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A Sabbatical Plan

March 1, 2021

So, I’ve been serving the White Plains Presbyterian Church now for ten years. I had plans for a sabbatical last fall that had to be set aside because of CoVID. Now, while worship and gatherings of the congregation are still online, I have a new plan and will be on sabbatical after easter and through the end of June. Here is the initial sketch of how I will use this time. I begin by quoting The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Why We Can’t Wait (1964)

For too long the depth of racism in American life has been underestimated. The surgery necessary to extract it is necessarily complex and detailed. As a beginning it is necessary to X-ray our history and reveal the full extent of the disease . . .

Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society . .

From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial superiority. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it . . .

It is this tangled web pf prejudice from which many Americans now seek to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait

My original sabbatical plan was built upon Dr. King having said “we live in a world house.” I wanted to go experience some of the corners of this world house from which members of White Plains Presbyterian Church have come – to experience the land, the peoples, the cultures, and the worship that informs our life together here. If that can be thought of as one side of a coin, this current sabbatical plan is the other side of the coin. It is built upon Dr. King’s invitation to x-ray the necessarily complex and detailed history that disfigures our society, and to reject and feel the shame deeply woven into our consciousness.

I plan to use the first part of my sabbatical to walk the Potawatomi Trail of Death (the ‘other’ Trail of Tears) from Twin Lakes, Indiana to Osawatomie, Kansas. In September of 1838, Chief Menominee and his people were forced at the point of bayonet to walk 660 miles and relocate to Kansas. 39 died along the way, many of them children. Their removal made possible the sale of land in northern Indiana and the adjacent region of Illinois – regions that were subsequently settled by my recent immigrant Irish, Scots, German and Swiss ancestors. My paternal great grandfather was born in Fair Oaks, Indiana and my maternal great grandfather was born in Monee, Illinois. As I walk, I will consider my own complex and detailed history in settler colonialism. I intend to spend time in both Fair Oaks and Monee after my walk, tracing lines of complicity and responsibility, and what repentance and reparation might entail. The capstone of the sabbatical will a two-week intensive course taught by Katerina Friesen called “Decolonizing Discipleship” at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. 

This is hard but important work, as Dr. King reminds us. And it is work that white people, in particular, must do themselves, as poet Audre Lorde said long ago. The term ‘decolonizing discipleship’ emerged during the Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute on “Indigenous Justice and Christian Faith” that I participated in two years ago in California. The organizers have just published Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization. This will be my guide in doing my own work. 

I have already received support for the walk from Shirley Willard (Fulton County Historical Society), George Godfrey (President of the Potawatomi Trail Association, with an invitation to stay in his home), and Katerina Friesen (who organizes a bi-annual pilgrimage along the trail). There are PC(USA) congregations in many of the towns I will walk through, as well as my alma mater, Millikin University (Decatur, Il), a Presbyterian-related college. In my four years of study, I was never confronted with the history of dispossession, even though one native woman and two children died there.

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By the Light of the Silvery Moon

February 24, 2021

This is a sermon preached for the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement and the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute during the 2018 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Where in the second paragraph you encounter the word “sound” in quotations, I did my very best imitation of an oropendola (really impossible to imitate). You can hear one here.

Exodus 15:1-21     Psalm 118:5-7, 10-24     Romans 8:12-27     Mark 5:21-43

It was August, and the early afternoon sun bore down on our group as we made our brief journey from the Bamboo Chapel on the campus of Biblical University of Latin American in Costa Rica over to the large, rather ugly, glass building where we were to gather to read Laudato Si and reflect on its message together with students from the Church of God in Peru, The Baptist Church in Cuba, and an unaffiliated theologian from Bolivia.  You see I was among twelve Presbyterians who had journeyed to Costa Rica and Guatemala to meet with indigenous people who were defending their land and water rights from corporations and to discern where God might be leading the Presbyterian Church to bear witness.  The Biblical University was host and touchstone on our trip – an ecumenical Christian wellspring where we could replenish, share, and explore together.  

We had just departed from the pretty Bamboo Chapel at a clip, our twenty-four feet, clad in hiking boots from our morning visit to the local watershed, pattering along the blacktop path on our way to meet up with our ecumenical colleagues, when suddenly “Sound”.  We stopped and looked all around “Sound” What was that?  “Sound”  “Sound” Our eyes darted one way and then the next, scanning the path, then the bushes, then the trees, then the tallest tops of the trees.  “Sound. Sound”  How could something that was invisible to our eyes be making such a loud sound?!  We searched “Sound” “Sound” and searched and searched and then (pause) there, nestled in the topmost branches, “Sound”, was an Oropendola, a plump tropical bird with a sleek black body, an orange beak and bright yellow tail feathers, making the most extraordinary sound – “Sound” — a shout, a wail, a laugh, a groan?!  We paused to enjoy it; to wonder what it was trying to say to us; it was so loud there was one thing for certain: There was no ignoring its cry.

The gospel story we just heard from Mark reminds us to pay particular attention to the moments of interruption, when we are invited to see someone we have overlooked or stop to be with someone we were going to pass by.  Be they sister, brother, or … bird.

I want to thank the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement and the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute for inviting me to preach and participate in your marking of the 2018 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I actually think quite a bit about both the unity and the diversity of the Christian Church because the Presbyterian congregation I serve in White Plains is multi-racial and multi-ethnic, with members from more than 30 nations and from nearly every continent, and with mission partners around the world. We represent in our own congregation a diversity of world communions who all find a shared home in the Reformed Tradition and Presbyterian Church. The members of my church who grew up in the black, African and African-American church traditions frequently also worship with those congregations as well.  And many of our members for whom English is a second language, maintain fellowship with ethnic congregations nearby where they can worship in their native Lebanese or Gujarat or Swahili.  

Our worship is a wellspring for confronting what we have named the three deadly challenges of our day: climate change, systemic racism and persistent inequality. We respond to these deadly challenges with a vocation to care for the earth, to love our neighbor, and seek God’s kingdom for all. This evening I share my thoughts on how we do this.

John 3:16 is a good summary of the good news we share.

For God so loved the world 
that God gave God’s only begotten son 
so that whosoever believeth in him 
shall not perish
but have eternal life.

We often think this message of good news is about us, but, it is about the whole world. 

Christ came into the world not because God loved us, human beings, but because God loved, and loves the world. The Greek word here is kosmos – the whole creation that God made and called good.[i]

This includes what Paul calls “all things visible and invisible”, and what the Creed describes as “all that is – seen and unseen.”[ii] God loves the world, the water, earth and sky; the creatures swimming, walking, crawling and flying. We are a part of that world.  God loves all things living and growing, and all things dying and decaying, all things, intimately, tenderly, without condition.

In scripture, 

the animals glorify God by being animals, and the trees by being trees,
even the rocks proclaim the glory of God; 
all God has made speaks of God, all nature sings, 
and all creation groans for the fulfillment of God’s purposes.

God loves creation for its own sake, not just for its role in sustaining human life, and God became flesh, incarnate in world, so that all flesh, all creation might be saved and enjoy eternal life. The idea here is a very Hebrew one – taken right from Genesis. God made the first human, the adam, from the earth, the adamah. This word-play works in English too, a human being is one made from the humus, the earth, and our proper vocation is one of humility, of being grounded, of knowing our proper place in God’s creation. We might also say that God so loved the world that God became earthly so that all the earth would be saved.[iii]

I think our efforts to unite more closely as Christians, would benefit from “paying attention” to such “earthly things.” 

In our passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we notice that it is the whole creation that is groaning for redemption. That means us, but it means us-as-part-of-world, and other non-human creatures, the trees and fish and seas and air, all that God has created groans for liberation. It means that God loves the horse, and the star, as much as God loves us. God loves the rivers that flow as much as God loves the newborn baby. In the Biblical vision, while people have a special role to care for creation, to serve and preserve it, we are not separate from creation but rather a part of it.[iv]

And so in Romans, when all of creation is groaning, that means we human beings are groaning, longing, not only for our world but for ourselves; and it means that all the earth is groaning, longing, for release so that it can be what it was created to be.[v]

As Thomas Merton famously said:                      

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying God. It “consents,” so to speak, to [God’s] creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”                   

The key to Christin unity is becoming who we are. Through our baptism, we are incorporated into God’s New Humanity, recalled to our higher purpose and our responsible place in this world, set free so that we might set others free – even the earth itself. Three realities meet in the sacrament – the non-human creation, the human community, and the divine – all yearning together for the fullness of our redemption. We see it at the font: the substance of water – the essential element, for water is life – on a human forehead, as a sign of divine action – for the healing of the world; a world of which we are a part.

What might it mean for us to consider, as part of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, what it means for us to be simultaneously at one with, in unity, with the earth in which we live.  To take seriously and intentionally the way, as Christians, we understand ourselves as part of creation, groaning with that creation?  This was the challenge put before us by Pope Francis in Laudato Si. What might it change in how we see one another?  In how we go about our call to work together to steward and heal the earth?  In the ways we spend our time and take the time to notice life all around us?  In the ways we stop at a bird’s cry?  Or allow ourselves to be diverted from the task that is very much at hand.

While I was finishing up this sermon on Monday, my son’s Jackson Chameleon, named Norway, fell ill.  Norway started looking distressed on Sunday morning, but a warm bath and shower seemed to restore him. However, by the time school let out on Monday, his eyes were sunken, he was hardly moving, and we were clearly headed to the vet. For the next three hours we sub-cutaneous hydrated this five-inch reptile, feeding it vitamins and protein by syringe, and giving him more baths and a lot of love. On Tuesday morning I spent two hours giving Norway water by hand, and by the afternoon he was looking much better.  As Norway clung to my hand, as I pried open his mouth gently to give him his medicine, as I felt the slender weight of his body tighten nervously and then, relax with the influx of the liquid, as I watched his bright green coloring quickly develop ornery dark green spots and then slowly, release back to a contented bright green, as his three horns gently poked at my wrist and his eyes closed then opened and surveyed as far as each could see, there was a kind of unity – a focus – a shared purpose and connection, fostered by caring and receiving care.  We were part of the same creaturely continuum – our survival is entwined; our liberation is entwined.

We live in a time of unprecedented and dramatic climate change, persistent poverty, and global connection.  Reading Romans in this context, biblical scholar Robert Jewett summarizes Romans 8 in this way

 “The hope of God the Creator is that liberated human beings will in turn liberate the creation that has suffered the ravages of [our] exploitation and devastation. But that, Paul attests, will occur only when God’s sons and daughters have begun to act in accordance with the paradox of [our baptismal] identity as participants in God’s New Humanity who are being what they have become and are becoming what we already are” as children of God and stewards of creation.[vi]

What does it mean both to be a part of creation and its steward?  I think it means as Christians we must unite and pledge to future generations that starting right now we will live responsibly on God’s earth, that we will dedicate our lives to correcting those natural, corporate and human systems that have placed our planet and its people in such precarity, and to raise our youngest generation of Christians to do likewise. 

