September 24, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
[Introduction to story. I refer to these stories in the early chapters of Genesis as teaching stories, stories that are not meant to be historically true but that are told to teach us important lessons about the nature of our lives, the nature of God and our relationship to God. We can see right in the Bible itself the evidence that the story wasn’t meant to be history since the story of Cain and Abel ends with Cain wandering as a fugitive worried that someone he meets might kill him. He then settles in Nod and takes a wife. If you take this story as history, you have to wonder where these other people came from since supposedly there are only four people currently living in the world. Biblical literalists argue that Adam and Eve had many daughters as well as the three sons listed in Genesis and so Cain’s wife was one of his sister’s. They then go on to explain why this would not be considered incest and why the children would not show genetic deformities. And this is exactly why I have such difficulty with taking these stories literally — people get so wrapped up in trying to explain the plausibility of this as history that they ignore the theological lessons the story was told to convey. And the story of Cain and Abel is a powerful theological lesson for us. Listen to this story, think of it as a teaching story, and ask, “What is it trying to teach me about myself, about life, and about my relationship to God?]
Cain lies on his bed in the darkness of the night remembering. Feelings of anger stir again as he reviews the events that he has gone over so many times, almost as if he wants to and needs to feed anger with morsel by morsel of memory. He and his brother made an offering to God: Abel’s was accepted, his rejected. Chest heaving in frustration, Cain lies in the night remembering.
‘Who was it that had the idea to give the offering in the first place?’ he asks into the silent darkness. ‘It was my idea! Abel never thought of such a thing; could never have thought of such a thing. Weak-minded daydreamer Abel never had an original thought in his head,’ Cain spits out in his mind. ‘My little brother just sits on the mountain all day as dumb as the sheep he watches over while I sweat blood trying to get something to grow in this cursed ground. I was the one who thought of presenting a gift to God but Abel had to be a copy cat and give a gift too. And God liked his gift better. I spend day after day tilling the field, planting the seeds, weeding, and coaxing the grains to grow. What is Abel’s work compared to mine — sitting and watching sheep chew?!”
Cain rubs his hands in the darkness feeling their calloused palms. The hardness of his hands used to give him pride but tonight they mock him. His gift was found unworthy and Abel of the soft hands received the glory. Where is the justice in that?
The shame of his rejection simmers now in his heart and feeds the flame of his anger. Cain has learned a hard lesson this day — he has learned that life is not fair — but it is an unwelcome lesson and so Cain lies now in the shadow of the night, tears of anger on his face, hands clenched in refusal, looking for a way to balance the scales and make life feel fair again.
Do you remember when you first discovered that life isn’t fair? Young children have a powerful sense about what is just and what is fair, particularly when it comes to their own lives and the way others have treated them. As a toddler, you had to learn that you were not the center of the universe and that your parents would not acquiesce to your every desire. You had to learn that sometimes you simply would not get what you wanted no matter how loudly you screamed. That was a hard enough lesson but as you got older, you discovered that sometimes not only did you not get what you wanted but someone else — who was no more deserving in your mind — might get it instead of you. Your friends had the coolest bikes or were allowed to stay up later than you were, but your parents refused to dole out the same privileges to you that they enjoyed. When you pointed out the obvious to your dense parents, bellowing, “But that’s not fair!” your parents glibly responded, “No, life’s not fair.”
