Monday, January 28, 2019

Four Brothers and God’s Grace

Preached at Tigard Friends Church 1/27/2019

I want us to look at two stories from the Bible that use the relationships between older and younger brothers to explore what God wants from each of us, and how each of us has our own unique relationship with God. Ultimately, both stories give brilliant pictures of God’s grace to each of the brothers and also to each of us.

The first story is of the first brothers, Cain and Abel. They each specialize in a different branch of agriculture. Cain raises grain, and Abel raises sheep. When it comes time to thank God for the harvest, each offers something of what they have raised.

God graciously accepts Abel’s offering and rejects Cain’s. We do not really know why and must infer it from what happens next, namely that Cain carries the seeds of murder in his heart.

If we identify with Abel, we are working hard and giving part of what we produce to God. We are glad to see that God graciously accepts our offerings. We are also innocently oblivious to the inner dynamics in other people and trust that they mean us well. Abels are often surprised by the envy and hatred of others.

When Cain sees that God has rejected his offering and favored his younger brother, he becomes afraid that God has rejected him and as a result he is jealous and angry. God speaks to him directly and says, “Why are you angry? If you behave well, you will be accepted. If you behave badly, sin is at your door and wants to eat you up.” Cain says, essentially, “Whatever.” We see here the commitment of God to our free will, in that God could easily have prevented Cain from killing Abel and did not. It is always surprising how and when God intervenes in human affairs.

What in us might identify with Cain? Perhaps it is actual rivalry we have with our siblings. Perhaps our parents favored one child above the rest.  The first child has to watch parents get more lenient with second and third children. Perhaps now that we have grown up, we can see that our sibling has more trappings of success; we can see that though we work as hard or harder, everything goes our brother’s way. Even in religion, our sibling has a sunnier relationship with God and doesn’t seem to be afraid that God will reject her offering. Our sibling’s serene confidence is all by itself annoying.  Perhaps someone tries to reassure us that God will accept our offerings if we do the right thing, which we interpret as meaning we need work harder to earn God’s favor. Now we’re angry because we already tried that and failed.

So then Cain invites Abel out into the fields and kills him. This murder derives directly from the deadly sins that Cain has embraced in his heart. First, envy, then anger, then hatred. But just recall that they all are rooted in Cain’s fear that God does not love him as much as God loves Abel.

God again speaks to Cain directly and says, “Where is your brother?” Cain replies, “How would I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” God says, “The earth itself cries out for justice for your brother’s blood. Therefore, you will be cursed by the land, which will not bear fruit for you. You will wander homeless.”

Cain says, “My sin is too bad for your grace. You have cast me out and you will hide your face from me, and I am a homeless wanderer. Anyone who finds me will kill me.” God replies, “No, in fact, whoever kills Cain will be punished even more severely.” And God places a mark on Cain so that no one will kill him.

So Cain departs from the face of God, a fugitive on the earth. But he finds a wife, they had a son named Enoch, and Cain builds a city and names it after his son.

Now why was Cain’s offering unacceptable? God’s rejection of the offering was not a rejection of Cain, which we can see in that God shows up to talk with Cain again, but it brings Cain’s inner life into the open. Cain is prone to comparing himself to others, which has its roots in fear of being unacceptable or inadequate, and which becomes envy when he sees God accepting Abel’s offering. This envy evolves into wishing Abel ill and progresses to actively eliminating the competition for God’s favor. Perhaps Cain sees God’s favor as a limited resource, so if Abel gets some, there is less for Cain.

I have found that this story stirs up in me a desire to do whatever it takes to be acceptable to God, so I can be as good as Abel, the one God likes best. It makes me want to be and do good so that God will be gracious to me. This impulse derives from the part where God says to Cain, “If you behave well, will you not be accepted?” When I respond this way, with increased good intentions, I miss the point, and the good I do is marred by its origin in comparison. St. Paul tells us to rejoice when others rejoice and to weep when they weep. This is impossible to do when I am comparing myself to others and becoming envious as Cain does.

I also have shared in Cain’s sense of being cast away by God. But note: Cain is the one who says that God is banishing him from God’s presence, and this internal state is what he carries with him. However, we know that we cannot elude God’s presence, though it is not always comfortable to have God so close. As the Psalmist David says, “Where can I go to get away from you? If I ascend into the heavens, there you are. If I make my bed in the grave or descend to hell, there you are.” And as Job the theologian says, “Could you not look away from me for one moment so I can swallow my spit?” So the distance between Cain and God exists only within Cain.

I also have shared Cain’s idea of justice. A murderer is beyond grace, deserves to be rejected and cast out of decent society. A murderer deserves to have the life taken away that he or she took away from someone else. This is justice, and Cain expects it. It makes sense, like adding 2 plus 2 and getting 4, or more appropriately subtracting 1 from 2 and then from 1, ending up in nothing and no one left.

It is interesting to note that the physical earth cries out about Abel’s blood. The need for justice runs through the universe and executing justice is God’s problem. We humans tend toward revenge rather than justice, and when God limits our revenge to eye for eye, we think that’s God’s idea of justice. But the prophet Micah says to us that we ourselves are to do justice and to love mercy; loving mercy mitigates against eye for eye justice. Instead, we judge God’s justice and mercy by our own, which hardly does justice to God..

