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Drama of Dust


Genesis 4.1-15

I grew up around farms and farmers. My dad was a pastor, and we lived in town—not on a farm—but many of my fellow students and their families worked on the farms around the small farming community where we lived. Growing up in Monticello, Illinois was different than here in Lawrence. Students in my class not only knew that there was a difference between John Deere and Case International, but had very emotional opinions about which one was God’s gift to farmers, and which one was junk. When we would have sleepovers, there was usually some version of a corncob fight in a barn at some point during the evening. Even the jokes were connected to farming…about tractors and farmers (and when I got a little older, inappropriate jokes about farmers daughters) and even about the inability of neighboring states to farm as well as we could in Illinois. “What do you call a broken tractor and a dead pig? The Iowa State Fair.” *

My father preached at a church filled with farmers, many of them tobacco farmers from Kentucky who moved up to try their hand at corn. And these farmers had an impact on the way that faith was talked about in our church. You see, farmers have a very clear connection to the land. To the ground. To the dirt. They know that much of what happens on the farm is out of their control…it has more to do with the dark loam that they were blessed to farm in Central Illinois, with the patterns of rain and drought on the prairies, with the existence of bugs that could harm the crop. They understood things like providence and faith and grace, in terms different than the rest of us. They knew that the farm, the land, could teach them things about God.

Today’s Scripture passage speaks to this reality as well. Here in chapter four of Genesis, we see a story of dirt. Of the ground. Scholar Norman Wirzba calls these first chapters of Genesis a “drama of soil.” It is a story of the land. We already talked last week about chapter 2 and the name Adam, or ADAM, and its connection in Hebrew to ADAMA, or the earth. We skipped it for now, but chapter 3 is filled with soil language: Adam and Eve ate from the tree that had grown up from the earth, and when they did, they were driven from the garden to work the soil. But by the time that Cain and Abel show up in Chapter 4, there is a litany of “dirt” language. The Two-Way last week noticed how many times the dirt is brought up:

  • Cain was a tiller of the ground
  • Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground
  • In this line that is filled with drama, he tells his brother, “let us go out to the field…”
  • After Cain kills Abel, God says, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.”
  • Cain’s punishment had to do with the ground, and the hard work it would take to work it

We find in chapter 4 that the ground is almost a character in the story. Much like those farmers in Central Illinois, the ground cries out to us, teaches us, convicts us.

Again, it is Wirzba, among many others, who remind us that the way that we treat the soil, the ground, the earth, is closely tied to the way that we understand our faith, and the way that we understand our relationship to others. Psychologists have long understood this. They have traced a connection between those who abuse God’s creation—animals, trees, even the land itself—and those who make a relatively simple move to abusing their fellow humans. Those who see the earth as a resource to be abused, very quickly can begin to see other people in the same light. The theology of domination moves us very easily from destruction of what we see as the earth here as our plaything…to people put on earth for us to abuse and destroy at will. Wirzba correctly names these chapters as a moral framework for how we are to care for all of creation, human and otherwise. This drama of dirt is actually a drama of humanity and the ways that we fail each other and God’s design for us.

And fail we do. Represented by the character of Cain in chapter 4, we see the reality of what happens when our morality gets upside down. Perhaps you know the story well. Cain and his brother Abel both make offerings to God. God “had regard” for Abel’s, but not for Cain’s. Again, this is another passage that we like to put more in there than the text suggests. All of us, from theologian John Calvin to the theologians of the Two-Way, have tried to figure out why God didn’t have regard for Cain’s offering. In order to make ourselves feel better about living in a just world and under a just God, we just have to blame Cain. He was a bad worshipper, giving a bad offering. Or a bad farmer, not growing the right crop to please God. But the bottom line is that the passage does not tell us why Cain’s offering was rejected. We simply have no idea. Trying to figure it out doesn’t really help.

But we do know that what he did in response was…wrong. This passage is the first one in the Bible that uses the word “sin.” How we treat one another—and our failure to treat one another as God intended—is our first moral failing as humanity. It is our shared sin. “Sin is lurking at the door,” says God, knowing Cain’s heart and knowing what was coming, “but you must master it.”

Cain does not. These first chapters of Genesis paint a picture of a very personal and humanized God. Walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the garden. Talking with them personally. And so, in the same way, after Cain kills his brother, God personally asks one of the most haunting questions in the Bible. I imagine God joining Cain in the field, stooping low and feeling the dirt, perhaps still wet from the first murder, the first death, recorded on earth. God runs holy hands through the dirt and asks Cain, “where is your brother Abel?”

And the response of Cain is equally chilling, and has echoed throughout Scripture and throughout human history, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is the question that Scripture asks again and again, especially in light of broken relationships between farmers and their brothers:

  • Cain shrugging, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
  • Esau’s father asking him after the blessing was already given, “but who are you?”
  • Jacob asking his sons, “but where is my son Joseph?”
  • Jesus asking his disciples, “who are my mother and brothers?”
  • And in discussion with the teacher of the law, asking, “Who is my neighbor?”
  • And in Jesus’ parable, the older brother asking his father, “when this son of yours came back, you killed the fatted calf for him?”

