Prevention Is the Best Cure
21 March 2021, 12:32
Genesis 4:1-16 and John 8:31-47
© Stacey Steck
Call me old fashioned, but I’m a huge fan of the good old Broadway musicals of the 1950s and 60s. I can’t get enough of Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, The King and I, Singing in the Rain, and most especially Oklahoma, my absolute favorite, that great Rodgers and Hammerstein classic set on the frontier. “O, what a beautiful morning, O what a beautiful day. I’ve got a fresh cup of coffee, everything’s going my way.” How can you go wrong with a show that begins that perfectly! Of course, the backdrop to all the drama in the show is the growing conflict between the farmers and the ranchers symbolized by the contested courtship of the beautiful Laurey by the cowboy Curly on the one hand, and the farm hand Jud on the other. You may remember the scene in which the showdown between the farmers and the ranchers comes to a head, and has to be defused by the more cool headed members of the community, who remind everyone that, and I quote:
The farmer and the cowman should be friends.
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow,
But that's no reason why they cain’t be friends.
Now, it’s too bad Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn’t written their lyrics by the time Cain took Abel out to a field and killed him. Maybe he would have seen the error of his ways and spared himself a lot of grief, not to mention Abel’s life. Then again, he didn’t even listen to God’s advice, so maybe there really was no talking to him. But Cain the farmer saw Abel the rancher as a threat, and saw no reason why they should be friends, or brothers, for that matter. What Cain couldn’t seem to embrace was what Aunt Eller told the feuding cowboys and farm hands back in Oklahoma,
I’d like to teach you all a little sayin’
And learn the words by heart the way you should
I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else
But I’ll be danged if I ain’t jist as good!
In a way, that was God’s message to Cain when Cain’s “countenance fell.” “Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” God seems to be comforting Cain by telling him that his problem was a matter of effort not character. He is “good” enough, just as good as his brother, and doesn’t need to be any better, but just needs to put a little more thought into it next time. The quick and common reading of this passage leads many people to believe that God favored Abel’s gift over Cain’s because Abel’s was a gift of livestock, which was somehow better. While that may be possible, what it far more likely is that what displeased God was not a question of which agricultural product was superior, but rather the quality of the product offered. “In the course of time,” the Bible says, “Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions,” in other words, Cain brought just the basics, while Abel brought the best. And this difference is what God seems to be highlighting in his message to Cain, that next time, don’t just do the task, do it the best you can.
Now, the story is probably a lot more complex than we have received it, but as it reads, the whole thing does seem kind of unfair for Cain since his offering gets rejected and there was no explanation ahead of time about what would constitute an appropriate offering, nor any justification given after the fact. All we can do is infer that either livestock is better or that Cain didn’t offer up the best quality stuff. But either way, it’s kind of like an episode of bad parenting. If you set a child up for failure, that child is going to fail, and Cain failed. To God’s credit, there is an attempt at divine remediation. God tells Cain what he needs to do to get right with God: to “do well” so that the sin lurking at the door will not overcome him. It’s not very specific information, but Cain does not go forward completely uninformed or uncomforted.
Unfortunately, instead of going home and looking for the first fruits of his garden which he could give God next time, he takes his brother Abel out in the field and assassinates him. I guess some people don’t react well to disappointment. For his part, Abel had done nothing to Cain, and for God’s part, all it says is that God did not have regard for Cain and his offering. God did not punish Cain but merely praised Abel more highly. But, as so often happens, we take out our aggressions on the less powerful, and the younger brother lay dead at the hands of the eldest. I wonder if God regrets not giving Cain an attaboy.
This entire story comes, of course on the heels of Adam’s and Eve’s sin in the garden when they chose to disobey a pretty specific commandment. We are meant, I think, to understand that there are consequences to sin. Everything was just fine until that fateful bite of the apple, and the next thing you know there is blood on the ground. Sin is to avoided like the plague, to use an old cliché, but the way we don’t avoid it would lead you to believe we human beings have never been prepared by God on how to avoid it. But we have, again and again. We simply choose otherwise. We know what the right thing to do is, but we go and do otherwise, just like Cain. We know we should eat better, but we keep eating food that is bad for us. We know we should exercise, but we choose the couch. We know we should save for retirement, but we go right on buying things that we probably don’t really need for the future, but that provide us with creature comforts in the present. And all of these things that we’ve been warned about, but continue to do, have their consequences.
It is this same tendency that Jesus finds in the religion of his time, and he calls it out in our passage this morning from John. We are slowly but surely making our way through this pretty dense story of Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders of his community, and yes, it is as hard for me to make sense of it as it is for you. John has a pretty challenging way of telling a story, but it is worth the effort because it gives us a clue about how to avoid the sin which causes us so much grief. In today’s installment, Jesus takes on some of the same dynamics we see in the Cain and Abel story as he makes his case for why his view of God’s kingdom is the true one. Throughout these chapters in John, Jesus has been challenging the notion that there is any inherited way to know God. Just because you have Moses, doesn’t mean you know who God is. Just because you follow Abraham doesn’t mean that you are entitled to something. Just because you are the older brother, so to speak, just because you are the legitimate heir to the promise, doesn’t mean you’re really going to receive what you think is coming to you. If you remember your Old Testament, you remember that God doesn’t play by the rules we set about things like birth order. It may have been the custom that the firstborn would inherit a greater share than any subsequent siblings, but that never stopped God from favoring the younger brother. In story after story, it is the younger brother who is the path through which the promise flow, and it all begins in this story of Cain and Abel. As the firstborn, Cain probably expected that no matter what he did, he’d be the favored one – until he wasn’t. Abel, the younger son, like Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, and so many others, was God’s favored one, at least in this episode. Cain made sure we’d never find out it that blessing was permanent, but Esau, Ishmael, and all the rest of the other older brothers sure did. God is more interested in God’s ideas than ours.
