Monday, May 8, 2017

When God says, “Not So.”
 sermon by Ann Pittman Zarate
Text: Genesis 4

4 Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced[a] a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller 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 for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, 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 countenance fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 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.”

8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.”[b] 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![c] 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,[d] east of Eden.

17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. 18 To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael the father of Methushael, and Methushael the father of Lamech. 19 Lamech took two wives; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22 Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

23 Lamech said to his wives:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
    you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
    a young man for striking me.
24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
    truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

25 Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, for she said, “God has appointed[e] for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him.” 26 To Seth also a son was born, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.
Leave it to the brand new senior pastor of First Baptist Church to assign the the story about two sons fighting and killing each other to the pregnant lady. Thank you, Griff. Kate Spencer Lyle texted me the other day, “Wow, you’re preaching while pregnant? That’s gonna be emotional. Maybe instead of singing in your sermons you’ll be known for crying?” Leave it to my former FBC college kids to keep me humble.

The good news is, I love this text. Not just this one. As the Adkins, Valentines, Strickland, Norris, Greaves, and Avant kids will tell you, I love the Old Testament. And more specifically, I love the Hebrew scripture of Genesis. It’s right up there with To Kill A Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Little Prince.

As Griff reminded us last week, Genesis one starts off with a swirl of action. With just one word, God sets the world in motion creating order out of chaos, the story perfectly mirrored by the poetic and priestly language of worship found in Genesis One. I love how Griff explained the poem via it’s verbs… Created, separated, spoke, saw, named, blessed, and rested.

Genesis two and following has a different rhetoric however. This author’s strategy for describing God and creation focuses less on how powerful God is and more on how loving and how near to us God is. The text anthropomorphizes God who in this creation story walks in the garden. Heavenly hands dig in mud and God isn’t afraid to get dirty. Halfway through this creation story and we realize “it was good” probably isn’t going to be a refrain we sing. We read about loneliness and a God trying to make companions like animals and a woman for the first human whom God desperately wants to be happy. There aren’t just forests, but good trees and a bad tree. There’s a talking animal who uses manipulation to get what he wants. Genesis two’s creation story stands in direct contrast to the systematic, intentional, and good Genesis one.

And of course, you know the rest of the story, right? After a game of telephone from God to Adam, Adam to Eve, and Eve to the serpent, Eve eats some fruit, Adam joins her in juicy deliciousness, and they are thrown out of the garden for disobeying God. Adam has to work the fields, Eve has to painfully give birth to new life, and sure enough, their first child is born, followed by a second. The brothers grow old enough to choose their own vocations, Cain taking after his father in agriculture, and Abel starting a new business in animal husbandry. One brother’s a farmer and one’s a rancher.

And cue sibling rivalry.

At eight years old, the youngest Pittman daughter announced she would not be doing theatre. She performed in Fiddler on the Roof in the historic Missouri Theatre and when it finished its run, the precocious little thing announced that she was done. She had two older sisters in theatre and after one show herself, she decided she would have none of it. To this day, Emily still won’t let my parents put the adorable picture of her in Anatevka up on the wall next to the rest of the family’s theatre memories. If Ann and Amy were going to be in plays and musicals, Emily was going to play tennis. The end. Except sibling rivalry never seems to end no matter how grown up we become.

So the competition begins. Cain tills the soil to produce crops just like dad. Abel also needs land, but he uses it to tend sheep. As such, Genesis 4:5 indicates a farmer versus herdsman mentality. Later, when Cain establishes the first city in 4:17 it may indicate an urban versus rural rivalry. And without reading the rest of the book, you can probably already guess which vocation the Israelites adopted as well.

Much of Genesis 1-11, which is known as “pre-history,” could be described as etiology. Etiology is the study of why things exist and it can be both scientific and mythological both of which carry their own elements of truth. In other words, when a kid asks a parent, “Why does everyone in our family grow up to sheer sheep?” the answer might be “Once upon a time there were two brothers…”
Or “Mom, why don’t snakes have arms or legs?” - “Once upon a time there was a garden…”
Or “Grandpa, where do rainbows come from?” - “Once upon a time there was a flood…”

But back to the story. The brothers choose vocations and the seeds of sibling rivalry are planted. But the competition escalates when for some reason the brothers decide they need to make an offering to God. Remember, we’re at the beginning of the Israelites story. We’re in pre-history. We’re only in chapter four in the first of 39 books. There’s been no Sinai at this point. No law. No Temple. No rules about sacrifices to God or worship guidelines. But the two men make an offering: Cain gives something he grew, Abel gives a firstling of his flock.

