Harrowing Of Hell
November 3, 2013

The Awesomeness of Kindness

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Genesis 4:1-16

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.’ Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 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, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 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.’

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Good morning.  Welcome to Epiphany.  For those of you who are visiting in celebration of a baptism it is particularly nice to have you here. We are in the midst of a sermon series on the first 11 chapters in the book of Genesis. Last week I preached on Cain and Abel. There is a lot in this story, so we are going to circle around on it again today.

Last week I started the sermon with a quote from Shakespeare’s Othello that gave life to the green-eyed monster of envy that we saw consume Cain.

This week I’m starting off with Mother Theresa, who said this, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness, kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, and kindness in your smile.”

Today we’ll explore kindness in the context of the Cain and Abel story and how, as the corollary to envy, kindness is the answer to Cain defiant question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was the first recorded question asked by a person to God in Holy Scripture.

And for the rest of the Bible, through the efforts of Abraham and the laws of Moses, by the reprimands of the Prophets and the wisdom of the Sages; even through the presence of Jesus Christ himself, humanity has sought ways to answer the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Some philosophers claim, and I agree, that this question, this very first Biblical question to God, becomes the foundational question upon which western civilization is built. Think about our systems of government; think about the intentions of our laws; think about the energies of our economies.

Are we not responding to God’s challenge, the challenge presented to Cain, when God saw his countenance fall and envy fill his heart?  God said, “Be careful.  Sin is crouching at your door.  It is ready to pounce.  Its desire is for you.  You must master it.” Cain failed to master it, and we have been trying to do so ever since, and God’s response to Cain in his failure becomes the methodology by which we say “Yes!” in answer to the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

And so we design our governments, and we craft our laws, and organize our economies. And we argue and we wrestle as we work through these constructs, these civilized constructs, in an effort, an honest effort, to act as our brother’s keeper.  And we should continue do so, with one added emphasis — kindness.

Kindness bridges the gap between universal application and particular need. Kindness fills that space between caring for all of our brothers and sisters and caring for this particular brother or sister.  There is something we learn in the Cain and Abel story about God. God responds to the particular. God responds to the unique circumstances of each situation. God looks at the context and the character and responds accordingly. God is universally capable of responding to each particular situation. Cain didn’t like that; Cain didn’t think that was fair. Cain wanted God to see the content of his gift, not the quality of his character and since he could do nothing to change God, he struck out at his brother.

And as the story moves on, we learn something else about God; that while God responds particularly, God’s particular response is universally kind. The mark of Cain is an act of kindness. God doesn’t kill Cain; God doesn’t abandon Cain; God marks Cain, so the world knows to whom Cain belongs, and so does Cain. So now we have a picture of God, and in this way a bit better understanding of ourselves. After all, we are made in the image and likeness of God. So the question is how do we practice this universal kindness in the particular circumstances of our lives?

I’ve been the recipient of this type of particular kindness recently.

I was standing in the kitchen the other evening.  Dinner was cooking, and my son Desmond was at the counter having a snack.   I was a thousand miles away ruminating over some event from my day, when I heard Desmond ask, “Tell me about it, Dad?”  I refocused and there was the face of kindness staring back at me. “Tell me about it” he said, as an invitation to put the brakes on the whirling gerbil in my mind, and see the event through the eyes of someone else. “Tell me about it” are words of curiosity and caring; seeking to understand more than to be understood.

“Tell me about it” is a good particular answer to the universal question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

At Epiphany we often talk about operating principles that give us insight into the world as God made it. Gravity is an operating principle; so is the principle of water evaporation; as is the principle of the stone in the pond (if you don’t know what that is you can listen to last week’s sermon here).

This week I’d like to introduce two other operating principles that may help us become kinder people. The first is the operating principle of “ick” and the second is the operating principle of “awesomeness.” They are both pretty simple and they both have to do with kindness.

The principle of “ick” opens us to empathy. It is based on the reality that behind the actions of a person is always some context or old tape or particular incident or accident of history that has given rise to their particular response in a particular situation. Consider Cain for a minute. We might let ourselves wonder what being the older brother of Abel was actually like. Maybe he was always following Cain around, maybe he was copying him; maybe he was telling on him; or, maybe he was even idolizing his every action. There is always more to the story than we know.

We know this, because we know our own “ick.” We know our own tapes and traumas and blind-spots and secrets. And if I have them and you have them, so, too, did Cain. When someone starts acting weird and you don’t know where they are coming from, remember your own “ick” and stick your finger in it.  Empathy will ooze out and you’ll be more willing to ask, “Tell me about it?” Take it from me, their “it” is probably more interesting than the “ick” on the end of our own finger.

God had empathy for Cain. God gave him the mark. It doesn’t mean God let him off the hook; it just means God understood, and mostly that is enough. That is what Desmond offered me when he asked, “Tell me about it, Dad.” And it was enough. That is the operating principle of “ick.”

The operating principle of “awesomeness” helps as well, but in a different way. It helps us right size our expectations of others.

Michael Jordan is my runway model for the principle of awesomeness. We have all seen him slam a basketball. But I’d be willing to wager that none of us has heard him wonder why everyone can’t slam a basketball. Jordan gets that he has unique, particular talents. When we don’t recognize our own gifts and talents, we are tempted to expect everyone to do what we do, and when they don’t, impatience and judgment and intolerance can eclipse our kinder nature.

The operating principle of awesomeness not only requires that we recognize our own unique gifts and talents, but that we seek to recognize other people’s unique gifts and talents as well…and to assume, that even if we can’t see them, they are there anyway. That is what God did for Cain. And in the end, Cain, whose name means Smith, as in blacksmith, used his talents to build the first city and some may say the first civilization as well.

This is the operating principle of awesomeness.

Everyone has their own “ick” and everyone has their own “awesomeness.” The “ick” opens up empathy; the “awesomeness” sets right expectations. Together they create a foundation for kindness that inspires the particular question, “Tell me about it?” which can be universally applied to our brothers and sisters, our parents and children, our neighbors and friends, and even strangers.

“Tell me about it?” is the question that fills the gap between the universal desire to master envy, as God challenges us to do, and the particular way through which we achieve this through kindness.

“Tell me about it” is a question I’d like you to ask someone this week.  And as you’re listening to the answer, remember your own “ick” and your own “awesomeness.”  Seek empathy and right sized expectation, so you can be a living expression of God’s kindness, so that God’s kindness radiates in your face, and in your eyes, and in your heart. So no one leaves your presence without feeling better and happier. So no one leaves your presence without being better and happier.

Kindness is the answer to the question, after all, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”