A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 19, 2017
University Baptist Church
The story of Cain and Abel is an iconic story. It has in it all of elements of a good lesson. There is conflict, jealousy, deceit, murder, denial, punishment and a warning.
It seems like we are reliving this story in our present context. And yet we don’t seem to learn from our history. So, let’s revisit the story and see if we can integrate its lessons.
We have three main characters in the story, Cain, Abel and God. Cain is the firstborn and his name means production. Abel is the younger and his name means vanity, Hebel Of Ecclesiastes fame. Vanity, vapor, nothingness. Not the most appealing start. By name Cain is more appealing, productive, and trustworthy than Abel.
They grew up and worked, Cain tended a garden and Abel tended sheep. The time came for them to bring their gifts to God. Cain brought his veggies. We can imagine some beans, some juicy tomatoes, some zucchini, carrots, maybe even some kale and collard greens. Abel brought the firstlings of his flock, the juiciest portions. God preferred Abel’s gift to Cain’s. Why, we don’t know. Maybe God was just not in a veggie mood. What we know more about is Cain’s reaction. The Bible says that his countenance fell. He started out being sad, but his sadness turned to rage. He sought out revenge. But not on God who was the one he should have been angry at. He sought revenge against the one he could beat. I used to fight with my brother all the time. I was older and bigger. He was and is much more musically talented than me—a skill I envied. I craved the joy he gave our parents. I stopped fighting him when he got big enough to fight back.
God tells Cain to control himself. In response to Cain’s feeling of rejection, God does not give him compassion. Instead God says, “Why are you angry? If 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.” (vv. 6,7). But Cain thought he had done well. It’s not easy being a farmer. He gave God the juiciest tomatoes, the thickest carrots, the deepest green lettuces. But God did not accept Cain’s gift. Maybe this one time Abel needed favor from God. Maybe Abel was depressed and needed approval from God. God didn’t reject Cain’s gift, God just preferred Abel’s. Maybe God was talking about the long term. I’ll accept your next gift. Just because I don’t like the veggies doesn’t mean I don’t like you. Whatever, sin was in fact luring at the door.
For Cain’s rage could not be contained. He was not in a forgiving or conciliatory mood. He wanted the competition gone, no holds barred. So, he lured his brother out into the field and eventually killed him. It might have even felt good for a moment. But then he realized he was even more alone in the world. He probably realized his rage got the best of him right away, and in a panic, he tried to hide his tracks. Lies have ways of catching up to you. When you tell one, you have to tell another to cover it until you can no longer tell the difference between your lies and reality.
When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain could have said “I dunno.” But he had to add the little line, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course this is the first ethical question of the Bible and the rest of the Bible is an attempt to answer this question. We all know the answer. Of course you are your brother’s keeper. No man or woman is an island. We are all responsible for each other. There is no action that we take that is not seen by God. God says, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.”
This is the second rebellion of the Bible’s first few chapters. Humans are becoming increasingly alienated from one another. The brothers are like 2 parties. One wants to get along. The other wants to destroy it enemy. They are the siblings who can’t reconcile, or who when they feel slighted institute the nuclear option within the nuclear family.
And the blood cries out, it weeps from the ground.
God punishes Cain, making him no longer a successful farmer. Nothing he did would take root. He would have to wander the earth, a refugee. The very ground rejects him.
And so begins the story of conflict and rage and retribution that we can never seem to get quite right. We are like Cain planting what does not seem to take root.
And we stumble through this world, trying to make sense of it. Yet, when we have been wronged, there is a strong urge to get back at the one who wronged us.
Our current president is a master at this. When someone challenges him or his view of the world, he fights back. He blames others for mistakes that surround him. He demonizes those who are the most vulnerable while propping up the most well-off. He denigrates immigrants and Muslims and refugees. And then when they rise up with all of their rage, he says, “See how violent they are?” He all but says, “I don’t know where my so-called brother is. People say he died. I don’t know. Sheep are dangerous. You can never trust a sheep. Have you questioned the sheep? He’s a sheep-keeper. It’s messy work and things happen. I am not my brother’s keeper. I’m a farmer. I grow pumpkins, Huge pumpkins. The best pumpkins. Turnips too. And mint, did I mention mint? Everybody loves my mint...He made his own mess. I’m not responsible. Interrogate the sheep and leave me alone.”
But the blood of Abel was crying from the ground. God hears the weeping blood and calls us to account for it. And none of us can successfully hide from God.
Biblical scholar Miguel De La Torre wrote in his commentary on Genesis (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011 p.96)
“When we act on our hatred, we oppose God’s call to love. When we act on our pride, we oppose God’s call to be humble. When we act out of selfishness, we oppose God’s call of self-giving. All individuals, as well as institutions—whether they are political, economic, or social—exist under the sway of sinful, if not deadly, behavior.”
