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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
June 14, 2020
A Reading from the Book of Genesis
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.
In the center of Johannesburg, South Africa, not far from downtown, and on some of the highest ground in the old city, stands a monument called Constitution Hill. Constitution Hill is actually several different kinds of monuments, but the major one is an old fort — called the Old Fort — which, for most of the twentieth century, was the site of the most notorious prison of South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Which means the experience of visiting Constitution Hill is not entirely a pleasant one. You go, you buy a ticket for a tour, and the tour takes you into rooms filled with the most unspeakable stories. You hear about the lives of inmates crowded into unspeakable horrors. You hear about the everyday abuse of black prisoners by white guards. You see the hard floors that held the bodies of such monumental prophets: Mandela. Tambo. Sisulu. Even Gandhi. You walk into the isolation cells and think about how the sewage water would have flowed right to your feet. It is a horrible, haunted place. I have now been there twice, and the second time all I could think was — why did I ever need to come back to this terrible, terrible thing?
It could have been so many other things. The prison itself closed in the early 1980s — by that point the Apartheid police were arresting activists in such numbers that they had to build a much larger facility. For years, the place sat in disrepair, overrun by looters and scavengers. And then in the 90s, during the advent of democracy, a fight broke out over the future of the Old Fort. So much of Johannesburg was being redeveloped and reconsidered. There was a dream to demolish this old haunted monument and make something new, something without the ghosts, you know: restaurants, theatres, some boutique hotel, something to really rev the economic engine of downtown. It was the sort of dream we have of things to build when we rebuild. But instead, the city decided to keep the Old Fort, ghosts and all. And so, it sits there, in-between the bustle of the modern city, a stone’s throw from the skyscrapers. You just go and buy a ticket for a tour. A tour of this giant open wound.
Why do we have to tell these horrible stories? Even though I think I know the answer, I can’t help asking myself the question, not when we open to Genesis 4 and hear again the horrible story of Cain and Abel and the taking of the first life. We don’t have to talk about this one. This summer we’re following the lectionary through these family stories in Genesis, but I want to level with you — the lectionary doesn’t include this one, not right now. The normal tour does not always include a stop here in Genesis 4. And it could be as if it had never happened, as if God had never favored one brother over the other, as if Cain had never reared up in jealousy, as if Abel had never lay dead in the field, as if Cain had never fled for that East of Eden, as if this first story of sin and envy and petulance and murder had never needed to be. It is a horrible, haunted text, and you would be forgiven if upon your hearing all you can think is — why did I ever need to come back to this terrible, terrible story?
But the interesting thing about this text is that the story itself is, in some ways, about the urgency of remembering. Cain does his sinful deed, he rises up against his brother, and then of course, he flees from the presence of the Lord and out of the geography of this narrative. But he doesn’t leave unchanged. He leaves with this mark. “The Lord put a mark on Cain,” Genesis says, “so that no one who came upon him would kill him.” And what’s fascinating about this turn is that all of a sudden, the story isn’t really about Cain anymore. All of a sudden, the story is about everyone who meets him. The story is about everyone who encounters him. The story now has a reason to be told, of course, as a sort of warning, as a reminder to its hearers. Yes, Cain did this terrible thing. Sin was at the door, and he let it in. But now the story isn’t about him anymore. Now the story is about you. It’s about you who tell it. And you who remember it. It’s about you, and the sin at your door. “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance,” the Lord says, to nobody in particular. Unless he’s talking to us.
Consider this. In Biblical Israel, in the time of Genesis, and particularly in the time when the Genesis narratives were being written down, Israel had all sorts of neighbors. And of course, throughout the Old Testament Israel gets attacked by its neighbors and also goes on the offensive, particularly in the stories that talk about its reconquest of the land following the escape from Egypt. But one of its regular neighbors throughout this whole saga are the Kenites. Almost certainly some connection exists between the name of the Kenites and the story of this murderous Cain. But of course, this means that every time Israel tells this story, every time Israel remembers this story, the purpose is not simply to demonize Cain or mourn Abel or relitigate the differences between the them. No, the purpose with Kenites on your border would be to remind yourself that the same sin that lurked at Cain’s door now lurks at yours. And that perhaps you should not also go meet your brother in the field and slay him. This is, of course, why we have to tell the horrible stories. This is the duty that this text gives us, so that we can remember it. So that we can say: Never again.
