I delivered this sermon on my last Sunday at First Baptist Church in Henderson, NC where I was the pastoral intern earlier this year. The sermon came in the midst of a time where we were talking about, as a country, things like minimum wages laws, the drought in California (and what it meant for our food!), and the conditions of food workers. The passages were Genesis 4:1-10, John 10:11-18, and 1 John 3:11-24.
“What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
“I am the good shepherd […] I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”
“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.”
In the first passage we heard this morning, we heard a tale of greed, deceit, and murder. There were two brothers, bound together by blood. Both of them worked with food. They brought offerings to God, charitable offerings meant to assert their faith in and reliance on God. But when one grew envious for God’s favor, he killed the other.
Cain approached his brother Abel and told him, “Come with me. Let’s go outside and see what the world has to offer today.” Abel, suspecting nothing, cheerfully accompanied his brother. In the field outside, the brothers were once again bound by blood … but this time the blood was Abel’s crying out from the ground.
Cain in the moments following Abel’s murder exhibits no immediate remorse and he even denies it. He told God, “I don’t know where he is. Am I my brother’s keeper?” But God knew what Cain had done. God heard Abel’s cry from the blood-soaked soil, ground that would never properly yield food again.
“What have you done?” God asked Cain. “Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! Can you hear it? Abel’s blood still cries out from the soil. The earth lurches with his pain, and yet his voice goes unheard. I cannot help but hear Abel’s cry today, because Cain still murders Abel. The story is caught in time, endlessly repeating itself all over the world.
Abel was a shepherd. Shepherds were not wealthy by many standards. Shepherds were often wanderers without homes of their own. Shepherds were not high in the social classes. Not very many people cared for them. They didn’t make a lot of money, and they didn’t have much to their names. Often, that may not have been their choice. The shepherds may have had other ambitions, but for whatever reason found themselves stuck in this profession. Or, they may really love the sheep, but no one else quite cares for their love of sheep. Despite all that we receive from the shepherds, we don’t think about them very much. Instead, we sit comfortably distant from the soil that is soaked with blood crying out for help, for justice, for mercy, and for love.
I believe that we can hear Abel’s cry from workers and producers all over the world about whom we never think, to whom we never pay enough, and about whom we care very little. In particular, though, I think of those who put food on our tables. Cain and Abel were involved with the land and food, after all.
The farmer comes to mind. We don’t often think much of farmers, but farmers endure an incomprehensible amount of stress. They have to worry about the rain, the dirt, the seed, the animals, the markets, and an untold number of other factors. And if any one of these is too out of sync with the others, it is not just disastrous for the crop, but for the farmer’s livelihood. Even in good years, farmers have to watch literal tons of their grueling work culled from their crop that goes to the grocery store because it is too small, too big, too weird-shaped, or off-color. In bad years, the very people who grow our food cannot eat themselves, because there is no money to be made. Sometimes, that even happens in good years.
Companies and consumers alike put immense pressure on farmers to grow until the soil is dead, to predict the kind and amount of produce we’ll want this year, and to make every bit of food look like it came straight out of a photoshopped magazine. We ask the farmer to do all of this (and more) for us, and then we ask them to assume all the financial risk. If the crop is bad, we don’t suffer. We’ll just get our food shipped from California — but not for long. If the crop is bad, only the farmer suffers, not us. With this dreary picture, it is not surprise that farming is one of the highest stress occupations and farmers have a far higher rate of suicide and mental illness than the rest of us. But most of us don’t think about that at breakfast because we are too far from the blood-soaked soil to hear Abel’s cry.
The farmer workers cry out with their employers, too. Their plight is even worse most times than the farmer. Millions of farm workers across the United States are responsible for the food on our tables, but they don’t make enough money to buy the food they pick. Low wages create crises of hunger, health, and housing for farm workers. On top of that, many farm workers are undocumented immigrants who cannot benefit from public assistance despite the taxes they pay and the food they put on our tables. In the field, they are subject to extreme temperatures, long and tough work hours, and scores of other dangers. Even when minimum wage laws were created, they exempted two categories: food service and farm workers. Low wages and lack of job security destroys families and persons, leaving the most vulnerable in danger of death. But most of us don’t think about that at lunch because we are too far from the blood-soaked soil to hear Abel’s cry.