Judge Wendell Griffin was one of the preachers at this past summer’s Baptist Peace Conference. As an African American Christian Judge in Philadelphia, he had seen his share of racism. He’d seen younger versions of himself standing in front of his bench with the blood of a brother dripping from his hands—desperate, angry, poor young people who could not control their rage and had easy access to firearms. The blood of their victims wept, he said. But it weeps along with all those who have died at another’s hand. The blood of them all weeps in his courtroom and they are somehow connected. It’s too easy to kill our brothers and sisters. Their blood is crying out.
He schooled us on the history of the second amendment. At the time of the writing of the constitution, there were well-regulated militia around. These were posses set up to round up escaped slaves. A kind of overground railroad back to the plantations. Slavery can only exist in a police-state. The well-regulated militia was enrolled to enforce slavery. It was a slavery-enforcing force.
The second amendment came about to prevent a slave insurgence/insurrection of slaves. Since blacks were considered 3/5ths of a person, they did not have the absolute rights of their white brethren to own guns. So, the second amendment was created to preserve escaped slave-hunting posses. It was sold as a protection against enemies foreign and domestic. But it was really there to keep slaves terrorized and in their place.
Judge Griffin declared that we are safer when more people are kind, helpful and courageous. Not as the NRA says, that we’re safer when more people have guns or our borders are more closed off.
Folks are gunned to death, not peopled to death. Resist the lie that people kill people, not guns, said Judge Griffin.
The pulse shooting was the largest shooting by a single person in US history. The blood of Orlando weeps as does the blood of Charleston, of Aurora, of Columbine, of Sandy Hook of San Bernardino. God weeps, and if there is any empathy in us, we weep too. Our president has bragged that he hasn’t wept since he was a child. Maybe we need to weep with the bloody ground.
Here’s a question: Do we weep for the victims of Democratic drones in addition to Republican refugee restrictions?
Now there’s another layer to how this story has played out in our landscape. Cain is the firstborn, the privileged child. The heir of the Garden of Eden. He even goes into the family business and becomes a gardener. But when God rejects Cain’s gift, Cain can’t be happy for his brother. He has to humiliate even his own brother, because privilege can’t be challenged. Privilege says, you can get away with murder, but the ground cries out and won’t let you go.
And so Cain gets punished and is marked. Now this mark of Cain has been used to denote darker skin. Maybe it’s conflated with the curse of Noah’s son Ham, but it was used pejoratively against black people. Some say that one of Cain’s descendants married Ham. It was the curse of Cain that was said to make the black race inferior to the white race. This coded language is coming back into the mainstream, emboldened by this last election.
But think of this: Adam, Cain’s daddy was formed from the ground. The richest soil is the darkest. So, we could assume that the people of the soil are actually dark skinned. What if the mark of Cain made him white—that white skin is the mark of Cain, the stain of Abel’s weeping blood? Would we be seen as complicit—like black folks have been accused of for centuries? If so, with what sin are we complicit?
Miguel De la Torre says, “God continues to ask those who are privileged: What have you done to your sisters and brothers? Those who live on the margins? Those who die dispossessed for your benefit? Their cries continue to rise up to God’s ear.” P.97
Their blood cries out.
The scripture tells us that Abel’s blood weeps from the ground. It will not let him go and it demands to be heard. Cain cannot escape his string of lies. God hears the weeping blood.
The challenge for us is to hear the weeping blood too. We hear it in the voices of those dying in refugee camps, from malnutrition, waiting to get across one of our borders, fearing police bullets because of the color of their skin, fearing a nation whose leadership seem to be not greater but meaner.
But the good news is that people are waking up. We are realizing that we are kin with each other. We are marching together. We are singing together. We are not taking this world lying down. We are hearing the blood weeping from the ground and we are rising up.
That’s why this story is in there. We are to answer the question that Cain asked. Are we our brother’s keeper, our sisters’ keeper, our children’s keeper, our neighbor’s keeper, our enemies’ keeper? The answer is yes. Jesus put an exclamation point on it when he said, “as much as you have done it unto the least of these who are my sisters and brothers, you have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40)
We are sinful Cain. Maybe we have not committed fratricide, but we have wondered where our responsibility stopped. And we are here in church to learn how to be better. We are to hear the weeping blood from the ground. And we are to turn. Turn away from sin. Turn toward our sister and brother. Turn toward the hurting one, the shunned one. Turn toward those left out or demonized by the privileged classes.
And we turn toward the other sons and daughters of Cain and we work with them to find a better way than revenge. A better way than more violence that creates a stinking vortex of pain and rage. We turn toward our Cain-self and prayerfully acknowledge, I hear the weeping blood of the ground. And I will shed blood no more.