Each of us must explore what such a life of responsibility and care together might look like.  In my congregation at White Plains Presbyterian we decided we would not only divest our congregation’s financial investments from fossil fuels but also invest ourselves in renewable energy: four months ago, we installed 167 solar panels on the roof of our education building and our chapel to capture the energy of the sun and convert it into electricity. We flipped the switch and turned them on during the Feast of Saint Francis, dedicating them Christ who causes light to shine in the darkness.  As 5-year-old Julia put it: God gives to us the free gift of sunlight, and we turn it into energy for the world. 

By getting our energy directly from the sun, rather than burning fossil fuels, we will be saving 48,000 pounds of CO2 emissions a year, the equivalent of taking five cars off the road every year or preserving 3.5 acres of trees. For those more financially minded, it’s a savings of more than $12,000 a year. The solar panels will pay for themselves in a little more than seven years and will, over the life of the panels, yield an almost 14% return on investment. And a little short-term gratification has come in the form of our congregation’s Con Edison bills in October and November were $0.

Solar energy is not just a green thing to do, or good thing to do, or a financially sound thing to do. The Apostle Paul would have us see it in the largest terms possible, as nothing less than the arrival of the Sons and Daughters of God, participating in God’s work of redeeming the world, learning again the rhythms of earthly life.

Did you know that electricity came to much of the Hudson River Valley during the 1880s? White Plains installed street lights for the first time in 1888, the same year our chapel was built to serve as the home for a community of Protestant Italian immigrants. The City of White Plains in that year signed a contract with a local utility to provide electricity for the lights 20 days a month. I stumbled when I first read that. Why only 20 days a month?  What do you think? (invite responses).  A hint.  It had to do with the moon.

Stores and shops along Main Street in White Plains, what was then called Railroad Avenue, used to keep extended hours on those nights when people could see by the natural light of the moon. Nightlife had a rhythm. Electric lights “from twilight to midnight, when there is no moon, or when the moon is obscured by storms and clouds” made possible new kinds of community but at the loss of the fundamental experience of night. All human experience until then involved certain rhythms of day and night, light and dark, a small but daily reminder to our place in a much larger world not our own. Pope Francis called “our common home” and called us to be united in our care for it. For this I pray.

At the very end of scripture, in the Book of Revelation, there is an image of a Green City, because any sustainable future will require sustainable cities. The trees-whose-leaves-are-for-the-healing-of-the-nations in a New Jerusalem are part of an urban greenway made possible by a river. The orchard along the banks provides abundant food year-round. Land and labor are liberated from futility. And when Christ finally appears, he appears as part of the non-human creation, as the Lamb of God, an animal himself, and “a whole chorus of animals, sea creatures and creatures under the earth burst into songs of praise.” (5:13). All creation, Paul tells us, has been waiting for this moment, when God’s home will again be on earth, “dwelling with creation and renewing it.”

My friends, “God’s work in creation is too wonderful, too ancient, too beautiful, too good to be desecrated. Restoring creation is God’s own work in our time, in which God comes both to judge and to restore.”[vii] Let us embrace in our prayers for Christian unity the widest possible understanding of our baptismal identity as Christians, that we may and take up God’s work in our time. This will be the sign of Christ alive among us, and Christ’s people made one.


[i] The Gospel of John uses kosmos, while Paul speaks of he ktisis groaning. In that context he ktisis can only mean non-human creation. See Sigve Tonstad, Paul Among the Ecologists, p. 242ff.

[ii] The Nicene Creed, adopted in 325, Article 1.

[iii] For an accessible introduction to these ideas, see Patricia Tull, Inhabiting Eden: Christians, The Bible, and the Ecological Crisis. (Westminster John Knox, 2013).

[iv] Robert Jewett, “The Corruption and Redemption of Creation: Reading Rom. 8:13-23 within the Imperial Context” in Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, edited by Richard Horsley (Trinity Press International, 2004).

[v] On exegetical grounds, Sigve Tonstad argues that “Non-human creation is subject, not object, speaking as a sentient being that is capable of experiencing suffering and expressing hope.” Paul Among the Ecologists, p. 243. For a compelling articulation of what it might look like to take this seriously, see Beastly Morality: Animals as Ethical Agents, edited by Jonathan K. Crane. (Columbia, 2016). 

[vi] Herman C. Waetjen, The Letter to the Romans: Salvation as Justice and the Destruction of the Law. (Sheffield, 2011). p. 219-220.

[vii] From “Call to Restore the Creation.” Adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1990.

“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” – The Trial of Cain

October 24, 2020

The Rev. Noelle Damico and I wrote this play back in 2000, when I was deeply immersed in the trajectories of the Cain and Abel narrative in literature, drama, culture and art. This text is a touchstone to which I have returned again and again. The play was first performed by the high school youth group of the Setauket Presbyterian Church, and has been studied by the youth of the White Plains Presbyterian Church throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter racial uprising, and the climate crisis. Their Zoom-like presentation of the play can be found HERE. (link coming soon).

The WPPC Youth Group presents The Trial of Cain Zoom-style

The action begins with the Court T.V. Anchor, standing center stage.

Court T.V. Anchor:  (Sounding like a People’s Court Announcer) Welcome to Bible Court. The case we are about to hear is a tragic story of brother vs. brother that resulted in murder. While the full story has not been told, Cain appears to have risen up against his brother and killed him. However, he seems never to have received the punishment some think he has coming. The prosecution will make the case that his punishment should be increased, while Cain’s attorney will argue that there is more than enough guilt to go around. (Pause) The case of “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”

But first, let’s hear the original story as recorded in our court documents.

Court Recorder:  Reading from the documents collected by the Scribes of King David’s Court almost three thousand years ago. Genesis, chapter 4.

[read the story from the NRSV]

Judge:  Let’s proceed with opening arguments. We will hear from the prosecution first.                                                     

Opening Arguments

The Prosecuting Attorney and Defense Attorney always stand when speaking.

Prosecution: Your Honor, we ask: should we let Cain walk so easily from what is arguably the worst crime ever perpetrated – killing ones own brother. Cain murdered his younger brother in cold blood and then tried to cover it up. We present evidence that he planned his crime, knew the full consequences of his anger and murderous intent, and tried to cover up his crime to avoid punishment. We will charge Cain with destruction of an entire way of life. He destroyed the possibility of righteous life on earth by depriving us of the pious descendants of Abel. We will further argue that God’s treatment of Cain is a demonstration of God’s over-generous character as judge which, by letting sin often go unpunished, is the source of so many of the problems in our world.

Defense: Your Honor, in his defense, we will ask the court to hear the story from Cain’s perspective. We believe that a full understanding of our client will lead to a reduced sentence. We ask: “Why did God, who treated Adam and Eve’s seemingly minor offense with such severity, let Cain off so easily? God’s sympathy and Cain’s reduced sentence suggest that Cain is not entirely at fault. We will argue that God may have been partly to blame for Cain’s crime by provoking the young man’s anger, and by failing to take action to prevent the crime when God saw it coming. God knew better than Cain what was coming. We think Cain’s crime was part of God’s larger plan to create the world, and it was a necessary violence which God is avoiding responsibility for by letting Cain take the rap.

Making the Case: THE PROSECUTION

Prosecution’s First Argument: Cain is deserving of a more severe punishment because when Cain killed Abel, he deprived all of us of the pious ancestors of Abel Witnesses: 21st Century Descendant of Cain and Adam / Eve

Judge: Bailiff, swear in the witnesses. 

Bailiff: Please state your name for the record: (each replies in turn)

  • Dr. Deborah, from Harvard
  • (With arms around one another) Adam and Eve
  • Dr. Friedman, family systems therapist
  • The Ground, eyewitness
  • I’m God’s attorney, and I’ll be speaking for God.

Bailiff: (Witnesses raise their right arm) Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?

All: I do. (God continues to say) so help me me!

Judge: Prosecution, call your first witness.

Prosecution: We call a 21st century descendant of Cain, Dr. Deborah from the Harvard School of Public Health. (21st Century Descendant takes the stand)

Prosecution: (Addressing the jury) We’d like to begin by setting some context for this trial. (Addressing the Doctor) Dr. Deborah, when Cain killed his brother Abel, he deprived all future generations of the righteous descendants of God’s favored child. As a result, we here today are all descendants of Cain, the first murderer. Can you tell us where this unavenged crime has led us in three thousand years.

Dr. Deborah: Yes thank you. We are a country that’s infatuated with violence. Some of us are in love with violence or addicted to it. We celebrate it. We’re entertained by it. We run to read about it, to see it. We encourage children sometimes to fight. We don’t want a wimp for a child. In a lot of ways, the cultural issues are as important as the family issues because even when a family is trying to give the right message, a child begins to learn, from outside that family, different messages. As I travel across the country, one thing I see pretty universally among American children is an admiration for violence. (Quoted from Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Conversation (1996) p. 58)

Prosecution: Do you think this could be because we are all descendants of a murderer who got away with it?

Dr. Deborah:             That could be correct.

Prosecution: So by killing Abel, Cain set human history on a foundation of violence and rivalry which we are bound to repeat in every generation.

Dr. Deborah: It certainly seems that way.

Prosecution: Thank you.

Defense: I’m sorry, Dr., but don’t we all bear some responsibility for our own actions? God seems to have suggested when speaking with Cain that we are all able to avoid or resist the sin crouching at the door. Just because he killed his brother, Cain can’t be held responsible for everything that happens afterward.

Prosecution: (Addressing the defense) So you admit that Cain is culpable.

Defense: (Responding to the prosecution) Only partially.

Judge: Thank you Dr. Deborah.

Prosecution: (Announcing to the Congregation loudly) The Prosecution calls Adam and Eve. (Adam / Eve take the stand)

Prosecution: (Addressing Adam, who is teary eyed) As a parent myself, I sympathize with your loss. When God punished Cain for his crime by banishing him from your homeland, you were left childless. But not forever. You and Eve had another child, (referring to notes) named Seth, I believe. Surely he was able to help provide for a healthy line of God-fearing descendants.

Adam: We tried to be fruitful and multiply, as God commanded us. But within seven generations Cain’s evil descendants had made such an evil mess of things that God scratched the whole plan and started over again with Noah after the flood. And who did God choose to start over with? Noah was a great, great, grandson of Cain. If only God had wiped out Cain to begin with, things might be a lot better now.

