May 24

A Shared Future

By Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 4:3-10

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A reading from Genesis chapter 4, verses 3-10,

3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

8 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. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!

If you look back through the last few decades, you might notice that there has been an ongoing rise of dystopian and post-apocalyptic works. The Hunger Games, The Walking Dead, The Handmaid’s Tale, Planet of the Apes, and dozens of other works have capture the attentions of readers and viewers. All of these works say something about the world in which we live. These works tend to re-imagine society in light of suffering or offer a restructuring of life. The power of good dystopian literature is its connection to reality and the way it forces the reader to reconsider aspects of life. I cannot say for certain what the affinity between these works and the current zeitgeist is, but the correlation is significant.

One particular dystopian novel has been especially on my mind lately, The Giver. The Giver is a 1993 novel by Lois Lowry, which was turned into a movie in 2014. The novel takes place in a society designed to function without pain, war, or fear. For all intents and purposes, the society seems to be a utopian one at first; however, throughout the book the reader learns the costs of creating the society. In order to achieve the societal ideals, the community enforces strict uniformity toward utilitarian purposes. Individuals have to conform to societal norms. The ability to choose or make the meaningful decisions in life is taken away from the individual and placed into the hands of a council. People are assigned to families and jobs. The society is without many emotions like love. People cannot see the color of the sky, ground, or anything else. Those who are not useful are euthanized. What appeared to be utopian was dystopian.

One of the ways in which the society was able to enforce uniformity is that considerable amounts of the past have been intentionally forgotten. This provides a powerful formative force. Societies are shaped by what they remember and forget so, the ability to shape a society based on what it remembers and forgets is a profound power. We go through a similar formative process every day, even when we are not aware of it. We are shaped by the stories told, events remembered and we are shaped by the untold stories and events forgotten. While there is no council with the ability to take away our memories, there is an ongoing struggle for whose memories and stories are true and matter.

Turn with me to the story of Cain and Abel where two brothers made an offering to God. The planter Cain, gave an offering from the fruit of the ground and Abel, the herdsman from his flock. Each made gifts to God from their work. For some reason, Abel’s sacrifice pleased God, and Cain’s did not. Theologians have argued for centuries about why Abel’s sacrifice was more pleasing. The author of Hebrews indicated that faith had something to do with it. Hebrews 11:4 says “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.” The faith aspect reminds us that inward dispositions impact outward actions. Augustine thought similarity when he argued that the reception of the offerings must have correlated with the intentions of the giver. In other words, Augustine believed that Abel’s heart was in the right place and Cain’s was not. Whatever the initial reason, it is clear that God recognized the consequences of favoring one brother’s offering over the others. So God warned Cain that he must not succumb to the anger in his heart. Cain was given a warning and a chance to overcome unjust anger against his brother. Cain was given the chance to recognize that blessings from God to others are not a cause of jealousy. But Cain lured his brother into a field and attacked him. One person killed another, brother killed brother.

After Cain killed Abel, God questioned him about Abel’s whereabouts. Because Cain was alive, he could tell the story and retorted, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper.” Cain counted on the past being the past and dead bodies being silent. What Cain did not remember is that God has a way of knowing. God said to Cain “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” The passage from Hebrews also said that Abel still speaks by faith even though he is dead. The blood of Abel cried out to God. Abel’s cry was a song of sorrow. The ground was marred by blood and became the location of this song of sorrow. Creation recognized the injustice that sounded out from the marred soil. Clearly, Cain did not want to hear this song of sorrow or take responsibility for the direct role he played in its creation. God did not stand for his actions and ignorance. In fact, God says listen to Cain. Cain is directed to listen to God and the song of sorrow rising from his brother’s body in the ground. God directed him to listen to what God can hear from what remains of Abel.

Listening here is a way of remembering. God does not allow Cain to ignore the travesty he committed against his brother to go unaccounted for through verbal dexterity. A person is dead. Cain’s brother is dead. The world will never be the same. God does not allow the song of sorrow to go unheard.

If we were to venture out to listen for voices in the soil, what would we hear? What are the songs of sorrow crying out to God for justice? Can you hear the blood and sweat of a black runner from Georgia, the tears of abused women, the gasps of soldiers waking up from all too real dreams, and the coughs of the poor who died without adequate health care coming from polluted ground? If you cannot hear these songs, it does not mean that they do not exist, they are there and God says listen. If you cannot hear them, then it is time to ask why. What is separating you from the laments of the suffering?

Perhaps we do not hear the songs because we do not want to. We do not want to admit culpability or witness any more pain and suffering. It is also hard to hear them when listening feels like swimming upstream. It’s hard to hear when the mainstream pulls us away. There are songs and memories that mainstream society is trying so desperately to drown out and it is beyond time to ask why. It is time to listen and remember the truth told from the ground and not those standing over the bodies. Bodies will continue to fall and cry until we listen.

In the dystopian world of The Giver, the society was able to select what memories would shape the community. The council controlled the stories told and events remembered. Rather than remember all the hurt and destruction that humanity inflicted, the society designated one person to be the keeper of memories. The keeper of memories remembered the good and the bad. In this way, the past could be the past as people went through life ignorant of much of what came before. But trying to leave the past in the past brought about serious consequences. The society bent or perhaps even broke truth in the way it understood it’s past and present. The community rested on unstable ground as the songs of sorrow were drowned out. Without the ability to remember, the community could not listen. Memories are not purely passive traces of events, they are poignantly active markers of life. Memories have meaning and when they are taken away, forgotten, or denied life is impacted. The fabric of the world is altered when memories are snuffed out.

