This sermon was preached in July 2017. The passages for this sermon included Gen 4:1-10,16,25-26 and Romans 7:7-12,21-25a
Gen 4:1-10, 16, 25-26
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Romans 7:7-12, 21-25a
7 What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived 10 and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!
Today we're going to talk about and consider how we create and sustain healthy, life-giving love among families and people who are part of a couple. In our passages today, we find lessons in how much time and care that takes – a really important lesson that too often gets skipped over in order to jump to the happy ending we hope for.
I don’t know about you, but while I was growing up, most of the Bible studies I heard discussing Adam and Eve’s first time out of the Garden, coming together, were pretty romantic. It’s the first bond – the ideal that traditional Western Christian marriage is based upon. In fact, any time Adam and Eve’s union was referenced throughout my childhood and adolescence, I heard it said in very idyllic terms. This is the foundation of the human race, after all. The first marriage. Even after the Fall, how could it not be ah-mazing?!
But here’s the thing. While that’s what I was hearing mostly from youth group and church leaders, that did not correlate with anything else I was hearing about real current couples' first times. In fact – and some of you may prove this wrong today – but, to this day, I have yet to hear any person say their first time having sex was the. best. And exactly what they imagined it would be.
While some have said their first time was decent enough, or it wasn’t bad, I hear those statements are few and far between. Instead, more often than not, people tell me about how nervous they were, how awkward it was, how it didn't work the first time, how it did not live up to their expectations, or how painful it was. Further, most couples who describe how they eventually were able to experience great sex together tend to talk about how getting to that pinnacle took a great deal of humility, care, and practice. The couples who say they consistently are able to have good or great sex usually say it started happening when they took genuine interest in learning how to give and receive pleasure with one another. Now . . . don’t you wish a few more people were honest about that part of sex when you were a teenager?
Unfortunately, more often than not, most of us had the cards stacked against us. We bought into the lie that if it’s real love, that experience will be amazing and will happen naturally, all the time. The myths around sex often go even further and suggest men should have a lot of experience, and women should be especially good at giving men a great experience. Despite an abundance of real experience, still these myths persist, even today.
It is taking sociologists and other scholars to demonstrate the reality of what people are experiencing sexually and how different from the myths those experiences really are. In her research of current teenage sexual practices, Peggy Orenstein finds teenage girls continue to believe they must give sexual favors without receiving pleasure in return. As she surveyed active girls, she asked, "Look, what if every time you were with a guy, he told you to go get him a glass of water from the kitchen and he never offered to get you a glass of water. Or if he did, he'd say, "Ugh, you want me to get you a glass of water?" You would never stand for it!” The girls, Orenstein says, would bust out laughing and say they’d never thought about it that way before. She thought, well, you should definitely think about how being asked repeatedly to give someone a glass of water without reciprocation is more insulting to you than being asked to perform a sexual act over and over without reciprocal pleasure.
Of course, too many women, and men, practice this kind of off-balance behavior as teenagers and then bring those destructive habits into their marriages.
Then, when those early experiences prove less than ideal, many teenagers or young adults feel like in some way they failed or weren’t good enough.
Perhaps the most striking real life experience that counters the perpetual myths, is the fact that most often, for a wide range of reasons, the majority of both Christian and non-Christian teenagers are not having sex. In fact, the current research from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that’s the case for more than half of teenagers in the United States today. So, a majority of young people are entering their twenties as virgins, with a whole host of myths about sex all around them – including those that many people believe are biblically-based.
Sadly, precious few of us had people around who made it clear how making love takes work, attention, humility, and a genuine interest in giving and receiving pleasure as a couple. And when we don’t work at making love, pay attention to making love, enjoy a healthy dose of humility in the midst of it, and have a genuine interest in giving and receiving pleasure, then, we’re doing something else – we’re not making love. Instead, we’re allowing pain, insecurity, frustration, grief, or anger to drive the show. And while some good can still come out of those experiences, they are far less than ideal. Especially in the aftermath of great loss, feeling left out, or feeling unseen or unacknowledged.
In the case of Adam and Eve, they let their hurt and selfishness drive the show and became boldly possessive. After being exiled from the Garden, our passage says, Adam knew his wife. And here’s where the Bible introduces a pattern that will occur many times throughout its 66 books – where the same word or a phrase is repeated but with two different results.
Listen and consider the result of the first time Adam knows his wife. Eve’s response, after she conceives and gives birth to Cain, is, “I made a man.” Now, this could be simply matter of fact. They had sex, she had a baby. But these are two possessive sentiments, and the Hebrew suggests there’s an edge to the words. There’s a bite to them. And that makes sense from a trauma perspective. They’ve been cast out of paradise, as a result of their own actions. They’re sad, ashamed, grieving, angry. In that cauldron of intense emotion, Adam knew his wife and she responded, “I made a man.” They are not together in this. They are co-existing, parallel in their pain, having very personal, individual experiences – the way a vast majority of couples do after great losses.
Now, even if I'm reading too much psychology into this one sentence, it’s also a big stretch to say this couple made love here. This first sentence is not about giving and receiving pleasure.
In fact, there’s such a strong probability of tension here, that one editor of the Bible could not handle it and added to Eve’s words, “with the help of the Lord.” That phrase was not in the original text, but was added years later. As if the editor could not help himself: Eve, remember, the editor implores, you produced a human with the help of the Lord. Not on your own. Of course, we’ll note today, it was ok for Adam to know his wife all on his own.