Defense Crosses: Eve, you and Adam were commanded to be fruitful and multiply. It’s easy to immortalize Abel and his descendants as “righteous” because they never had a chance to sin or to test their passions. But there is no guarantee they would have been any better. In fact, the boys seem only to have risen to your own expectations of them. In Hebrew, Cain means “to get” or “to possess,” and he certainly took matters into his own hands. And what does Abel mean. Please speak loudly so the jury can hear you.

Eve: (Sobbing) It means “puff of air,” (choke) a vanity, (sniff) a nothing.

Defense: (A bit cruelly) It’s very hard for children to rise above their parent’s expectations of them, isn’t it Nothing further.

Judge: Thank you Adam and Eve.

Prosecution’s Second Argument: Cain is deserving of more severe punishment because he covered up his crime to avoid punishment. Witnesses: The Ground; Psychologist; God’s Attorney

Prosecution: The prosecution calls “the ground” as a witness. (The Ground takes the stand)

Prosecution: Mr. Ground, you are the chief forensic evidence in this case. (Speaking to the jury) Once the soil was a friend of Cain’s, willingly bringing forth whatever Cain planted and tilled.  (Speaking to the witness) We know the special relationship farmers have with the land. Now you refuse to yield produce to Cain the farmer. What happened?

The Ground: I was the only witness to this crime. I and God (stares accusingly at God’s attorney). When Cain killed Abel, he left the dark stain of blood, the first blood, upon me. Then he dug me open to bury the body and asked me to hide the evidence of his crime. But I cried out to God. Neither of us had seen blood before, and were somewhat shocked. It was an ugly scene, one I hoped never to see again. How could I work with Cain after that? After he tried to make me an accessory to his murder? Do you blame me?

Def. Cross: (Addressing the judge and jury) We’re not denying Cain killed Abel.  No questions.

Judge: Thank you Ground

Prosecution: The prosecution calls “Dr. Friedman,” M.D., Ph.D, expert psychologist as a witness. (Dr. Friedman takes the stand)

Prosecution: Dr. Friedman, the jury has already read your “family work-up” in their court briefings. You seem to imply that this crime was the result of long standing family conflicts. 

Dr. Friedman: Yes, both parents seem quite prone to blame others for their own problems, and the boys seemed to have inherited this tendency. Abel assumed too much credit for his own success, and Cain too little responsibility for his own actions. Cain is guilty of his crime, and his attempt at covering it up with the rather lame “Am I my brother’s keeper?” does not absolve him of the consequences.

Defense Cross: Yet, Dr. Friedman, you also seem to imply that successful intervention in this family would begin with the parents, not the children. Wouldn’t an increased punishment for Cain only contribute to this family’s tendency to blame others rather than allowing all parties to assume their share of guilt and responsibility?

Dr. Friedman: As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Judge: Thank you Dr. Friedman.

Prosecution: The prosecution calls God as its final witness. (God’s attorney takes the stand.)

Prosecution: OK, God, why’d you let Cain off so easy?  The evidence is clear.  He murdered his brother.  He tried to cover up the murder.  This first murder led to a violent society that was deprived of the righteous progeny of Abel.

God: I will be merciful to whom I will be merciful.

Prosecution: You, yourself, told Cain that sin was crouching at his door.  If you knew that such sin and violence was about to be unleashed, why didn’t you intervene?  Why didn’t you prevent Cain from killing Abel?  

God: I tried to warn him. I said, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at your door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Prosecution: Yes. You know we’re pressing for a harder sentence than you delivered, given the severity of the crime and its immeasurable repercussions on human society.

God: I am who I am.  I will be who I will be.  I will be merciful to whom I will be merciful.

Defense cross: God, we appreciate you warning to our client, but why didn’t you warn Abel?

God: (God remains silent.)

Defense cross: (Addressing the Judge) Your Honor, How do we come to terms with a God who plays favorites? With a God Whose own preference turns brother against brother, making them enemies? A God Who is silent in the moment of violence? A God who just doesn’t give answers to these deep questions? (Moyers, p. 83).  

Judge: God, you may step down.

(The court erupts is confusion and protest – from the choir, we hope. Things are heard like “God didn’t answer the questions.” “He’s surely guilty.” “Why do we need to go on?” “He got what he had coming to him.” and other shouts and mumbles.)

MAKING THE CASE: THE DEFENSE

Defense’s Arguments: 

  • Cain’s murder of Abel was a necessary violence within God’s larger plan.  
  • Cain didn’t know he had committed a crime.
  • God’s sympathy judgment is due to it not being solely Cain’s fault. God saw it coming, God is avoiding besmirching God’s own character by letting Cain take the full blame.
  • Defense Witnesses: cain: God’s Attorney

Judge: (Bangs gavel) The Court will come to order. (When Ready) Defense, call your first witness.

Defense: The defense calls Cain to the stand. (Cain takes the stand and is sworn in)

Bailiff: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.

Cain: (Sorrowfully) I wish I’d had more help from God before. (Pause) I do.

Defense: Cain, God spoke to you.

Cain: Yes, some stupid words.  Don’t be angry.  That I hadn’t done well.  Don’t let sin get me..

Defense: Cain, why didn’t you heed God’s warning?

Cain: (Pleadingly) I didn’t understand.  I didn’t know what God was talking about – what was this objective evil, crouching outside me and yet poised to control me?  All I wanted was to know why God didn’t accept my offering.  Why didn’t you accept my offering God?  Why?!!

Defense: Let’s go back.

Cain: (Frightened and defensive) I don’t want to.

Defense: You were angry at God, and at Abel.

Cain: Yes.

Defense: You said, “Let’s go for a walk in the field…”

Cain: Yes.

Defense: But you were disoriented.

Prosecution: Objection!  Leading the witness.

Judge: I’ll allow it; goes to intention.  Over-ruled.  The witness will answer.

Defense: You were disoriented.

Cain: Yes.  All I could see was that altar.

Defense: (After a moment) Let’s talk about the sacrifices.

Cain: I still don’t understand.  I was completely alarmed.  I watched Abel kill his lamb.  Kill it!  It was an abomination this killing.  Nothing was to be killed in God’s garden.  I gave the produce, the fruit of life to God and yet God rejected my sacrifice.  God rejected me.  Me.  I wasn’t the one who first killed a living being, Abel did that.  It was horrible.  I was nauseated.

Defense: Is that what triggered your anger?

Cain: Triggered?  God, I don’t know.  I just reacted.  His smug face with that bloody sacrifice, that abomination of everything I knew, everything I believed.  And him, saying maybe my sacrifice wasn’t good enough.  Good enough?!!

Defense: What happened?

Cain: I can’t really remember.

Defense: Try.  Take it step by step.

Cain: I say, “Let’s go for a walk” and as we’re walking all I can see is that image of Abel’s altar, the sacrifice is pouring blood.  I see Abel pointing, pridefully, jeering that my offering is not acceptable.  I go to the altar, I wipe my produce off the rocks with one hand.  I pick up the sacrificed lamb and throw it to the ground.  My hands are covered in its blood.  I’m screaming and screaming and I hear him screaming and screaming and then…silence.

Defense: Silence.

Cain: Silence.  The agony is over.  Then I look.  Abel is lying on the ground.  I am covered in blood.

Defense: (Looks at prosecution)  Your witness.

Pros Cross: So you don’t deny killing your brother.

Cain: No.

Pros Cross: And you feel your behavior was justified?

Cain: I don’t know.

Pros Cross: You don’t know.  This boy who you played with, your only childhood companion, the one who knew you better than anyone (Cain begins to sob) you killed in cold blood.

Cain: No!

Pros Cross: Cold blood!

Cain: No!  You don’t understand!  He had committed an abomination!

Pros Cross: The only abomination he committed was pointing out your chintzy sacrifice.  Was pointing out your pride.  Was pointing out your inadequacy!

Cain: No!  No!

Pros Cross: Cain, God talked to you directly, didn’t God?

Cain: Yes.

Pros Cross: God speaking directly to an individual…now wouldn’t you agree that is a rather rare occurrence?

Cain: I wouldn’t know.

Pros Cross: It is.

Cain: OK, so what?

Pros Cross: So what?  The Holy One decides to offer you a warning and you didn’t heed it.

Cain: I didn’t understand.

Pros Cross: Give me a break.  God told you to master sin.  To realize that if you did well you’d be accepted.

Cain:  But that’s just it!  I did do well.  My sacrifice was the fruit of my labor.  What was wrong with it?

Pros Cross: That’s not the point.

Cain: Yes it is.  What was wrong God?  Why are you so arbitrary?  Why?!  (Whole courtroom breaks out, agreeing with Cain’s accusation with shouts of support)

Judge: Order!  Order in the court! (Bangs gavel)

Pros Cross: God warned you.  You went ahead and killed Abel and then tried to cover up your crime.

Cain: No.

Pros Cross: And I quote “Then the Lord God said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ And Cain said ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” Do you deny saying these words?

Cain: (Defeated) No.

Pros Cross: So you did cover up your deed

Defense: Objection: self-incrimination

Judge: Over-ruled, I’ll allow it.  The witness will answer the question.

Cain: Yes.  I covered it up.

Pros Cross: You only cover up those things you think you’ve done wrong.  Your very act of covering up the crime conclusively proves not only your crime, but that you knew what you had done.  No further questions.

Cain: I didn’t know what I had done

Judge: The witness will step down.

Cain: Somebody listen – I didn’t know.  I was scared.  God set me up!

Judge: (Banging the gavel) The jury will disregard the witness’ last statement.  Mr. Cain step down now or we will have you forcibly removed.

Defense: The Defense calls God to the stand. (God’s attorney takes the stand)

Defense: Your Holiness, you saw this coming. You could see the struggles going on within Cain, enough so that you felt you needed to give him a warning, to cool off, to control his anger. We have already established that Cain might not have fully understood your warning, never having experienced death before. And we’re troubled by the fact that the occasion for rivalry between the brothers was essentially a religious one. It’s not fair for God to create a bad situation and then demand that we rise above it. Cain may have made some poor judgments in this case, sinning terribly, but he had limited knowledge. Yet you, knowing human hearts as you do, watched this unfold without intervening. Why is that?

God: As of that time, if you will remember, I had only one experience of human free-will myself. Granted it did not go well, but I was still hoping. I was rooting for Cain to show strength in the face of adversity. 

Defense: So this was a test? You wanted to see Cain on trial?

God: It didn’t start out that way. Most of my trials never do.

Defense: Well you got a good one. Cain’s trial has become our trial. We live every day of our own lives still struggling with his questions, questions of fairness and right and wrong and inner strength and trust in you. Our Christian faith has taught us to plead the case of the innocent victims, of the Abels, (pointing to the prosecution) as my colleagues have done. But in the last few centuries, we have also needed to see hope for our Cain’s. Is this story we have been discussing a redemption story?

