Jealousy & Violence; Blessing & Community

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 — Week of 1 Epiphany, Year Two

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p 943)

Psalms 119:1-24 (morning) 12, 13, 14 (evening)

Genesis 4:1-16

Hebrews 2:11-18

John 1:(29-34)35-42

Today we begin with the story of Cain and Abel, two brothers. It is a story that ends in bloodshed, the first murder. Cain resents God’s greater acceptance of Abel’s offering, and reacts with violence.

John’s gospel also gives us a story of cousins and brothers.

John the Baptist sees the Spirit descend and remain upon his cousin Jesus, and John recognizes that this is “a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” Even though John is older than his cousin, John blesses the greater blessing that God gives to Jesus, and calls him Lamb of God and Son of God.

In our gospel story we also have two brothers, Andrew and Peter. Andrew is with his teacher John the Baptist when John points out Jesus, the Lamb of God. Andrew follows Jesus, who invites him to “Come and see.” After being with Jesus for the day, Andrew seeks out his brother Simon Peter and brings him to Jesus, who names him “Cephas,” Aramaic for “rock” (i.e. Rocky). Peter will become the leader of the early church. Andrew, the brother who brought him to Jesus, will continue in harmony with his brother and the community of disciples.

Jealously and violence. Blessing and community.

Some have said that the Cain and Abel story symbolically represents the conflict between herdsmen and agrarian farmers. Besides the prejudice that so regularly occurs between peoples of contrasting lifestyles, there was true conflict when these different groups competed for the same resources of water and land. If the herdsmen allowed their cattle to stray into fields they would damage the farmers’ crops. If the farmers fenced the land they inhibited the herds from traveling to green fields and water. It makes me think of the Broadway play Oklahoma, and lively song that starts, “Oh, the Farmer and the Cowman should be friends” — a tame representation of a bitter feud.

We have in today’s story the first use of the word “sin” in scripture. When Cain becomes angry that his offering of the fruit of the ground is not accepted, God says, “Why are you angry…? 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.”

But Cain broods and does not master his afflictive emotions. He lures Abel to the field and kills him. In a powerful moment, God tells Cain that he cannot hide his act. “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” God hears and knows the secret violence and injustice of the earth.

Cain’s curse is a profound one. He is a farmer. A settled man of the soil. Now he must become a wanderer, and the soil will not yield to him. For a farmer to become a wanderer is a bitter curse indeed. As a wanderer, he has no rights or protection of tribe or belonging. He would be vulnerable to blood revenge for his act of murder.

God places a mark upon Cain as a warning, to protect him from death. The mark of Cain has a terrible history. During much of Christian history the mark of Cain was believed to be his black skin. The tradition justified racist theologies that saw the darker races as cursed by God and therefore destined to slavery and oppression. The Southern Baptists split from Northern Baptists using the curse of Cain as justification for their defense of slavery and their opposition toward the education of slaves. How ironic that the story of one brother’s violence toward another became a justification for centuries of oppression and violence of brother upon brother.

Jealousy, prejudice and violence is healed by blessing and community. John the Baptist and Andrew are models for us. They see God’s blessing upon their brothers and they rejoice. When Jesus accepts his death on behalf of the sin of the world, he becomes the Lamb of God who takes away our sin, heals our division, and consumes our violence with peace. The farmer and cowman, the settled and the wanderer, the black and white, the conservative and the liberal should be friends.

Our reading in Hebrews says that Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. It says that Jesus destroyed the power of death and freed us whose lives are “held in slavery by the fear of death.” “For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father… Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” We are called into the universal community that restores peace to the human family.

This is a day of much political pronouncement. I want to hear leaders who acknowledge our relationships with one another — our fellow human beings are our neighbors, and we are responsible toward one another. I do not want to support politicians who create fear and division. I want to support politicians who create blessing and community. Will we live as Cain and Abel or will we will live like the disciples of Jesus?

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