Next of Kin

ALICE: Is it true that everyone is sisters and brothers?

ME: Well, not in the same way as you and Phoebe are sisters, but if you go back far enough, we all have the same ancestors. So, yes, all people are your relatives. We all come from the same family. It’s like everyone is cousins.

ALICE:  My friend says everyone is sisters and brothers, because everyone is God’s child

ME: [suddenly remembering I’m a pastor] And she’s absolutely right. God loves everyone as much as we love you, so that makes us all God’s children, which makes us all siblings.

ALICE: Just imagine if you are getting really mad at your enemy, grrr [punching the air] and then you think, Oh no! [hands on cheeks, eyes and mouth wide open in shock] That’s my SISTER!

Trust a seven-year-old to get right to the point.

In church we speak often of our brothers and sisters in Christ. In some congregations, most notably in the African American church tradition, fellow church members are actually addressed that way, as Brother Dennis or Sister Julie. Here at BUCC folks often refer to their church family. And today, through the sacrament of Baptism, we joyfully adopted two more little brothers into that family.

But Alice didn’t ask me if everyone at our church is brothers and sisters. She asked me if everyone is brothers and sisters. And she immediately saw the truly radical implications of that idea: Even my enemy?

The Book of Genesis tells the story of a God who creates all of humankind, beginning with one set of biological parents. We may not take this tale literally (after all, if Adam and EVe were the only two humans, where did their daughter-in-law come from?), but Genesis gets it right in the most important sense:

We are all kin.

We are all kin, in the strictly biological sense, for we share common ancestors. Scientists have calculated our common ancestors may have lived as recently as a few thousand years ago. As one researcher put it, “we may not be brothers, but we are all hundredth cousins or so.” Consider the world’s population from the perspective of that common grandparent. We are her children’s children. We are her family.

To say our common ancestors lived a few thousand years ago is not to say there was only one set of human parents alive at that time. Rather, it is to understand that the roots of our family trees spread wider as we go back in time – until at last, they all become tangled together. We all have ancestors of every color and creed.

We are all kin.

“Kin” is one of those great old English words, short of brisk. It has a different feel, doesn’t it, than “relatives” or even “family.” It conjures up images of Appalachia, or Scotland. Somewhere rough, and hilly. Someplace where it is important to know your clan, your people. Your own kind. Kin, in fact, comes from the same root as the word kind. As in “humankind.” Or, “kindness.”

Kindness, you see, is the way we treat our own kind. Our kin. To treat someone with kindness, is to treat them as one of your own.

And so right there, in our very language, we begin to see the implications of Alice’s question, the implications of our shared biology, the implications of that story from Genesis. For if we are all, everyone of us, kin, then to whom must we not show kindness?

And yet… Genesis tells another story, about the world’s first human brothers, Cain and Abel. It is also the story of the world’s first murder. And again, whatever your belief about the literal truth of these tales, Genesis gets it right in the most important sense: all human violence is ultimately fratricide. When we harm another human being, we harm our own kind. Our own kin. Our brothers and sisters.

History is filled with examples of human beings failing to recognize that kinship, and thus failing to show kindness. Or maybe it is the other way around; we justify our lack of kindness, by denying our essential kinship.

White slaveholders justified the enslavement of their African brothers and sisters by describing them as monkeys. The Nazi party justified the genocide of their Jewish brothers and sisters by describing them as rats. The Rwandan Hutus justified the genocide of their Tutsi brothers and sisters by describing them as cockroaches. As recently as this year, a major party candidate here in the US gave a speech comparing our immigrant brothers and sisters to venomous snakes. He was greeted with thunderous applause.

Anytime we describe another human being as something other than a human being, anytime we move them outside of the boundary of kinship, we give ourselves permission to treat them any way we want. The very concept of race is a human invention, and its purpose is to cut our brothers and sisters out of the family inheritance. Once we cut someone out of the family of humankind, we can plunder their land, their wealth, their bodies, even.

But fratricide by any other name is still fratricide.

We are all kin.

A couple of years ago I was guest preaching at the UCC church down the road in Hadley, and in my sermon I mentioned that I was related to Abraham Lincoln. To my surprise, one of the choir members replied: I am too! And we embraced as long-lost kin. But the truth is, everyone in that church was related to Abraham Lincoln, and every single one of us was long-lost kin.

Jesus understood this. When he saw how some of his people prided themselves on their lineage, he told them, do not boast that you are children of Abraham; God can raise up children of Abraham from the very stones. When Jesus was told that his brothers and his mother were waiting for him, he opened his arms to include everyone around him, and said, These are my brothers, and my sisters, and my mothers.

He had already figured out what modern science just recognized: that we are all kin. Of course, Jesus was talking about a family that was defined by more than just our common DNA. For as we all know, there are all kinds of families; families made by birth, and families made by adoption; families made by fate, and families made by choice. As the bumper sticker reminds us, love makes a family. Or, to put it another way: perhaps it is not kinship that creates kindness, but rather kindness that creates kinship.

A lawyer once asked Jesus, who is my neighbor? But he might just as well have been asking, who is my sister? The answer would have been the same. Anyone to whom you show kindness, is your kin. The size of your clan is limited only by your compassion.

“Open wide your curtain,” the ancient prophet sang, “stretch out your tent, lengthen the cords and strengthen the pegs; for your family will spread out to the left and the right, and your offspring shall possess all nations”  At the time I’m guessing everyone assumed Isaiah was speaking only in the future tense, about future descendants. But we forget that God’s perspective on time is a little different from ours, and prophecy is more insight than foresight. Our expanded family is here right now. Widen your tent, the prophet says. Make it wide enough to embrace all of your brothers and sisters.

Some of us have traveled halfway around the world to meet long-lost cousins in an ancestral homeland. But what about the long-lost cousins standing right next to us? Look around you right now. Look to the left. Look to the right. These are your long-lost cousins. These are your brothers and sisters, your fathers and your mothers. The person next to you in the pew, the person behind the sales counter, the teenager walking home from school, the woman in line behind you at the food pantry, even that guy who flipped you off in traffic.

They are all your brothers and sisters, and nothing would make your common Parent happier, than to see you at peace with one another.

So let us enlarge our tents. Stretch out the curtains, lengthen the cords, and strengthen the pegs.

Let’s have a family reunion.

 

(from a sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ on June 12, 2016.)

(Photo: Liber Floridus photographed by Paul K. on flickr.com)

 

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