Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 2 June 2013
Readings: Genesis 4: 1-16; Mark 3: 7-19
Today, the First Sunday after Trinity is the beginning of the second half of the church’s year. The first half began on Advent Sunday and finished on Corpus Christi.
The first half of the year unfolds the revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: as Father during Advent as God the Father calls patriarchs and prophets to fashion a people that witness to his lordship of creation and the kingdoms of the earth.
Next comes God the Son: Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Ascension mark God the Father’s establishing an unshakeable bridge between heaven and earth in his Son. There is a sweep from heaven to earth and back to heaven again with humanity trailing in its wake.
And then finally and o-so-briefly, God the Holy Spirit celebrated at Pentecost. The whole revelation is summed up on Trinity Sunday (last Sunday) with Corpus Christi, not just the cherry on the cake but the visible embodiment that our faith is more than a dusty doctrine dreamt up by the doctors of the church but a living reality that can take a stroll down Oxford Street.
All this: the Trinity and the sacrament of unity lay the foundation for the second half of the church’s year. Having told the story of divinity we tell the story of humanity. We have the great vocation to manifest the communion of God with his creation: in short, we are to make sacred history.
With this lofty desire I looked up this evening’s readings with breathless anticipation. Perhaps we would hear some gentle pointers to good living from the Book Proverbs; or a clarion call from S Paul. Or we might be summonsed to idealism by a prophet and treated to a comfortable word from the gospels.
Surely, after the heady kaleidoscope of liturgical colours in the first half of the year with purple yielding to white and gold and intermittent splashes of red in Holy Week and Pentecost we can look forward as green stretches almost endlessly before our eyes to a veritable Eden where we can bask in the joys of our humanity.
And what did we get? The story of Cain and Abel and a passage from Mark riddled with demons. What we wanted was virtue and verity. What we got was murder and madness. Like the English summer lectionary sunshine is in short supply. But let’s do as we are bid and grapple with some text. Let’s think about Cain and Abel. What’s this story really about?
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are sometimes called the Prehistory. There are myths, stories loaded with meaning. All religions have creation stories. They tell of how the world came to be and offer insights into human experience. The story of Cain and Abel has similarities with an Egyptian story of an older brother representing the night who is threatened by a younger sibling representing the day. Night murders day only for day to rise again. Hence the pattern of night and day, of winter and summer.
The early chapters of Genesis have trace memories of events that shaped the human psyche before history was recorded. The story of Noah and the Flood may well be founded upon some ancient tsunami that left only a remnant of people and animals to start again.
Cain and Abel may owe its origins to the extinction of Neanderthal Man and the ascent of Homo Sapiens. In Cain and Abel we can see the ancient conflict between the nomad and the settler. Abel was a keeper of sheep; Cain, a tiller of the soil.
But in the crucial encounter with God, which in ancient religion centres on the ritual of sacrifice there is a problem that has led to head-scratching and soul-searching on an epic scale. God chooses one person’s sacrifice over another’s. Abel is accepted. Cain is rejected. And the text that we heard this evening (translated into English from the earliest Hebrew sources) offers no explanation as to why this should be. This sets up an unbearable tension. Why does God decide in this way? Arbitrary authority is hard to live with especially when we are on the receiving end.
In the second century before Christ the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek. This enabled Jews who lived way beyond the borders of the Promised Land where Greek was spoken to maintain their faith. Jews were speaking Greek and losing touch with Hebrew. But the Greek version of the scriptures made some changes to the Hebrew text that had far-reaching effects on Jewish theology and on Christian teaching.
The Greek version of Genesis 4.7 reads something like this: God asks Cain “If thou didst offer well but divide badly, hast thou not committed sin?” In other words, Cain’s offering was judged by God to be incomplete. He’d held something back. Cain’s offering was insincere. So God had a reason to reject Cain. S Augustine would say that Cain’s sin was that his offering to God was not wholehearted. Cain’s sacrifice was bloodless unlike Abel’s.
Now we can see the logic in this but if we accept that the focus of the Cain and Abel story is the murkiness of fallen human nature (envy and a lacklustre response to God), if we go down the path of assuming that the second half of the church’s year is primarily about man and our need to do better then we’ll miss out on the radical nature of Genesis and of our faith itself.
To understand Cain and Abel in its original form we have to see it as the first in a sequence of a repeating pattern. Next up in the story of brothers is Esau and Jacob. After that comes Joseph wearing his coat of many colours and his brothers. What these three stories have in common is that in each case God favours the younger son (or in Joseph’s case the youngest but one) over the eldest.
This dynamic is radically counter-cultural. In the ancient world primogeniture (the primacy of the first born son) was a given. So for the scriptures to recount of a God who sets up situations that challenge this is extraordinary. And it’s not confined to Genesis. When the prophet Samuel was commissioned to find a king for Israel it was only when David, the youngest who was out minding the sheep was finally brought in that a member of the House of Jesse was anointed as king (1 Samuel 16).
David is the new Abel, the new shepherd. He is the crowning achievement of a God that constantly unsettles humanity. God challenges the established orders that human beings create. We are to celebrate the unexpected. Jesus of Nazareth (Nazareth, a place from which ‘nothing good comes’) will embody this truth as he teaches about a prodigal son that shows his elder brother in a poor light and dies the most despised of deaths.
The Holy Spirit empowers a ramshackle bunch of deserters to bring about a world-wide religion organised around flocks with their shepherd, the laity following their bishop with his crosier.
All this bears out the truth of the old joke:
Question: How do you make God laugh?
Answer: Tell him your plans.
So let’s get on with the church’s year part two. But let’s not think that it’s all about human improvement. A little less murder and madness of course always helps. Wholehearted commitment is good. But we’ll only reach our full potential and be fulfilled in our faith when we open our eyes and see that God’s ways are not always ours. And in that revelation we’ll show that we ‘get it’ not with bitterness and murder but with blessing and magnanimity.
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