By Michael Usey, Genesis 4.1-16
A couple of weeks ago some guy named JSV4 went on Twitter to complain about his local Mexican restaurant. He posted a picture of his beleaguered spouse and wrote: “My wife, date night after three months locked up in quarantine. Waiting for shredded cheese as it’s the only way she can eat fajitas. We’ve asked four people. Going on 18 minutes now. Just unreal. We gotta quit blaming #COVID19 for crappy service.”
JSV4 may have assumed people would join him and his mistreated wife in their pain, but that is not what happened. They were mocked mercilessly for having a meltdown over not getting shredded cheese. Several pointed out that the restaurant workers were risking their health going to work. Texas is currently seeing one of the highest resurgences of coronavirus, but this guy does not care as long as they get his wife shredded cheese for her fajitas.
- Zach Hunt writes: “125,000 Americans are dead but that’s nothing compared to the hell of having to eat fajitas without shredded cheese.”
- Eris writes: “Poor Karen. The humanity. My condolences.”
- Dustin Gunn: “Hello, 911? My wife is having an allergic reaction to no cheese!”
- Thoren: “I understand. My wife has this condition. The only way she can eat a fajita is with cheese. Doctors say it’s not fatal but there’s no cure.”
- Eric Thomas: “I am starting a GoFundCheese for this long-suffering person. Three months! Can you imagine? Please give!”
- Kismet: “I feel for them. My wife starved to death waiting on creamer for her coffee at a coffee shop in war-torn Darfur. To this day I break down in sobs when I see a bottle of International Delight.”
- Nathan Miller: “This cannot be ignored. We need a vaccine now.”
- Helen: “Prayers for this poor couple in quarantine for three months while the rest of us lived our regular lives with no changes whatsoever.”
- Kellyanne Kanye—probably not her real name—: “I raged because my fajitas were topped with Velveeta, then I met a woman who had no cheese. Really makes you think.”
- Ed: “I always have a pocketful of cheese because I am a good husband.”
- Funkotronic: “Our society will never progress until people who do things like this are mercilessly shamed into seclusion.”
I read these sarcastic responses and felt no pity, but then JSV4 wrote: “Thanks. I need a few more vile messages and mean comments.” Then he used the frowning face emoji. But some people are hard to feel sorry for—people who think they cannot eat fajitas without cheese, people who think the way to get past the pandemic is to act like there is no pandemic, people who think it is time for a new statue of Robert E. Lee, people with the wrong politics, wrong schools, wrong occupations, or wrong social skills.
I don’t know about you but some days I awaken refreshed, full of hope, ready to read and pray, exercise and work for God’s good earth. And on other days, I’m jerked out of some dire dream, depressed and overwhelmed, with bad words in my mind and heart, too down to do much else other than stream movies and bad food. This time in America presents us with the best and worst of human nature.
In Genesis, the first story of life outside the Garden of Eden also presents us with the best and then the worst of human nature. Two boys are born, perhaps twins. Then the next verse has them as adults – Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain a tiller of the land.
In the next verse, “in the course of time,” each son of Adam and Eve bring an offering to God. There is no mention of prayers, or an altar, or ritual. Here is what happened – the original farmer and original herdsman simply intend to thank God – the Author and Giver of life – for the success in their work. They intend to thank God for blessing them. This is a beautiful depiction of the best in human nature – recognizing that all life comes from God, giving sincere gratitude to God – the most mature emotion – they perform an act of worship. This act reminds us that life is always bigger than our lives. Life comes from God and proceeds to God and our lives maintain a proper posture of worship and thanksgiving always. But then it says, “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering.” Apparently, God has always liked the smell of barbeque. Texas beef, not NC pork, I’m quite sure.
In Act 3 of Arthur Miller’s great play, The Creation of the World and Other Business, this interchange, reflecting back on Genesis 4, happens:
- GOD: Young man, this is undoubtedly the sweetest, most delicious delicate and profoundly satisfying piece of meat I have ever tasted since the world began.
- ADAM: Boy, (to Abel) this is our proudest moment. . . .
- CAIN: Lord, there is still my corn. You haven’t tasted my corn.
- GOD: Oh, I can see it’s nice. You have done quite well, Cain. Keep it up. (God walks off with Adam and Abel)
- EVE: (worried) Cain? Darling, God loved your vegetables. Come on (trying to encourage Cain).
