephesians immediately prior to today’s reading, Paul, the reputed the writer of the Epistle – with considerable restraint says, “Listen up!! All of you!! You know, if God were going to play by the rules here, you’d better realize that all of us are at fault in one way or another. All of us!! And if God were going to play by the rules, we would have all been struck down dead a long, long time ago. We all betray one another, we all point fingers at one another, we all undermine one another, we all think we’re the ones in the right – and someone else is assuredly in the wrong.” In truth, says the writer to the church at Ephesus, “No one is entitled to even think about sitting pretty and righteous on any sort of high, moral horse. We all deserve the highest penalty of the law. And right now. All of us.
Back to the story of Cain and Abel – in which we hear, quite oddly – and completely against all expectations – we hear that God did not demand the life of Cain in repayment for Abel’s murder. No eye for an eye; no tooth for a tooth, no capital punishment. Not only that, but God declared that no one on earth was to bring punishment upon Cain either: “And Adonai (that is to say, the Lord), Adonai put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.” And Adonai sent Cain to the East of Eden, the Land of Nod, the land of wandering – where all squabbling humanity has dwelt ever since – right up until today.
But then when the time was right, God in Jesus came and looked upon this unruly, dazed, and confused mob of riff-raff, and he was profoundly moved in his deepest parts with compassion for them, because they were like sheep, lost and wandering about without a shepherd – and they in the ancient story are still us today, going this way and that, the descendants of Cain, still carrying on, backbiting and in enmity, wandering about east of Eden in the Land of Nod. And so Jesus teaches them and us – and then in verses missing from today’s reading, St. Mark says that Jesus sat these people down in large family-like groups (whether they liked it or not) – and he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them to eat. And lo and behold, there were no squabbles, there was no enmity. No fights broke out that day. No political wrangling. No one thinking, “Hey, he’s got more than I do! She doesn’t deserve anything.” Hmm. Could it be that they had all been healed of all of that nasty stuff?
Bet on it!! And so too are we! We are gathered together here, still east of Eden in the Land of Nod – being taught and about to be fed. The teaching? This: that though each of us is deserving what Cain deserved, with the mark of the cross on our foreheads, we bear both the sign of the death penalty and the sign that none of us shall harm another of us; though each of us deserves to be dead because of our spite, our hostility, our alienation and our urge for revenge – now we are all made alive, together and with Christ. And this new life is a total gift (lest any should boast) – and we are already raised and are seated down to dine in the presence Christ. Our hostilities have all been put to death. “So then,” as St. Paul writes, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone . . . in whom you also are built together in the spirit into a dwelling place for God.”
And then with that proclamation ringing in our ears, we do dare to come to the table – betrayer and betrayed, the back-biting and the bitten, sibling against sibling and all equally at fault – but ALL, equally forgiven, equally loved, equally reborn – and by the command and promise of God, none of us any longer at odds with God or with one another. All are forgiven, and all is forgotten.
But because we live in this world, however, where original sin knows where we all live, knows this congregation’s address as well as any other, we will be dragged back into our wandering ways, acting with hostility as if we were still alienated from one another. And so we need to come back – and all who do come back will hear once more that all of us are eternally forgiven and eternally reborn. All of us – and most especially those we least want to see eternally forgiven and reborn.
But such is the glory and scandal of the Holy Gospel. And it is for you and for me and for every sister and brother, no matter what, and without regard to whether we like it or not. And if I remember them and interpret them rightly, that redemptive moment was exactly what Tommy and Dickey were trying to get at – that our hostility has been overcome, our sibling rivalry is at an end, and we are no longer alienated from one another, which is why some found those Smothers Brothers foolish and wished to hear them no more.