God: All of my stories are redemption stories. Cain was my first child to have really strong passions. And he struggled with them. I welcomed his questions and his doubts, but I also insisted that he could control them and not sin. I needed passion like his in the world. Don’t get me wrong, Abel was a good kid. He just always did what he thought was right without question. I didn’t have the heart to make him struggle. But Cain was already a “go-getter”, as Eve named him. If he could control his passions he could really use them to make a contribution to the world, help me do good things. Sure, he messed up the first time, really big. But I understood, and went light with him. 

Defense:                     And did he learn?

God: Oh sure, he became a great architect, building cities for people to live in. He named the first one after his own son, though I kind of think of it as a memorial to Abel. His kids created music and art and metalworking and culture. In many ways, as St. Augustine noted years later, Cain became a model citizen.

Defense: Just one more question, your holiness. When you spoke to Cain and told him that he may conquer sin, was that a promise that you knew he would one day win his struggle, or just a possibility. Were you taking chances with Cain? 

God: I’m always taking chances when I love the people I have created. I accept that. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. And because of that, the world is not everything I hoped it would be. I accept that too. To answer your question, the choice was his. He could blame the world, or his brother, or even me, for his struggles, and thus lose the struggle. Or he could accept the struggle, and work with his brother, and with me, to change to world. 

And now, you are the jury. How will you decide this case? Cast your vote via this google poll, and leave us your thoughts.

Lent 5: The Mystery of Death and Life

March 29, 2020

Online Worship Resources during the Covid-19 Pandemic

The ancient liturgy of the church includes the line, “In the midst of life, we are in the midst of death.” This reminds us of our mortality, that we are born, we live, and we die; that life is both precarious and precious. It is also a recognition of the inequities and injustices being worked in our world, of lives being treated carelessly and valued little, of Death (with a capitol D) being dealt.

But the reverse is equally true: “in the midst of death, we are in the midst of life.” We live resurrection in community, and rise when we turn toward God’s dream for us. Life and love are are our task and our calling. We can light up the darkness. Welcome to worship.

Worship elements today include:

  • A piano prelude in our Sanctuary by director of Music Ministry, Ty Lundman;
  • Scripture and Prayer with Pastor Jeff, from the middle of the Presbyterian Burying Ground, our historic cemetery;
  • A chance to sing and clap along with Gabe, playing “Glory to God, Whose Goodness Shines on Me” on his sax (the words are posted);
  • the children’s message will post on Wednesday in the Mid-week email;
  • Pastor Sarah leading Prayers of the People from the green cathedral of life on Stony Point Center’s greenhouse;
  • Soprano Phyllis Worthington singing “His Voice, as the sound of the dulcimer sweet” last year;
  • a film clip (if you are interested) from the post-apocalyptic pandemic film “I am Legend,” with Will Smith and Alice Braga (2007) referred to by Pastor Jeff in his meditation;
  • a postlude, “I love You, Lord,” sung by Ty;
  • and an invitation to join a virtual fellowship hour from the comfort of your home from 11:30 to 12:30 on Zoom.

Videos for this week can be found here.

Lent 4: Jesus and Judas

March 29, 2020

Guest Post: A sermon preached by The Rev. Katie Rivera-Torea for Haverstraw Central Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 22, 2020. This is Pastor Katie’s fourth sermon in the Cross River Sermon Series she and Pastor Jeff were working on. Worship in White Plains and Haverstraw were online this week due to Covid-19. 

shutterstock_98138312

Judas Iscariot. Engraving by Shyuble. Oleg Golovnev / Shutterstock.com

Mark 14:1-11, 41b-45

We have reached the 4th Sunday of Lent.  We are now closer to Holy Week and the Passion of Jesus than we are to Ash Wednesday.  So much has happened in the world around us since we began our Lenten journey this year.  And we find ourselves in a strange mixture of the whirlwind and the quiet of isolation.  Our faith is being put to the test.  Can we be holy as our God is holy in less than ideal conditions?  And I think we probably find ourselves grateful that Jesus taught by example to forgive, and forgive, and forgive.

I have determined to keep to the Lenten sermon series I began four weeks ago because I believe it continues to be instructive and illuminating.  Further, I believe that in our faith, and our practices, and our gathering for worship, we are more than the mere circumstances around us.  Concerns about COVID-19 may wait for us at the door, and lurk if they must.  But as we enter the sanctuary of shared worship, we are free to focus on the only thing that is required: enjoying the presence of Jesus Christ, son of God, whom we pause to honor and show regard.

Having read Mark’s telling of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, let us now recall the context of the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.  The brothers are employed differently.  Cain tends crops in the field.  Abel tends the herd of sheep.  Both determine to honor God with an offering from their work.  They both set out to worship God.  It was, however, in this context of giving their best and dedicating it to God that a problem arose.  It seemed to one brother that undeserved preference was given to the other brother’s offering.  Cain noted God’s interest in Abel offering and became angry to the point of lethal violence against his brother.

In Cain’s thinking, what needed to happen, didn’t happen.  Therefore in his anger he took action that stopped his brother from doing anything else he didn’t want him to do.  Cain didn’t understand something that was happening between Abel and God, but whatever it was, Cain didn’t like it, and he was going to make it stop.  Cain killed Abel; and instead of continuing forward in the same life (just minus his brother), Cain was thrust into exile—a whole different life, with a whole set of different problems.

Consider now our reading from Mark 14.  It was two days before the Passover, a major day of worship for the People of God, yet brothers in faith were set against one another.  The Chief Priests and the Scribes were looking for a way to arrest (that is stop) Jesus in an undetected way, and then kill him, just as Cain took his brother out of view to stop him, to kill him.  And remember, brothers, other people, same thing in God’s eyes.  So these external threats have intensified and are pressing in on Jesus and his disciples.  I remember saying to the Rev. Jeff Geary in an early discussion about this sermon series that “People get fatigued and then hit each other over the head.  Fatigue and anxiety are the perfect combination for someone to get bonked on the head.”[1]  All of a sudden, under pressure, the “Cain and Abel dynamic” re-emerges, this time among Jesus and his disciples.  Judas, who was known and trusted intimately enough to carry the common purse for Jesus and the disciples, turns under pressure, and probably fatigue, and betrays Jesus.

Perhaps Judas didn’t like the way things were going.  Perhaps he couldn’t see just what God and Jesus were working out for the salvation of the world.  And since he couldn’t see it, he couldn’t understand it; and since he couldn’t understand it, and things were heating up all around them in Jerusalem, his anxiety rose.  Judas decided he knew better than Jesus and decided to take over.  Whatever the case, fatigue and anxiety made him vulnerable to the sin crouching at the door, and thus, like Cain, Judas did not choose the good.  He did not do well.  This is, of course, a lesson for us all.  We humans have to be on guard.  Walter Brueggemann says it so well.  “There is danger to the life of Cain in how he handles his rage and depression.”[2]  There is danger to each and every one of our lives in how we handle our rage and our depression too.

What do we do then?  We return to Martha and Mary.  Jesus said to Martha: you have scattered your concerns everywhere, but only one thing is necessary.  So, we learn.  We learn to center ourselves upon the necessary thing.  In our reading today, the woman came to Jesus and anointed him with expensive perfume and the disciples flipped out at the waste of it all.  “But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her?  She has performed a good service for me.’”  This is instructive for us, Jesus’ disciples today, because, truly, the work is all around us.  There is plenty to do in our living, and in our ministries, and in our caring for those around us.  But to do all those things a very necessary thing must be attended to, making our offering of regard to God, centering our attention and our life force on the Holy One.

Well, I could go on and on, but I will try to wrap up our reflection for today with these thoughts.  I wonder what it was like when Jesus and Judas stood facing each other, with men holding weapons standing behind Judas.  I wonder what each of them was feeling when Judas stepped right up close to Jesus and kissed him on the cheek in greeting.  I wonder if we can actually access those feelings in our own memory banks because we have been betrayed by someone very close to us . . . because we have betrayed someone very close to us . . .  And thus I wonder how do you feel to realize that like Cain, Judas has been marked for all time as betrayer, as culpable, as sinner; remembering that the mark on Cain was condemnation and grace at once?  Judas too had to go forward in the world, making his way in, now, irrevocably altered circumstances, trying to do better with the life he still held, his own.

And how does it make you feel to realize that here, at last, the echoing story of Cain and Abel is replayed with an entirely different outcome?  Jesus does not stay dead; and grace, forgiveness for sins, is extended to all who repent and call upon him to be the Lord of their lives.  I hope you feel the joy of the Good News!  I hope you see why it is such good news, that a dynamic that has haunted humanity can be dismantled.  Jesus restores what was lost and begins the healing of the world.  And we have been called to follow in his way, the way of life, and truth.  That’s enough for today.  Amen.

[1] Conversation with Jeff Geary, February 2020, Westchester County, NY, I think we were in a car…

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation, p.58.

Lent 4: We Are One Body, wherever we are

March 22, 2020

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Welcome to Worship

Not in the dark of buildings confining,
not in some heaven, light years away:
here in this (virtual) place the new light is shining;
now is the kingdom and now is the day.
Gather us in …

Greetings Church,

Wherever, whenever, and with whoever you gather for worship today, know that we are part of one large body, interconnected and dependent on one another, holy and fragile as our Creator made us. While this has always been true, we are conscious of this in new ways this week as we begin to shelter-in-place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The service below is recorded in parts for you, as none of your worship leaders have physically met together for two weeks now. Ty Lundman offers an organ prelude to call us to worship and a postlude to conclude worship; Pastor Jeff leads us in worship and word, reflecting on St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians; and Pastor Sarah welcomes us to a spacious place of prayer, lifting up our joys and concerns. In addition, Pastor Lynn provides a children’s message and virtual church school classroom for student of all ages. Pastor Jeff’s presentation was modeled on the pen and ink drawing (above) that for many years evoked the historic mission and ministry of our congregation. Come, let us worship God.

Friends, I totally meant to end my refection by sharing the lyrics of our hymn for the day, “Sacred the Body,” by Ruth Duck. The words take on added meaning in light of the “social body of Christ” that Paul speak about it today’s scripture reading and during this time of physical distancing, or what we learned to call last week “spacious solidarity.” Here they are:

     Sacred the body, God has created,
temple of
 Spirit that dwells deep inside.
     Cherish each person, nurture creation.
     Treat flesh as holy that love may abide.

     Bodies are varied, made in all sizes,
     pale, full of color, both fragile and strong.
     Holy the difference, gift of the Maker,
     so let us honor each story and song.     Love respects persons, bodies and boundaries.
Love does not batter, neglect, or abuse.
Love touches gently, never coercing.
Love leaves the other with power to choose.

