June 30 | The Land Keeps the Score

Texts: Genesis 4:1-12

Peace, Violence, and Land.

Back in May I asked for input for summer worship themes. I was curious to hear thoughts on what questions we should be asking together.  What should we be talking about?  What’s on your mind?  Many thanks to those of you who responded. 

One constellation of ideas that emerged had to do with peace, violence, and land.  There were mentions of pacifism; Jesus and the early Anabaptists relating to political authorities; Promised Land and Chosen People.  White Christian Nationalism.  The horrors in Gaza and the horrors in the Bible often used to justify such horrors.  Overall, it was nice to see you wanted to take a break from heavier topics and enjoy some light summer fare.  I always knew what this congregation really wanted was cotton candy for the soul.        

Well, it is the 4th of July this Thursday, with the greatest aspirations and contradictions of our nation on full display regarding peace, violence, and land.  There’s something very powerful about origin stories, like the ones we tell around this holiday of independence.  They give us our bearings and tell us who are, how to act, what to aspire toward.  So I offer, this week and next, a companion origin story that has some things to say about peacefulness, violence, and land.  It’s not directly about those topics mentioned, but hopefully gives some footing for all of them.    

It’s a story we’ve heard before.  I know this because Katrina just read it to us.  Maybe you heard about it even before that.  It’s a story about the beginning of the human race, so it has a pretty broad audience in mind.  It’s an old story, so it doesn’t know anything about White Christian Nationalists or America or Anabaptists or even Jesus.  It’s not a happy story, not one you tell right before setting off fireworks, but it does have something to say about a certain form of independence, the kind that forgets about interdependence.  Even if this is your first time hearing it, it is painfully familiar in how it turns out.  It has, at least to our modern ears, a component so odd and unfamiliar, we might be tempted to ignore that part altogether.  But that would be a mistake. 

In very brief summary, the story goes like this: In the beginning, the first woman and the first man had two sons.  And the older brother killed the younger.  It’s a pretty straight forward story, and, like I said, it’s not a happy one.  We know it as the story of Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. 

There are some more details worth noting.  First and foremost, it’s important to know that this story wasn’t originally written in English.  In fact, originally, it wasn’t written at all.  It was told, voice to ear, generation to generation, for, we don’t know how long.  Eventually it was written down in Hebrew as part of the grand narrative of Genesis, the first book of the library we call the Bible.  And Hebrew is a colorful language.  It’s very visual and tactile, it’s playful, it’s very punny.       

So, for example, the very first human being is formed out of the ground.  Ground in Hebrew is adamah, so this new creature is named adam.  Maybe you’ve heard this.  His body and his name comes from the ground.  In English it would be something like the first human being formed out of the earth, E-A-R-T-H, and his name being A-R-T Art.  Which is kind of a cool thought in itself, that all artistry comes from the earth. 

And the first woman is named Eve, which means life, Life Bearer. 

So in this story, the one we’re telling today, Ground Guy and Life Bearer get together, and she gives birth to the first human child, Production.  That’s what Cain means, Production.  Eve even has some fun with this and says “with the help of the Lord I have produced a son.”  Ground guy and life force unite again and have a second son, Emptiness.  That’s Abel.  That’s that same word used over and over again in Ecclesiastes.  Abel, Abel, all is Able.  Emptiness, emptiness, all is emptiness.  Which, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re a Buddhist.  Emptiness is the fundamental nature of reality.  Nothing has independent permanent existence in and of itself.  Or, scientifically, look inside an atom or the whole universe, and what you get is almost all emptiness.  The fundamental nature of reality.

So Cain and Abel, Production and Emptiness are the first siblings to share a room.  What can go wrong?  Well, nothing yet.  They’re just getting going in the world. 

Production, Cain, we are told, is a tiller of the soil, or more literally, a servant of the ground – which is a good thing to be.  That’s the same task the Creator had given Adam, who is, after all, from the ground.  The ground and humanity are intimately linked.  How could it be any other way?  As Mayra Gomez Perez, an Indigenous Bolivian woman says: “Earth is my body, water is my blood, air is my breath, fire is my spirit.” (The Land is Not Empty, by Sarah Augustine, p. 208).  Genesis pretty much agrees.  The firstborn, Production, is given great responsibility, to care for the collective body that is the earth.   And Emptiness, the younger brother, the one who has no existence in and of himself but is made real in relationship with others, is a keeper of the flocks.  A nomadic shepherd and a settled farmer.  And again, what can go wrong when these two civilizations try to share space?       