Of course, what we didn’t know then is that our parents’ casual response may have been tinged with silent cynicism, as they reflected on their own battles against the injustices of life. As a child, it seemed unfair that someone else got the piece of cake we wanted but as adults we despair at the unfairness of it all when someone else gets the praise we thought we deserved, or earns more salary for the same amount of work, or worst of all — when we get sick even though we ate our broccoli and went to the gym every day. Cruel experience tells us again and again that life is not fair: those who should get the credit often don’t. Those who work the hardest don’t always go the farthest. Those who are nice and sweet sometimes get taken advantage of or walked all over, and tragedies and rotten things happen even to the best of us. And the most disturbing part of the story of Cain and Abel is that even Cain’s desire to please God doesn’t balance the scales. We can live upright lives, go to church every Sunday, devote our lives in service, follow all the commandments, and even love with fierce devotion and compassion but still, we who have given all to heal others can be stricken with disease ourselves. We, who have put others constantly first can be ignored or neglected by our neighbors and community. We, who have never once taken a loved one for granted, who have treated our families and friends as precious and appreciated gifts, can still lose the people we love so dearly while others who scorn and abuse their loved ones remain untouched by grief. Cain seethes with frustration because it feels as if God has joined in the universe’s conspiracy against him. Instead of protecting Cain from the basic injustices of life, God has made an arbitrary decision for Abel and against Cain, and Cain’s heart seethes, “It’s just not fair.”
And we have to admit that our sympathies lie with Cain, not with Abel. Even if we have come to accept that life isn’t always fair, we still hope that God is more careful about spreading the love around and so God’s apparent favoritism in this story disturbs us. Every since the story was first told, people have been filling in the blanks trying to find an explanation for God’s coldness toward Cain, suggesting that Cain’s heart wasn’t really in his offering, or that he was trying to impress God rather than praise God. It seems unlikely, however, that God saw the rejection of Cain’s offering as a rejection of Cain himself. In fact, later in the story, even after Cain has done the unthinkable and murdered his brother, God still refuses to destroy Cain but instead puts a mark of protection on him so that he will remain safe. God is able to separate the worth of Cain’s offering from the worth of Cain himself but Cain mixes the two up. He feels as if his identity as a good person is being threatened by the arbitrary nature of an unfair world. We too, like Cain, often confuse our worthiness with whether we experience success, with the number of blessings we receive, and with the amount of protection we believe we have received from the hand of God. The story warns us, however that sometimes, for no reason that we can discern, life is unfair. Even the demonstration of a deep faith in God and an upright religious life cannot protect us from the randomness of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, car accidents, and disease. Even God cannot protect us from the cruelty of other people’s choices, from rejection, small mindedness, gossip, and insult. People aren’t always fair, society isn’t always fair, fate certainly isn’t fair, and God, with all of God’s compassion for you, cannot provide an absolute certain protection against the injustices of the world for you.
What God wants to know is how we choose to respond to the injustices of the world?
God says to Cain, ‘You are worried about how much praise I am giving you in comparison to what your brother is getting but what I am worried about is how well you are living your life.’
“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain feels that life is unfair — and he is not wrong about that — but as he lies simmering at the injustice of it all, he faces a choice. How will he react to the reality of an unfair universe?
And Cain decides to wrench the balance back in his favor. If life is unfair, Cain thinks, then I will make it fair again by bringing Abel down in the mud with me.
Have you ever been tempted –even just a little — to throttle a colleague? Have you ever been tempted to hurt someone who has hurt you? Have you ever been tempted to say, “I’ll show them,”? Have you ever been tempted to find release for your pain through blame, vengeance, or condemnation of someone else? Some of us may imagine lurid scenarios of revenge upon those who have treated us unjustly while others of us find small ways to balance the scales — gossip, biting remarks, bigotry, disregard for others. Sometimes our methods are more passive and we ourselves may not even realize we are doing it. Have you ever in your sadness at your own trials made others feel guilty for being happy? Or have you ever cut off a friend’s story of sorrow to play the “you think your life is bad — well, let me tell you about mine” game. All of us take on the role of Cain at times in our lives as we react to the injustices life deals us and our loved ones. And like Cain, we can be tempted to try to make life feel more fair by bringing everyone down in the mud with us.
Cain, in the darkness of night, remembers the injustice of it all and he makes a choice. He opens the door to the temptation that lurks outside and succumbs to his anger, deciding that because he has received a slight that he does not deserve, he will take matters into his own hands and balance the scales again. He will bring Abel down with him. The next day he pours out his anger and hurt on Abel and it kills the boy.
God demands of Cain, “Where is your brother?”