Holy of holies, God ever loving,
make us your temples; indwell all we do.
May we be careful, tender and caring,
so may our bodies give honor to you.

– Pastor Jeff

In addition:
Here is the article, commended by Pastor Jeff in his sermon, byDaniel Kantor, “My father died amid the Coronavirus and I cannot gather with loved ones to mourn.” Dallas Morning News, March 20, 2020.

And here is an inspiring blog post from the Coalition of  Immokalee Workers called ‘Yon Sel Ko: Timely Wisdom from the hatiain Peasant Movement at the Root of the CIW.” In it Greg  Asbed describes how the most vulnerable put Paul’s analogy of the body to use in egalitarian terms to fight for all our freedoms. They remain some of the most vulnerable through this pandemic. Please pray for them.

Lent 3: Working with the Children of Cain

March 17, 2020

Guest Post: A sermon preached by The Rev. Katie Rivera-Torea at Haverstraw Central Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 15, 2020. This is Pastor Katie’s third sermon in the Cross River Sermon Series she and Pastor Jeff are working on. Worship was not held in White Plains this week due to Covid-19. Necessarily left out of Katie’s and Jeff’s reflections this week are the rich narratives of the Book of Ruth, on which they spent a good deal of time working on.

Picture1“Christ Visits Martha and Mary Detail,” Mikhail Nesterov, 1918.  Artist’s copy of a mural on the northern wall of the Church of Intercession at the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow. Gouache, distemper, lead pencil on paper mounted on cardboard. 49×54 cm, Tretyakov Gallery.

Luke 10:38-42

I was looking for a graphic for the bulletin this week and I was feeling really disgusted because pictures of Mary and Martha tend to have this vibe of them vying for Jesus’ attention, but in a romantic sense.  You know in a “Jesus is my boyfriend, and you can’t have him” kind of way.  Unfortunately this in one of the outcomes of patriarchy, if the story involves women, it will be sexualized.  But going through that thought process helped me come back to the linking point between this story and the story of Cain and Abel.  Cain and Abel make their offerings to God as a means of worship, worship being attention and regard.  Martha and Mary do the same.  They make their offerings to Jesus—the son of God, that is, God incarnate—from their work as well.

Martha makes her home available to Jesus and the disciples, and in making the home open to them she is now also responsible for the hospitality extended to her guests.  She has offered up her homemaking—that is her work, just as Cain made a grain offering from his work.  Martha’s sister, Mary, takes a seat at Jesus’ feet and offers up her attention—attention that actually signals that she would like to be taught as a disciple.  Now consider, we read in Genesis 4:4, “and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.”  God acknowledges the gift of life force given by Abel.  Jesus also acknowledges the offering of self that Mary gives.

How is Mary making an offering of herself?  She steps away from her employment of hospitality and commits her time to the presence of Jesus as a teacher.  Do the acknowledgements of Abel and Mary’s offerings diminish the value of the offerings made by Cain and Martha?  They seem to think so, thus reacting in anger.  They feel slighted, Cain because of his rightful position of preference as the first born and heir; Martha because she is the instigator and the primary source of the respite offered to Jesus.

Feeling less preferred is hard.  If we think we deserve preference, we often try to re-establish our prominence. Among men, as we see with Cain and Abel, that can be attempted through physical attack.  Among women, we can see with Martha and Mary, that is often attempted through chastisement and shaming.  Martha says to Jesus, tell Mary to get back to work with me, chastise her for stepping out of place.  Jesus says to Martha: No, Mary’s offering gets to stand.  And in the same comment mentions to Martha that her attention seems to be on a lot of things.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

What is the one thing?  Compare this to what God says to Cain in Genesis 4:6&7, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted?”  Then keep in mind that for women doing hospitality well can be a high stakes endeavor.  Status and esteem are involved. Thus, providing hospitality can be a concern that indeed has us running around distracted and worried about many things, diminishing our attention to the one thing we set out to do in the first place: honor our guests.  We want so to do well and be accepted, and the consequences are often more than just vanity.  So Martha’s distraction is understandable, but what is the one thing that is necessary?  I leave that for your pondering, but might it be that Jesus is just being a really good guest?  Maybe he is saying, “I see you are stressing about being a good host, but I only need one thing to feel welcome and that is to enjoy your company.”

The Rev. Jeff Geary mentioned in his sermon last Sunday in White Plains that the central faith story of Cain and Abel plays out again and again in the scriptures with new additions, and new circumstances, and new progressions. “Each time the sibling conflict is portrayed in scripture, alternative avenues are available, new options are offered, promising paths are provided to the seemingly endless cycles of conflict and violence. Humanity is always reaching toward reconciliation.”  I add, God is working with the children of Cain!  And moves us again and again toward the good, toward reconciliation also.  Geary continued, “And as the children of Cain play the legacy out again and again, it is done better.  We learn, and develop more skill for better self-management, and reconciliation, until the good news can be received: there is enough of God’s blessing for all.  God’s love is unlimited.”

Thus, Martha and Mary’s honoring of Jesus does not play out exactly as Cain and Abel’s worship of God did.  In fact, there is a significant change.  In the presences of Jesus, even as the sense of competition rises, the negative outcomes of the Cain and Abel story are completely mitigated.  No one is killed and no one is exiled.  In fact, the sisters remain bonded.  This is a most desired outcome and I think the statement, the good news the Gospel writer shares here, is that the presences of Jesus accomplishes this.  Worship does not in this case lead to discord and competition, progress has been made.  Worship of Jesus invites the “other” in, the sibling in, to greater learning, and understanding, and goodness of life.  Amen.

Lent 2: Reaching For Reconciliation

March 10, 2020

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Second Sunday in the Season of Lent, March 8, 2020. This is the second sermon in a Cross River Sermon Series being preached by Revs Jeff Geary and Katie Rivera-Torea. Check out last week’s sermon and liturgy, and please also read Pastor Katie’s sermon on these same texts.

Charles McCullough

“Jacob and Esau” by Charles McCullough, residing in Pastor Jeff’s office. Photo by Rev. Lynn Dunn.

Genesis 4:13-22          Matthew 18:21-22

Friends, we continue today our Lenten meditations on the story of Cain and Abel.

We read the first part of the narrative last week, hearing the tale of Abel’s receiving divine favor, Cain’s subsequent envy, anger, and ultimate killing of his brother, his denial of responsibility, and the curse emerging from the ground. This morning we read the consequences of Cain’s action, his fear of retribution, and the legacy left for future generations.

Cain said to God, “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.” Then God said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And God put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.

Then Cain went away from the presence of God, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael the father of Methushael, and Methushael the father of Lamech.

Lamech took two wives; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

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. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

LEGACIES OF CAIN

This is a difficult story. After the first murder, God places mark on Cain. It is both a sign of protection and a reminder of his guilt. He can live neither in denial, nor in hiding. He must live with the consequences of his actions. And he does. Subsequent generations channel this into art, culture, and civilization. But it also generates a deepening spiral of violence. Lamech, a sixth-generation descendant of Cain boasts that if Cain is to be avenged seven-fold for the murder of his brother, he, Lamech, will be avenged seventy-seven-fold. Is Lamech proportionally more guilty than Cain? He has, after all, killed a young man for merely striking him. Is this a self-defeating attempt to inhibit further violence with further violence? Disproportionate violence with disproportionate violence? Where does it end?

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus reaches back across the generations to respond to Lamech. If Lamech promises or fears a seventy-seven-fold vengeance, Jesus offers his own seventy-seven-fold mercy.

Peter comes to Jesus and says to him,

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”[i]

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out my well-read copy of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to read again during Lent. I was touched to find inside it a sheaf of paper nearly twenty years old written by a high school student named Megan with whom I was having a loooong conversation about Cain and Abel. She wrote, “Dear Jeff. In Cain’s defense, I bring up the point that what Cain did was, and is, in human nature.” Violence, she argued, is inherent to who we are as human beings and cannot be eradicated, and she cites as her authority song lyrics by Marilyn Manson![ii]

Megan had a long history of interpretation on her side. From the time this story entered the Hebrew canon as scripture, all the way down through St. Augustine’s fourth century Christian philosophy that contrasted the City of God (associated with Abel) with the merely Human City (associate with Cain, the founder of the first city), the story of Cain and Abel has been used to justify violence as an inevitable part of being human. It has been held that violence in inherent to who we are, that Cain is simply demonstrating human fallibility and our knee-jerk tendency to seek solutions to problems in violence.[iii]

But the story of these two brothers was written to say exactly the opposite. These opening stories in Genesis (the non-violent creation of the world with nothing but a word, the Eve and Adam stories in which humankind is created for stewardship rather than slavery, even Cain and Abel in which sin may yet be mastered and Cain is committed to live with the consequences) all were written to suggest that violence is not inevitable. It may be early, but it is not inevitable. It may be a fact into which most of us are born, but it is not fate. In fact, is has been argued that the Cain and Abel narrative offers a model for breaking cycles of violence.

Throughout the narrative, God challenges Cain and then Cain’s community to see the world differently and to respond to the wrongs they feel they have experienced in ways that lessen instead of increase violence. This is seen in God reminding Cain that he had a choice in how he deals with anger. It is seen in God asking Cain what he has done and then reminding Cain that his actions have consequences, but only for himself but for the entire earth. Finally, God’s challenge to lessen violence is seen in the protection that is placed on Cain.[iv]

In our reading today, Cain is terrified of a growing cycle of violence in which others seek to punish him for the killing of his brother. So, God places a mark of protection upon him.

