GATHERING: East of Eden
You may be surprised to know that one of my favorite theorists comes not from the field of Theology, but from the field of Communications. In 2000, Neil Postman wrote Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. In it, he questions why we do what we do — what we might call epistemology — as it relates to the decisions we make without considering the consequences. In short, Postman posits that we don’t ask the right questions when creating a new technology. We basically ask what is the problem this technology addresses without asking what problems does this technology cause? We mass produce automobiles to better transport people without thinking about carbon dioxide emissions that tear holes into our atmosphere. We invent cell phones to better communicate with one another but never consider how our dependence on or even addiction to them would make us even more busy. We build sprawling suburban neighborhoods without considering how they distance and even segregate us and destroy our downtowns — the very cores of our communities. In other words, we look only at the fix, but never the possible consequences. Distance/Proximity We could say Adam and Eve did this in the Garden of Eden story in Genesis. And it carried on to the next generation, their sons Cain and Abel, which we just read about in Genesis 4 a moment ago. Whether we believe this story actually happened or it was simply a way for the authors to convey some sort of reason for human behavior and the character of God doesn’t really matter. The point is still the same: If we don’t consider the consequence of an action, and we can wind up very distant from God. In the story of Cain and his brother Abel, the elder Cain tills the soil on the family farm, while the younger Abel tends to the livestock. And although we don’t know if God ever tells them how to tithe or sacrifice properly — that is, give the best portions of their God-given gifts back to God — Cain ends up doing it wrong. While Abel brings the first and best offering to God, Cain simply brings a random offering. And this offends God. See, God gave them God’s best. Abel gives God his best, while Cain doesn’t return the gifts with equal love and thanks. God makes that known to Cain, and instead of correcting the problem, Cain grows resentful and angry toward his little brother. And he doesn’t consider the consequences of his resentment and anger. Instead of making it right with God, he makes it worse. He leads Abel out into a field deceptively, and kills Abel. The consequences are immediate. God asks Cain where Abel is, and — just like Adam and Eve after sinning against God — he lies. He says sarcastically: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We see the emotions of God — and it’s not all anger toward Cain; it’s disappointment in Cain and empathy for Abel: “What did you do? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Verse 10). And instead of destroying Cain, God tells him to leave the farm — just as God told Adam and Eve to leave the Garden. He’s banished, and ends up east of Eden. We can easily look at the story allegorically to understand what separation from God is and how it happens. When we sin, we can no longer be in the presence of God. God is only good, and God cannot allow any bad within God. So when we sin, we create distance from God. And so Cain becomes completely distanced from God. Alone. Desolate. And these are the consequences of his actions. Moving away from God Cain quickly sees those consequences, and he tells God that moving away from the fertile land — that is, from God’s presence — and into the desert — that is, a place devoid of God — is a death sentence anyway. Cain says that when others see him, they’ll kill him. And despite God’s anger, he marks Cain so that no one will lay a finger on him. So what does Cain do? He does what he has to do; he leaves. And to protect himself, he finds others who are like him. Others who also need each other. And they band together and create the first city with the same name as Cain’s son, Enoch. The only problem is that Cain is still distant — separated — from God. And nothing good comes from this city. Generations of trouble and strife… 'An Other World' In his book “An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture,” theologian Walter Breuggemann writes that our culture today is much like the first city. It is separate from God. It is an organization of people living together with the common goal of doing the best one can in an economy that rewards competition and a culture that promotes selfishness. See, when God told Cain to go, Cain was separated from God’s covenant. That covenant was simply this: Enjoy all that you want with me, but don’t go against me, and you will live forever. The authors of Genesis used the context of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Genesis 2:16–17). We understand that when we go against God, we are turning from God. When we turn from God, we are separated from God. When we are separated from God, we cannot live forever in God’s presence. We are, in essence, dead. That’s a basic theology, given what we know about the character of God. Neil Postman, who was not a theologian, still writes profoundly when he puts the onus on us. When we act without considering the consequences — in our case, being separated from God — we act selfishly and irresponsibly. And even perilously to ourselves and toward others. And we are separated. Surviving, or thriving? What Cain was really doing was trying to survive. He verbally conveyed that fear to God. What he was trying to do was to establish a way to live outside the covenant of God. Did Cain know what he was doing when he killed his brother? Or was he