Spirit in Creation: Land Sunday 9-21

Genesis 4:8-16 Cain said to Abel, “Let us go out in the field.” When they were in the field, Cain turned on his brother Abel and killed him. God asked Cain, “Where is Abel our brother?” Cain answered, “I don’t know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?” God said, “What have you done?  Listen! I hear Abel’s blood crying to me from the earth! You will be cursed by the earth, which opened its mouth to receive Abel’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it will no longer give you its produce.  You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” Cain answered, “ This punishment is too great to bear!  Since you have banished me from the soil—since I must leave your presence to be a restless wanderer on the earth—anyone I encounter can kill me!” “No!” said YHWH.  “Whoever kills Cain will face sevenfold vengeance!”  Then YHWH put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came across him would kill him. So Cain left God’s presence, and settled in the land of Nod—“Wondering”—which is east of Eden.

We continue today our series on “The Spirit in Creation.” It’s fun to worship in the forest of God’s love and to dedicate ourselves to the land of blessing of the Spirit. Today we are thinking in particular about our relationship to the Land – to the gift of the Spirit in and through life-giving soil. I would like to consider in particular this morning the ancient story of Cain and Abel and what they have to teach us about our modern day connection to the land.

James 5:7-12 Be patient , my sisters and brothers, until the appearance of Christ.  See how the farmer awaits the yield of the soil, looking forward to it patiently while the soil receives the winter and spring rains. You, too, must be patient.  Steady your hearts, because the coming of Christ is at hand. Don’t grumble against one another, my sisters and brothers, or you will be judged.  The judge is standing at the door! To learn how to persevere patiently under hardship, sisters and brothers, take as your models the prophets who spoke in the name of the Most High. The ones we call “blessed” are the ones who persevered.  You’ve heard of the patience of Job—do you remember what God, who is compassionate and merciful, did for him at the end of the story? Above all, sisters and brothers. don’t swear any oath by heaven or by earth, or by anything else.  Let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no.  In this way you’re not liable to judgment.

September 14, 2014      

 The Spirit in Creation: Land Sunday    

My partner Catherine has become quite a gardener in the past few years. She asked our next door neighbor if she could take over the yard in front of both our houses and she planted trees and lilies, strawberries and zinnias, hens and chicks, and all kinds of things I don’t know the names of.
I have great admiration for gardeners like Cathy. Fred and Virginia amaze me with their energy and tender loving care for all the gardens around this church. They have inspired a number of us (like Cayla here) to get our hands dirty, to weed and water and pay greater attention to the land on this corner. (Fred and Virginia could really use some extra help, by the way.)
Most of us have ancestors within three or four generations who made their living directly from the land, people who had farms and gardens which supplied their families with food and income and joy. My grandparents on my mother’s side were dairy farmers. I still love to visit the land they tended in western Pennsylvania almost every summer.
These gardeners and these memories of gardens and farms give me a taste of the abundance of the land, the awesome gift of the Spirit through the productivity and the beauty of the land. We live in a country, of course, which is particularly fertile and beautiful. But all parts of the earth have their own beauty and their own ways of supporting life.
The story of Abel and Cain is a tragic story about the first people on the land. It imagines the earliest human beings as all descended from farmers represented by Cain and shepherds represented by Abel. As this ancient story goes, Abel and Cain brought gifts to God from their work on the land. Cain brought some vegetables he had grown, but Abel brought the first born of the animals in his flock, the best of his herd.
God appreciates Abel’s offering and rewards him, but Cain’s offering does not meet with God’s approval. Cain has a temper tantrum of jealousy over God’s favoring of Abel’s offering, and when they go into the fields together Cain kills his brother in a rage. God asks Cain what has happened to his brother and Cain utters the famous response, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” or as the Message translates it, “Am I my brother’s babysitter?”
Cain has violated the land and violated the covenant with the Creator. Already he and his parents have been thrown out of the Garden of Eden, but now God throws Cain out of Cain’s own garden, saying that the soil itself will no longer respond to him with its abundance. Cain is distraught because he has been marked by God and he fears for his life. People can be so cruel to anyone who has been publicly shamed. We pile on with abuse upon abuse.
These days the public humiliation of a LeShaun McCoy for leaving a 20 cent tip or of a Ray Rice for knocking out his girlfriend in an elevator can be quite complete. In either case and in many others one could argue that they deserve the public humiliation and disgust.
What is interesting about the story of Cain and Abel is that God metes out the punishment, but shows caring and grace at the same time. God declares that Cain will be marked so that he will be protected from the vengeance of others. The same sign which protects him, of course, also marks him for the rest of his life, the justice and mercy of God artfully combined. (Buechner)
In our time we have all been alienated and separated from the land so thoroughly that we don’t even know what we are missing. We have a sense that tomatoes don’t quite taste like they once did. We know that we would do better to eat food grown more local and with less fertilizer, but for the most part we greatly underestimate what we have lost – our connection to the Spirit, our appreciation for hard work, our delight in the abundance of the gifts of the Earth, our living in harmony with the cycles of nature day by day, and our understanding of the power of God’s grace which may overcome through a unique blend of justice and mercy even the murder of a brother.
Maybe I’m reaching too far to make that connection – to connect our alienation from the Earth to our alienation from the gracious life of the Spirit. I’m not sure. My guess is that I underestimate the connection rather than overestimate it, because of my own clean, soft hands, my own disconnect from the land.
I certainly don’t mean to be overly nostalgic for time when we lived closer to the land. Life for my grandparents and great-parents on their farms was difficult and sometimes brutal.
I’m just saying that I think that I sometimes, maybe often, miss the direction of the Spirit by not being in tune with the land. We may miss the direction that is almost as clear as the Ebenezers we built in our sanctuary this morning. We may miss a direction toward justice and we may miss the mercy that the Spirit offers to us in our lowest times, gifts that may be easier to discern when we are in touch with the land.
The good news today is that those gifts are still there, even if they are difficult for us to discern. The guidance and direction of the Spirit is still there. We may need to listen a little more carefully in a society so filled with distractions and so alienated from the land. The good news is the land will still teach us if we listen. Folks who live on a farm get up early and establish a rhythm of life. The land teaches us a rhythm, a discipline of working hard.
The land helps us to notice beautiful things. The land teaches us patience, watching the cycles of life and death and change over the long haul. The land teaches us that hard times pass. The land teaches us about the Spirit in Creation.
In 1936 in the middle of the depression, my grandfather had to sell his dairy business. On the day he sold the business he had a nervous breakdown from which he never fully recovered. It wasn’t that he lost his land, but it was almost the same thing. Farmers who lose their land face an awful struggle.
When I visited them growing up, I never once had a sense that anything was difficult or off kilter. And I have to credit that to the faith and perseverance of grandmother who held everything together no matter how difficult it was. The Spirit guided her through every difficulty. My visits to their house were filled with joy and love at getting to visit the apple trees in their yard and the beautiful woods behind their house. Without ever saying a thing, they gifted me with a love of the land

Responsive hymn  2060 God the Sculptor of the Mountains

Footnote: info on Genesis and Cain and Abel from Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpreter series