Mr. Got It?

Sermon for the Montana District Pastors’ Conference (19 October A+D 2010)
The Rev. Dr. John W. Sias, Pastor, Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, Colstrip, Montana
Psalm 5; Genesis 4:1-15 (Matthew 23:35/Luke 11:51; Hebrews 11:4; 12:24); LSB 585

An article in the last Lutheran Witness lamented that PBS’s God in America series chose Jews and not Lutherans to illustrate the struggle of religions to adapt to an American context, concluding: “Perhaps that says more about America’s Lutherans than it does about the producers.” Someone with a contemporary hermeneutic for Dr. Rast can tell us what that means. Or call Voelz.

Rast is right, though, that, for the true visible church on earth, we’re not all that visible. We’ve all lamented his lament. We’ve wished to be Cain and not Abel. Not to plot fratricide and receive a curse, but to be the church our mothers look at and call “Qay’in,” “Got it,” instead of “Hebel,” sized up as a fart in the wind.

Cain, “Got it,” had the pedigree, the family business, the world’s kind of glory. He belonged. He was the mover and the shaker, the big top event. Nothing less than the world’s salvation was expected of him, and it looked like a distinct possibility. Abel seemed of not much significance, an after-thought, a misfit. The father’s fields went to Cain, so Abel was sent out with the sheep, and we know how the Egyptians detested shepherds. But we get ahead of ourselves.

For even though you know how the story ends, you have wished to have the church of Cain and not the church of Abel. You’ve wanted the numbers, the budget, the name, the above-average people. You’ve worried about the money and influence that have walked off, or might. You’ve known men to judge by appearances, and for appearances you have labored, of eloquence and success and optimism and relevance, hoping to disguise the offensive doctrinal substance to the point where the killing-and-raising pill (if you’re still dispensing it) would slide down painlessly. You’ve looked for success. Where you’ve found it, you’ve considered your strategies and your wisdom and your eloquence affirmed, and counted yourself wiser than the brothers. Where you’ve not, you‘ve counted your offering rejected, and your face has fallen. You were angry, deflated, hopeless, jealous. Either way, win or lose, you have acted as if the world’s salvation hung on you, Mr. “Got It,” Pastor Cain.
If all such striving gave birth to wind, you were blessed, and the world through you. You, because we saw where Cain’s great expectations got him. And the world, because Cains grow up to murder their brothers, not to save them—if not with a cunning invitation and a violent blow, then by impressing them to death.

No, it is, in the end, poor worthless Abel and his ilk who get the final word, and it is the good one. He died, Hebrews says, but by his faith is still speaking. But what does he say? It rather neatly ties up the package to call the sacrifices earthly signs of a spiritual reality, to say God put the gold star on Abel’s better faith. We, who cannot see into hearts, not even our own, connect the dots in this way: maybe Abel brought the best and Cain, junk. Shall we look at the quality of what we offer God, or how it works out when we light it up, and so decide if we’ve “got it” or not? This is not Abel’s hermeneutic, but Cain’s!

The right hermeneutic is where Moses’ hearers were, who were dragged kicking and screaming out of Pharaoh’s dominion, spared from death by the blood of lambs and now drenched in the blood of the covenant, shed for our sin. We know what offering has to come first, that it is all about the blood and the firstborn and the good lamb of sacrifice. What distinguishes Abel’s sacrifice is not that he came and gave the good stuff, or that the goodness of the stuff given reflected his faith (though there goes a great stewardship sermon). What distinguishes it is the blood of the lamb. Abel comes as sinner, Cain as saint. Abel offers blood for sin; Cain, wheat in empty praise. Cain comes to give, and thereby to be accepted. Abel comes to receive, righteousness by grace, through faith, wrought by blood. His acceptance before God was not a matter of his name, or his place in the world, or even his assessment of his faith, and especially not a matter of his works, demonstrating it. His acceptance before God was determined by blood shed for him, for the remission of his sins, and the sins of the world. By accepting this sacrifice, Hebrews says, God bore witness that Abel was righteous, and he lives, and his faith speaks still. Because though he died, he lived. Because the sprinkled blood of Jesus that speaks more graciously than his own covers him.

And that blood covers you. You are washed. You are forgiven. You are justified. You are sanctified. And by the one who bled it for the life of the world you are sent. Not to impress the people or the world with your wisdom or vision or numbers or trendiness, not to transform the world so as to make it our own, but to go forth with Jesus outside the camp, bearing the blood. To know and preach nothing but Christ crucified, to comfort only sinners, to save only the damned. To bear the abuse he endured, which is to live by faith. For the church of Abel has here no lasting habitation—we know how the story goes. But in the blood that speaks the better word even than her own, she lives, and in that blood her Lord speaks and is seen and tasted, and by that blood she conquers.

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