We have no idea why God preferred Abel’s offering. Maybe it was about BBQ. But that is not the point. Life is unfair. Things happen to us. How do we deal with that? Are we bitter or better? Are we jealous or joyful? This challenge is always before us. What do we do with what comes our way? The earliest stories of Genesis are trying to teach us about this challenge of not always getting what we want.
It’s pleasant to think that jealousy is always juvenile, but you and I both know better. I have been present at weddings when sibling rivalry threatened to make a total mess of things. I have been present at funerals when brothers and sisters were still harboring the gnawing jealousies of a lifetime. Whether the favoritism was real or imagined didn’t seem to make much difference. Just as Cain’s face fell in this archetypal story when Abel came out ahead, so we also are forever tempted to gnaw at our own hearts because someone else is better, richer, more beautiful or more talented than we are. And depending on the kind of religion we’ve been taught, we may be tempted to blame God for ways in which life has mistreated us. Perhaps it’s not strange at all that this ancient storyteller would have the seeds of murder planted in a moment when a religious offering is being presented. Someone said once that people never do evil to one another so cheerfully as when they do it for religious reasons. I can understand the animosity between Arab and Jew, both of whom are positive they enjoy the special favor of God, because many of us grew up among Christians who were equally positive that of all people on earth they were God’s Chosen.
Our tangled, difficult text this morning is not just about sibling rivalry, but about the disastrous consequences of feeling unworthy. In a wonderfully vivid phrase, at the moment of Cain’s rejection, his “face fell.” That’s why it is so vital for parents to make it clear to their children that they separate the unworthiness of their actions from their worth as human beings. We may be terribly annoyed by some of the things our child does, and say so, just so long as we make it clear that we do not hate the child. It sounds simple, but a surprising number of parents forget to make it clear. Or, in moments of anger and frustration, they utter the most devastating words a child can hear: “I wish you had never been born.” I have talked to enough messed-up souls to know that more children have heard those words than we would like to think. Some of them develop a non-violent inferiority complex that cripples them for life. But some of them develop a self-loathing so intense they cannot bear it and have to project it on others: in rape, in physical abuse of a partner in marriage, sometimes in murder.
But there is another interesting idea suggested by the story. The author has God say to Cain that his murderous thoughts are like a predatory animal eager to pounce on him, but that Cain has it in his power to resist and save himself. The idea of excusing ourselves as victims of bad parents or social injustice is foreign to the Bible. It repeatedly insists that we ultimately have control over what we become. John Steinbeck got interested in this story and built the major theme of his novel East of Eden (1952) around God’s remark that Cain had the power to resist temptation.
A scholar who knew Hebrew told Steinbeck that the words spoken to Cain, “You must triumph over temptation — can quite literally be translated, “Just do it!” — a compliment to human potential that excited Steinbeck long before Nike found it. So the novelist says of God’s challenge in this ancient story that it “is a ladder to climb to the stars. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardice and laziness. I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed — because you can do it.”
And Cain did not handle it well. Cain became furious. His countenance fell. Then, shortly, Cain invites his brother to go out to the field. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up and killed his brother. [The first game of Super Smash Brothers.] Within a few verses, in the first days outside the Garden, we see the best of human nature – a generous and sincere offering to God from each brother. Then the worst of human nature manifests itself – not just enmity, but murder. Cain killed his brother.
God wastes no time in responding to this atrocity, saying to Cain: “Where is your brother, Abel?” Cain replies with one of the best-known sentences in all of Scripture: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
This story holds some of the most poignant questions ever asked by and to God, posed by human beings about their relationship to other human beings: Where is your brother? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There it stands, echoing down the corridors of time, as fresh as the first day it was spoken — a question upon whose answer rests the whole human enterprise. What is my relationship to others? Do I have a basic God-given responsibility toward my family and neighbors and people I meet at work and at play? Or have I only to take care of myself, doing whatever is required to protect and advance myself? Here is the whole of human ethics hanging on a simple question: do I owe anything to others, or is it every person for themselves?