Many of you know that I spent a chunk of my childhood growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, and sometimes, on a hot summer night, of which they are so many in Atlanta, sometimes we would go to that great Atlanta summer tradition, the Stone Mountain Laser Light Show. You may know Stone Mountain, this huge granite boulder that sticks out of the earth right smack in the middle of the Atlanta suburbs, onto the side of which, in a sort of mimicry of Mount Rushmore, some enterprising mid-century Georgians carved a relief-portrait of three icons of the Confederacy: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. This was hardly a coincidence — the same ownership that pursued this dream had also hosted annual cross-burnings from the KKK on-site, and the carving, when done, was inaugurated by design on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Of course, I didn’t really know any of that when I was nine. I didn’t know the whole story. I didn’t know how tied Stone Mountain was into the particularly racist history of the city I lived in. I didn’t know how much the particular sin of white supremacy was hanging in the air. I was just breathing it. It was just a thing we did.
You just went to the laser light show. After dark, during the summer, you would bring lawn chairs and beverages, and you’d beg someone’s parents to buy a round of those cheap little glow sticks so we could all play in the dark, and then we’d sit out on the grass watching the show. They’d project lasers against the side of the mountain, and of course they played music, so they can program all sorts of things. I don’t remember most of it, and I’m sure most of it has changed over time. But what I know they still do — at least, as of my best research. What I know they still do is that at some critical moment the lasers reinforce the outline of those Confederate heroes against the stone. Lee, Jackson, Davis, men who fought in protest against the abolition of slavery and to uphold a way of life that was based on abuse, exploitation, and racism. The lasers would carve their outlines, and then the lasers would animate them into life. They would start riding. They would start breathing. They would come to life, while the band literally played Dixie. And nobody ever, ever, ever said: Never Again.
Friends, God calls us to a better liturgy than that one. It seems to me that our monuments are only as good as the stories they tell, and the stories they tell are only as good as what those stories ask of us. You cannot go and visit Constitution Hill in Johannesburg without being on a tour. You cannot buy a ticket and wander around on your own because the story they have to tell is too important. It cannot be left up to the imagination. It cannot be left to chance. We cannot simply read the first two-thirds of Cain’s story and not include the ending. The whole point is that God says, “whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” The whole point is that sin lurks too much at the door. The whole point is that we know precisely how capable we are of going out into the field and slaying our siblings. We keep seeing it over and over and over. That’s why we have to tell this horrible story. That’s why we have to tell all these horrible stories. That’s why we have to remind ourselves time and time again of how fragile it can all be. Because God says. Never again.
Of course, there are lots of different kinds of stories. Not all of them have to be horrible. In fact, once you finish with your guided tour of the Old Fort at Constitution Hill, the tour guide will take you across the street. Across the street from this old haunted prison is one of the emblematic buildings of new South Africa: the Constitution Court, the highest court in the land. It’s not a huge building, nor an imposing one; by design, it’s an intimate space, filled with light and transparency. The foyer uses these amazing slanted columns and metalwork to recreate the feeling of meeting underneath a huge African tree, a metaphor for the ancient ways in which villagers would have sought justice. Inside the chamber itself, a row of narrow windows runs the length of the wall on both sides, just high enough to see the ordinary people walking by outside, just low enough to see only their feet, and not the color of their skin.
But the best thing about the Court are the doors. You walk over from this haunted prison and you are immediately greeted by these huge dark oak doors, thirty-feet high, thick as marble slabs. They stand open, but you can still see the carvings: on the front of each door, hand-made, intricate, twenty-seven plaques using pictures and words and sign-language symbols to depict each of the twenty-seven rights enshrined in the modern South African Constitution. The right to life. The right to equal protection. The right to dignity. The right to health care. The right to food. And of course, it is trivially easy to walk around Johannesburg and find examples of people and places where those rights seem not to be in force. As with anywhere, too many people go hungry. Too many people get sick. Too many people get forgotten. But like any good story, and like any good monument, still, those doors call to us. They ask something of us. They want something from us. And you cannot, as tourist, or as plaintiff, or as justice of the peace, you cannot walk through those doors into that hallowed space without hearing them whisper to you, very quietly, and very insistently. Someday soon, they say. Someday soon, they beg. Someday soon.
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