The mark of Cain is not part of a punitive program, despite centuries of misinterpretations of the mark as a stigma. Cain is not stigmatized and forced to live as an outcast. The mark serves as his protection as he is granted his life. Cain settles in the land of Nod, literally translated as ‘wandering’ (4:12, 14). In his new place he marries, fathers a son, builds a city, and becomes the founder of arts, music and culture. It is this mixed blessing of punishment and protection, of exposure and provision, that pushed Cain along to the road of moral growth. This is not a straight path that progresses easily from crime to redemption. Rather, Cain learns to bear the memory of guilt and to integrate its presence into his identity. He learns to master the ‘sin lurking at the door’ that causes him to disregard the human dignity of his brother. His new relationships are built upon his ability to honor the memory of his victim. [v]

The bible definitely understands what we find ourselves always and already in the midst of cycles of violence, of troubled family systems, inherited guilt, histories of hurt. But is presents us always with choice. “The choices we have are certainly shaped by our families or origin, by emotional and psychological factors.” But as the scriptural narrative unfolds it presents alternative paths for responding to the ‘sin crouching at the door.’ According to The Rev. Jen Dresser, “Helping people address these root causes may increase the ability of individuals to relate to one another in healthier ways and decrease incidents of violence.” Our scripture readings today point to a notion of justice that in not retributive, which is what Cain expected, but restorative, which is what God provided.[vi]

REACHING FOR RECONCILIATION

I said last week that the story of Cain and Abel is one of our foundational myths: this story of enemy brothers, of sibling rivalry, plays itself out in scripture, and I want to narrate some of that for you this morning and invite you to contemplate how God plays the long game with us. This is the reason for the sculpture of Jacob and Esau’s realization of reconciliation that sits on the communion table this morning and that is portrayed on the cover your bulletin.[vii]

So, let’s look at the plot-lines in this first book of Genesis, which James Joyce called ‘the first book of jealousies.” God calls Abram of Haran and Sarai, his wife, and makes them a promise. Follow me into a new land, trust me to be your God, and I will bless you with a son, and you will be the parents of a whole nation. And they do follow God into a new land, and they wait for a son. And they wait. And they wait. And when they get tired of waiting, Abraham takes matters into his own hands and has a child by Hagar, Sarah’s maid. This child is Ishmael, Abraham’s first born, the just recipient of Abraham’s blessing.[viii]

In ancient, patriarchal societies, the first-born son inherited everything. To receive the blessing of the father meant not only receiving the good wishes of a parent but total inheritance. The oldest son got the property, the land, the sheep and wealth, and the right to decide family and tribal matters like a judge. Parental blessing and divine favor were understood, as Cain had understood them, to be scarce commodities and limited possessions.

When Sarah finally has a child of her own, she names him Isaac, which means laughter, because she laughed at God’s promise and thought it would never come true. Isaac is not the first-born, but he is the child of promise.

When Sarah looks upon the two little boys, Ishmael and Isaac playing together, she imagines a conflict that is not simply there. She projects on them the conflict she has with Hagar. And the conflict she has with her husband. And she anticipates the conflict over the blessing and inheritance. So, Sarah chooses for Hagar and Ishmael the curse of Cain – to be exiled, sent packing, sent away. And Abraham sends them away. But the surprise in the story is that God travels with Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, blessing them too, protecting them too. While Sarah could see only conflict and competition, and Abraham could only imagine scarcity of blessing, God provides divine favor for Hagar and Ishmael equal to that of Isaac. In order to bless Isaac, the younger son, the child of perceived promise, Abraham imposes exile (and for all he knows, death) on his oldest son. These two young men, Ishmael and Isaac, parted by their parents, will come together only once, enjoy only the briefest of reconciliations, when they bury their father. It’s all they can manage.

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I have a photo hanging in my office. It is a picture of me as an infant, in my father’s arms. And beside my father is his father, and beside his father is his father. Four generations of first-born sons. It reminds me that when I read Genesis 12-50, I am reading the story of one single family over four generations, each generation trying to figure out how to do better than the generation before, to learn from family history, to heal a history of hurts, to correct intergenerational mistakes, to overcome inherited guilts.

When Isaac grows older, marries, and has his own children, he is determined not to make the mistakes his father made. There will be no confusion among his children about the inheritance. No favoritism. From the time they are born, Esau the older, and Jacob the younger, will know that Esau is going to be blessed. But Jacob’s mother favors him, and so, apparently, does God. With the help of his mother, Jacob steals the birthright from his brother, and then with deceit receives the blessing, and inheritance, from his father. Isaac in his old age is blind to what is going on in his family. He literally cannot see what is happening around him. And so, he participates in perpetuating conflict into another generation. When Jacob’s machinations are discovered, Esau is murderously angry and wants to kill his younger brother. But Rebecca, their mother, chooses for her favorite son the curse of Cain: to be exiled, sent packing, sent away. As a result, Jacob is forced to spend the next 20 years or so running for his life from his brother, hiding out with his uncle Laban in faraway Haran, and learning hard lessons.

In exile, Jacob the trickster becomes the tricked. Jacob, who learned deception from his mother, forgets that she learned the arts of deceit from her brother Laban. When Jacob falls in love with Rachel, Laban’s youngest daughter, Laban tricks him into marrying the older sister Leah instead. Because that’s the way it is done! The older sibling goes first! In order to marry Rachel, whom he loves, Jacob ultimately agrees to fourteen years of indentured labor. Fourteen years to contemplate the mixed blessing of punishment and protections that he is living.[ix]

It is interesting that Jacob’s marrying of these two sisters sets them against one another such that Rachel may say, “With Godlike wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed,” almost exactly the same language Jacob will use to describe his encounter wrestling with his brother / an angel / with God. It’s as if the scripture wants to be clear that the story of enemy brothers can be the story of enemy sisters, enemy siblings, enemy neighbors, nations, enemies of nature.[x]

By the time Jacob returns home to his brother Esau, nearly twenty years after their first fight, he has long lived with his actions and learned a few lessons. He is a different man. And what he dearly wants more than anything is reconciliation with his older brother. Jacob travels home with his family. And when he and his brother meet one another,  Jacob comes out with great fear, and hope for reconciliation, while Esau comes out with learned suspicion and with armed soldiers. He comes, sword in hand, to meet his brother.

This piece of sculpture you see on the table this morning captures the moment reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. Leah is on her knees, urging a frightened Jacob forward. A soldier stands behind Esau, armed and ready for this to be another of Jacob’s tricks. What you cannot see in the photo, but can see in the sculpture, is that Esau has let his sword drop from his hand in order to embrace his brother. He has made a choice, renouncing vengeance and violence, and choosing reconciliation.

Each time the sibling conflict is portrayed in scripture, alternative avenues are available, new options are offered, promising paths are provided to the seemingly endless cycles of conflict and violence. Humanity is always reaching toward reconciliation.

Jacob had twelve sons (and one daughter). If Abraham favored his youngest son according to divine promise, and Isaac favored his older son according to tradition, Jacob, in his generation, throws all caution to the wind and simply favors the child he loves the most – Joseph, the firstborn of the wife he loves the most. Jacob showers affection and gifts on Joseph. This special treatment from dad angered the other brothers. And Joseph is no help to himself. He flaunts himself before his brothers, showing off that he gets to stay home while they all have to work. And while the other brothers are not exactly murderous, they are angry enough to fake his death, willing to grieve their father, to bury their guilt, and sell young Joseph into slavery. The curse of Cain: to be exiled, sent packing, sent away.

I will not rehearse the rest of the story, because you know that in the end Joseph and his brothers are reconciled. It will be Jacobs’s dying wish that Joseph forgive his brothers for what they had done to him. And Joseph does. (Genesis 50:15ff)

I love the full sweep of Genesis because only in readying it all together can we see what God is working out, through this single family, over time – a reaching toward a reconciliation – the envies and jealousies,  and the hurts and guilts, across generations, slowly being undone. East of Eden, Cain and Abel experienced a world of scarcity. It felt as if there was not enough blessing for all, that God’s love was limited. This legacy, left to Lamech, was threat, vengeance and violence.[xi]

Lamentably, only late, do we learn.

  • Abraham thought there was only enough blessing for one child;
  • Isaac thought there was only enough blessing for one child;
  • Jacob thought, at first, that there was only enough blessing for one child.

But by the end of the story, Jacob finds a way to bless all twelve of his children (Genesis 49), placing his hand upon each and every one of them. And in a final moment, he finds a way to launch a new generation on a new path. He takes his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s boys, and blesses both of them together. One is older, one is younger, but it doesn’t matter. Jacob reaches out his hands, his right and his left, in blessing. But he crosses his arms, so that his right hand is placed on the head of the boy on his left, and his left hand is placed on the head of the boy on his right – confounding every pretense of preference – and he gives them one singular blessing, “By you will Israel invoke blessings, saying, God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” By you, second person singular, one blessing for both boys equally.[xii]

BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME

There is no scarcity when it comes to God’s care for us, God’s love for us, God’s attention toward us, God’s blessing and being with us. God cares for us all. There is enough, of all we need, for everyone. Seventy-seven-fold. Seventy-times-seven-fold.

Violence, exclusion, dishonesty, deception, are choices that we make only when we can’t see past what we have experienced, how we have been hurt, and what we feel – in isolation.

Charles McCullough

I concluded this sermon with an invitation for the congregation to come forward and contemplate the sculpture of the moment when Jacob and Esau are reconciled. What could be seen from the pews, what can be perceived from the photo (above), is only one perspective. To fully take in the sculpture/story requires walking around it, seeing it from every angle, expressing empathy for everyone’s experience. To see the anguished, hopeful, fearful faces of Jacob and Esau requires seeing what each one cannot see in the embrace – the face of the other. To see the soldier, in the sculpture, head hung in shame, or embarrassment, or confusion, one needs to kneel down. One cannot appreciate both Leah and the soldier at the same time. Jacob’s displaced hip can only be discerned from an angle that does not allow one to look upon his face. That the brothers are embracing, and not wrestling or engaged in deadly combat, can only be read by looking at the total context. I suggested that this we must do the same when reading scripture – we must move around and read every story from every perspective, feeling our way through the various jealousies, hurts, and hopes. Looking for the different avenues for ending the cycles of hurt, and violence. And that this is what we must do with and for one another: looking carefully, listening carefully, to how we are each experiencing life. And providing seventy-times-seven-fold mercy and understanding, accountability and acceptance, punishment and protection, reaching past retribution toward redemption, restoration, and reconciliation.

Hymn: Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive

O cleanse the depths within our souls and bid resentment cease.
Them by your mercy reconciled, our lives will spread your peace.

 

[i] For an explication of what Jesus means here, see my earlier sermon “How Many Times?” September 11, 2011, on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11.

[ii] Marilyn Manson, “…despite the advance of civilization, mankind [sic] remains determined to destroy itself … Cain had no slasher movies to persuade him to kill Abel.” See also Peter Vronsky, in Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present (Berkley, 2018), argues that violence is in our DNA, a legacy of homo sapiens’ long and genocidal war with Neanderthals and other hominid competitors.

 [iii] For accessibility, see Saint Augustine, The City of God, abridged for modern readers. (Vintage, 1958). Especially  Book XV: “The City of God in Early Biblical History.”

[iv] Jen Dresser, Cain and Abel: Reimagining Stories of Violence. A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Theology in Candidacy for the Bachelor of Theology. University of Winnipeg, Manitoba. April 2012.

[v] Katharina Von Kellenbach in The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post-War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators. (Oxford, 2013). page 12.

[vi] Both citations are from the conclusion to Dresser’s, “Cain and Abel.”