And so in Jesus’ time, Jesus is God’s big idea, the light and life of the world, and these older brothers aren’t having any of it. They are going to fight for their privilege, and like Cain, try to eliminate the threat in front of them, oblivious to the fact that the Father has already chosen the heir. But Jesus is determined that God’s plan be fulfilled and so he takes on this contentious bunch using, interesting, the same strategy that God used on Cain. Look, Jesus says to his opponents, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man from God who has told you the truth that I heard from God.” Sound familiar? It should, because it’s a lot like God’s message to Cain: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 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.” It’s a question of doing the right thing. If Cain does the right thing, he’ll be fine. If the Jews who claim to be the spiritual children of Abraham are as faithful as Abraham, they’ll be fine. But in neither case did everything turn out fine. In both cases, God basically says, “Look, you don’t have to do much, but you have to do something, and all I ask is that you follow my instructions,” and neither of them could.
At the beginning of our passage from John this morning, Jesus makes a bold statement that is really the crux of it all: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” That’s it. Basically, he says, “Follow my teachings, the ones I’ve received directly from God, and you’ll be fine. Don’t worry about all those traditions you’ve inherited and misinterpreted. I’ll straighten you out. But you have to listen to me.” And that’s how you avoid sin. That’s how you avoid catching that virus we’ve been talking about here in Lent. It’s as if Jesus were a doctor, saying to his patient, “If you take the prescription I’m writing for you, you will be my patient and you will be immunized and your immunization will make you free.” If you don’t, there’s not much I can do for you and you’re going to get sick and die. End of story. And so what Jesus is advocating is a kind of preventative spiritual medicine. Focus on taking care of your spiritual life, and the challenges of sin will take care of themselves. And the prescription Jesus offers is a little like the COVID-19 vaccines we’ve been receiving. If you get your two shots of their vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna and all the rest don’t guarantee you won’t catch the virus, but they almost guarantee you won’t get really sick or die. In the same way, believing that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life doesn’t mean you’ll never sin again, but it does mean that you won’t die in the way Jesus described to his foes in our passage from last week: “I told you,” he says, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.”
It’s a hard sell, and Jesus knows that. Those scribes and Pharisees had a lot at stake, just like we do, just like Cain did. Just as the Jews cannot, according to Jesus, “accept my word,” Cain could not “accept God’s word” of love despite not having his gift honored. In both cases the divine one gives hard medicine, but it is for the patient’s own good. Both were hard-hearted, to use that great old Biblical phrase. They were too set in their ways, or too blinded by emotion, or too sure of themselves to be able to receive the grace which was being extended to them. And the truth is that those same obstacles are part of our experience too. We can be too set in our ways, or too blinded by our emotions, too sure of ourselves to be able to receive the grace which is being extended to us. We can be hard-hearted and ignore the wisdom that is given to us by none other than the word made flesh.
In our passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus seems to be describing a spiritual death, and it sounds pretty bad, but there is another kind of death that sounds just as bad, the kind of death Cain experienced after he was sent even farther east of Eden than his parents had been when they were banished from the garden. Cain knows what awaits him as a wanderer, cut off from family, community, and, so he believes, God too. “My punishment is greater than I can bear,” he exclaims because he knows how unpleasant and uncomfortable his life will be. He is, is a sense, a archetype of the tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers Jesus would one day welcome back into the fold, the place God wants us all to be. There are many in this world who feel this way, who feel cut off, who feel like wanderers, who feel as though the sins of their pasts preclude them from any decent future. But just as Jesus welcomed the tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers, and reintegrated them into life, we are called to do the same with people of any kind who feel that cut off, abandoned, hopeless way.
In a moment, Angela and I are going to sing the first two verses of a hymn that speaks to the kind of work that is always ahead of us if we have welcomed Christ into our lives. God warns Cain to do well, and Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of not doing what Abraham would do, so it raises the question of what we are called to do. This hymn, called “Let us build a house,” is a song originally written for the dedication of a new church building but it has a much deeper significance than that. It’s more like the offering of a kind of roadmap for we who do believe the great “I AM” to help others to do find him too. When we build a house worthy of the name church, we create an environment where it is easier to believe, easier to practice preventative spiritual medicine, and easier to practice the public spiritual health that addresses the social ills of our age. When we build a house worthy of the name Christian, the sin-sick soul finds a balm, the broken hearted become glad hearted, and the virus of sin doesn’t stand a chance. Angela and I want to invite you to join us on the third verses, and to sing like you don’t care you’ve never sung it before. May we never be too set in our ways, or too blinded by our emotions, or too sure of ourselves to be able to receive the grace which is being extended to us. Amen.