I do sometimes wonder what Eve might have said here if she had a daughter first, and not her son Cain. Would she have said, “I made a woman,” and would it have had the same bit of bite or edginess to it?
Either way, Adam and Eve appear to be sparing, passive aggressively, in this first verse . . . the way couples are prone to do when either or both of them experience significant pain, shame, or heartache. It’s nearly impossible to comfort one another when you’re both full of great sorrow and hurt, because that takes great courage and vulnerability.
And this is the very nest into which Cain is born. With barely crumbs of care, nurture, or forgiveness, can we blame him for who he becomes? When he maybe wonders, was God’s choice just one more rejection of him? Just one more instance where he didn’t measure up, where he wasn’t good enough, or again where he wasn’t chosen, wanted, or wasn’t loved. Argh! Can you feel it? Deep in your gut? That insensible, slowly mounting rage, that builds through childhood and adolescence, in search of a moment to billow out. The kind that blinds a person for a terrible instant, the kind that lies and makes a person believe if only . . . If only Abel was gone, everything would be better.
Of course, we know, it won’t. Especially, when we breathe, when allow a breath of fresh air in, into those clenched lungs, the kind of fresh air that the Holy Spirit rides on. That’s when we can recall how no amount of rage or anger can ever fix the immense pain in our world.
“Be careful, Cain,” God says. “Be careful how sin lies at the threshold when you’re angry.”
Sin – that act of breaking relationships.
And here, God does something incredible. Right here at the beginning of the Bible, something that, to this day is one of the best things we can do for someone when they’re in pain: to abide with them, and ask, “would you like to tell me about it?”
Recently, a story went viral on the internet when Anthony Breznican, one of the writers of Entertainment Weekly, shared about a time when he was in college and was having a really rough day. He happened to walk through the common room of his dorm, and of all things, Mr. Rogers children’s program was playing on the common TV. In the episode, Mr. Rogers was singing his famous song that asks: “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” Breznican said he was mesmerized. Watching the episode felt like “a cool hand on a hot head.” The kind you hope you might get from a family member or close friend when you’re really hurting.
A few days later, in another building, the doors of an elevator opened, and there stood the real Mr. Rogers. Breznican was amazed and somehow had the wherewithal to immediately say thank you. In response, Mr. Rogers smiled and asked, “Did you grow up as one of my neighbors?” Breznican recalls how he felt like crying. He then said briefly that the episode had been the right thing on a hard day. And here’s how Mr. Rogers responded: As they got off the elevator, he unwrapped his scarf, walked to a nearby window and motioned for Breznican to join him.
Then, he asked, “Would you like to tell me about what was troubling you?” Breznican went on to explain how his grandfather had just died, and he felt like he had been the only good thing left in his life. He felt adrift and didn’t no how to go forward. Mr. Rogers acknowledged his loss and pointed out how, thankfully, even though the pain of losing loved ones remains, the lessons they teach us can stick with us forever. And that’s a gift we’ll always have.
I wonder if Adam and Eve learned a similar lesson after Abel died and Cain went away. Because, something drew them together again, in a new way. I wonder if they learned how to abide with one another as they experienced an entirely differently round of grief. The passage says, again, Adam knew his wife. But this knowing was different. Because this time, Eve responds differently. This time, when she conceives and bares another son, she names him Seth.
We don’t know exactly what Seth means. But, whatever it means, in verse 25, Eve says, “God has seth-ed me another child.” Seth-ed. It's usually translated granted, or appointed. Maybe it means blessed? Or a word that means, maybe, the gift of new life after great loss? A word that means, maybe, the result of making love after surviving and growing through volatile life experiences. The result of coming through one of the greatest learning curves of your life, individually and as a couple? A word, maybe, that means the result of learning how to come together after being apart. Seth-ed.
More humble. Wiser.
This family definitely is different going forward. After Adam knew his wife this time, Seth grew up to build a family that builds relationships. Seth’s family isn’t perfect. But rather than allowing pain to separate them, rather than holding grudges or using their pain to wound each other, Seth’s family instead repeatedly turns toward one another, even, and perhaps especially, when they aren’t perfect.
Seth’s family becomes the family line to Jesus. Seth’s family works at making love. Real, good, flourishing love.
And this is God’s law – the act of abiding in love. Each commandment, then, is an act toward being present in love. Being in relationships that exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which begins with love.
Though evil may always be close at hand, as Paul reminds us in our passage for today, so is love. And this one thing Paul says he struggles to fully understand throughout his life. It was Jesus, and other disciples, like Barnabas, who helped Paul to discover the ways love guards against evil. Especially, when love bestows ruthfulness.
Ruth means to either feel compassion or remorse, depending on the circumstances. Basically, it means to have empathy for the experience of loss – whether we cause that experience in someone else’s life or we appreciate, as a neighbor, how someone is grieving. In either instance, we express ruth. That’s why acts of evil so often are characterized as ruthless – having no compassion or remorse. Paul describes how the commandments show him just how ruthless he can be.
Adam and Eve, too, would have done well to give and receive more ruth with each other much earlier on. As is so often the case, they grew up while being parents. They discovered how they could have offered Cain, and Abel, more ruth.
It’s easy to suspect that the one person who may have received the most ruth was Seth. And we can witness the rippling benefits of it throughout the Bible.
There’s a lot to ponder here. This is a rich passage. And, granted, I’m certainly reading between the lines. But these are pregnant phrases that beg careful consideration. We do well to ponder them and pray with them a good deal more, as we continue together to seek after how we all are intended to love God and one another with our whole selves.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.