This week we are concluding the sermon series that we've been working on for the past several weeks, a sermon series entitled, "In The Beginning." The idea behind this series was very simple: This new year isn't just a chance to make a new resolution, it's a chance to be a new creation. And in order for us to learn what it means to become a new creation in this new year, we decided to go back to where everything started--back to the beginning, and the first four books of Genesis.
Our focus this week is on the first few verses of Genesis chapter 4 and the story of Cain and Abel--perhaps the most famous story of sibling rivalry in the history of the world.
I was an only child so I never really had to deal with sibling rivalry. The only person I had to be jealous of was myself--which might seem crazy on the surface, had I not been such a smug little so-and-so growing up. I tell you when my mom showed me favoritism over myself--it really chapped my hide.
But I do have three boys all of which are several years apart, which guarantees that there will be some seriously annoying moments between older and younger brothers. Let's just say that our family has had more than our fair share of broken Lego creations, maimed action figures and deleted video game files to last a lifetime.
I was doing some research this week into famous sibling rivalries and found some interesting ones. There's the story of Eppie and Priscilla Lederer, more famously known as Ann Landers and Dear Abby--advice columnists and dread rivals. When Eppie Lederer became Ann Landers and assumed some serious popularity, Priscilla took on the persona of Abigail van Buren (Dear Abby) to compete with her sister. She even went so far as to offer her advice column to newspapers at a reduced rate if they refused to run her sisters.
Then there was the horrible rivalry of Oscar winning actresses Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. When Joan Fontaine won the Oscar for best actress in 1941 she snubbed her sister who tried to congratulate her, and in 1946 when Olivia de Havilland won she did the same. Fontaine later wrote about how she was always made to feel like a loser in their family and even suffered physical abuse, broken bones at the hands of her jealous sister.
Believe it or not, Walt and Roy Disney were rivals. Walt was the younger of the two and the creative genius behind the company that bore his name. Roy was always second banana even though he would outlive Walt and would run the company for years after Walt's death. Walt once said about a decision he made against Roy's wishes, "When we were children and slept in the same bed, I used to [pee] all over Roy. I [peed] on him then, and I am [peeing] on him now." Only he didn't use the word pee.
More recently, Liam and Noel Gallagher from the rock band Oasis engaged in bitter arguments often fueled by drug use and alcohol that were mostly legal but often turned physical regarding the future of their band. In Britain they are widely known to be two of the worst sibling rivals since King Lear's daughters.
So what does this look like when it unravels completely? What does it look like when people who should get along don't---and perhaps even turn against each other for good?
It looks a lot like the places in our world where there is strife, inequity, war, poverty, starvation, oppression... I could go on. Fear, hatred, jealousy... these are powerful emotions that can cause a world of hurt.
Why do people hate one another? What's at the very core of it all?
I think the answers to those questions can be found in the first few verses of Genesis chapter 4
1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.So I have to say this. When I was a kid I was always confused by the first line of this passage. "Adam knew his wife." I would always think, "It's kind of obvious that he knew her, right?" I had know idea it meant that Adam knew his wife, knowwhatimeannudgenudgewinkwink...
But I digress...
Cain and Abel begin by doing very different things. Cain tills the ground and Abel keeps flocks. But they both decide to bring offerings of gratitude in worship. There is no indication whatsoever that this is a sacrifice--it's a freely given offering of thanks. The Bible says that Abel brought "fat portions" or in a more accurate translation, "the choicest of the firstlings."
And then it says something else. "For his part" or in the Hebrew gam hu. The way that the ancient rabbis translated this was to say that in addition to his own offerings, Abel also brought himself. He offered the best of what he had to offer, and he also offered himself.
The Scripture said that God accepted Abel's offering, but didn't accept Cain's.
So what happened to Cain, why didn't his offering get accepted. The ancient rabbis who wrote about this story said that in part it had to do with his motivation for the offering. Sure, it was out of gratitude, but the key phrase for them was "in the course of time" which appears at the beginning of that part of the story. They say that this line actually refers to Cain worrying about the future, and the end of his life so he comes to offer God an offering.
There's also some great teaching from the rabbis on how Cain took on the role of tilling the ground and trying to bring life from it as a way of replacing his parents lost dream of Eden. In other words, he was trying to remake Eden, to do it on his own terms.
The rabbis also believed that the way Cain knew his offering wasn't accepted was because fire came from heaven and consumed Abel's and not his. There's nothing in the text to indicate this happened, but it is part of the ancient commentaries on this passage.
