"SIBLINGS" - Genesis 4:1-16
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, September 24, 2017
Luke 6:27-36; Genesis 4:1-16
Late last Saturday afternoon, Ginger and I took our regular walk in our neighborhood. . . . You might remember last Saturday.
Many of us gathered here in the Sanctuary for the memorial service for Linda Harrah. That was my primary focus for that day. But Saturday, you recall, was also the day that our city, and especially the neighborhood around Monument Ave, flowed with excessive anxiety and uncertainty and racial tensions.
By dawn on that Saturday extensive barricades were erected around the Lee Monument. Hundreds of officers from the city, the State Police, the Capital Police, and others, were posted to prevent the violence and death that happened in Charlottesville. Last Saturday, our city, and this certain neighborhood, were poised in trepidation for what might happen when a small group called the New Confederates States of America showed up, and were then confronted by many others ready to drown out their protests.
By the time Ginger and I took our afternoon walk through this area, we had learned the good news: tensions fell far short of what could have happened. By the time we took our walk, we knew that, thanks be to God, violence had been avoided.
So as we took our walk, what we encountered were exhausted police, who had been there ALL DAY, gathering up their belongings and getting ready to go home. What we encountered was an eerily quiet street with city workers taking down barricades, moving trucks, . . . and we sensed the loud sighs and great relief.
In that strangely quiet street, in those post-demonstration moments, I thought to myself: “what does God think about all of this??”
We seem surrounded by so much ENMITY in these days.
And it is not just the racial tensions and monuments. We have seen record numbers of killings in certain RVA neighborhoods (see today’s RTD). We have increasing tensions with North Korea. We have pervasive worries about terrorist attacks. We are surrounded by so much ENMITY, which the dictionary defines as mutual hatred, hostility, rancor, animosity.
What DOES God think about all of this? What does God intend for us, surrounded by ENMITY?
You may recall the name Louis Pasteur, the brilliant French microbiologist. Pasteur once conducted a classroom experiment to demonstrate how animals adapt to dangerous conditions. He placed a bird in a closed container for six hours. The bird obviously grew sluggish and inactive as the air quality diminished, but it did not die. When Pasteur introduced another bird of the same size and species into the polluted container, this new bird died immediately. The sudden immersion into toxic air was a shock it could not handle. The first bird continued to live in the toxic space.
Pasteur’s experiment reminds us how adaptable we are to dangerous environments. (see Marty, p. 3, Christian Century, 9/13/17). We keep living with increasing toxicity and ENMITY.
Our Biblical texts for today intend to guide us as we deal with ENMITY. Our word for today is SIBLINGS. Can we live as SIBLINGS?
Before we get to this story, I want to remind you about Genesis. In Genesis 1, you recall, God created the heavens and the earth. God said “Let there be light,” and there was light. Genesis 1 and 2 are all about God – the Creator - bringing everything into being. This report, this witness, is not a scientific explanation about how the world began. These words want to affirm WHO created the world. God is the Author of life; God is the ground of all being. Genesis 1 & 2 also tell us that God created man and woman, made them in God’s image, breathed life into their nostrils.
Then, Genesis 3 is about Adam and Eve in the garden and what happened. God surrounded them with trees and lush gardens. They were to till and keep it. God gave them instructions – eat and live, but do not eat from the tree of knowledge in the middle of the garden. Instead of obeying God, they did what they wanted, and God finds them, calls them out. From then on, because of their disobedience, life for Adam and Eve takes a new path: the man will have to work hard for a living, sweat and struggle; and Eve will have pain in childbirth.
Then we get to Chapter 4. Listen:
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore
Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” 2Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.
3In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
6The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If 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.”
8Cain 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.
9Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
13Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear!14Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.
16Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The first story of life outside the Garden of Eden presents us with the BEST and then the WORST of human nature. Two boys are born, likely twins. Then the next verse has them as adults – Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain a tiller of the land.
In the very next verse, “in the course of time,” each son of Adam and Eve bring an offering to God. There is no mention of prayers, or an altar, or ritual. Here is what happened – the original farmer and original herdsman simply intend to thank the Lord – the Author and Giver of life – for the success in their work. They intend to thank the Lord for blessing them. This is a beautiful depiction of the best in human nature – recognizing that all life comes from God, giving sincere gratitude to God – the most mature emotion – they perform an act of worship. This act reminds us that life is always bigger than our lives. Life comes from God and proceeds to God and our lives maintain a proper posture of worship and thanksgiving always.
Then it says, “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering.”
Apparently, God has always liked the smell of barbeque J.
In Act 3 of Arthur Miller’s great play entitled The Creation of the World and Other Business, this interchange, reflecting back on Genesis 4, happens:
GOD: Young man, this is undoubtedly the sweetest, most delicious delicate and profoundly satisfying piece of meat I have ever tasted since the world began.
ADAM: Boy, (to Abel) this is our proudest moment. . . .
CAIN: Lord, there is still my corn. You haven’t tasted my corn.
