Yesterday I gave my annual sermon at Forefront Brooklyn on “The Mark of Cain”.
We’re in a series called “Retold” where we’re retelling Sunday School stories or well known Scriptures and hearing them again as adults. The last few weeks have been spectacular with amazing women teaching powerfully. Our Family Director Mira Joyner kicked off the series speaking on the Fiery Furnace in Daniel and spoke about how we must stand with our black communities in the fire.
In the second week community member Hannah Johnston spoke on the Samaritan woman at the well and highlighted that Jesus clearly saw this woman as a disciple and how important female leadership is in the church.
I highly recommend you catching up on this series here.
I was excited to be preaching again and the thing I find hardest about preaching once a year is getting the message down to a single manageable idea. As I was researching the story of Cain and Abel I was blown away by just how much is packed into this one chapter. I’ve been in love with Genesis recently as I’ve been listening to amazing speakers, like Pastor Stan Mitchell from Gracepointe church, retell the story of Genesis chapter 3 in a mind blowing and freeing way.
Here’s my full message. You can download the slides here. More thoughts and extra stuff I couldn’t fit into the message are below:
If you don’t have time to listen to the whole message then here is the headline. It became obvious to me in my research that the mark of Cain had crossed over into popular culture as a curse. A very quick search will get you to the Wikipedia page where the following timeline will show you that the church has used the curse of the Mark of Cain to oppress marginlized groups for thousands of years.
Here’s an excerpt where I’m talking about what happened in 1845 in the USA and the Black Lives Matter movement:
Church theology for hundreds of years, and I don’t think its a stretch to say even thousands of years, has told black people that they live under the curse of God and the Mark of Cain.
But that’s not Biblical, it’s not just, it’s not generous, it’s not Christian. So we will continue to tell a better story, a bigger story, in which black lives matter.
On a personal note I really wanted to talk about the “how” of forgiveness. At the beginning of the message I shared how I’ve grown up in church all my life but feel like I was never taught to truly forgive and certainly have not had apology modeled to me very well.
I’m grateful to Naaman Bonner for reaching out to me 5 years ago and apologizing for something he said to me when I was 15 years old. A year or so after we had that phone conversation I read Breathing Under Water by Richard Rohr, a book based on the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In chapter 8, “Payback Time”, of this book Rohr talks about step 8 which is:
“Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
Rohr brilliantly points out that:
God fully forgives us, but the “karma” of our mistakes remains, and we must still go back and repair the bonds that we have broken. Otherwise, others will not be able to forgive us but will remain stuck, and they and we will remain wounded. We usually must make amends to forgive even ourselves.
“Amazing grace” is not a way to avoid honest human relationships, but to transform them—now gracefully—for the liberation of both sides. Nothing just goes away in the spiritual world; all must be reconciled and accounted for.
You can probably see how I thought this applied beautifully to Cain and Abel, a story of two equal brothers in the sight of God who are separated by the ugly comparison of their offerings causing the ultimate “us vs them” battle that ends in spilled blood. God’s forgiveness is for the “liberation of both sides”, for the liberation of Abel AND Cain. It’s a BOTH/AND kind of liberty. I didn’t have time to jump into all the New Testament passages that refer to Cain but the one that totally intrigues me and helps me to rewrite the way I see this story is Hebrews 12: 23-24:
You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Only a chapter earlier Hebrews 11 praises Abel and lists him in the faithful saying that Abel still speaks though he is dead. In Genesis 4 the text points out that Abel’s blood cries out to God from the ground. There is also mention of the blood of Abel in Matthew 23:29-35 listing him with the prophets and teachers that God sent to his people.
So how does Jesus’ blood speak a better word than the blood of Abel?
I think it’s no mistake that we’ve twisted the story of Cain around to make into a justice message and justify our thirst for “an eye for an eye” kind of justice. But I don’t believe God wants any part in this kind of thing. I wonder if we have heard the blood of Abel cry out for vengeful justice and so we’ve told a story about cursed Cain. But the blood of Jesus doesn’t cry out for justice. It cries out for a seventy times seven forgiveness. It cries out for complete and endless forgiveness. It cries a word of protection over all people and an end to our battles. It cries out for the liberation of both sides.
This is hard but it is the real work.
I will leave you with another excerpt from Rohr that I think could rewrite the story of Cain for many of us. Maybe instead of seeing the Mark of Cain as a curse we can see it as the first picture of a “wounded healer”, that Cain was saved by the mark placed on him because of his painful admission of guilt.
All healers are “wounded healers,” as Henri Nouwen said so well. In fact, you are often most gifted to heal others precisely where you yourself were wounded, or perhaps wounded others. You learn to salve the wounds of others by knowing and remembering how much it hurts to hurt. Often this memory comes from the realization of your past smallness and immaturity, your selfishness, your false victimhood, and your cruel victimization of others. It is often painful to recall or admit, yet this is also the grace of lamenting and grieving over how we have hurt others. Fortunately, God reveals our sins to us gradually so we can absorb what we have done over time. “O God, little by little you correct those who have offended you, so that they can abstain from evil, and learn to trust in you,” we learn in the Book of Wisdom (12:2).
Featured image by South African Expressionist painter Margrit Prigge