(Message given at Newberg Emerging Friends Church on July 15, 2018)
Tonight I stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice-seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love!
This has been at my core for so long.
I believe it with all my heart, and it’s how I have oriented my life for decades. God’s real and healing presence is what got me through the last several years, and I am so grateful. I can’t imagine a life for myself where I didn’t orient my life around Christ.
And yet I also know this is not everyone’s experience. It’s not just those of you sitting in this room that are on my mind as I speak tonight. I’m also thinking about many people for whom God’s presence has been distant or absent, for whom the experiences of life and community have broken any ability to speak similar words of faith and trust in God.
I grieve this. I grieve the way church pain has tainted how some see and experience God. And I have been frustrated for a very long time that, while I have had many long years of what are to me clear experiences of the living God, there is the inexplicable truth that some who have tried have not had that same experience.
And of course I, too, have had times where God seemed distant, absent, and frustratingly impotent to fix what I was experiencing. My guess is that’s that’s the case for most of us. It’s not just that some people experience God and some don’t, but rather that our own experience of God…or lack thereof…changes and varies over time.
There are times where the power and overwhelming beauty of the presence of God is tangibly, touchably real; and there are times where we are overwhelmed with disappointment and disillusionment, with apathy and anger, because our experience seems so out of touch from the God we’ve been taught to know.
I want to experiment with something tonight, and if it totally bombs, oh well.
Take a second to think about the times in your life where it feels like praying is yelling into emptiness, when trying to find comfort from God feels futile. What’s that feel like? What words describe it?
I want to ask you to pull out your phone and use that to participate and give input tonight. My hope is trying a new mechanism will let more people participate than just the ones who are comfortable yelling things out.
We’ll see if this works. Use your browser to go to that website, menti.com, and enter that code. You should then see my question and three boxes to type in words and then submit. You don’t have to fill them all, you can do one or two or three and hit submit, and then you can do it again as many times as you want. What words describe what it feels like when God feels absent?
As we all submit our words, this will update in real time in a sort of word cloud. I think of this like a community spiritual practice, a group creation of art, that we are working on together. You may even want to look on the screen, and if you see a word that resonates with you, go ahead and enter it yourself and those multiple responses will make the word grow larger.
Go ahead and keep thinking and participating while I keep talking. It will be an organic part of the teaching tonight that will keep building.
[Here is what we created:]
In May I was sitting over there during open worship thinking about this dilemma: if God wants to be known, why do some of us experience God’s presence and some don’t?
And the Spirit pushed me to wrestle with Cain and Abel, and how their story connects to this idea. Strange, I know! But I hope this strange place can be fertile ground… even if it is the story of the first murder on human record. Turn with me to Genesis 4.
Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.’ Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also brought an offering–fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
(Genesis 4:1-5, TNIV)
It’s the end of verse 4 and beginning of verse 5 that really cause problems for me.
God choosing Abel over Cain is the part that’s difficult for me. 5 or 6 years ago, it got worse when I read Walter Brueggemann, one of my favorite scholars, saying that there is no good reason given in the text that shows Abel did anything more deserving than Cain. Wow…does that mean God just arbitrarily chooses one human over another? Maybe Brueggemann, as much as I like him, got this one wrong.
But I found most scholars think the same. In other places in the Old Testament, people offer grain offerings just like Cain and they are accepted by God. He didn’t do anything wrong.
Both brothers are trying to worship and experience God.
And what they find is that it works for one, and not for the other, and we don’t know why. It’s the same dilemma I have as I look around our world. Why is it that some of us experience the pursuing, healing, justice-seeking love of God, while others…others who are trying just the same…simply don’t?
Let’s try another question, just for fun: Lately, is your experience of God more like Cain, more like Abel…or neither? Pull out your phones and let’s see what we get while I keep talking.
I’ve started trying out a new approach to interpreting the bible, particularly Old Testament passages like this one that really seem to rub against how the wider arc of the bible describes the character of God.
We believe the bible to be inspired by God, and written in the words of human authors, human authors bound by time and cultural blinders. I’ve begun wondering whether statements like this which describe God’s interior thoughts and will, might be more from the human cultural worldview than from the divine inspiration part. What if the Israelites assigned motives to God in the text that really aren’t accurate to who God is?
This, for instance, is how I am able to stomach the genocide that takes place with the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. That horrible action did happen, but perhaps the Israelites chose that path for themselves out of fear, and then assigned the command to God as a way to justify it. The bible still is reliable and helpful for how humans and God interact in the world, but maybe the authors didn’t always fully understand God’s inner thoughts. Maybe they even projected their own stuff on God.
If we try this out here in Genesis 4, how does it all play out?
What if the human author was a bit presumptuous in saying God looked in favor on Abel and not in favor on Cain? What if we just wrestle with the experience here? Two people do their best to experience God, and it works out well for one, while the other is left empty and feeling God’s absence.
That opens up some intriguing possibilities for us. Before Cain was the murderer, Cain was someone who tried to experience God and came up empty. Like some of us. Like the tension I’m wrestling with as I look at our community and the world.
