Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Cain and Abel

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 4:1-22a:

Because of the events of two weeks ago I had considered moving this sermon up in response, but the simple fact is while the tragedy in Boston might have been big, it is unfortunately all too common of an occurrence.  We don’t have to watch the news for very long to find the story of someone killing someone else, or committing some other act of violence, because they were upset with the other person, thought they had been slighted, or the other person had something that they believed belonged to them, or that the other person represented something they despised and so it is with Cain and Abel.

There is conflict set to bloom right from the start of today’s passage.  There is quite a bit of information given about Cain’s birth, especially when we compare it to the birth of Abel, about whom all we are told is that he was born, and thus their struggling may have begun when they were infants.  Cain grows up to become a farmer, or agriculturalist, and Abel becomes a shepherd, or herdsmen, and thus begins the age old conflict that marks this as an archetypal story that continues to be played out.  This is the musical Oklahoma writ large, except without the singing cowboys, and no surries with the fringe on top.  And what begins the conflict initially seems fairly innocuous, as Cain decides to make an offering to God, although he has not been told to do such a thing.  Because Cain is a farmer, he brings God an offering of the fruits of the field.  I think it’s pretty amazing, that Cain, without being told to, would be willing to give up some of the harvest to thank God for the creation and for God’s faithfulness.  Presumably seeing his brother giving this offering, Abel then proceeds to give his own offering, but being a shepherd, be brings an animal.

God sees the offerings that are made, and he accepts the offering of Abel, and then we are told “but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”  There is not an obvious reason why Abel’s offering is accepted and why Cain’s is not, but, of course, there is a lot of speculation.  Some say that Abel’s offering is accepted because it is a blood sacrifice, which were important in ancient religions, not just for Judaism.  From a Christian perspective this has a lot to offer for it for some  because of how some people view the cross, and Christ sort of being the ultimate blood sacrifice, although I do have to make not that this is not the orthodox position of the view of the cross, as the church does not have an orthodox position for this.  In addition, although it’s sometimes troublesome to look forward to scripture and apply it backwards, which we are going to do a lot of today, when the Israelites are given rules about how and what to offer to God, there are rules set up for making agricultural offerings, so it doesn’t seem to be that God rejects one and accepts the other simply because Cain offers fruit and Abel offers animal fat.

Instead, I think a better interpretation and understanding of what is going on here is how the information is presented.  If we look at what Abel offers, we are told that “Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock, and their fat portions,” and then God “had regard for Abel and his offerings.”  If we compare that to what we are told about Cain, the passage says “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground,” and then we are told “but for Cain and his offering God had no regard.”  The difference is that Abel brought from the first of his animals, or from the best, whereas Cain simply brought an offering, not necessarily from the best of what he had to give.  I think this is part of what makes one acceptable and one not, and the other key is that the text says that God regarded Abel and his offering, as if those were two different things, and they really are, whereas God did not have any regard for Cain and his offering.

So I think the reason that God doesn’t accept Cain’s offering is not only because Cain does not bring of his first fruits, literally in this case, but because of what is in Cain’s heart, which of course proves itself out very soon.  Abel’s offering of his best or the first of his flocks proceeds from who he is internally and how he approaches God.  He doesn’t make his offering because he has to, doing it begrudgingly, but it is part of who he is. In the 51st Psalm we read, that God has “no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering you would not be pleased.  The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  (51:16-17)  What we offer does not matter as much as the manner in which we make the offering, or why we make the offering.  If we are simply going through the motions, or thinking that doing something magic or saying something magic, will somehow be all that is needed, we are told here, as well as in plenty of other places, that that is not enough.  It is in fact, as Jesus says, loving God with all of our hearts and strength and mind and spirit that matters.  And that is what God says to Abel.

“If you do well, will you not be accepted?”  And if you do not do well, God says, then sin is lurking at the door.  This is the first time that sin is used in scripture.  It is not used when Adam or Eve take of the fruit, but instead it is about the desires that are in each and every one of us, that sin that lurks at the door, but we must go out an master it.  This is not an injunction given just to Cain; it is an injunction given to us as well.  As someone I was reading this week said, “Sometimes I just find trying not to kill some people completely grueling.  It’s quite remarkable that I am not behind bars.”  I can certainly concur with that some days.

There is an old Cherokee story in which an elder is teaching his grandchildren about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to them. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”  The grandchildren thought about it and after a minute one of them asked, “Which wolf will win?”  The elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”  Which wolf are we going to allow to win?  I think that is what God is saying to Cain and to us, but Cain is unwilling, or perhaps unable, no pun intended, to control his passion and so he invites his brother out into a field, and when they get there Cain slays Abel.  When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, death becomes a reality, but it is striking to note that the first death comes at the hands of another.  It is not God who kills, although that was to be the punishment for eating the fruit, it is not old age, or illness that kills, but is instead a fratricide which marks the beginning of our story outside of the garden.