And God plays favorites praising Abel’s offering.

Oh man was that a bad idea. The Pittman parents can tell you. You never praise one daughter without having something good to say about the other two. Lord. Obviously God missed the Parenting 101 class offered seventh period right after Home Ec.

Clearly, the favoring of his brother upsets Cain. So God confronts Cain about his sunken countenance and warns him to mind his P’s and Q’s. But Cain invites Abel to go into a field, they fight, Abel dies, and again God confronts Cain who responds with the now iconic, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

When looking at a Hebrew text, I like to head to the original interpreters to perhaps get a feel for how the Jews and dare I say Jesus would have heard this story. Just as Christians have Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, and Jen Hatmaker, the Jews had their rabbis who wrote about the Hebrew texts. Their interpretations of the stories were collected in what’s called a Midrash.

Rather than exploring the etiological “why are we herdsman?” questions, the Midrash raises the questions “why do we fight? why do we go to war?” One answer we’ve already covered - we fight over land and property, and the second should be right behind it - we fight over religion[1] and what we think God likes best.

Fortunately, here in America we’ve matured to the point that we no longer fight about land, property, or religion, so we’ll just keep right on digging into this text.

The Midrash offered one interpretation that focuses less on the why and more on the conversation afterwards. Look at the infamous verse 9. The word that Cain uses for the pronoun “I” in “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is the word “Anokhi.” The first person pronoun usually used by people is “ani,” but Cain uses “anokhi” a rather uncommon word. In fact, one of the few times “anokhi” is used in the Bible is in Exodus 20 at the beginning of the 10 commandments, “Anokhi the Lord your God” I am the Lord your God with anokhi denoting the uniqueness of God.

Thus the rabbis understand Cain’s use of the word ‘Anokhi’ here not as first person singular, but as another name for God. In other words, Cain doesn’t ask “Am I my brother’s keeper,” but rather “Isn’t God the guardian of my brother?”

Here we have perhaps the first person to raise the question of theodicy - can God and evil co-exist? Was it not God who was tasked with protecting Abel?

Was it not God who failed?

Eve didn’t know what death was when she argued with the serpent. Is it fair to said that Cain did? In this interpretation Cain switches the devil-made-me-do-it argument around and actually blames God! You planted the evil in me. You didn’t protect Abel. You’re responsible.[2] Not to pin the blame on the invisible God in the room, but this interpretation raises a question we’ve all asked.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

But God is having none of that argument and like his parents, Cain is cast out. The family of four brutally became a family of three and is finally back to a family of two. Mom and dad. Alone.

But like any good firstborn child, Cain isn’t going without a fight. “You can’t do this to me! Haven’t you heard of capital punishment?! They’re going to kill me! Do I not matter to you at all?” he laments at God. 

Of course, if you’re trying to read the Bible literally, you should give up now and go home. The Bible’s truth-telling is much more sophisticated than science or history: it’s storytelling. As if two different creation stories weren’t evidence enough, any eight year old who can read from left to right would respond to Cain’s lament with, “I’m sorry, but… what people?”

We must set aside our need for facts and embrace our need for truth.
That’s the great part about Judaism - Jesus’ religion - one story can have multiple meanings… and all of them can be true. That’s why Jesus never answered a theological question with an ontological truth statement. Instead, he told stories. Not just stories, parables. Somehow in the 2000 years since Christ, Christianity has managed to lose that beautiful part of the Judeo-Christian story. Told in its entirety, that story is a tradition of so many stories, and so many truths inside them.

This is gospel. It is literature. Genesis chapter one was poetic liturgy. Chapters two through four is storytelling. And it is in this story that we learn about what is perhaps the most beautiful and poignant truth about God.

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 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.”

God’s response?

“Not so.”

And then the hand of God reached out like in the iconic Michelangelo painting of Cain’s dad and God put a mark on Cain.

God marked Cain, “mine.” Safe. Protected. Do Not Disturb. Seat’s taken.

Hollywood got it wrong. Even the Indigo Girls got it wrong.[3] The mark of Cain is not a curse.

It’s the ultimate sign of grace. Of hope.

It’s the first act of amnesty.
It’s the first of a lot of things.

It’s the first story of the preference of God for a younger child to an older child (soon to follow is a preference of Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, and Joseph over his 11 brothers).

Cain has been called everything from the first ginger (thank you Shakespeare) to the first black person (thank you white supremacists).

