Genesis 4, 6, & 8
In the late 1800s and early 1900s there was a sense among people in the US especially that humanity was on a great trajectory. The growth of cities and railroads, real efforts to check government corruption and the power of big businesses, improving working conditions and living conditions, the proliferation of electricity, better communications, even the beginnings of the movement for environmental conservation. The overall feeling was optimistic about the course of human progress. We find this in Europe and especially in the US, this idea that progress, in the positive sense, is inevitable. Humanity is headed in a real good direction.
But then. World War I. Global Spanish flu pandemic. Worldwide economic depression. World War II. Holocaust. Nuclear weapons. Etc. etc. etc. I’ll just speak for myself but from where I sit, I can’t hardly imagine having an optimistic view of human people and human progress.
And honestly this is sometimes a tension for me as a Progressive Christian pastor. Here at Zion our core value of being progressive means that we will never use of fear and shame to motivate our behavior or religious conversion. We will never try to shame or scare each other into changing anything. We spend a lot of time affirming that all humans are created in God’s image and inherently worthy of love and belonging. I don’t spend a lot of time telling you what you are doing wrong, in large part because many of us have already spent way too much time in churches being told what’s wrong with us.
But also, we do not do ourselves or anyone else any favors if we pretend like everything we do is good all the time. I want us to spend a little bit of time wrestling with that this morning. So far this month we’ve heard different stories that affirm that humans are created in God’s image and that all of creation is very good, that humans are designed for community and that our place in the world is as caretakers, and that when we stop trusting God we naturally experience shame and fear and blame. We could say that original sin is a lack of trust in God. But unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. Let’s consider some selected readings from Genesis 4, 6, and 8. I invite you to listen in the reading of scripture for the word and wisdom of God.
Genesis chapter 4, verses 1 through 16. “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground, or a farmer. In the course of time 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. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering God had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said 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.”
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”
Genesis chapter 6, verses 5 through 8
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humans was great in the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humans on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the humans I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air—for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.”
You all know the next part of the story: a large boat filled with Noah’s family and a lot of animals, a worldwide flood that eventually subsides, and a chance to start over.
Genesis chapter 8, verses 20 through 22: “Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humans, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night
shall not cease.””
This is the Word of God, which is for all people. Thanks be to God.
The reason we have to start our faith story with the reminder that everyone and everything is created good, good, very good, is because it gets like this real fast. Between the first human couple we had shame and blame, and now within the first human family we have jealousy and murder. Which sounds depressingly familiar to what we hear in the news, and if we are honest with ourselves, what we feel in our own hearts. And here’s where we need a progressive Christian balance. I am not here to tell you what you are doing wrong. You don’t need me to tell you what you are doing wrong, because we all already know our own motivations and actions.
The only exception I might make to that rule is if you are sitting there saying, “Actually there’s really nothing in my heart or mind or intentions or desires that I think is problematic in any way. Yes, Pastor Beth, I am really just fine, thankyouverymuch.” If you say that to me, I might push back. Because that, my beloved ones, is pride. Perhaps we could call it “hubris” which means excessive arrogance, as opposed to a healthy Spirit-given appreciation for yourself. That’s fine. We should all have that. What we should not all have is hubris pride. That is a manifestation of sin about which the Bible is very clear. So, really, there’s no outside to this idea that there is something wrong in us. Either we can admit that something is wrong. Or we can’t admit that something is wrong, which is in itself wrong. But either way we won’t be able to deal with that something wrong appropriately unless we start with goodness. Which, I am convinced, is why the Bible starts with goodness.
We all have divine goodness in us. Period. But also, If we look around we see that things are not OK. Things are not OK in the world, things are not OK in this country, things are not OK in this county, and if I’m honest things are not OK in some of my own relationships and in me. It is hubris for me to focus only on the not-OKness of the county while ignoring the not-OKness within me. Because they are related. We all perpetuate a system that is bigger than us and we are all victims of a system that is bigger than us. That’s why we need an idea of “sin” that includes and transcends our individual actions. The tendency for hubris pride is real in humans. Liberals and conservatives are equally guilty of this in the political realm. Progressives and fundamentalists are equally guilty of this in the religious realm. Women, men, nonbinary folks; rich, poor, and everyone who claims to be middle-class. Nobody wants to admit when they are wrong.
Why is it so hard for us to admit to being wrong? What’s so wrong with being wrong? It feels dangerous. And here’s the theologically mind-blowing thing: it shouldn’t feel dangerous to be wrong. If we start with Genesis 1, that we have divine goodness at our core, and we actually trust God’s grace, that there’s nothing we could ever do that would change God’s love for us, it should not be dangerous to admit that we are wrong — and sometimes very wrong.