Even the food service worker who just serves us our food cries out with the farmer and the farm worker. They also make pitiful earnings more often than not. They take our orders, cook our food, and deliver it to us faster than any time in human history, but they are anonymous faces in a mass of food franchises. They have to work multiple jobs to put the food, even just the terrible non-nutritious food, they serve us on their own tables. Sometimes three jobs won’t even cover both the food and the home in which to eat it. When they ask for more money, for a living wage, we deride them and tell them their job isn’t worth a living wage. They suffer in silence, because in those rare moments like the past few weeks, when they raise their cry loud enough for us to hear it, saying that they cannot live on the scraps we pay them, when they say that, we ignore them at best or mock them at worst. But most of just don’t think about that at dinner, because we live too far from the blood-soaked soil to hear Abel’s cry.
Like Cain, we provide all sorts of myths to cover up Abel’s death. Our corporations, companies, politicians, and even some of us buy into these myths and purvey them as if they were the Gospel truth. We tell the shepherds, the Abels, the farmers, the farm workers, and the food service workers, that their job just isn’t worth a living wage. Despite the fact that all play a crucial role in putting food on our table, we do not believe that they do enough work to put food on their own tables. One commentator said last week that what they do “is fundamentally worth very little” to the gods of the market from whom Cain seeks favor. He told minimum wage workers just to get another job, as if it was that easy.
Another myth is that people don’t deserve enough to live simply because they are people. Despite the fact that all were made in the image of God, we think that unless people do the kind of work that we do, they don’t deserve as much as we have. Despite the fact that many of these people pay the taxes the subsidize that refund checks a lot of us will get in the mail, we don’t believe they deserve a living wage, no matter how hard they work at their job. They are simply not worth the economic cost, the sacrifice. We are not willing to sacrifice our first fruits to God so that they can live.
We believe the myth too that they can just get another job if they don’t like the current state of their lives. Want a higher wage? Get a better job, slacker. We act as if it’s easy to climb your way out of poverty while the blood of so many Abels soaks the ground beneath them and Cain waits to kill them. We tell them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but this is as economically impossible as it is physically impossible.
Like Cain, we tell lies to cover up the truth. “I haven’t seen him.” And we do see Abel dying in the fields, in the kitchens, or behind the counters, but we turn our gaze away and mutter Cain’s immortal question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Am I my sister’s keeper? So we mutter and go about our days, while the shepherds die for the food that goes on our tables.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end at Abel’s death. Only by the grace of God can the blood of Abel crying out from the ground receive an answer. The story doesn’t end with this murdered shepherd, because I know another murdered shepherd.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. Jesus identified himself with the people low on the totem pole. Jesus classified himself as a discarded worker, a forgotten laborer, who nevertheless cares more for us than anyone else. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” he said. He tells us, too, that he goes out of his way to gather all the sheep from all over the land into his flock. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” There are none of the divisions that we keep so strictly in Jesus’ flock. There is not a rich flock and a poor flock. Some sheep don’t deserve to make $100,000 a year while others only $7.25 an hour. There will be one flock, and Jesus will care for them. Jesus proposed a new way of life, a new way of being, that wasn’t based on our categories of so-called merit, but on an all-inclusive grace.
But we did not respond well to Jesus’ new society. We did not particularly like Jesus’ vision for the world. This good shepherd was threatening to us, and we did not like what he had to say. So we murdered another shepherd, and his blood soaked the ground. But this shepherd did not come to be murdered. This shepherd did not come to die. This shepherd did not come for his blood to join Abel’s and cry out from the ground for the rest of eternity. His blood mingles with the blood of the oppressed and he shared in their suffering. But this shepherd refused to let that be the end of the story.
This shepherd died, an ancient poet Melito tells us, in this way:
The earth trembled, its foundations
Shook like silt; the sun, chagrined,
Fled the scene, and every mundane
Element scattered in retreat. The day
Became the night: for the light could not endure
The image of the Master [… the Shepherd …] hanging on a tree.
