Sermon preached at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, Bristol, 3 November 1991
[The manuscript is marked “at LMC”, but I am not sure which church or service this refers to.* Nor do I have any idea who C.J. Hopes is or was. It may also be worth noting that my father was himself the oldest brother of all his siblings…
*I’m grateful to Richard’s widow Christine, who has informed me that it probably refers to the Lord Mayor’s Chapel, where Richard was priest in charge for a few years in the 1990s.- SJC]
I have found that once you get accustomed to committing murder it’s very hard to give it up. I am still trying to cure myself of the habit. If you are avidly collecting the current Rice Krispies tokens, you may have some sympathy for me. When I’ve collected eight I’ll have enough to send away for ‘The Zapper’ – an ingenious and innocent-looking instrument which includes a death ray and a machine gun which I can turn on all my enemies (like Skoda drivers and Jeremy Beadle) and blast them all out of existence! Everybody is going to want one, because there ain’t no one who hasn’t at some time felt that great aggression towards people who screw you up. Some of you may be feeling that C.J. Hopes had better watch his back from now on!
Such feelings are nothing new. They go right back. They feature in the story from the Genesis reading this morning. The first Biblical murder.
The Garden of Eden had started out as a bed of roses, but then Adam went wrong and it became increasingly thorny. His boy, the firstborn Cain, was tougher than his dad. Cain worked hard, a tiller of the soil, while softie brother Abel was set to looking after sheep. Easy-peasy. Cain must have sweated to produce his gift for God, whilst little brother just picks up the first lambkin he sees and offers that.
And God accepts it and refuses all of Cain’s hard work. Can you believe it? Where’s me Zapper? (Of course, elder brothers are always getting the raw deal. Remember the Prodigal Son story? God seems to be more interested in mercy than in rights.)
So Cain persuades Abel to go up country, and there he murders him. Of course, God knows what’s going on, so he calls to Cain, “where’s your brother?” Like his dad, Adam, he went wrong – but he’s made of tougher stuff. He felt guilty but he had no shame. And you get that marvellous bit of cheek. It could have been taken from a Rocky movie: “hey, am I my brother’s keeper?” …and the answer, not spoken but implied, is YES. And so it has continued ever since. Yes, we do have the care for each other. It’s part of our responsibility to be human rather than murderers.
The teaching of Jesus, when you look at it closely, is always so much tougher than the uncompromising picture in the Old Testament. Forgiveness is not for seven times, but limitless. And on our subject he says, during the Sermon on the Mount, “You have learnt that our forefathers were told, ‘do to commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to judgment.’ But what I tell you is this: anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to judgement.” Hard stuff.
A lot of anger which is turned onto others has first been turned upon yourself. If you can accept yourself, and accept that it has been accepted then you can throw away the accursed Zapper and begin to see others as they are truly. The great secret of the Christian gospel makes such a transformation possible. It takes both courage and humility to accept it, but it’s already been done by Christ’s redeeming work. And it answers the question another way – am I my brother’s keeper? My brother doesn’t need a keeper. Just a brother…