What we learn about Grace

First, God’s grace shows in God’s willingness to have unique personal relationships with humans. God speaks directly to Cain, confronting him with the truth about what is inside him and then later with what he has done. God is gracious enough to confront us, to remind us of our ability to choose good, and often to give us time to grow into better people. There is no question that Cain chooses to behave badly, so it is easy to ignore the fact that when God confronts his attitude, this is grace to him, reminding him that he has a choice, and that God exhibits grace to him even when he has chosen very badly.

Second, God describes to him how the physical universe cries out because of Abel’s blood, and that there are life consequences for Cain, the farmer. The exercise of our free will has consequences, sometimes ones we see close up, sometimes ones experienced by subsequent generations or peoples far away. God’s grace doesn’t often (or perhaps ever) remove the physical and temporal consequences of human choices.

Third, God does not, in fact, shed Cain’s blood in payment for Abel. This calls into question our idea that the later Mosaic law that says, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life expresses God’s ideal. God’s grace uses a different kind of math to achieve justice. Furthermore, God’s grace makes us question our own simple understanding of justice. Indeed, God protects Cain from others who might kill him as a murderer.

Fifth, Cain does in fact wander, but eventually he has a family and builds a home and a city. So, in a moment when God could be exactly just and take from Cain the same life Cain took from Abel, God instead shows Cain mercy, gives him protection, and allows him to live a full life.

I won’t speak for everyone here, but I do think it’s common to be envious when we see God taking care of other people, particularly other people we see as second to us, either by birth order (as for Cain), by morality, by nationality, by some other measure. The psalms are full of questions to God: Why do the others prosper? Why are you so unhelpful to me?. “Why do the wicked prosper?” we complain with the prophet Jeremiah. We often have a desire to see God’s justice distributed on the bad guys and to have God’s mercy and grace distributed to us.

Our response to seeing God’s favor showered on other people reveals to us the state of our own souls. St. Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” But if I’m obsessed with fairness, I may well rejoice in others’ misfortunes and weep only over my own. Turns out, God doesn’t like that. God will confront me directly and warn me about my envy and fear of unacceptability.

The second pair of brothers is the famous unnamed pair in the story we call the Prodigal Son. Jesus tells this story in the context of stories about God caring for the lost. Two brothers and a father, and the younger asks for his inheritance and goes off to waste it in wild living. The older stays home and works like a slave for their father while keeping an eye on his future inheritance.

The younger is working as a swineherd when he comes to his senses. He realizes that the pigs are getting more to eat than he is and that his father’s slaves live in more comfort than he does. He decides to go home and plans a repentance where he offers to work for his father as a slave. 

And when he nears home, the father, who has been watching for him since he left, runs to meet him. The father orders up for the prodigal son the best clothing, the finest jewelry, and the fattest calf for a (prodigal) feast. “My son who was dead is now alive!” he says.

When we identify with the younger son, we can celebrate whole-heartedly the gracious welcome of the father. We see how God is always waiting to welcome the wanderer back with open arms and heart. We are relieved to note that there is a welcome for bad brothers, the Cains of the world, and this encourages us to leave our unsatisfying self-made lives and run to God. I’ve found this so hopeful when I’ve clearly made a mess of things and found that God’s love is nonetheless constant.

But when we identify with the older brother who has worked all his life to please his father, we can learn some additional things about God’s grace. First, it is possible to live a life surrounded and infused by God’s presence and grace and never notice. It is possible to believe that we are earning God’s favor by our diligence and devotion. And when we do not recognize that we owe everything to God’s grace, it is maddening to see God ladle it out over a person who has forsaken God and goodness. It scandalizes our sense of fair play, of justice even, especially when there is no acknowledgement of our own moral excellence, when the only notice we get is to be invited to welcome the wastrel back.  We didn’t even get to throw ourselves a birthday party! I myself have said to God, “I know you’re gonna let that so and so into heaven and I’m not happy about it.”

The father’s response to his sulky son (who may be thinking about inviting his brother into the field to kill him…) is to confront his inaccurate view of their relationship head on. First, he calls him, “My son,” affirming their intimate relationship. Second, he reminds him, “Everything I have is yours.” The father remains committed to the son’s best interests, despite the son’s self-absorption. Third, he says, and I imagine gently, “But isn’t it appropriate to celebrate when our son and brother comes back from the dead?” He invites the son to rejoice with those who rejoice, to join the party.

So what do we learn from looking at these sets of brothers side by side?

1.     We humans have a tendency to compare ourselves to others.
2.     This tendency is often destructive of inner peace and relationships with those others. It leads to envy and other deadly sins.
3.     We humans tend to want God to be just to other people and gracious to ourselves.
4.     However, God’s grace surrounds and infuses our human lives, whether we recognize it or not. God’s grace reminds us to go home to God, protects us when we are wandering, offers hope for something better.
5.     We cannot and do not earn grace. Grace means favor we have not (and cannot) earn.
6.     Our response to seeing God’s grace in action for ourselves and for others needs to be gratitude (which includes the word grace). God’s grace is gratis—or free—and this is true for us and for those we have written off as prodigal, wicked, naïve, or prissy.
7.     We can tell we have the right attitude about God’s grace when we can rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

One of the dominant metaphors for God’s kingdom is a feast, a party. Let’s be grateful for how God’s grace surrounds us and how God is gracious to others as well, and we can be the life of the party in the kingdom of God.

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