Sunday, September 11, 2011

When God Asks the Questions: where is your brother?

Joining with Michelle once again over at Graceful for her thoughtful invitation to HeartItonSunday, UseItonMonday. And also with Jen at FindingHeaven and the soli deo gloria sisterhood. This is the 3rd in a series of questions from God to us (usually asked of a particular person in scripture, but the applications and implications of each question apply with a very broad brush to all of us!). This 3rd sermon was preached this morning by our Associate Pastor, Dr. Jon Lemmond, who is a personal favorite (for lots of reasons, not least of which being that he now does some of what I used to do!) and whose thoughtful words never cease to mess with me. As always, my reflections here are my summary and response to the lovely and provocative ideas presented in the sermons I hear and the scripture I read with new eyes after having heard them.
I'm also adding this to the lovely ladies at Scripture and a Snapshot this week:

Ah, Cain. 
My brother from another mother.

So adored by his own mother - 
"I have brought forth a man!" 
she exclaimed when he was born.
So full of himself,
as most young men are.
So sure he was doing the right thing,
so used to being praised for his efforts,
so ill-equipped for a come-uppance.

But that's what he got.
He brought his offering to the Lord - 
the first time in scripture that a religious ritual is described.
He even inspired his younger brother to do the same.
"Some" of the fruits of the soil - 
that's what Cain brought.
"The fat portions from the firstborn of his flock" - 
that's what the kid brother brought.

They both brought a part of themselves, didn't they?
They both brought some of their own sweat and tears, right?
But for some reason, 
one was more acceptable to the LORD than the other.*

And Cain was not happy.
He pouted.
And his pouting soured within him,
stirring up angry, poisonous thoughts.
And God engages him at this point...
"What's the problem, Cain? Why the long face? 
I assure you that if you do the right thing, 
you will be accepted.
But if not, beware. Sin is at the door..."

And right there, the jig was up.
Because Cain was unwilling to listen, to hear, to understand.
The result?
Stunning violence. The first murder in scripture.
From glowering shame and disappointment,
to festering anger and jealousy,
to vicious and deadly action.
Abel, the kid brother, lies bleeding in the field.
Cain, the murdering big brother,
feigns ignorance.

"Where is your brother?"
"Where is your brother?"

The question hangs in the air
And the door is open, 
ever so briefly, 
for a different outcome.
God, who surely knew where Abel was,
broken and bleeding so profusely that  
'his blood cries out to me from the ground,'
this God creates a small space for Cain to confess the truth.

How might things have been different if he had done so?
Instead of playing the cool dude,
the one with the alibi sewn up,
the kid who can't stand playing second fiddle to anyone,
so he eliminates the competition -
what if he had owned his crap?
What if he had fallen to his knees,
sobbing out his grief,
his regret,
his brokenness,
his ugliness,
his SIN?
What if?

We'll never know the answer to that.
Because Cain chooses - 
and continues to choose for the entire narrative - 
    to prevaricate,
to cover,
to refuse to receive any blame,
or to own up.
He refuses to confess.

And the price for this refusal is enormous.
The price is homelessness.
The price is deliberately moving out and away from the presence of God.
The price is continuing to carry the weight of that  
unconfessed sin for the rest of his days,
his forehead forever marked -  
as a sign of the grace that Cain refused when he answered God's question with:
"I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

YES, Cain, yes. 
You are your brother's keeper.
We are all responsible to and for one another.
And we need so deeply to release the weight of our sins 
against each other, and against God.
We need to confess, to admit our need for a Savior,
to admit our complicity in the violence of this world,
to say, "I am so, so sorry. Can you forgive me?"
And the story of Cain and Abel highlights three important reasons that this is true:

1. We need to learn the difference between
honesty and truth.
Because it's one thing to say we believe 'the truth'  
about a certain set of doctrines 
and it is another to learn about and practice real honesty:
honest admission of our flaws and weaknesses, 
our points of struggle and doubt,
our personal foibles and demons.
If we cannot find safe places in which to be honest,
even if it embarrasses us,
even if we are forced to acknowledge our own participation 
in the problems we deal with,
then all 'the truth' in the world is not going to change us from the inside out.
Confession IS good for the soul!

2. We need to understand that the confession of sin is intimately connected to our responsibilty to and for other people. 
"Where is your brother?" comes before 
"What have you done?" in this powerful narrative.
It's not primarily about us.
It's about how what we say and what we do 
impacts our relationships - 
with God and with one another.
The fact that Cain becomes a wanderer - in the middle of a land which means 'wandering' - comes directly out of his refusal 
  to confess the heinousness of his actions;
it comes from that place almost 
as much as it comes from the actions themselves.
Cain took his brother's life - he broke the web of relationship  
that was so tenuously being established 'east of Eden.'
And then he compounded that act by refusing to engage God  
at an intimate level, with honesty and contrition.
The sin crouching at the door devoured him. 

3. Confession is the necessary precursor to the reception of grace. 
 NOT that confession brings about grace - 
God's grace is always first, always.
But...we must be willing to put down our sin (confession)
before we have space for the gift of grace.

My husband and I saw a powerful movie this weekend that played out for us something of the price of unconfessed sin. It's called "The Debt," and while God is never mentioned in this story, the weight of sin carried over many years is almost palpably present in every gritty and violent detail of the tale.
And our sermon this morning ended with an illustration from another movie, one where God's presence is acknowledged throughout - "Dead Man Walking."  
 In one of the closing scenes of that magnificent film, the condemned man - on the verge of public execution - finally confesses to the nun who has become his advocate and friend that he did, indeed, 
 commit the crime for which he has been sentenced.
"Now," says the nun, "NOW, you are a son of God."
Confession opens the door to grace,
which has been standing there all along.
Thanks be to God.

*Because it was not the point of this particular sermon, the reason for God's approval of Abel's rather than Cain's offering was not discussed today. I have to wonder, however, if it isn't somehow connected to what we learn later in scripture, in the Levitical code, about the fact that God was to be given all the fat of any animal offerings. Perhaps this signifies the abundance of the flock? And the overflow of abundance (the fat!) is what is to be offered back to God? I don't know, but it's interesting to ponder! I have to think that the attitudes of the heart that we see displayed in the narrative following these offerings has something to do with the approval of the Lord as well.