[vii] James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence. (Trinity Press International, 1991), especially chapter two, “Enemy Brothers.” (pp. 33-67). Rabbi Arthur Waskow notes that after Genesis explores this ‘reaching for reconciliation’ between individual family members, the book of Exodus and the prophets explore it as a goal between peoples. Disney’s Dreamworks production of Prince of Egypt famously portrayed the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh as that of brothers, while scripture explores the relationships between Moses (the younger brother) and Abel (his older brother) and Miriam (his older sister). Even in the New Testament, there are hints of Jesus relationship with his older brother James, and a relationship of rivalry between Jesus and Judas.

[viii] James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, which is largely a story of Eve and Adam, Cain and Abel. (page 106).

[ix] See above, Von Kellenbach in The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post-War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators. (Oxford, 2013).

[x] Arthur Waskow, GodWrestling -Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths. (Jewish Lights, 1996). On Rachel wrestling with her sister, see p. 24, 39.

[xi] Mark McEntire’s book, The Blood of Abel: The Violent Plot in the Hebrew Bible (Mercer, 1999) contains a brief account of the positive role of wilderness in scripture as a place of learning, of leaving behind old habits and forging new ones, as a threshold or crucible through which we pass on the way to new life. “Interlude Three: God’s People in the Wilderness,” (pp. 61-63). This theme continues right on down through the appearance of John the Baptist and Jesus’ forty day vision quest in the wild.

[xii] “Reaching toward Reconciliation” is a phrase I learned from Rabbi Arthur Waskow long ago in his own telling of these narratives, as is the expression “found their resolution.” Arthur Waskow has written a joint autobiography with his own brother, Howard Waskow, and contemplating the long arc of the Cain and Abel story in scripture, called Becoming Brothers (Free Press, 1993). He reflects of the tales of enemy brothers in Genesis in “Brothers War / Brother’s Peace,” the first section of GodWrestling – Round  2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths. (Jewish Lights, 1996). I was digesting these books as I wrote my first confirmation curriculum in the 1990s, learning to tell these family stories and national stories as our stories.

Lent 2: Legacy of Violence

March 10, 2020

Guest Post: A sermon preached by The Rev. Katie Rivera-Torea at Haverstraw Central Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2020. This is Pastor Katie’s second sermon in the Cross River Sermon Series she and Pastor Jeff are working on. Check out their earlier collaboration in preaching and prayer, Lent 1: Cain and Abel.

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Genesis 4:13-22

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. 17Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. 18To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad was the father of Me/hu/ja/el, and Me/hu/ja/el the father of Meth/u/sha/el, and Meth/u/sha/el the father of Lamech.

19Lamech took two wives; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20Adah bore Ja/bal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. 21His brother’s name was Ju/bal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. The sister of Tubal-cain was Na/amah.

23Lamech 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. 24If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

Matthew 18:21-22

21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Deborah Prothrow-Stith, of the Harvard School of Public Health writes, “We are a country that’s infatuated with violence.  Some of us are in love with violence and addicted to it.  We celebrate it.  We’re entertained by it.  We run to read about it, to see it.  We encourage children sometimes to fight. . . .  As I travel across the country, one thing I see pretty universally among American children is an admiration of violence.”[1]  Why?  Because adults admire violence.  Because violence can get you power, and who doesn’t love power? 

Genesis presents us with the growth of this problem in the first 16 chapters of the book.  We focused in on it here in our continuation of the story of Cain.  Five generations out from Cain is a descendant who brags to his wives in song about violent vengeance he exacted on a younger man.  He killed this younger man who struck him.  Lamech crows: seven-fold vengeance for killing Cain, watch out! 77-fold vengeance for attacking Lamech.  Violence and vendetta have taken hold and grown.  Now they are something to brag about, not repent of.  That is not good.  Here begins the glorification of violence, the one-ups-man-ship, the machismo, the carrying of big sticks and concealed firearms.  Here we go.

In the play Cain, Lord Byron wrote, “Who shall heal murder?”  In other words, how can the cycles of escalating violence be stopped?[2]  Jesus gives us the answer: stop participating.  Forgive.  I feel certain Jesus was referring to the boast of Lamech when he made his answer about how many times we are required to forgive someone.   Give up your interest in vengeance—77 times.

Our reading from Genesis 4 began this morning with Cain declaring to God that “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.”  Which is not what has actually happened.  In fact, the ground rejected Cain and cursed him.  The ground refused to yield its strength to Cain further.  God protects Cain’s life, even though Cain did not protect his brother’s life.  God is loving and steadfast.  God marked Cain so that anyone who encountered him would know not to kill him.  This mark, then, is forever a sign of his guilt AND of God’s grace, just like the ashes we wear on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.  The marks say: culpable AND redeemed.

Now, the word “brother” in the story of Cain and Abel works two ways.  This is a story about brothers and about the people around us.  Brother and neighbor, one and the same.  Cain’s name comes from a root word that means “productive” in Hebrew.  And Abel’s name comes from a root word that means “a puff of air.”  Walter Brueggeman writes, “The story itself dismisses Abel—his name means ‘nothing.’”[3]  This seems harsh.  But it is real.  There are people who are dismissed all the time.  There are people all over the place being assigned little worth and concern.  But by assigning the title of “brother” to the other person in the story (the one who was called a puff of air, of little value), the writer shows us the real value of the “other” in God’s eyes—as dear as the closest possible family member.  It is rather horrifying to kill a close family member.  God wants us to know that destroying the life of one of the “least of these” among humans is the same as.

True to his name, Cain does indeed produce, not only offspring, but the first city as well.  The names of children of Cain are all variation on the theme of productivity and loveliness, and thus, says Brueggemann, are suggestive of a celebration of life.[4]  So there is progress in Cain’s life.  He moves forward as God had allowed him into productive life.  And the product of the offspring of Cain are the arts, and culture, and society.  They represent the channeling of desire and the attempt to master sin crouching at the door.  But what you know, and I know, and everyone who has ever heard the stories of humanity knows, is that wherever people have been, there also has been violence perpetrated against one another, and other creatures, and creation.  So much so that we tell our story as if human violence is inevitable and simply part of who we are, written into our DNA.  We are all descendants of Cain, after all.  Maybe striking and killing was just the way we were made.  Maybe it has been what made us as successful as we are today as a species (even if we seem to have reached the point of diminishing returns). 

But this is not the case, or at least not the whole story.  Sure, we bit the apple, but we are not utterly fallen.  We can master sin.  God says so.  So how do we move from the rule of returning harm 77 times greater to the rule of forgiving harm 77 times over?  How do we repent of enthrallment with violence?  How do we walk a Christ’s path into whole and peaceable life?  The first step is to believe what God has said most clearly: we are created and called good.  We are made to do well.  We are responsible for our neighbors, even the least of them.  And Jesus will show us the way.  The first step is to believe it.  The second step is to do what Cain must have done: Cain must have taken responsibility for himself.  He must have focused on his capacity to be greater than the beast crouching at the door.  He must have come to realize that within the mark upon him that said “culpable and redeemed,” there was embedded a promise that he was also capable of being in balance with good creation.

Krista Tippet hosts a program called OnBeing.  This week she had a conversation with Nicholas Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale, and author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.  Christakis asserts that despite the headlines, in reality we humans really do seem to be hardwired for goodness.  Tippet comments: “Christakis compellingly demonstrates that we come to social goodness as naturally as we come to our bloodier inclinations.  Most of us know in life what he describes through sociological research: that capacities like friendship and love, teaching and learning, have tremendous, constant, practical force — even to redeem the hardest of circumstances. .”[5]  Yet we don’t seem to take these very regular qualities of goodness as seriously as the bad ones.  And we never really think about these qualities as naturally selected in our evolution and development as humans.

Christakis asserts: “There is no society on Earth that has an easy job of suppressing our innate tendencies to love, friendship, and cooperation.”  Even at our cooperative worst, loving-kindness seems to persistently spring up among the downtrodden like dandelions in the cracks of a sidewalk.  His research shows that we are, in fact, each other’s keepers, and resiliently so.  When down and out, even in the worst circumstances (usually in the worst circumstances) we seem to turn to one another and have enough to share and a hand to lend.  And for every place on earth where there are monstrous boasts of bloody violence and promises of bone crushing harm, there are also those who walk the path of Christ by being present, being helpful, extending aid and care and witness.  For every person using violence for power over others, there are those who refuse to participate or to be draw away from vigilant shepherding and tending of those in their care.  These ones are the seeds of God’s good creation redeemed and fulfilled.  These will have the last word.  Amen.

 

 

[1] Public Affairs Television, Talking About Genesis: A Resource Guide, NY: Double Day (1996) p.57.

[2] Cain is a dramatic work by Lord Byron published in 1821.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, “Genesis,” Atlanta: John Knox Press (1982) p.56.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, “Genesis,” Atlanta: John Knox Press (1982) p.65.

[5] Krista Tippet, https://onbeing.org/programs/nicholas-christakis-how-were-wired-for-goodness/, March 2020.

Lent 1: Cain and Abel

March 6, 2020

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Cain and Abel” by Charles Woods, 2009, compressed charcoal and
white chalk on toned paper, Beaufort, SC. Used with permission

They’re back! The liturgical plotters, Katie and Jeff. On the First Sunday of Lent, 2020, Katie Rivera-Torea and I began a new sermon series on the foundational myth of Cain and Abel. This is the most fun we’ve had working together yet. On this first day of collaboration, Katie wrote the sermon and Jeff wrote the communion liturgy. Because Jeff is a geek, the single page prayer has two pages of footnotes. These latter suggest the kinds of rich conversations we two preachers have had over the last two months. Katie found the artwork for week one, which sat on our desks as we worked, and we are grateful to the artist, Charles Woods, for his permission to share it here. 

THE SERMON

In his novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote, “Two stories have haunted us and followed us from our beginning.  We carry them along with us like invisible tails—the stories of original sin and the story of Cain and Abel . . . I don’t understand them at all but I feel them.  Liza gets angry with me.  She says I should not try to understand them.  She says why should we try to explain a verity.”  The story of Cain and Abel is just the truth.  It presents to us a fundamentally important representation of the human problem.  The story is spare and short on details.  It leave us with a lot of questions which we have felt certain we knew the answers to throughout time, so we have inserted them into our explanations of the story as we have told it.  Nevertheless, the story itself is so true of humanity that has continued onward to the present and will continue on past us, informing and inspiring so many inquiries into and reportings of what it means to be human. 

The story of Cain and Abel is being referenced, echoed, and addressed throughout the whole Bible, and how could it not be?  It is presented to us as the fundamental act of violence by humans—and so much more: the first picture of us interacting with God outside of Eden, the first picture of us worshiping, the second picture of us making a choice.  So we are going to consider the story of Cain and Abel in a variety of scriptures throughout this Lenten season, less with the intention of explaining a verity, and more with the intention of letting it illuminate the truth of us to ourselves.  I want to say that again.  We are going to be tinkering with the legacy of Cain and Abel for all five Sundays of Lent.  It is not a simple story and I encourage you to wonder about every assumption you’ve ever had or certainty you’ve ever felt about the story.