Cain and Abel. 

Then there’s the whole thing about the sacrifices.  They each make a sacrifice to the Lord out of their bounty.  And the Lord, it says, had regard for Abel’s sacrifice, but not for Cain’s.  No details about why or what that even looked like for them.  But we aren’t so far removed from the idea of sacrifice.  We understand a bit about this.  When you make a sacrifice, there’s supposed to be a payoff.  When you put in the long hours at work, giving up other things, you’re supposed to get the promotion.  When you do all the right exercises and eat the right food, your body is supposed to respond by being strong and healthy.  That’s the deal we hold with life, and life is supposed to respond accordingly.  Cain made his sacrifice, but the Lord didn’t regard it.  Cain -the firstborn, with all those rights and privileges – had nothing to show for it, it didn’t benefit him in the way he expected.  Meanwhile Emptiness is over there living his life, doing just fine for himself.

Cain became angry.  Production became resentful.

So one day, quoting from the NRSV, Genesis 4:8: “Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘let’s go out to the field.’  And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother, Abel, and killed him.”         

The first siblings.  The first act of human violence.  Every act of violence is against someone in the family, we could say from this, no matter how far the family tree has spread over time.  Emptiness has been murdered, and only Production remains to carry on. 

This is an origin story of the human family. 

Only Cain wasn’t alone out there in the field.  There’s the Lord, of course.  It’s hard to escape the Lord.  “Where is your brother Abel?” asks the Lord?  “I do not know,” Cain replies.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The Lord lets that question hang in the air – for several thousand years, and counting – before reminding Cain of that larger body he has also been entrusted with. “Listen,” says the Lord, almost as if Cain could audibly hear something if he let himself, “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, when you serve the earth, it will no longer yield to you its strength.” 

Oh yeah, the ground.  The earth.  The mother,father, brother, body Cain was entrusted to serve.  It was there too.  It was a witness.  It received the blood of Abel, the one whose name declared interdendence.  The ground cried out to alert the Lord of the violation.  As if violence against a sibling is also violence against the land itself, which will no longer yield its strength to those entrusted to care for it.  This is the part that’s pretty odd and unfamiliar to us contemporary Westerners.  Easy to skip over as just a bit of a literary flare.  I mean the ground doesn’t actually cry out to the Creator, right.  It’s just a figure of speech from those imaginative pre-modern Hebrews.    

The sermon title, “The Land Keeps the Score,” is a little play on the title of a book called The Body Keeps the Score.  For me, it’s one of those books I’ve heard referenced enough that I’m pretty sure I’ve kind of read it even though I haven’t read it.  It’s the idea that trauma isn’t just an event that happens to us, it’s a response that happens within us, encoded in the body, our body.  Trauma quite literally changes our biochemical make-up, registers on the cellular level.  Lots of good work has been done around this in the last decade to better understand the effects of trauma on the body and thus work toward repair and healing.

The body keeps the score.  The land keeps the score. 

Given the amount spilled blood since those first siblings, this doesn’t seem like a particularly hopeful idea.  I mean, if the land keeps the score, how do you ever come back from such a deficit?

Well, the story is definitely interested in that very question.  Cain now fears for his life, and Lord offers an initial way forward that may or may not work so well.  It sets up this very question to be addressed throughout the rest of our scriptures.  The question of regeneration, restoration of broken relationships, grace, obligation, forgiveness, repair.  Repenting of destructive independence and entering into healthy and life-giving interdependence.  Can we be productive yet peaceful? 

Despite the violence all around him, Jesus of Nazareth still chose to speak of the land as a source of generative life for everyone.  He told parables about scattering seeds, many of which won’t grow, but some which will grow into a harvest many times over.    He taught, “the meek shall inherit the land.”  And, something we’ll go more in depth with next week, he taught and practiced a kind of reverse revenge as a way of unwinding past harms, us rejoining the land and the Lord as partners in the way of life.  Jesus was, in many ways, a resurrection of the voice of Abel, the one who exists in and through relationship. 

I think it’s fair to say that Production is one of the patron saints of our culture.  We’re pretty good at production.  Like, really good.  But before Production committed violence, he was a servant of the earth.  The earth remembers, and maybe Production will remember too.  And maybe, if we listen closely enough, if we put our ear near enough to the earth, we’ll hear the voice of Abel, and we’ll see interdependence.  We’ll see that scattered seeds still grow green from ground.