Sunday, February 2, 2014

More Than I Can Bear

More Than I Can Bear
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 2, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 4: 8-16
Luke 11: 45-52

So now, Let us pray, for the open hearts and minds that only God can give,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

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. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out 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 till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Today 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.” 15 Then 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. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. [1]

So this is another familiar story to us. Cain and Abel, the first murder. I think I've referenced this story in my sermons the most of any Old Testament Story. There really is so much going on here. It has been a good compliment to many of the New Testament stories, and now I'm excited to look especially at it on its own, to take a deeper look at some of the issues, questions, and details of the story we all know so well. Often when you talk about Cain and Abel there are two issues that usually find their way into the conversation. One is, of course, why does God choose Abel's offering and not Cain's? What is the problem with Cain's? And the other has more to do with the historical logistical problems this story raises, namely, if it's only Adam and Eve in the world, and Cain and Abel are their children, Cain gets exiled from the family, and then settles to the East in the Land of Nod and takes a wife and Enoch is born. . . where did his wife come from? It challenges the historical aspect of the story. . . and just this week I have run into Atheists using this very discrepancy as a reason to throw out the entire Biblical story. It is sad isn't it, to let such insignificant details become the stumbling block to seeing truth. Both of these questions, though interesting and edgy do not get at what I find to be the most intriguing and formative parts of this story. They just don't, so rather than going into the weeds of the historical record, as I have done on the Adam and Eve stories and creation, I want to approach them without worrying about their historicity and see it as a type story for human nature and the way that we as humans tend to work.
Before I begin let's connect last week with this week. I said many things last week, the biggest claim of all being that Sin had to do with believing the lie, resulting in human beings not being able to understand God, not understanding how God works, and what God is all about. The actions then are the symptoms of that state. I see this Cain and Abel story as a completely understandable next step in the cycle, in that sense, actions symptomatic of the disease. Adam and Eve hide from God, they blame each other, then they receive their punishment and are expelled from the garden. So think about it, you've been kicked out of some place, you thought you could hide from God, you thought that you could lie to God, blaming others, and somehow save yourself from the full extent of God's wrath by doing so. It's all part of this self preservation instinct that we have, at least that we have now, part of sin. And so Adam and Eve have children, and they teach them everything they know about how God works, at least their limited understanding, is it about wrath, anger, punishment, power, and instill in them the idea that they should try by all means necessary to work themselves back into God's good graces, and so they teach them that they should give their offerings to God.
 The story doesn't say all that, but it is also silent on exactly why it is that Cain and Abel do give their offerings. Why do they? What are they looking for and what do they think God will do? What do they expect God's reaction to be, especially because it is obvious from Cain's standpoint that he didn't get what he thought. He was expecting something very different. He expected God to be happy with him. Wouldn't you? Here  you are giving God something you had made, wouldn't you expect God to be happy with you, that you had done good and that you had earned God's love, respect, and affection? Isn't that what Cain seems to expect, and so reacts the way he does because God in fact surprises him. God is different from what he assumed God was.
You may think this is a very small and insignificant detail, but it actually is quite revolutionary within religion. Most people assume that religion is all about controlling the uncontrollable, that people seek religions to offer them hope and control over their lives and the future in a world that seems to them to be very much out of control. That is what most religion is, it is certainly what most ancient religions were. It is the basis of ancient polytheistic religion. You have gods, they are in control of certain aspects of the universe, and if you want to control those aspects you appeal to the god of it. If you want it to rain  you perform a rain ritual to the rain god, giving him homage. If you want to be successful in your next military campaign you make your offerings to the god of war. If you want your crops to come in or your wife to have a baby you make an offering to the fertility gods. If you don't want the volcano to erupt you throw a virgin in once a  year to appease it's anger. What do you do if you want to win the superbowl, or win the lottery or pass a math test? Just to make sure we are all paying attention. If you want to win the God who created all things, who is upset with you because your parents broke one rule, and you really want to make up for it, you give the first fruits of your labors, and you then can be restored into that God's good graces again, maybe he'll even let you back in the Garden. It was afterall just a little rule anyway.
There are so many literary examples of how ancient pagan religions work like that. The most famous is Homer's Iliad, where the priest of Apollo is offended in Book 1, and he prays to Apollo, saying, Apollo I have dedicated my life to you, I have given offerings, I have made sacrifices, I have spoken prayers, if any of those meant something to you, now is when I need you the most, I am asking that you punish those Greeks for their insult. And Apollo does, he rains down arrows on the Greek camp. The big question then, when you have a situation like this, is who is in control? Who is calling the shots? The human or the god? There is a sense that it is all a game where the human being pulls the strings, manipulates the more powerful god to perform the human will. Here though, in Genesis 4, as we have had so far in all the previous chapters, we see that this God, the God who baras, the God who speaks truth and it is, doesn't work like that. God doesn't play games. He doesn't set up systems that can be manipulated. Instead God simply is. So Cain is seeking to control God, and God isn't playing.
So that gets us to the big question, why Abel's and not Cain's, why is Abel's accepted? Isn't he out for the same thing? Why do we ask that question? I remember from seminary we spent a long time on this passage and read tons of different takes on why. So many of them were seeking to figure out the system, to figure out how God works, so that knowledge, which would be power could be given, if we could be like Abel instead of being like Cain then God will favor us too, that seemed to be the point but I found so many of them to be a stretch. Things like, well Cain's wasn't the best of his fruit, or that Cain was a farmer and God prefers animal herders, preferring the nomad over the planted person, that the nomad is somehow more dependent on God. All of these were trying to seek the way to live, to receive God's blessing, I think greatly missing the point.
What if we read this story with the knowledge about God that Jesus gives us, based on the Jesus revelation, and in the light of what we talked about last week. God is already there waiting for them to turn around. . . Adam and Eve, and now Cain and Abel, are still in the hide, blame mode, adding a new aspect: hide, blame, expiate, make amends, pay the fine, make yourself feel better by assuming responsibility, of course though you are only seeking to make up for it on your own terms. Anything more than that could really be dangerous, a slippery slope, a submitting to someone else's control, maybe more than you are willing to give. We wouldn't want to do that, but yet that is exactly what God wants, it's why we start the Lord's prayer with Thy Will be done. The offering of stuff just isn't enough, because there is no such thing. Remember we just don't understand how God works if we are trying to earn our place back. God shows up in the garden even after we disobeyed, and can see through our half hearted attempts to win his affection, and then we strike out against our brother, and destroy God's creation just a little more, God shows up then, too. When will we get it?
There are two more points I want make connected to this, I think really pushing this interpretation of the story further. One is the New Testament reading for today. Luke 11, one of the places in the New Testament where this story is referenced, and this the time where Jesus mentions it himself. Jesus says:
“Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. 47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. 48 So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.[2]

