For the first time this week, I heard the joke about the optimist. Perhaps you’ve heard it before: A man is working to repair a roof when it collapses and he falls through the entirety of the building. As he momentarily passes through each floor, his neighbors ask him, asking, “How’re you doing?” And he says before he begins the fall through to the next floor, “So far so good.”
Many translations will have God saying to Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? If you do not, then sin waits at your door.” After some consideration, I went with the inspiration of Robert Alter’s syntax, as unconventional as it may be. Consider the difference, “Whether you do well or not, sin waits at the door.” You may have an initial distaste for that: No matter what sin waits?! I can’t keep sin away by doing good things? Where’s my autonomy? We have a distaste for admitting that some things are out of our control, that life happens and we simply are faced, whether we do well or not, to deal with it. So the real question is how do we meet those crashing floors? The only sufficient beginning to an answer will always be, with God, no matter what, no matter how well we do or not.
Life happens (and of course this is a substitute for a more much popular colloquialism), and this sentiment is as old and shared a concept as any. The inevitability of getting things wrong and things going wrong in misunderstandings and heated relationship was not foreign to anyone in the Ancient Near East. Many cultures there had similar stories with motifs we find in our Bible, and this is not exception.
For example, in Egypt there was the story of Bata and Anubis (in some regions Seth and Horus). Anubis was the older brother who took in his younger brother to care for him, almost as a father. Anubis was a farmer, well to do, bringing in good crops year after year. Bata herded the cattle for his brother. It was a more menial job. In the Ancient Near East, a farmer was better off than a shepherd. So, while we may not realize it now, in context, the offering of a farmer would be expected to be regarded with more enthusiasm. In the story of Bata and Anubis, it is Anubis’ wife that favors Bata, not God, the result being that Anubis in anger goes after his brother. There the similarities end with Cain and Abel, though we may bring up the story again when we talk about Jacob, Esau, and Joseph. The main point, here, however, is to show that in the context of where this story was conceived, the farmer is in better social standing than the shepherd.
When God regarded Abel’s offering, it was unexpected in the same way that the poor widow's offering of her last two denarii was regarded by Jesus as more precious than all the riches of the greatest donor. Like when a parent turns to their youngest child and says, “Very good! You added two and two together well!” but does not give the older child that same praise for the same calculation. Cain in his upset then engages in the same blaming cycle that his father before him did. Rather than inspecting his own feelings of disregard (though the text says God was simply intentional about regarding Abel’s, and nothing about rejecting Cain’s), Cain turns his upset toward his brother getting the attention. He blames his brother for his feelings. As we know from our first human being’s experience with blaming another, it doesn’t go terribly well.
God sees Cain in this blaming cycle and gives him what is often thought of as a warning, but perhaps could really be a comforting statement. “Whether you do well or not, sin waits, and I know you can master it.” In other words, Cain, your focus is on the wrong thing. Don’t worry about doing well or not. (My regard for Cain wasn’t even about you!) Face the sin at your door and master it. Look at that about which you are really upset. God’s words are ones certainly for us to consider. What are we focusing on? What are we angry at? Are we angry at the right things? Are we engaging in the blaming cycle? Are we upset that someone who doesn’t typically enjoy good standing is, and why is that threatening?
I’m in the middle of Margaret Walker’s “Jubilee” about a slave woman on a plantation - a true story passed down through generations. In it we hear about many aspects of the horrific reality of slavery. We also learn in more detail about something that has since been called plantation politics: plantation owners pitting starving, poor white dirt farmers and black slaves against one another. We continue to see this logic today. People all suffering pitted against one another, rather than seeing the common sin that lurks at their door, that which tells all of them they are less than worthy of dignity. Thankfully, a lot of movement building now is done to bring these folks together.
How can we do that? How can we deal with the sin of forgetting another’s inner God’s image, how do we master that inclination? It would seem that a place to begin is remembering that we all face it together, that we have done well and not done well. We forgive each other and walk through the door to face the sin we all fight to master, the only real sin of looking at God’s creations as unworthy of our care and dignity. We remember that we are in this together and not against each other, and are called to help each other face it.
Even if we get over blaming each other, how do we begin to stop a cycle of such distaste with ourselves that we move away and leave room for it to pick up again? Who in here has made a mistake, has thought something they’re not proud of, has said something or done something they regret? How do we keep from being caught in a perpetual trap of anxiety, depression, and personal self-retribution, to such an extent that God never wished for us? How do we keep from being trapped in that kind of stagnancy? How do we move beyond the shame of having done wrong, of having passed the blame that keeps us right by the door, where sin is waiting for us, rather than passing through that door to meet it?
A good beginning is passing through the door to meet that which we fear, face the sin that denies your worthiness of God’s love head on. Rather than be immobilized by it’s stealthy wait at the door, face it, and don’t face it alone. None of us can do it alone. We can do it with the help of Christ, who was such a lowly person that we would never initially have called him the pinnacle of humankind - the man who hung out with those most on the margins, who declared that the poor and outcast are blessed, who befriended those his religious leaders called sinful to the point of being lambasted by those same leaders.
Last year we began a discussion about being an inclusive church, about what it is to be a church fully welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ… persons. This year we continue that discussion as we make our way to being a Room For All Church - a part of the churches in the Reformed Church in America that have decided to be fully open and welcoming of all people, that insist on the dignity of each of God’s creations. We will be having the first of our discussions this year at coffee hour, right after service, to specifically think about what it means to be a Room for All Church. My invitation to you is to stay and listen. There may very well be discomfort - lean into it. Know you’re not alone. Feelings of fear and anxiety, face them, so that they can be let go. Don’t be worried about how “well” you do in the conversation, how “well” or “not” you’ve done in the past on this issue or other issues. However you have been or are, embrace your courage in this conversation. Christ went to the edge of what was deemed socially acceptable by the majority before us, Christ knows that space well. Let’s meet him there today.