The problem is that we struggle to believe those things, don’t we? Honestly, I do not often have an emotionally overwhelming sense of my inherent goodness and God’s unconditional love. On the other hand, I do often have an overwhelming sense of scarcity: that there’s not enough of whatever it is that I think I need in the moment. And that feeling drives me to do things that I later regret. Just like Cain. Maybe not murder, yet, but still things I regret.
This is not just an Old Testament problem. The New Testament book of James says the same thing. James chapter 4, verses 1 through 8 says: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it, so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that the scripture speaks to no purpose? Does the spirit that God caused to dwell in us desire envy? But God gives all the more grace; therefore it says,
“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.”
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
A fear of scarcity is at the root of almost every problem we make and every problem we experience. Someone is acting out of sense that they have to protect their own interests because no one is going to protect them. This sense of not enough leads to personal shame, and fear of God, and blaming other people for our problems, and physical violence, and unhealthy rampant consumerism, and global conflicts. There are cravings at war within us; we want something and do not have it and so we find a way either to take it or to take it out on someone. It’s in all of us.
So what do we do about it? We clearly can’t get ourselves out of it, individually or globally, or we would have done that already because we aren’t stupid and we aren’t masochists. What we need is to get saved, which is also a word that progressives don’t use much but I’m not willing to give up. It’s deeply meaningful and here’s why. “Salvation” is word that the Bible uses to describe rescue from a situation in which someone is trapped, and healing of a wound or sickness, and victory over an enemy. The ways to understand salvation are rescue, healing, and victory. Something that is done outside of us, by someone else, on our behalf. What does your experience of sin feel like to do? Does your sense of scarcity and lack of trust feel like being trapped by something outside your control? Maybe it feels like a sickness or a wound that needs to be healed. Or maybe it feels like an enemy that you are fighting and you can’t conquer it alone. However you personally experience sin, the rescue or healing or victory that you seek has already been accomplished for you by God through Christ. We don’t have to do anything! Amen, thanks be to God! Who among us couldn’t use some of that?!
So how do we get saved? If the salvation is a reality, how do we experience that? How do we participate in that? The scripture says that we are saved by grace through faith. Through our faith in God’s grace. We are actually rescued and healed and victorious over that sense of scarcity by trusting in God’s rescue or healing or victory. The cure for a lack of trust is trust, because trust is always a choice and an action, not a feeling. I may not feel like I am inherently worthy of unconditional love, but I can choose to trust that what God’s word says is true and then I can choose to act in line with that trust.
Trust is not a feeling; trust is an action. Imagine if every time Sam told me he loved me, I responded with, “Prove it.” Or what if I said, “I don’t believe that you love me because in this moment I don’t FEEL loved.” Can Sam make me FEEL loved? He cannot. Can I make myself FEEL loved? I cannot. I have to trust, to choose that it’s real even in the moments when I don’t feel it.
We spend a lot of time listening to messages of the world, messages of scarcity and lack of trust, messages of envy and conflict and shame and blame and fear. I would venture to say that most of us spend more time rehearsing those messages than we do rehearsing messages of God’s love and grace. So it’s not really surprising that we feel those things so easily.
But I can hear you saying, “Pastor Beth, shouldn’t GOD be able to make me FEEL loved?” Which is a very good question, to which I will answer, maybe. Sometimes. Some of the most spiritual people ever, people like Mother Teresa, had long periods when they did not feel God’s love. Perhaps even God cannot control the mystery of love and how humans experience it. Ours is to trust that we are saved, rescued, healed, by through grace and then choose to act on it.
We can rehearse the messages of God’s love and grace, which hopefully will reinforce those feelings. I can choose to read about love and grace or sing about them or talk to someone about them rather than consuming whatever substance or engaging in whatever habit initiates the dopamine rush I’m looking for. Choosing to act in line with our trust in God’s love and grace is being saved through faith—choosing to act out of trust in God instead of acting out of a sense of scarcity. We can actually be saved through our faith. We can actually be rescued and healed and victorious through our trust in God’s grace and love.
Now, that’s a tall order. We absolutely cannot do that alone. We need other people around us to remind and encourage us, which means we also have to choose to be vulnerable enough to share what’s going on with us. Many of us also need therapists and or spiritual directors and or 12-step groups and or medication to help in this process. But do not underestimate the power and presence of a loving God who can both speak reality into existence and also get down in the mud to shape a creature — a loving God who loves you, and you, and you, and me personally and as the Psalmist says is close to the brokenhearted and rises to show us compassion. It is God that rescues us and heals us and gives us victory. Yes it is true that something is wrong. Hubris pride and a sense of scarcity take us down terrible roads. But we can be saved, rescued, healed, and victorious, by trusting in God’s unconditional and ever-present grace and love. Amen.