The protagonist of The Giver Jonas, as the new keeper of memories, was faced with a difficult choice, does he perpetuate the communal myths by keeping all of the society’s memories to himself, or does he expose the duplicitous ground the community uneasily rests upon? You can read the book to see what Jonas did but remember that part of the power of good dystopian literature is its capacity to capture pertinent aspects of life. In other words, if you read the book, you might just have to ask yourself the same question, can you accept the communal myths and the duplicitous ground that society rests upon when it tries to forget its past?

You can learn a lot about a society by looking at what they choose to remember. Alternatively, you can uncover much by pondering what would rather be forgotten. The Giver illustrates that there are dire repercussions when societies and communities refuse to remember certain things. Selective memory may make those in control of the narrative feel better but the truth cannot be hidden. The truth cannot be dismissed so casually. Memories and lingering effects have a way of surfacing and demand to be heard. The voices of the past cry out.

Beyond hearing the songs of sorrow that stem from injustices, the temptation to forget, ignore, and perpetuate in the present is fueled by radical individualism. This individualism says it was not my hand that struck the brother or sister; therefore, I do not have to listen. I do not live in Georgia. I do not own a gun. I smile at people who do not look like me when I walk by them. I donate money to organizations that make a difference. If I do all of this, God, surely I am not responsible for the bodies in the ground? I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?  Individualism focuses on the self that is standing and refuses to see or hear the body on the ground. Individualism tries to forget that we are part of a communal society, whether we feel like it or not. It teaches us that we are isolated islands moving through a world that exists for us. This excuses the suffering or pain of others as inevitable or caused by moral deficiencies. The “me” mindset focuses on the self while viewing other people as minor characters in our story. This could not be further from the truth though. We exist in an interconnected interdependent world. We live in a shared world where the Holy Spirit fills the space that is between us.

Our lives and identities are forever changed when we come into contact with each other. For good or for ill, we impact those around us. Continental philosopher Paul Ricoeur said it this way: “in our experience the life history of each of us is caught up in the histories of others. Whole sections of my life are part of the life history of others—of my parents, my friends, my companions in work and in leisure.”[1] To answer the ancient question from Genesis, YES you are your brother’s keeper, and you are your sister’s keeper, your friend’s keeper, your annoying person in the office keeper, yes, you are even your enemies’ keeper. There is no one for whom you are not a keeper. That doesn’t mean you must continue to engage with people who have hurt and abused you. It doesn’t mean you cannot walk away from people who do not keep you but you are a keeper. For today, this places the obligation to listen to songs of sorrow and remember. To be a keeper for others recognizes that we share life, the world, and God with one another.

I doubt that the author of The Giver had Genesis in mind when she wrote about the keeper of memories but maybe being a keeper also means holding onto each other’s stories with trust and care. Maybe it means listening deeply to those around us and honoring the ways in which we are connected, even if these connections are not visible. In The Giver, the keeper of memories is tasked with remembering on behalf of the community for the good of all. But we do not live in a world where just one person is the keeper of memories. We all are and because we are all keepers, we are partners in the hard work of remembering. Ricoeur says that we are entangled with one another and this entanglement should result in mutual care and concern for each other. Your life is directly shaped by the people surrounding you. You impact the people around you. This entanglement challenges notions radical individualism because of the way life is inherently connected. On the one hand, this means the present is shaped by mutuality. On the other hand, it means that the past and memory do not belong to any particular individual or even a particular community. This is not to say that we are bound by the past or memories in a fatalistic manner; however, they are always present even when we are not aware. History is shared and there is an ethical responsibility to the past when forgetting and remembering. How we remember and what we remember must be measured because of the way in which they shape the present and the future.

If you travel around any city, you will see statues, plaques, and monuments. These represent events, people, or times that are memorialized. There are times we observe special days in the year. These are formative reminders of what has been. Tomorrow is Memorial Day. On this day, we remember those who gave their lives in military service on behalf of the United States. Tomorrow we remember that war is not free and that the costs of war extend far beyond what the U.S. treasury department can print. Memorial Day is a day of remembering.  But it is also a challenging day. How do we honor the good and remember the injustices? How do we live in the tensions and ambiguities of life that are always more complex than a simple good/bad dichotomy. How do we remember more fully and truthfully?

We live in a shared world. This means that until there is freedom for all, there can never be freedom for some. Freedom cannot be achieved for a few on the backs of the many. While songs of sorrow are the dirge of the land, the land is not a place freedom. Recognizing this means reclaiming and remembering aspects of the past. It necessities being keepers for one another. We are keepers of the voices of the past. We are keepers of voices in the present. Yet, there is another important way that we are keepers. We are keepers of each other’s futures. We not only live in a shared world but we must move toward a shared future. The future is not mine, it is not yours, and it is ours. God invites you to work as a keeper toward a shared future for everyone. This invitation is hard but it is good news for everyone. The shared future is not wishful thinking it is God’s promise.

[1] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1992, 161.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics

Boston University School of Theology

One Response to “A Shared Future”

  1. From Linda Markarian

    I though this was an excellent sermon, thank you.

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