GOD: Oh, I can see it’s very nice. You have done quite well, Cain. Keep it up. (but then God walks off with Adam and Abel)
EVE: (worried) Cain? . . . Darling, he loved your vegetables. Come on (trying to encourage Cain). (see S. Towner, Genesis, WJK, p. 59)
We have no idea why God preferred Abel’s offering. Maybe it is about BBQ. But that is not the point. Life is unfair. Things happen to us. How do we deal with that? Are we bitter or better? Are we jealous or joyous? This challenge is always before us. What do we do with what comes our way? The earliest stories of Genesis are trying to teach us about this challenge.
And Cain did not handle it very well.
Cain became very angry. His countenance fell.
Then, very shortly, Cain invites his brother to go out to the field. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up and killed his brother.
Within a few verses, in the first days outside the Garden, we see the best of human nature – a generous and sincere offering to God from each brother. Then the very worst of human nature manifests itself – not just ENMITY, but murder. Cain killed his brother.
God wastes no time in responding to this atrocity, saying to Cain: “where is your brother, Abel?” Cain replies with one of the best-known sentences in all of Scripture: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Contrary to the usual intuition, the correct answer to the rhetorical question posed by Cain is “No;” he is not his brother’s keeper. There are two reasons for this. One, in the Hebrew Bible, whenever rhetorical questions are positively asked, the answer is almost always NO. Second, and more definitively, when the verb “to keep” is used, and the object is a free human being, the LORD is the only subject associated with this verb. (Wow!) Perhaps you recall those great words from Psalm 121: “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep, . . the Lord will keep your life. The Lord will keep watch over your coming and going.” Only God keeps people safe. People may keep sheep, but only God is the “keeper” of his people.
So, Cain is NOT his brother’s keeper. Cain is his brother’s brother! And that is the main point, which the Bible will keep pressing. (see Towner, p. 62) . . . . SIBLINGS!
When ENMITY takes center-stage, and worse, MURDER, we will always find ourselves far from the kingdom of God. Our constant calling through Scripture : SBILINGS are to care for each other. And we are all SIBLINGS, one to each other. It is not about blood and family. It is about living with God in the world, toward God’s coming reign! Love one another.
This is why Jesus speaks so strongly and consistently about this: “love your enemies; do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . Do to others what you would have them do to you. . . . If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same.”
In other places in the New Testament, it says, picking up on this story of Cain and Abel: “all who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.”
On the other hand, where reconciliation has taken place, and love replaces anger and hate, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” This means that the ultimate issues of new life and resurrection are inescapably linked to the way we get along with our brothers and sisters near and far. (I John 3:11f.)
Here is how Walter Brueggemann puts it: “the issue of the brother is the ultimate theological crisis. . . . And the gospel is uncompromising. The promises (of God, of eternal life, of hope, of all things) are linked to the brother and will be had no other way.” (W. Breuggemann, Genesis, Interpretation Commentary, p. 64) It is so clear – and so very challenging – we are called to love – to love our SIBLINGS.
Most days we seem to choose death, because we allow all kinds of enmity to grow, to divide us. Sometimes it is personal issues. Sometimes it is economic or national issues. Sometimes, and lately, it is racial issues. We have a sad history of ENMITY.
The story of Cain and Abel illustrates just how quickly and lost we find ourselves.
But the message of these texts is that we are ALL SIBLINGS.
Bishop Desmond Tutu puts is quite clearly: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”
The great Albert Schweitzer, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, said, “You don’t live in a world all alone. Your brothers are here too.”
Certainly, you recall the famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr from the March on Washington in 1963: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
This past week, I was invited to a meeting sponsored by “Hope in the Cities,” and a grant that RVA has received from the Kellogg foundation to work for Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation. There were about 15 people at the table, most of whom I did not know. I was the only white person at the table – a humbling honor. I am not sure what will become of this conversation in our city, but clearly we have lots of work to do on truth, racial healing, and transformation. It is all about SIBLINGS – and living toward the loving intentions of God – away from ENMITY.
Life with God demands life with one another – loving, helping, serving together. When enmity prevails, we are all dragged down into the pit, far away from what God intends. We either drag each other down with our animosity and jealousy and rancor, or we lift each other up, through working together, striving together, building community, working for justice and peace for all. The Bible, . . . and Jesus are so clear about this.
There is one more important point about this story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s murder of his brother leads him to be sentenced by God – he is expelled from the farm. He is sentenced to a life of wandering - a landless fugitive, a refugee. Cain even complains about this sentence being too harsh: “Anyone who meets me may kill me.”
But it is here that the grace appears. God puts the mark on Cain. It is mark of guilt, . . . but it is also a mark of protection. It will ward off anyone who would take vengeance on Cain. We are not sure what the mark was. But it was a mark of mercy. It was God’s way of saying “the murder of your brother was absolutely wrong, but nevertheless, you are my child, and nothing will separate you from my love. I will watch over you.”
Cain went away to the land of Nod, to wander, . . .but it is through Cain that God’s people keep descending.
God is always are work. Despite our worst efforts, and deepest failings at living in God’s ways, God’s creative purposes continue. The very next verses show God working God’s purposes out through Cain.
We have a serious and absolute calling to treat everyone as our beloved SIBLING. We also have a wonderful God, who despite our ENMITY and lostness, will never let us go. Thanks be to God. AMEN
Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to serve you, with love and devotion, that is to abide forever. We seek that way following Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during morning worship on Sunday, September 24, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.