How does the rest of the story play out if we try this way of looking at it? Let’s keep going.
Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’
(Genesis 4:6-7, TNIV)
Now God shows up directly!
Whatever happened with the sacrifice, whatever didn’t get through to Cain…now we have God interacting with Cain in a very direct way. The one who felt God’s absence experienced a more direct encounter. God pursues Cain and offers a clear choice to him.
I think there were times earlier in my life where I read these verses in a way that sounded like this: “Why are you angry Cain? If you had done what was right, wouldn’t I have accepted your offering?” I think I read it that way because, if God really did choose Abel over Cain, if the author was right about God’s internal thinking, then my sense of justice requires that Cain must have done something wrong.
But look at what it actually says. It’s not past tense. In fact, it’s more future. It’s an intervention, an option, a truth about what can be ahead for Cain even after the encounter with the sacrifice didn’t go as Cain wished.
God shows up with a promise, and a warning. The promise is that even now, even though your attempt to engage me has felt empty to you, I still want to walk with you. The warning is, these times of spiritual struggle are ripe times for us to be pulled to unhealthy and even evil things.
Even in this story, I see the same God I described earlier…
…which lets me stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice-seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love!
I don’t know why Cain’s worship experience didn’t go well.
Nor do I know why some seem to experience God’s grace and presence in all kinds of ways while others feel like their prayers bounce back off the ceiling. But I do believe in this God, who shows up to an angry, downcast, frustrated Cain and says: Do what’s right and I’m there. Evil things pull at you, want to pull you away from me, but you can fight it and find me. I’m not giving up on you.
But of course Cain doesn’t take God’s advice.
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
The LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’
Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’
But the LORD said to him, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.
(Genesis 4:8-15, TNIV)
Here is a perfect example of the injustice in the world that makes our hearts ache. Cain has made the horrible choice and committed the injustice. And still God pursues him. God identifies first with the one who suffered injustice (“Where is your brother Abel?”). But God is still pursuing Cain, God even protects Cain when the consequences feel too great. God’s mark of protection rests on Cain, despite his choices, despite what Cain has done.
Here is the pursuing God, despite injustice, despite what we’ve done!
Even in the story of the first murder, even in horror, even in pain and broken family and community, we find God pursuing, guiding, and even protecting people who give in to the sin and evil “crouching at their door.”
Sometimes it has felt to me that the experiences we have gone through as a community in the last few years have given only the Abel and Cain options. Either people are unjustly destroyed despite their faithfulness, like Abel; or people feel God’s absence and stop pursuing God, and find themselves like Cain, struggling in a far and distant country.
But I think there are other paths to walk and to live besides these two extremes. Because God is always there, because God pursues us, because God wants to live in relationship with us no matter what happens…I still choose to respond as faithfully as I can to this pursuing God.
As clearly as I can say it, I don’t want to shame those who are disillusioned and tired and unable to engage with God or community.
I don’t want to put “shoulds” upon you.
And, I also don’t want to fail to share my own commitment to take actions to pursue God through the struggle of the past few years. I don’t want to fail to share the reward it has brought to my life.
I have found, through God’s grace dropped in my lap; through discipline, through trial and error…I have found a different, more raw, more earthy faith. In my failure and my brokenness I have found the real presence of this living, pursuing, healing, justice-seeking God. And it has sustained me and remade me.
When I hear God’s words to Cain: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” I no longer hear them as condemnation, as expectation, as something I must live up to or find God’s rejection. I hear them as God’s promise of God’s pursuing nature that will not let me go. I hear them as encouragement to turn to God in and through my struggle and pain, in and through the times of feeling God is absent, and find a resource of strength.
I made choices in the most challenging moments of the last few years to stop and to pray and to pour out my anguish and fear to God.
I made choices to ask the Spirit to empower me to act in ways I knew Jesus taught–to repay evil with kindness, to forgive as I have been forgiven. I made choices to try and do what is right…not out of fear of being rejected, but because I so desperately needed the experience of God’s promised presence.
I keep reading the bible, even when my experiences aren’t matching what I am reading. I keep naming my desires and my grief to God. Recently I have searched for, prayed, and mediated on prayers from the ancient church as a practice of spiritual help for myself. I keep doing what I can to pursue this God who I believe pursues me.
And for me…as I step back and I remember, I realize that God’s Spirit has been an ever-present help in time of need. I realize that for me, the Jesus I read about in the bible matches what I experience of God today. I realize that in an inseparable way, God’s pursuit of me and MY actions to seek and follow Christ have woven together into a bedrock of strength and peace that is beyond my efforts, beyond my experiences.
As I see the pain that is in our community and our world–some from the church stuff, and of course all kinds of things outside of it–my heart still breaks and my eyes still well with tears. But more than ever before, I still long with all my heart for everyone to find Christ as a bedrock of strength and peace, too. I pray for it and work for it.
This is why, tonight…
I stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love!
May this God be your bedrock and strength too. May it begin right now in our time of open worship.