There have always been different answers to the question. When William Taft was governor of the Philippine Islands he made a public reference one day to “our Filipino brothers,” and some cynic who thought himself better than any Filipino became a descendant of Cain when he sang back: “He may be a brother of William H. Taft, but he ain’t no brother of mine!” But we’ve always had better people. Desmond Tutu said it perfectly: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” Mark Twain, with his brutal wit, said: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors and also love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
Contrary to the usual intuition, the correct answer to the rhetorical question posed by Cain is “No.” He is not his brother’s keeper. There are two reasons for this. One, in the Hebrew Bible, whenever rhetorical questions are positively asked, the answer is almost always NO. Secondly, and more definitively, when the verb “to keep” is used, and the object is a free human being, God is the only subject associated with this verb. Perhaps you recall Psalm 121: “God who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep, the Lord will keep your life. The Lord will keep watch over your coming and going.” Only God keeps people safe. People may keep sheep, but only God is the “keeper” of people. So, Cain is not his brother’s keeper. Cain is his brother’s brother. And that is the main point, which the Bible keeps pressing.
Our constant calling through Scripture is to be siblings who care for each other. And we are all siblings, one to each other. It is not about blood and family. It is about living with God in the world, toward God’s coming reign by loving our siblings. This is why Jesus speaks so strongly and consistently about this: “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Do to others what you would have them do to you. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same.”
In other places in the NT, it says, picking up on this story of Cain and Abel: “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.” However, where reconciliation has taken place, and love replaces anger and hate, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” This means that the ultimate issues of new life and resurrection are inescapably linked to the way we get along with our brothers and sisters near and far. (1 John 3.11)
Here is how the OT scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it: “The issue of the brother is the ultimate theological crisis. And the gospel is uncompromising. The promises (of God, of eternal life, of hope, of all things) are linked to the brother and will be had no other way.” It is so clear – and so challenging – we are called to love – to love our sibs. Many days we seem to choose death, because we allow all kinds of enmity to grow, to divide us. Sometimes it is personal issues. Sometimes it is economic or national issues. Sometimes, and lately, it is racial issues. We have a sad history of enmity. As if this Rona time was not painful enough, we are, as a country, having a long overdue conversation about the four hundred years of what Valerie Castile called “a silent war against African American people.” We find it hard to hear about the murders of African Americans, the obscene level of incarceration of people of color, the astonishing wealth gap between whites and people of color, and institutionalized racism in its many insidious forms—dishonest housing and biased educational practices. God said, “Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the earth.” There is no blood shed that does not cry to God from the earth. Life and blood belong to God and God alone. And the blood of all earth’s children cries out its story to God and all the citizens of earth.
The story of Cain and Abel illustrates just how quickly and completely lost we can find ourselves. But the answer to God’s question is that we are all siblings. Albert Schweitzer, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, said, “You don’t live in a world all alone. Your brothers are here too.” Certainly you can recall the famous words of that murdered black man Martin Luther King, Jr from the March on Washington in 1963: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” It is all about siblings and living the loving intentions of God. Positive pictures of siblings loving one another abounded this week:
- Amidst the chaos of Portland, and the facist unlawful usage of unmarked DHS troops, there is a wall of moms, backed up by a long line of dads, armed with leaf blowers, to keep the tear gas away, and in front of them, a wall of American veterans, whose oaths to defend the Constitutions never expires. None of these groups is trying to change the narrative of BLM or equal rights for all; but they all stand as shield against those who would violate those rights. History will show that, when tyranny came to America’s streets, the cosplay militia guys with huge guns who like to dress up like GI Joe were nowhere to be seen. But a big bunch of moms dressed in yellow with bicycle helmets on stood tall.
- Representative AOC (D-NY) stood up to bullying from a male congressman who claimed in his fauxpology that he was a good man and not misogynistic because he has a wife and daughters. AOC stood up for all women who have been the subject of dismissive, combative, ugly speech. Her parents did not raise her to accept abuse from men, and I trust every girl and young woman at College Park will be raised with that same strength. If you only hear one thing this week, hear her 10 min speech.
- And 35 of our youth and sponsors worked all week in the fiery heat at Out of the Garden’s Urban Farm on the campus of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. Our young people and their leaders are so amazing, and they already are treating others like beloved siblings. They picked and dug and built and planted and even tended the bees, all the while learning more about our city’s difficult racial past.
A few beautiful snapshots of sibling love in action. Life with God demands life with one another – loving, helping, serving together. When enmity prevails, we are all dragged down into the pit, far away from what God intends. We can either drag each other down with our animosity and jealousy and rancor, or we can lift each other up, through working together, striving together, building community, working for justice and peace for all. The Bible and Jesus are so clear about this. We have an absolute calling to treat everyone as our beloved siblings. We also have a wonderful God, who despite our enmity and lostness, will never let us go.