When Cain gets upset about the perceived inequity of everything, God says to him "What's your damage, Cain?" or more literally translated, "If you take yourself to the House of Study, no harm will come to you." That sounds pretty strange, but it actually speaks to the heart of what God wanted Cain to know--he had a choice. He had a choice as to how he responded to God's favor of his brother over him--favor that had come because of the way Abel had approached the whole thing with a pure heart. Cain could dedicate himself to being in relationship with God and repairing his selfishness, or he could keep going and possibly end up in destruction.
Cain, as it turns out, chose destruction. He kills his brother in a fit of rage, and then buries his body to hide the crime. God shows up, however, and spoils everything for him. "Where is your brother?" he asks, which in the Hebrew actually could translate, "Where is the brotherly affection that you claimed you had?" "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain replies angrily.
Then God says something fascinating. "Your brothers blood cries out to me from the ground." We tend to think that our actions against our fellow human beings have no consequences beyond the doing---but this story tells us otherwise. All of Creation is connected--it is all good. God's DNA, his Holy Spirit energy, His Creative Word through Christ is embedded in all things, including us. Violence has cosmic implications.
Further, the retort that Cain offers up, "Am I my brother's keeper?" also has cosmic implications. The answer is obviously, "Yes! Of course you are!" All homicide is fratricide--murder of the brother. And those who deny their responsibility for their brother are as guilty as those who commit the act itself. This was an important teaching for the Jews who endured the Shoah or the Holocaust. Millions of people stood by and watched as 6 million Jews were exterminated.
So... what does all this mean. It means simply this: At the very core of this whole story is the question of the right worship of God. In other words, how you view God, directly affects how you view your brother.
Despite the many examples of brutality, violence, horror and hatred throughout the centuries there are so many stories to the contrary. For every moment where we see Cain, there are other moments when people act more like Abel.
During the Nazi scourge of Europe, Jews were being deported from each of the countries that were conquered by Germany. France was no exception, and in most cases the French were seemingly ambivalent to the plight of their Jewish neighbors. Except for one town: Le Chambon sur Lignon. The citizens of Le Chambon rus Lignon were responsible for saving over 5000 Jews from concentration camps during the Nazi occupation of France. They didn't have meetings about it, they didn't plan things as a group. They just started doing it, and soon the whole town was in on it. They believed firmly the sign that hung above the gate to the churchyard in the center of town, "Love One Another."
In 1920 just after the national elections a riot broke out in Ocoee Florida. The riot occurred because a black man had registered to vote. The ensuing violence ended in the destruction of nearly all of the homes occupied by Ocoee's black citizens and the murder of over fifty of them in cold blood. But there were many white families who defied the crazed hatred of the inciters of the riot, and who hid black families in their own homes, saving their lives.
Just a couple of weeks ago during the terror attacks in Paris, a young Muslim man who worked in the Jewish grocery store that was attacked by Muslim extremists risked his own life to hide Jewish shoppers in the freezer so that they wouldn't be harmed by the terrorists.
What made them do this?
I believe it comes down to a simple question: "How do you see God?" Do you fear God as a God of judgment, vengeance and anger? Do you dread God like Cain did? Do you see God as a being who is ready to smite you at a moment's notice for all of the mistakes you've made? Do you see God as a gleeful judge who can't wait to sentence millions upon millions of people to eternal torment?
Or do you see God like Abel?
Do you see God as loving and full of grace? Do you see God as worthy of your very best, of your whole life because God has plans for your future that are full of hope and promise? Do you see a God like the one that Jesus taught about--a God who is not willing that any should be destroyed, but that they would all come to be his children?
Because I guarantee you--the way you see God directly affects the way you see your brother or your sister.
I know that it doesn't feel like it sometimes, but another world is possible. I want you to hear that again... Another World Is Possible. And you can be a part of that new world, that new creation.
Jesus told his followers, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father who is in heaven." Let your light so shine... It's up to us in the end.
We have choice. We can see God as a tyrant who wants blind obedience and who stands in judgement of us--coercing our love with threats of eternal torment. And when we embrace this view of God it creates an "us" and "them" out of people who either agree with us or not.
Or we can see God as loving, forgiving, eager to be in relationship with us and for us to be at peace with all we come into contact with--to shine our light so they will see God. Because when you truly see God in this way, every single person you come into contact with has the potential to be a disciple, a fellow believer, our brother or sister.
This year, beloved, isn't just a chance to make a new resolution, it's a chance to be a new creation... and to be a part of God's crazy beautiful plan to save the world.