And to jump ahead just a little bit, the reason why I included the genealogy which concludes today’s passage is because of what it says to us about civilization.  Cain and his wife give birth to a son, and then they found the first city.  One question people normally want to ask is where did Cain get his wife?  Tradition has said that it is his sister, but the scripture writer simply doesn’t care, it’s not of interest to him, nor is the question of where all the people came from who populated the first city, after all a town of three is not really a city.  Some of Cain’s descendents go on to form nomadic herding groups, since Abel has no descendents to fulfill that role, but his descendants also invent instruments and music and the use of iron and bronze.  That means that basically civilization, music and the arts, metallurgy and all its offshoots, cities and even herdsmen, are all the descendents of Cain, they are all given birth out of this act of violence.

But just because violence is a part of civilization, just as it is a part of us, does not mean that we have to succumb to it nor that we have to tolerate it.  We have the choice to be violent or not to be violent, to tolerate violence or not to tolerate violence, to more towards peace or to more towards war, to move towards love or to move towards hate, to move towards fear or to move towards welcome.  As Yoda famously said in Star Wars, “fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”  And we see that all the time in just about every tragedy we see taking place throughout the world, the suffering we see is so often the result of fear and anger being acted out, to act out on our feelings to make ourselves feel better, or the refusal to see the others as worthy.

It’s easy to say other people deserve things or don’t deserve things when we are not the ones who are the subject of whatever it might be, which is what Cain does.  Cain’s willing to murder his brother, but when he thinks that he too will be the victim of a violent act, it is too much for him to bear.  We certainly see this a lot in society today, especially with a certain segment of the population’s infatuation with Ayn Rand and her uber-individualism where the only person who matters in the world is yourself, and everyone else is to be ignored and certainly not to be supported or cared for in any way shape or form.  But that is not the message we hear in this passage.  When God asks Cain where is your brother, Cain responds with the eternal question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  God doesn’t really give an answer to the question, because it is not a legitimate question.  If it was an honest, innocent question, the story would really begins to lose its meaning.  But for Cain the question is disingenuous.  He knows the answer to the question.

The Hebrew word for keeper is shomer, which also means guardian, and it applies to someone who is responsible for the safety and security of others, and so by asking the question itself Cain knows the answer to the question, that he is indeed responsible for his brother, for protecting and keeping him, just as Abel was similarly responsible for Cain, and just as we are also likewise responsible for each other.  We are obligated to be concerned for one another’s health, welfare and safety.  All of us are intertwined and dependent upon each other, and when we fail in that responsibility the cost is not just for this generation but for all time.  God says that Abel’s blood cries out to God, but according to Jewish interpretation it is not jut Abel’s blood that cries out to God, but that by killing Abel, Cain has also simultaneously killed every generation that might have come from Abel.  So while the death of one person is a loss, when they are killed all of their potential offspring who would also bring their own unique talents, abilities and ways of contributing to the world are also extinguished and so their blood cries out to God too.  Thus Jewish tradition holds that if you kill one person it’s as if you killed the entire world, and conversely if you save one person then you have saved the entire world.

In Matthew 25, Jesus gives a parable about the judgment of the nations at the end of time, a parable also commonly known as the separating of the sheep and the goats.  The nations are divided and then the king says to those on his right hand that they will inherit the kingdom for “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the people ask when they had done these things, and they are old “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  And oppositely, those who are on the left hand are accursed because they did not provide assistance in any of those situations. And thus the righteous and the evil are separated and divided.  One way that this has been interpreted is that we should see everyone as Jesus and treat them as such, but I don’t think that is how we should view this.  Because when we see everyone as Jesus then we remove who they truly are, we mask over all those things about the other that we can’t stand, the things that really make us want to strangle them sometimes.  I think that what Jesus is saying, what the story of Cain and Abel is saying, is that we have to love the other, we have to care for our brothers and sisters, and we are all brothers and sisters, and to protect and guard them and love them regardless of what we think of them.  We have to see them not as we want them to be, but instead as they are, as frustrating as that might be, we have to see them as sons and daughters of God, created in the image of God, beloved of God, and part of the creation, and know that we are our brothers and sisters keepers.

A 19th century rabbi from Poland commonly known as Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk, famously warned his students, “Be sure to take care of your own soul and of another person’s body, not of your own body and another person’s soul.”  Am I my brother’s keeper?  Am I my sister’s guardian?  The answer is an emphatic yes, yes, yes.  We are charged by God to care, guard, keep and love one another because we are all made in God’s image and when we kill one person, or when we allow one person to needlessly suffer and die, we kill not only them, but all of their future generations, and when they die it is as if we have killed the entire world, and whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters so do we do it to Christ himself.

This is a story of envy and jealousy, of hatred and cruelty, it is about the need for justice and the impossibility of justice, it is about violence and about stopping violence, and it is about the call, the injunction, to care for one another to be each other’s keepers and guardians.  If we were all to do that the world would be a very different place.  Just because the world begins with violence, just because civilization begins in violence, just because our cities are founded on violence and criminality does not mean that is the way it has to be, because God has called us to something bigger and greater.  God has called us to learn the lesson of Cain and Abel, to know that sin is there knocking on the door, and it can either master us or we can master it, the question is which way will it be.  Am I my brother’s keeper?  Are you your sister’s keeper?

A prayer commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi says “Lord make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hated, let me so love; where there is injury, pardon; where this is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where this is darkness, light’ where there is sadness, joy.  O divine master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive.  It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” May it be so.  Amen.

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