It is the question that we have asked again as sisters and brothers: “must I care for my brother? Must I fight for justice for my sister? Must I be responsible for their well-being? Must I be my brother’s keeper?” It is the question that we as humans ask again and again, hoping that the answer will be “no.” That we are not connected to our sisters and brothers in this way… That we have no responsibility to anyone but ourselves… That we will not be judged for the pain that we cause others in this world.

And yet, the answer from God is always the same: “What have you done?”

You see, this is the way that the drama of soil plays out…in the first chapters of Genesis and throughout Scripture. Again, Cain’s named failure here is not that his offering was not as good as Abel’s. It is what he did with the resentment, the anger, the comparison game that we all play. God tried to warn him, but he would not listen. Cain’s failure was to make room for his brother. To make room for his offering, to celebrate his difference and his success, to find joy in the community that they shared together. Step back and look at the rest of the drama of soil. So much of it is about making room. In the beginning of Scripture, we are told that creation is this wide expanse, much like the cornfields of Central Illinois, for humanity to share. Even in the ways that God commands them to care for that land, there is room: perhaps you know of the practice of letting the land lay fallow, to let it rest for a season in order to recover. This practice of making room is tied to the practice of Sabbath, which God instituted at Creation, to make room during the week for rest and renewal. We must make room for the land itself, letting it rest. Likewise, all people must also rest…not just landowners and masters, but servants and slaves. Part of the community that God commands from Eden to the Promised Land and beyond is this practice of making room…for one another and for the earth itself. The Central Illinois farmers knew that the land could teach us: When we push the land past its breaking point and fail to make room, fail to let it rest, we are seeing now how it fails and breaks down, and the aquifer runs dry, and the decades of use of chemicals destroy.

Likewise, when we fail to make room for one another, for our sisters and brothers, when we fail to recognize that YES, we are keepers of our sisters and brothers, our community breaks down, and lives are destroyed. William Brown sees in this story of chapter 4 and this drama of dirt what he calls a “kindom.” It is kingdom in the way that Jesus talked about that word. But it is a kingdom that is tied to the way we understand one another as kin, as family, as connected sisters and brothers. Even connected, says Brown, to the land—the ADAMA—with which we share our name and our creation. Scripture teaches us of the need to see one another as kin, not as resources at our disposal. It calls us to make room for one another, even in our differences. It calls us to resist the impulse to dominate and destroy and kill, but instead to “master” sin, to accomplish the work of self-mastery and self-limitation, for the good of the kindom. For our sisters and brothers and for the land which teaches us, convicts us, sustains us, and upon which we rely. That self-limitation, which is the cornerstone of the practice of laying fallow, the practice of Sabbath, the practice of making room. When we understand our right relationship between God and the earth and one another, we start to approach this kindom. We start to understand that indeed, we are keepers of our sisters and brothers. We start to make room, to welcome, to understand, to love all of God’s creation. Then kindom comes.

Ironically enough, this is Cain’s fear after he is found out. He is afraid that others will not make room for him. “I will be a fugitive and anyone who meets me may kill me.” He is afraid that destruction of kindom, which he in fact perpetrated, will be his undoing. But look again at what is perhaps the most important line of the whole passage: “Not so!” God insists that even after his destruction of kindom, there is room for Cain in that kindom. Even after he fails to keep his brother, God will not fail to keep him. To care for him, to protect him. “Not so,” says God, to Cain’s fear of destruction. Even Cain, the first murderer in human history, has a place in God’s kindom.

And if Cain does, then perhaps all of God’s children do. Perhaps you and I are welcome in that kindom as well. Perhaps all of those who we meet in our wanderings do as well. It means that we are called and we are created to live in life-sustaining ways with all of God’s children, and with all of God’s creation. It means that God is the God who welcomes back younger brothers who fail their families. And that God is the God who stands at the door of the party and welcomes in older brothers. Older brothers who get stuck in jealousy and resentment and self-righteousness, who wish their brothers nothing but harm. God even makes room for them. God still invites, still beckons, still makes space for them in this kindom.

It is the story that Robert Grant tells in his famous hymn “O Worship The King.” It is in many ways a hymn of praise of our Creator, of the king of heaven:

Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

But perhaps the most memorable verse for me is the one that has echoes of the first chapters of Genesis:

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
in you do we trust, nor find you to fail.
Your mercies, how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend!

Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer and Friend welcomes us to the party. Invites us to see ourselves as recipients of that mercy, as feeble as we are. And ushers us into the kindom, created for us by the One who created all good things.


* Unfortunately, this joke ended up being rather ill-timed, as the state of Iowa has suffered the effects of unexpected and devastating storms that have destroyed many of their crops. As one who has seen the lasting impact of such destruction on both farms and farmers, I join many Midwesterners in prayer for those who struggle as a result of this devastation.

(Thanks to Kimberly Sturtevant for the sermon videography, and Joanna Gillette for sermon video sound tweaks!)

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