Here is the story of envy, competition, preference, humiliation, anger, and violent othering.  Here is the story of Cain and Abel.  We have read it this morning.  Eve bears two sons.  They grow up together and one works with the fields and one works with the cattle, both on behalf of the family.  The brothers decide to make an offering to God from their work.  Cain brings a grain offering and makes a gift of it, while Abel slaughters a lamb and makes a sacrifice of it.  God looks at Abel’s offering but doesn’t look at Cain’s offering.  Why?  Why?  Why?

And so it began, the series of events that would echo through time and we would all have a part in.  Cain, we read, became very angry and his face fell.  Haven’t you been angry?  Haven’t you felt your face fall when you were disappointed?  Haven’t you competed?  Haven’t you striven to be preferred?  Haven’t you been humiliated?  Haven’t you been hurt by someone?  Haven’t you hurt someone close to you?  Haven’t you distanced another person from you and had no pity on them?  Here is the story of Cain and Abel.  Here is the story of us all.  And it all began with the inclination Cain and Abel had to show regard to God in an offering from their work.

Christopher Leighton writes in his essay entitled, “The Legacy of Cain”: “Remember that the expression of worship was not commanded, but reflected among other things a primal desire to reach beyond oneself in gratitude and wonder.”[1]  Therefore, “the terrifying irony of the story resides in the fact that it is in the religious pursuit that the brothers become locked in a violent rivalry that produces winners and losers, perpetrators and victims, but not the harmony and equity that the reader yearns for.”[2]  Shouldn’t human relationship with God generate harmony and equity?  Isn’t that what we not just yearn to read about but yearn to live?  And yet here we all live, a planet full of humans, living in the Anthropocene, vying to be winners not losers, and if necessary perpetrators so as not to be the victims. It’s a futile, ultimately self-destructive struggle.

Jesus Christ comes as the conduit to correct this terrible state of affairs.  The Apostle Paul assures us that Jesus Christ came into the world to save us.  He writes to the Christians in Corinth that Jesus brings to us the gift of a new way to live.  He writes, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”[3]  It makes the whole story of us and God strangely simple then when we come to the communion table that Jesus prepares for us, because it is a table of reconciliation, of us, with God and all creation.  What we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper is setting right of the fundamental human brokenness and the brokenness of the world.  Pieced back together is the inclination to honor God by two people who belong to one another and are responsible for one another in a family.

The first offerings, the first gifts: Abel’s gift—the blood offering and Cain’s gift—the grain offering are here brought by Jesus and set before us.  But they are not set on the altar to be judged and either accepted or rejected.  Instead he refines them and brings the wine and the bread to the table and invites all to partake.  Contest and preference are done away with in the offering of Jesus of himself, overcome in his gift of reconciliation and love.  The old life where sin is crouching at the door is gone; a new life is begun, a new life in God’s divine approval and peace with one another and ourselves.  Eternal life.  Blessed life.  Affirmed, beloved life.  As we meet at Christ’s table again today, may you know this goodness.  Amen.

[1] Public Affairs Television, Talking About Genesis: A Resource Guide, NY: Double Day (1996) p.51.

[2] Public Affairs Television, Talking About Genesis: A Resource Guide, NY: Double Day (1996) p.52.

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, NRSV.

THE PRAYER OF GREAT THANKSGIVING

The Lord be with you.   And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.   We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.   It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise,
loving God, creator and sustainer of life.

You spread out the dazzling canopy of the heavens
and established the deep foundations of the earth;
you lifted up mountains and hills, high and stately,
and poured out oceans and rivers, flowing free, giving birth to creation.
you made all creatures of the earth to show your glory,
and human beings, in your image, to care for the world,
your good gift, our beautiful, precious, precarious home.[i]

But we transgressed the limits set by you for the flourishing of all;[ii]
we saw that which looked good to us, and
not thinking of Creator nor Creation, we did as we pleased,
we took and we seized for ourselves what belonged to all. [iii]
Already in paradise, Adam and Eve hid from God,
Where are you?” God asked them.
and the apple, as they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Surely the story of Adam and Eve is our story.[iv]

East of Eden, transgression begat rivalry,
and rivalry begat violence,
and violence begat death,
and death begat fear, evasion, dishonesty —
the corruption of our very souls, and the brokenness of the world.
Where is your brother, your sister?” You asked them, and us.[v]
In turning on, and turning our back on, one another
we lay waste to your good creation[vi]
and ‘Earth bears the curse for us.’
From the ground Abel’s blood cries to you, our God.[vii]Surely the story of Cain and Abel is our story.[viii]

Yet we are marked, as Cain was, not only our sin but by your unfailing love.[ix]
You gifted your people with a law and a land,[x]
have sent prophets and teachers to heal us and help us find our way home;
repairers of the breach between creature and creator,
between brother and sister, neighbor and nation,
and all with earth.[xi]

And then, in the fullness of time
out of your great love for the world
you sent Jesus Christ to redeem and restore,
healing our brokenness and making all things new.[xii]

Remembering your gracious acts in Jesus Christ,
we take from your creation this bread and wine
and joyfully celebrate his dying and rising,
as we await the day of his coming.

Here, in this sacrament,
the sacrifice of Abel, in blood freely given,
and the sacrifice of Cain, in the bread earned through hard toil in the soil,
become gifts offered together
accepted and acceptable to you,
gifts not of an altar, but of a table.[xiii]
Here your gifts to us, presented back to you in gratitude,
become not occasion for division but of reconciliation.
With them we offer our very selves to you,
and our faces are not downcast
but high and lifted up.[xiv]

Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these your gifts of bread and wine
that the bread we break and the cup we bless
may be participation in the body and blood of Christ. [xv]

By your Spirit make us one with Christ,
and one with all who share this meal,
united in ministry in every place.
as this bread is Christ’s body for us,
send us out to be Christ’s body for the world.

Keep us faithful until that time
when they will not hurt or destroy
on all your holy mountain,
when the earth will be full of your glory
as the waters cover the sea.

Hasten the coming of the day
when the wolf shall live in peace with the lamb
and the leopard shall lie down with the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all honor and glory are yours, almighty God,
now and forever. Amen.

 

[i]This first paragraph is taken from the “Service for the Care of Creation – Great Thanksgiving” in the Book of Common Worship (Presbyterian Church (USA), 2018), p. 566. The prayer begins in the world as intended and created. It is amended by adding the words “giving birth to creation” in the fifth line. See the great description of this biblical image of God giving birth in Supposing Him to Be the Gardener: An Earth Bible Commentary on the Gospel of John by Margaret Daly-Denton, particularly Section 14.5. (See Psalm 90:2. Job 38:8, and Norman Habel’s reading of Genesis 1:9.) I have also added to word “precarious” to the final line. It is important to me that precarity was present from the beginning, and not as curse or consequence of human action alone.

[ii] Transgressing limits built into creation itself, rather than some form of interpersonal human disobedience to divine command, or the exercise of curiosity, desire, or even giving in to temptation, subtly recast popular understandings of ‘what happened’ in the garden in ways helpful to use understanding our place in the world today.

[iii] “We saw what looked good for us and, not thinking of God, did as we pleased.” This line, along with “Surely this story…” are adapted from Rev. Steven Plymale, “The Story of Adam and eve is Our Story – 21st Century Resource for the First Sunday of Lent – Year A” for Discipleship Ministries, The United Methodist Church. March 7, 2011. I’ve changed “not thinking of God” to “not thinking of Creator nor Creature” because all sin is relational and no sin in solely against God. See Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, God-Christ-Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology. Revised edition (1989). The line, “we too and seized…” is my own, intending a chiasm with transgressed boundaries and echoing biblical parallelism.

[iv] “Already in paradise…” is adapted from Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Matthew. 3 Volumes. The line about the apple is taken from Am I My Brother’s Keeper, the play by myself and Noelle which will be presented later in Lent. The final statement returns us to Steven Plymale’s resource. .

[v] East of Eden – John Steinbeck, of course, evoking the extraordinary longevity of this story’s appeal. The rest is meant to evoke the theory of mimetic rivalry, violence and foundational murder in the writings of Rene Girard, particularly Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World. (1987), pp 144-149. See the video short from Noah: The Movie, directed by Daaron Aronofsky. (Clip) With reference to the eucharist.

[vi] Book of Common Worship (Presbyterian Church (USA), 2018), p. 566.

[vii] This lines comes from liturgy used by the South Sydney Uniting Church for Land Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 14, 2014.

[viii] Adapting and making a refrain from the line by Rev. Plymale.

[ix] It is important the ‘mark’ placed on Cain be seen not a punishment, but as consequence and protection.

[x] The single phrase from Brian Wren’s hymn “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness” is meant to evoke the whole journey of God’s people East of Eden.

[xi] Division is a central element in the Cain and Abel narrative. The evocation of ‘repairers of the breach’ from Isaiah 58 is intended to highlight the fact of division and restoration of relationship of the Animal-Earth-Divine.

[xii] Adapted from Book of Common Worship (Presbyterian Church (USA), 2018), p. 566

[xiii] This reflects the long conversations between Revs. Katie Rivera-Torea and Jeff Geary on sacrifice and gift, arbitrary favor, and the various symbolism of bread and wine. As we were talking, I discovered a post on Internet Monk called “Cain, Abel, and a Theology of the Table” which included this reflection:

And so I turn to the Table every week and find a hope that lies buried in the story of Cain and Abel. In the bread and the wine I see the body and blood of Christ. The Sacrificial Lamb. Abel’s sacrifice presented to the Lord. In the bread and the wine I also see the fruit of the harvest. Grain and grape. Cain’s crops presented to the Lord. // At the Communion table are both the brothers’ sacrifices, brought together. In the bread and the wine I see both the harvest and the lamb. Both Cain and Abel. The two brothers, reunited. The enmity between them—between all of us—forever healed, yesterday, today, and forever. At the table, violence is put to death and resurrected as peace.

[xiv] This is mine. The reference is to Genesis 4:6, Cain’s countenance being cast down as a result of, at best, perceived divine indifference and, in the worst case, divine rejection. It is contrasted with, on the one hand, the theology of glorification in John 12:27-36, where the human one (and the children of God) must be lifted up, and, no the other, with John Calvin’s theology of ascent and gratitude in the eucharist which lifts us up to participation in divine life. See Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Eerdman’s, 2010) or Brian Gerrish, The Grace and Gratitude: Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin. (1993).

[xv] From here, prayers of the people or intercessions may be included. The prayer concludes using the remained of the liturgy on page 567 in the Book of Common Worship.