Why does Jesus say this, and what is he talking about? The slaying of the prophets, the placing of burdens too heavy to bear, people perishing between the altar and the sanctuary, and above all else lawyers. . . lawyers those system manipulators, is Cain the first lawyer, or is the snake? do you see all these images that Jesus is challenging? He is challenging this quid pro quo relationship between people and God where the priest and the lawyers are the middle men. You've been selling that God works this way, and I'm here to tell you that you are wrong, just as many of the prophets have said throughout the centuries, beginning with the first testimony of Abel. . . whose only prophetic action it seems is to be killed, a perfect witness to the fact that we don't get it, and Jesus is showing these lawyers that they don't get it still. . .  he closes with "you took the key of knowledge, but you didn't enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering." You got in the way! There need be nothing in the way, the key of knowledge is this: God is there simply turn.
And now returning to the story, look at how it ends. Cain is so sure that he has been forsaken by God. He is being told the consequences of his action, but he starts to worry that it is too much for him to bear. Of course it is, but it always has been, Cain is a little closer to getting it, to understanding the need for complete forgiveness, unearned grace. He says, "The punishment is more than I can bear." And at that point God puts on him his mark, he will not be touched. Forsaken not at all, God still shows up. And will continue. Lay down the burden you carry, there is no limit, there is no such thing as too much, there is no such thing as enough, there just is the God who created everything, turn to Him and begin life. It's so simple, and yet so hard for to accept. God give us the faith. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 4:8-16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 11:46-51). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.