just not thinking that, hey, maybe this isn’t such a great idea? Did he never consider the consequences of his actions? Was Cain putting God first? Certainly not! Today, we do the same things in our communities, our country and our world when we don’t put God first. When we fail to live into God’s covenant. We could say God was the original author of community. There was a family, that family became a community that undertook an occupation that assured not only their survival, but their fruitfulness — their abundance. And they gave proper thanks to God by living into that covenant and sharing their gifts as well as acknowledging where those gifts came from. But our world more resembles Cain’s, does it not? It’s a place where we are conditioned to be self-sustaining. And to be self-sustaining, we must put ourselves first. Take care of our own first, then take care others, if we need to. There was a time when we depended upon one another. In its most basic form, Cain grew crops, Abel raised livestock… But we’re so far removed from that today. So much so, that we don’t even know what our neighbors do for a living, let alone even their names. When was the last time a neighbor asked to borrow a cup of sugar from you? When was the last time you invited a neighbor over to get to know each other better? When was the last time you depended on your neighbor? This is what God calls us to do. God is a relational God — God’s very triune nature tells us that. We’re not meant to be alone, to be isolated or to create borders or walls or fences to keep others away. In fact, we’re called to live into community. And to be rooted in, selfless with, and thankful for the gifts God has given to us. But to survive today in this world, we are told to make the economy our god. We have to teach our kids to be competitive in schools — to compete against each other rather than to help each other learn and grow. We separate our elderly away from the population, penning them up in care facilities and nursing homes because we believe there is no more value that they can contribute. And we isolate ourselves from our neighbors — and we even compete with them, jealous of their new addition or their new car or boat or what have you. And we’ve even created false cities of suburbia, where for a certain price, we can live around people who are just like us and even create Homeowners Associations to ensure everyone is exactly the same and no diversity exists whatsoever. See, this is what happened to community. We’ve removed the diversity that not only makes us interesting, but creates understanding and love. We’ve stripped away our dependence upon one other — giving where it’s needed, and discovering the things that others can offer us. And what chances do we really have to embrace diversity in our world if we can’t even do that in our own neighborhoods? Well, we look at the condition of the world today, and we shouldn’t be surprised at all. It’s so far outside how God called us to live. So far outside the covenant. Equality I want to commend you all for living into the covenant here tonight. If not anything else, our Gathering here tonight and for the past few months has been an experiment in community. Coming back to Eden, and not living east of it. It’s a way to break down all barriers — economic, racial, heritage, family, religion, denomination, culture, influence, power, gender, preference, ability, education or age. That’s why I’m not dressed in a robe to be different from you. That’s why there aren’t certain designated people who are serving others, as if they have some resources that others do not. That’s why there are no microphones to make my voice louder or more worth listening to than yours. Or why everyone has an equal say in how we worship here. We can call that a democratic society, sure. But at the core, what are we really here for? What is our common denominator? What makes want to do this? It’s covenant. It’s simply living into the covenant. To worship God. To live into the kingdom God gives us. And to imagine what it would look like to create what we have in here, and make it happen out there. You see, through time, we begin to break down all those false structures and walls and barriers that separate us. And not feel weird sitting with someone else here. Not feel like you’re invading someone’s personal space by simply smiling at them, asking their name or getting to know them. And so when you see them later in the week down the block or at the store, it’s not awkward. Because in here, sure, we can break bread together, we can sing together and we can pray together — but make no mistake, we still can be isolated… I can’t tell you how many people in the Sunday services all around the world sit in the very same pews week after week. In that safe spot. Where they don’t have to interact with anyone they don’t already know. If we can’t interact and get to know one another at church, or in covenant spaces such as this here this evening, then what chance do we have for our communities or our world? Let us never forget that God calls us to be covenant people. And it all starts here. Take this message home tonight. Pray on it. Ask God to show you ways to begin chipping at all those walls. Ask the Holy Spirit to go with you into those vulnerable places. And then go back out into the world each day. Make eye contact. Smile at someone. Begin conversations. Invite a neighbor onto your porch. Invite a friend here. Call someone you haven’t spoken with in a long time. Get involved in ministries and activities here, in your churches and in our community. Volunteer for something you’re passionate about. Find common ground. Share your gifts and talents with others. And love. Just simply love as God loves us.