Thursday, October 6, 2005

Sermon for Oct. 2, 2005 -- World Communion Sunday

Crime and Punishment
Genesis 4:1-16

We have several children’s Bibles in our house. Today’s children’s Bibles are more exciting then they used to be. Engaging stories. Colorful cartoon pictures. It’s a good thing to introducing our little ones to the rhythms of Scripture. We hope the stories will fasten to them throughout their lives. My five-year-old’s Bible storybook takes complicated stories and reduces them to a half dozen simple sentences. Here’s what Genesis 4 is condensed to: Adam and Eve had two sons. Their names were Cain and Abel. Abel obeyed God, but Cain did not obey God. Cain was angry and killed Abel. This was wrong. Adam and Eve were very sad. God was sad, too.

We hope that some day our kids will move on from the simple stories of their children’s Bible to deeper understandings of the stories. It’s hope I have for all of us – that we grow to engage the Scriptures as critical thinkers. Often, our understanding of Bible stories is what we learned in Sunday school. We are adults who still carrying around the flannelgraph versions of the Bible. The version of the story I read to you a moment ago said flat out that “Cain did not obey God.” One of the higher-level children’s Bibles I have says that God didn’t like Cain from the beginning because “Cain was cold and proud and self-willed.” We hold on to those images even as adults. We assume that Cain came out of Eve’s womb as the spawn of Satan while Abel was born as Mamma’s Little Lamb. We remember how in Sunday School we were taught that this story was “The First Murder,” and we assume that Genesis 4 is in the Bible to teach us about the spread of sin.

Of course, there’s some to all of that, but it’s not the whole truth. Let’s go to the story and see if we can read it in a new way. It begins simply enough: Adam and Eve start a family. They have two sons. Cain, the big brother, grows into a farmer. Abel, the little brother, becomes a shepherd. We are told nothing else about Cain or Abel. They seem to be decent, hard-working sons. They are both religious people, so they honor God by giving offerings--a sacrifice specific to each man’s vocation. Each offers some of the product of his work. Cain brings some produce from his gardens and Abel brings some firstborn animals from his flocks.

For some reason, God like’s Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Why? Is Cain really proud and self-willed? Is God trying to rub it in Cain’s face that he’s the Bad Seed? Is God anti-vegetarian? Was there something wrong with Cain’s crops? Maybe God really does like the little brother best. Maybe the difference is that Cain kept back the best produce for himself while Abel willingly offered some of the very best. Maybe Cain’s devotion to God was lukewarm while Abel expressed enthusiastic piety.

For some reason, God likes Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. We are not told why. But since we don’t want God to come off as arbitrary, we try to figure out what was wrong with Cain’s offering. We don’t know why. Cain does, and it upsets him. He’s angry. And sad. And depressed. Why didn’t God like his worship? It’s not a bad question. Cain will soon be guilty of something rather horrible--so terrible as to make whatever was wrong with his sacrifice look trivial by comparison.

We have another assumption about the story. God didn’t like Cain. After the murder, God rejects Cain forever. I don’t see that in the text. God’s words to Cain aren’t harsh. God expresses concern for Cain’s well being. Whatever is wrong with Cain’s attitude, it is not so bad that Cain is helpless. God suggests that with some effort, Cain can wrestle temptation to the ground and become the master over it instead of the victim. Did Cain wonder about this at all? Did he try to wrestle with his frustrations and angers? We don’t know because the story wastes no time in hauling Abel out into the field where the deadly deed is done.

Did you notice that Abel never speaks? He never says a word. Abel doesn’t make a sound until his blood cries out from the ground. The only words of Abel are the cries of the innocent victim of violence and abuse. Abel’s cry pierces God’s ears. Cain can’t get away with the crime. God says to Cain, “Listen! Don’t you hear the blood crying out!?” Apparently he did not. Neither do we most of the time.

Crime goes on and on. So does its punishment. It’s like a farmer who sows poison into the soil of his fields. As Cain spills his brother’s blood onto the ground, now nothing will grow for him. Cain the farmer is literally up-rooted from the ground. He is a restless wanderer on the earth. He won’t be able to sink down roots anymore. He moves to the land of Nod, which is Hebrew for “wanderland.” He is punished with a living death. So Killer Cain begs God to please not let the same fate come to him!

You almost expect God to tell Cain, “Tough luck, buddy! You chose death and so now you need to face your own death.” God never says it. Humanity chooses death but God insists on life. God knows that the cycle of violence needs to be snapped. Cain will not suffer Abel’s fate. God marks Cain to show that God protects him. It’s bad enough that Abel’s blood screams in God’s ears. God can’t bear to hear Cain's blood shout out, too. God chooses life in the face of death.

Somehow, through it all, God loves Cain. Who knows why--he doesn’t seem terribly loveable. God saves Cain while Abel’s blood still screams. If we hold those two images in tension, we you are approaching the mystery of the gospel. Many children’s Bibles show a picture of Cain whomping Abel on the head with a rock or a stick. It’s terrible. But that is not the final image of Genesis 4. We are left with a pool of Abel’s blood, crying and screaming into God’s ear. It pains God to hear it and so he has his hands cupped over his ears. Yet at the same moment God is bending down and kissing Cain’s forehead, protecting Cain for life!

Screaming blood and kissing lips. Justified punishment and gracious salvation. Cain’s bloody hands and God’s mark of protection on Cain’s forehead. The images collide and bewilder. Why does God keep insisting on life? Why doesn’t the cry of Abel’s blood have the last word? Why? Because only God may have the last word, and that word is life.

Does all this talk about innocent blood remind you of someone else? How about Jesus? The blood of Jesus has something to say-- the shed blood of the innocent always speaks to us. Abel’s blood cried out to God with screams of horror and injustice. Christ’s’ blood cries out, too, and it shouts words of life. God didn’t let anyone shed Cain’s blood because cycles of violence and death must stop. Something needed to be done to restore God’s creation. That something is found in the sacrifice of God’s Son. Here is the final and ultimate innocent victim whose blood is shed unjustly. Jesus' blood does not scream, it sings; it does not cry, it croons; it does not darken into a pool of death but becomes a fountain of life.

Cain chose death and could never quite settle down again because of it. East of Eden there was only restlessness and wandering. Cain set us up for a whole history of restless wandering--the land of Nod has been most everywhere, it seems. Meanwhile, in all our restless search for answers and identity, the blood of the innocent keeps getting shed. The cries from the blood-soaked soil in lower Manhattan must send God reeling, but no less also the cries from the soils of Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and everywhere that people die as one group keeps trying to gain mastery over another.

Cain set our human race to wandering, unable to sink down roots into the soil we have sullied. Jesus grants us rest and a settled place to sink down roots into his love and grace. Cain brings us to Nod. Jesus brings us home. Abel’s blood speaks of death and injustice. Jesus' blood speaks life and grace.

As we come to communion, we remember the sacrifice of Christ. We come as those who are brought from death to life. As we come, let’s remember the times we have chosen death over life. Sadly, it happens too easily. But death doesn’t get the final word. Even when we choose death, we are loved and protected by God. God always chooses life over death.

"Hearing Abel, Raising Cain" by Scott Hoezee,

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