(Before I go any farther, please recall that Fort Worth will be worshipping at the Church of the Latter Day Marathon Runners this Sunday. So…please expect that it will take more time to get to the church than usual. My understanding is that the cleanest routes into downtown are on Cherry Lane or Forest Park off I-30. If you are coming into downtown from the north, east or south, probably best to get on I-30 heading west past downtown, and then off on Forest Park heading north and to the church.)
Now to the real point of this. I will be preaching this 2nd Sunday of Lent.
In the early years of the Church, it was part of the church’s practice to preach from the Genesis story of Cain during Lent. That fell by the way in the middle ages. I am reviving the tradition this Sunday. I hold that there is a lot of Cain in all of us.
Here again is the story:
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.’
8 Cain 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.”
I want to suggest to you that there is much more to this…terrible… story than meets the eye, much more and different than the usual emphasis and interpretation.
Why is this such a terrible story, other than, of course, because Cain killed his brother? It’s because of the context. In the overall Genesis story, the LORD created a perfect paradise where every creature was empowered and called to live in balance and harmony with every other creature. There was to be no killing; every creature was to eat only green plants and trees, not one another. (Genesis 1.29-30; 2.9,16). Humans were to be the LORD’s agents to protecting and maintaining this balance and harmony. God blessed us and charged us, like all creatures, to “be fruitful and multiply.” Our fruitfulness, our power to create life as agents of God and in response to God’s call, would be our great blessing.
But very quickly in the story, we humans imbalanced the balance and destroyed the harmony. We transgressed the one boundary the LORD imposed upon us, seeking to make ourselves gods. (3.4) So we were expelled from the paradise for threatening its balance and harmony. And then, in a truly terrible turn, the very first human created by human fruitfulness (Cain, the first child of Adam and Eve) murdered the very second human created by human fruitfulness (Abel). This is the very opposite of being fruitful.
Clearly, the Genesis story holds that we humans didn’t get off to a good start. Clearly, says this story, our nature was to be willful and self-worshipping and violent. Clearly, this is an appropriate Lenten text.
Is all this true about us, that we are willful and self-worshipping and violent? Or is it only true about “those people” from whom we should separate ourselves? Put another way, do “they” need Lent, while “we” do not?
A mainstream interpretation of an aspect of this story that grew up during the Reformation was that the LORD held Abel’s offering in regard, and Cain’s in no regard, because Cain’s offering to the LORD was inferior to Abel’s. (By the way, how did Cain know that the LORD did not “regard” his offering? This is important to the story.) Cain showed insufficient gratitude to the LORD through his offering. Cain begrudged the LORD the fruits of his labor. So the LORD’s response to Cain, holding his offering in no regard, was merely just, and the LORD was just in his actions. So Cain, true to his ungrateful and self-worshipping character, killed Abel out of envy against Abel and anger and rebellion against God. Therefore, Cain was justly punished by the LORD by condemnation to perpetual wandering. And this perpetual wandering was insured by a “mark” which the LORD placed upon Cain, to keep him from being killed by another human and his punishment thus cut short.
All of this, as they say, will preach. It’s a simple lesson. Those who are insufficiently grateful to God, who rebel against God, lose God’s blessing and are punished.
The only problem with this simple lesson is that it isn’t true. I mean…..is it?
Sunday, I am going to offer you some different looks at this story and some different lessons.
*That the LORD does not respond with condemnation to those of us who are willful and self- worshiping and violent, and that this story doesn’t even say this.
*That Cain is presented in this story as something of a tragic figure.
*That God, and therefore life, are presented in this story as capricious and unjust.
*That we often get into more trouble by how we react to life’s unfairness than by the unfairness itself.
*That we are brothers and sisters in life’s unfairness
*That Cain is very modern and that there’s a lot of Cain in each of us.
Hope you make it through the gauntlet of marathon runners.
Your brother, Brooks
Rev. Brooks Harrington
Methodist Justice Ministry of First United Methodist Church, Fort Worth
750 West 5th Street
Fort Worth, Texas 76102
“Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy.” Proverbs 31: 8-9