All creation was astonished, perplexed
And stammering, What new mystery is this?
The Judge is judged, and yet He holds his peace;
The Invisible One is utterly exposed, and yet is not ashamed;
The Incomprehensible [One] is grasped, and will not turn indignant;
[…] the Absolutely Unattainable suffers, and yet does not avenge;
The Immortal dies, and utters not a word;
The Celestial [our God of heaven!] is pressed into an earthen grave,
And He endures! [He lives!]
What new mystery is this?
The whole creation, I say, was astonished;
But, when our Lord stood up in [Hell] —
Trampling death underfoot, subduing
The strong one, setting every captive free —
Then all creation saw clearly that for its sake
The Judge was condemned […]
For our Lord, even when He deigned to be born
Was condemned in order that He might show mercy,
We bound that He might loose,
Was seized that He might release,
Suffered that He might show compassion,
Died that He might give life,
Was laid in the grave that He might rise,
Jesus did not die just for my personal sins, or for your personal sins. Jesus was not just some substitution, taking a whipping for you and me. Jesus died to defeat death, to defeat evil, to defeat oppression, and to make absolutely and abundantly clear that death will not be the end of the story.
Jesus died to put an end to death, to put an end to evil. Jesus did not die just for his blood to cry out from the ground. Jesus died for Abel, for Abel’s blood that cried out for help, for justice, for mercy, and for love.
Christ died for Abel, the Abels all over the world.
Christ died so that we would be free, not enslaved.
Christ died that we would be liberated, not oppressed.
Christ died that we might live, not die.
Christ was born, lived, died, was risen, and ascended into heaven that all of us might have life, a life that abides in love. In response, we must lead lives that abide in that love of Jesus. For we face the choice of Cain, the choice between life or death. As 1 John tells us, “We must not be like Cain who […] murdered his brother.” We must choose life and choose love, because it is not our first inclination, it is not automatic. This kind of love comes to us through Christ’s resurrection, because in his death we died and were raised with him, as the passage says, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.”
This is not some abstract love. This is not some concept of warm-fuzzy love that lives in the back of our minds and comes out when we’re happy. This is love that has flesh and blood. This is the love of God who came to us in flesh and our love ought to have flesh on it too. This love sees the evil done to farmers, farm workers, food service workers, and all others like them, and this love with flesh on it opposes that evil.
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth.” To love not just in our words requires us to live a different way, consider a different path. What might that look like?
Consider living closer to the soil of Abel. If you can, buy your food from a farmer. Most farmers have what is called “community supported agriculture.” You sign up at the beginning of a season and get a share of the crop that comes, regardless of how abundant or not that crop is. This takes some of the risk off the farmer, giving them a small guaranteed source of income.
Consider helping out farm workers. There are innumerable organizations across the country, including in North Carolina, who work for farm workers to be able to eat and live. There’s the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, FLOC, an apt title for a day we talk about shepherds. See how you could help them help farm workers live a decent life. A quick internet search would yield some Christian ministries, too, that work with farm workers — even Baptist ones!
Consider helping those who make minimum wage or less bringing you your food. Their job is thankless, difficult, and oftentimes very unfulfilling. Some of us have undoubtedly done that work for a time. So, when you encounter someone who requests a higher wage, don’t dismiss them. Don’t ridicule them. Don’t tell them they aren’t worth a living wage. Help them or not, at least don’t condemn them. If you want a tiny, miniscule change that’s easy to implement, consider tipping well. Regardless of the service, try tipping between 20 and 25%. Do it when you go out to lunch today. It’s a dollar or two for you, but it can make a huge difference when you’re only making a few dollars an hour. Christians should be known for such grace, not stinginess.
Those aren’t commands from God. Those are just a few humble suggestions to help in small ways to alleviate the suffering of Abel. Christ demands that we take part in that work, because that is why Jesus came to us. Those may not be commandments from God, but this one is — 1 John tells us — “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.”
This is the word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.