Gen. 4:1-16 (Tanak); Matthew 21:33-39 (MSG)
South Presbyterian Church – October 5, 2014 – World Communion / Peacemaking
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift
Cain and Abel. A story as old as the hills … LITERALLY.
I never paid much attention to this story until I was middle aged. It just seemed like a pretty straight ahead story of murder … fratricide … and the basis for a lot of literature written over the centuries. But when we dive into it a little more, there are real messages for us today in the 21st century, I think.
Two things in particular seem to be what most people associate with this story, and BOTH of them are wrong.
The first is the phrase “the mark of Cain.”
So many uses I have found for that in our culture use it as a mark of sin or shame. But that’s not what we read in SCRIPTURE at all, is it? It was a mark of PROTECTION. God placed a mark on Cain so that others wouldn’t HARM him.
Now, I can remember this particular story being read to me when I was about six or seven from my children’s Bible at bedtime. And at that point I think I saw it as a way of God PROLONGING the agony of Cain’s guilty. “I’m not going to let anybody shorten your life and put you out of your misery from the knowledge that you killed your brother.”
That’s because when I was six or seven … despite what I might have SAID about wanting to kill my brothers … I really loved them and I couldn’t IMAGINE anyone killing his brother and not feeling TERRIBLE about it. Sadly, we all know that some people DON’T feel bad about killing others. And to the mind of a 6 or 7 year old, that rationale worked.
But when we look more closely at the meaning TODAY, we see that it was Cain’s PLEA to God that brought forth the imposition of “the mark of Cain” and that it was a PROTECTION. In fact, one of the Jewish scholars writing in the Oxford Jewish Study Bible says, “The irony is pungent: the man who could not tolerate God’s inscrutable grace now benefits from it. (p.19)”
Some of you may not have heard the word midrash before. It is a Hebrew term. “In Judaism, the Midrash (Hebrew: מדרש; plural midrashim) is the body of exegesis (or exploratory, reflective writing) of Torah texts (that would be the first 5 books of the Bible) along with homiletic stories … and they provide an intrinsic analysis to passages in the Tanakh (the Hebrew scripture).”[i] Well, there’s a Midrash about this passage that sees Cain as the first penitent and attributes his pardon to his repentance (Gen.Rab. 22.13).
God helps us out when we ask no matter how much we may have fought against him or her in the past.
So that’s one thing about this passage for us to consider but the even greater one, I think, is the whole question that comes BEFORE that … “Am I my brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?”
God asks Cain where Abel is. Again, as a kid I thought … Why? Doesn’t God already KNOW? But clearly as an adult I see that sometimes our teachers, our parents, our mentors … even our FRIENDS will sometimes ask us things they already know the answer to because WE need to SAY the answers. We need to claim ownership to that which we know … and that’s what THIS was, I think.
And CAIN … in his petulant way … said, “Why’re you asking ME? Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Now, a LOT of us in the world today take that attitude: “Why should *I* care about the violence in the city? I live in Henrietta … or in Pittsford … or in Fairport. Am I my brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?”
“Why should WE care about what goes on in Syria? Are we our brothers keepers?”
“Why should the United States get involved with fighting ISIS or ISIL … it’s not OUR problem.”
“The Ukraine? Are WE responsible for Russia’s incursion?”
“The guy next door is beating his wife. I feel bad for her, but I’M not gonna get involved. What if he comes after ME?”
Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if our faith told us we could DO that … walk away … not get involved … keep to ourselves.
But it DOESN’T …
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks. And the answer is YES! Yes, you are!
We ALL are.
We are MUTUALLY responsible for each other.
You can’t get any clearer than hearing it from God.
We are responsible TO and FOR each other and each other’s well-being.
So in this story that Jesus is telling a few thousand years after the Genesis story was written???? In this UPDATED version, people are once AGAIN concerned with their OWN interests.
The farm hands thought they had the right to steal the land AND the profits from the owner.
Who owns that land? Who owns THIS land? (And I don’t mean [sing] “This land is your land, this land is my land” like Woodie Guthrie sang. Who owns the land???? God … the Creator of the heavens and the earth. WE are just caretakers of the land … and when we become “landowners” it really just means that our responsibility is greater to manage it for the One who created it.
So … Who owns the land, Exxon-Mobil? Who owns the land, BP? It’s not YOU! But you continue to believe that you have the right to all of the profits coming from that land.
It’s not just the OIL companies … it’s NATIONS, too. Nations FIGHTING over land … it’s the Palestinians and the Jews … North Korean … it’s indigenous people in Africa … it’s the United States and immigration debates …
Who owns the LAND????
God … and through God, we ALL do. We ALL own the land as children of God. And the farm hands … the big oil companies … countries …. WHOEVER … they are stealing it from God just as surely as THESE farm hands stole it from the owner in JESUS’ story.
And no matter who God SENDS to them to try and remind them of who owns it … they drive them out … they kill them … and they take what they want all the while asking, “Why should *I* care? I get what I want. What am I, my brother’s keeper?”
People all around the world today are gathering at Christ’s table.
Not ours … this is CHRIST’S table … the Prince of PEACE … Emmanuel, God WITH us … and yet so many around the world … maybe even right here … are so willing to NOT be their brothers’ or sisters’ keepers. “Each man for himself.” “No work, no pay.” “God helps those who help themselves.”
There is not one WHIT of Jesus in those statements. Not one whit!
We ARE responsible for each other. And until we can embrace that, we as a human race are going to keep KILLING and raping and murdering and destroying ourselves.
I heard a woman on local news the other day. She was responding to some statement about a convicted murderer who had served his time and was now living in her neighborhood. And her response? “I’m sorry. But if you kill someone, you NEVER pay your debt to society. He shouldn’t be allowed to live here.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if she feels that way when someone kills another in self-defense or in combat.
It all goes back to that integrity-thing we were talking about last week.
And where are we as a society? … How do we ever build lasting peace if we CONTINUE to be locked in to Cain’s original thinking? Even HE changed … and God had mercy.
The GOOD news, though, is that I learned a few years back that social scientists have proven you only need about 1% … just ONE PERCENT of a large group to adopt a philosophy or a value and then it spreads like MAGIC to the other 99%. That means only 1% of us have to really begin to practice Peacemaking in order for it to have an impact.
I know. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But one percent of a group taking a stand and holding that position over time becomes like the drop of water that wears the stone away. And we HAVE that power. It is WITHIN us all the time because we have the power to CHOOSE how we will respond at any given moment. And we have the ABILITY to share our peaceful practices, our thoughts … even how we WRESTLE with the issues … with every person we come in contact with.
We need to not be the farmhands any more.
We need to stop SUPPORTING the farmhands who fail to honor the landowner.
We need to speak up and start insisting that yes, indeed, we ARE our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We ARE responsible for each other. We are ALL responsible for the terrible state of the public schools in the city of Rochester. We are ALL responsible for ending domestic violence … for welcoming those coming to this country for safety and asylum … we are ALL on the hot seat for Israel and Palestine … for North Korea … for ISIS and ISIL … we cannot and we MUST not bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s someone ELSE’s problems … because as followers of Jesus … for us to live with integrity means that we ARE responsible … we are interconnected … and peacemaking starts [tap my chest] in here.
We won’t get it right all the time, but we have to start [tap again] in here to be at peace with our SELVES so that we can be part of the 1% that changes the world.
And right here [point to the communion table] is a great place to start. Let us continue to prepare our hearts and minds to be changed by what will happen here. Amen.
[i] “Midrash” in Wikipedia: the Online Encyclopedia, 10.04.2014.