And with a guilty cry Cain demands, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In his absorption with his own interests, Cain has erased Abel from his awareness and God’s question to him brings this into stark relief. Cain saw life as unfair because he was only considering life from one vantage point — the isolated smallness of his insular world. When he thought only of himself, he believed that the only way to balance the injustice was to drag Abel into the mud with him. God yanks Cain out of his solitary isolation and back into an awareness of his relationship with Abel.
“You, Cain, are not just one person. You are many — you are your brother and your mother and your father and your neighbor and their joys and sorrows are your joys and sorrows.” If Cain had truly understood that, he would have realized that bringing Abel down wasn’t the only way to restore the scales; Cain could have instead chosen to rise up himself, to rejoice with Abel, and to see in his brother his own heart. We can’t always make the world fair, but we can choose to balance the scales by rising up instead of dragging others down, by choosing life instead of death, by restoring meaning and purpose and our lives and the lives of those around us.
This week, in researching conflict resolution for my youth group meeting this afternoon, I came upon a Ted talk by a woman named Lizzie Velasquez. 1 Lizzie had a “Cain and Abel” moment when she was 17 but she chose life.
Lizzie was born with two different rare genetic conditions that caused deformities in her skeleton and face as she grew. As you can imagine, she endured a lot of bullying growing up but because of her parent’s love and advocacy, she was able to lead a normal life, make friends, and do the normal things every kid does. When she was 17, unbeknownst to her, someone in her school took a video of her, and put it on Youtube labeled, “The World’s Ugliest Woman.” It when viral. Lizzie stumbled upon the Youtube video while surfing the web one night, and didn’t realize that she was the subject until the video began playing.
“I was shocked,” Lizzie recalls, “but it wasn’t until I started to read the comments that my stomach really sank.”
“Why would her parents keep her?!” read one comment…, “kill it with fire,” said another…. [One said, “Lizzie, please, please, just do the world a favor, put a gun to your head and kill yourself”.] Lizzie said that she compulsively read every comment and there were thousands.
“I cried for many nights,” she says. “As a teenager I thought my life was over. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to anybody about it. I didn’t tell any of my friends. I was just so shocked that it had happened.”
Certainly Lizzie Velasquez knew more than most that life is not fair. She had not asked to be born with two rare genetic diseases. She had not asked to be the victim of cyberbullying. Who among us would blame her if she had given in to her despair, holed up in her house, and cynically turned away from society and its cruelty? This was truly a Cain and Abel moment for her. And in choosing her path forward, Lizzie said that she came back to what her parents had told her over and over again throughout her childhood.
‘Lizzie,” they would tell her, “You have this syndrome, but it’s not gonna define who you are.
“I [realized] that my life is in my hands,” she said. “I could either choose to make this really good or I can choose to make this really bad. … I started realizing, ‘Am I gonna let the people who called me a monster define me? Am I gonna let the people who said “Kill it with fire” define me?’ No. I’m gonna let my goals, and my success, and my accomplishments be the things that define me. Not my outer appearance, not the fact that I’m visually impaired, not the fact that I have this syndrome that nobody knows what it is. So I told myself I’m going to work my butt off and do whatever I could to make myself better, because in my mind, the best way that I could get back at all those people who made fun of me, who teased me, who called me ugly, who called me a monster, was to make myself better, and to show them, ‘You know what? Tell me those negative things, I’m gonna turn around and I’m gonna use them as a ladder to climb up to my goals’.
Today Lizzie is a motivational speaker, an author of three books, the subject of a documentary, and leads anti-bullying workshops to help other young people learn how to balance the scales of injustice by rising up and lifting others up instead of dragging others down into the mud with them.
What are your Cain and Abel moments? When life is unjust, when the world conspires against you, when people treat you with cruelty, when life isn’t fair, how will you choose to go forward? Will you balance the scales by dragging others down with you, or will you balance the scales by lifting others up, by rejoicing in the blessings of others, by defining yourself not by the externals but by what is in your heart not, by pursuing meaning and remaining steadfast in love?