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Sermon for July 22, 2012

I've been on vacation for a couple of weeks -- kind of lazy about posting. --mbb
Crime and Punishment

Now  . . . Eve became pregnant. When she gave birth to Cain, she said, “With the Lord’s help, I have produced  a man!” Later she gave birth to his brother and named him Abel. When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected. “Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”

One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him. Afterward the Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother? Where is Abel?”

“I don’t know,” Cain responded. “Am I my brother’s guardian?” But the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! Now you are cursed and banished from the ground, which has swallowed your brother’s blood. No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work! From now on you will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain replied to the Lord, “My punishment is too great for me to bear!  You have banished me from the land and from your presence; you have made me a homeless wanderer. Anyone who finds me will kill me!” The Lord replied, “No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him. 16 So Cain left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Genesis 4:1-16
Was I in a melancholy mood yesterday! I woke up, made a cup of coffee, and started in on the Saturday Washington Post. Of course, the ghastly news from Aurora, Colorado dominated the paper. Our hearts sink with empathy and despair once more as we try to understand the senseless, calculated, deliberate killing of others. As I read the paper, one of my thoughts was, “Here we go again – get ready for another round of arguments about gun control and whether citizens should be able to own glocks and assault rifles. When we are done debating, we will be in exactly the same place as when we started: Pro-gun lobbying interests will win the day, we will have done nothing to address the issues, and we will slowly make our way back to movie theaters again until the next shooting happens. I know this is cynical. I told you I was in a melancholy mood.
Just when I’m wondering if we could ever hope for tolerance of one another (I’m not talking acceptance or understanding – I’d be happy with mere tolerance and civility), The Post also reported on the escalating shadow war between Israel and Iran, as well as the gory violence in Syria, which make the crowd shooting in Colorado look like child’s play.

Well, I was already sad when I put down the Post and read the latest issued of Popular Science. Leading its stories of environmental doomsday scenarios was an article on how climate change scientists are being threatened and attacked for their calls to global action to save our warming planet. Our beautiful home is being destroyed, and as we watch it wilt in the heat the climate-deniers not only debate but threaten the lives of climate scientists and their families. Pro-pollution lobbying interests win the day. By noon, I was feeling a subterranean sense of grief.

Author E.B. White once said, “The more I stay here, the more anxious and boxed in I feel, and the more I worry about whether I will do something, help people, or learn.” That’s all I hope to say in what I do, and in how I act. I’m not planning on leaving for a while, so I’m learning to adapt and make some sense of this world. And I’m looking for some hope. Today it just seems too much: Too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken lives; too much of wars and slums and dying; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much of stale routines and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; sometimes the air seems scorched by threats and rejection and decay until there is nothing but to inhale pain and exhale confusion; too much of darkness, Lord, too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference. It’s just too much; too bloody, bruising, battered much.

The beginnings of human violence begin simply enough. Our ancient stories tell us about how Adam and Eve start a family. They have two sons. Cain, the big brother, becomes 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 a sacrifice specific to each one’s vocation. Each gives God 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 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 Cain’s devotion to God was lukewarm while Abel expressed enthusiastic piety.

For some reason, God likes Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. The only clue we have to why might be found in one small word in the text: “Some.” Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel makes an offering to God, too, which the storyteller describes in detail. Abel gives the best, and Cain only gives some and God rejects it. Cain is angry. And sad. And depressed. Cain will soon be guilty of something rather horrible--so terrible that it makes his lackluster offering look trivial by comparison. Seeing Cain’s simmering rage, 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 even try? Did wrestle with his frustrations and angers?

Did you notice that Abel never speaks? Able is not given any lines in the story. Abel doesn’t whisper 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 as God goes looking for Cain. God asks a question of Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?” It reminds us of the question God asked Adam in the Garden after Adam ate the fruit of the tree. “Where are you?” Cain lies. “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?  The word “keeper” is the same word used when God created humans and tasked them to work and guard, or “keep”, the Garden.  Cain fails to keep God’s creation. He’s done the opposite. He’s destroyed it.

God says to Cain, “Listen! Don’t you hear the blood crying out!?” Apparently Cain did not. Neither do we most of the time. Crime goes on. So does its punishment.  After Cain spills his brother’s blood onto the ground, the lands will no longer yield crops. Abundance cycles to scarcity. Cain, the farmer, is up-rooted from the ground. He becomes a restless wanderer on the earth, a nomad. It’s as if God gives Cain a living death in a land of barrenness.

Do you know what amazes me about this text? Cain lives. Previous to this, I get the feeling that the Lord God is terrifying and capricious. But Cain will not suffer Abel’s fate. Humanity chooses death but God insists on life. God knows that the cycle of violence needs to be stopped. 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. By the end of this short story, we are left with a pool of Abel’s blood screaming into God’s ear. At the same moment, God bends down and kisses Cain’s forehead, marking him for safety, insisting on 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.

Cain chose death and can never settle down again because of it. East of Eden there is only restlessness and wandering. Cain set humanity up for a whole history of restless wandering—we can see the Land of Nod everywhere, it seems. Meanwhile, in all our restless searches for answers and identity, the shed blood of the innocent always speaks to us.  The cries from the blood-soaked Colorado must send God reeling, but no less also the cries from the dust of Mexico, the cities of Syria, the mountains of Afghanistan, the deserts of Iraq, the soil of Somalia, and everywhere that people die as one group keeps trying to gain immortality and mastery over another.

Today, I want to remember the times when I have chosen death over life, even in small ways. Sadly, it happens too easily. And it’s just too much. Or, it is too little: Too little of compassion, too little of courage, of daring, of persistence; too little of music and dance, and laughter, and celebration?

I also NEED to remember, death does not get the last word. Even when the world chooses death, we are loved and protected by God. God always chooses life. God, make of us some nourishment for these starved times, some food for our sisters and brothers who are hungry for hope.

Sources:
"Hearing Abel, Raising Cain" by Scott Hoezee, http://www.calvincrc.org/sermons/topics/genesis/genesis4.html
Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle.
Jack Miles, God: A Biography, pp. 39-42.
Michael Williams, ed., The Storytellers Companion to the Bible: Genesis, pp. 42-47.

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