But my favorite first is the grace God pours on Cain. I was reminded of God’s narrative which is told over and over in the Bible while watching the X-Men movie Days of Future Past. In it Charles Xavier says, “Just because someone stumbles and loses their path, doesn't mean they're lost forever.” That is biblical truth. And to make sure Cain gets the message, God gives him a mark. And he gives him back his life.  

It’s a motif that repeats all the way to the gospels. It doesn’t matter what you do or who you are. Whether you’re a foreigner named Ruth or a disciple named Peter or a Pharisee named Saul… there’s always hope. Dying to self, we each are resurrected to walk in the newness of life. Every. Single. Day.

And thank God because the world is getting darker and darker. I can hardly read the news anymore in order to preserve the health of my baby and my own sanity. The people we put in power to protect us are killing us. They’re shooting our black children. They’re taking away our health care. They’re putting semi-automatic weapons into the hands of criminals and people with mental health issues. And we’re letting them do it. We’re culpable too. We participate in a system of have and have nots. Never mind the gap between the billionaires and the homeless people. What about the gap between the millionaires and the lower middle class? I remember when Steve Mines and I took the FBC college kids to work at an orphanage in Temuco, Chile. The people who ran the home drove us around town one day to show us the “depth” of Chile’s disparity. They drove us through the shanties where children and adults alike lived in cardboard boxes and make-shift dwellings. And then they drove us to the other side of town and pointed out the huge houses. “Have you ever seen anything so big?” the guides asked, and I watched my students swallow hard and struggle to answer. Those “huge houses” were no bigger than 1500-2000 square feat and all but maybe one or two of us lived in houses much larger than that back in Austin.

If Cain could get angry enough to kill his brother whom we assume he loved, what will we do - what have we done - to people we know nothing about? Every time we cheat on our taxes or take the easy way out, is that one more unfilled pothole in the road? One more unfixed leak in the roof of an East Austin school? Every time we vote for tax breaks on the rich, what is the cost to someone further down the line? Every time we buy a 48 pack of bottled water, what does that cost the environment? And if you think we as a culture and cops in particular aren’t targeting black boys and men, you’re just in denial.

No one gets bragging rights when it comes to righteousness and God. When I was a teenager and read a lot of Max Lucado books I remember he used jumping as a metaphor for righteousness. It’s always stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but Lucado said, “just because some guy is prison can only jump three inches and you with all your good deeds can jump three feet high doesn’t put either of you at an advantage when your goal is the moon.” 

And that means that even if the most unpopular person in America whether from your perspective that’s Donald Trump or Stephen Colbert were to turn to God right now in lamentation and cry out, “My punishment is more than I can bear, I shall be hidden from God’s face!” They would hear God’s response, “Not so.”

That’s the divine nature of the gospel. I’d leave that door shut myself, but God says “not so.” Anyone who knocks, gets to come inside.

Not so. No one can separate you from the love of God through Christ Jesus. No matter what you do and no matter what others do to you.

Several weeks ago my husband and I were invited to New York to have some conversations about our work in Colorado on the National Winter Playwrights Retreat. As I tried to decide which of the amazing shows on Broadway I wanted to see during our down time, I texted Griff, Sarah, and Jared. The latter sarcastically suggested Spider Man. Sarah voted for Sunday In the Park with George starring Jake Gyllenhaal. But Griff said, “Dear Evan Hanson. You HAVE to go see Dear Evan Hanson.” And because it’s been getting great reviews, and because Griff is my new boss, Dear Evan Hanson tickets were purchased.

Evan Hanson, played flawlessly by Ben Platt, is a teenager with social anxiety disorder who tells a lie that quickly escalates from being told to a classmate’s family to circulating the whole school to “going viral” on social media.

Towards the end of the play as Evan begins to see the damage he’s caused, he sings a song of lamentation called “Words fail.” I imagine his sentiment resonates in the heart of anyone afraid they screwed up enough that the face of God will turn away.

“I’d rather pretend I’m something better than these broken parts. Pretend I’m something other than this mess that I am. Cause then I don’t have to look at it. And no one gets to look at it. No, no one can really see. Cause I’ve learned to slam on the brake before I’ve even turn the key. Before I make a mistake. Before I leave with the worst of me. I never let them see the worst of me. Cause what if everyone saw? What if everyone knew? Would they like what they saw or would they hate it too? Well I just keep on running away from what’s true. All I ever do is run. So how do I step in… step into the sun? Step into the sun.”

[1] Breishit Rabbah 22:7
[2] Midrash Tanhuma
[3] “Become You” by Amy Ray performed by Indigo Girls, 2002.


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