"The Sacrament of the Rejected Gift"

by Jackson H. Day
General Board of Church And Society, Washington, DC
August 1, 2001
Genesis 4:3-8

Have you ever offered something to someone, only to have your gift rejected? I certainly have. How do you feel? My emotions run the gamut. I get angry. I want to force people to accept my gift. Or I want to kill. Something to make these rejecting people go away.

The story of Cain's rejected gift in this morning's reading is universally known because it's so true to life. Later in our Bible writers say that Cain's gift was rejected because he was a bad person with a bad gift, but the genius of Genesis is to make us live with ambiguity. If you stick just with the Genesis story, you're not told why Cain's gift was rejected. It just was. Cain, we read, "was very angry, and his countenance fell." And then God has the audacity to ask Cain, "what's the matter?" As if God didn't know! And God tells Cain to focus on doing well; otherwise sin is lurking at his door. In effect God is telling Cain, rejection of our gifts is just one of those things that happens in life. Sometimes our gifts are rejected, and then we have to figure out what to do.

It is painful for a gift to be rejected. The pain minorities feel includes the pain of rejected gifts: the gifts of feminists rejected by a culture that is largely patriarchal, the gifts of racial minorities rejected by a culture that is largely white, the gifts of immigrants rejected by those who were here earlier. I had a conversation last week with someone who is a refugee in America having escaped from one of the trouble spots in Africa. She told of the trauma of fear of her life, the trauma of family members killed, the trauma of seeing a whole way of life be stripped away -- but the trauma she most immediately remembered was, as a refugee worshiping in American churches, of seeking ways to contribute, and finding her gifts rejected.

In the central story of Christianity, God stands in the place of Cain. In this central story, it is not Cain offering a gift to God, but God offering a gift to humanity. Once again, it is the story of a rejected gift. In the end, all gifts are gifts not of an object, but of oneself. From Genesis to Revelation, God gives that gift again and again. Sometimes in the Scriptures the storytellers endow God with the same impulses we have as humans, and in some of those stories God acts just like Cain. In the Noah story a rejected God kills most of humanity. In the apocalyptic books a rejected God returns in glory to reward the faithful-- and to kill the rejecters. Oh, what satisfaction! But when prophets like Hosea struggled with the problem they wondered how a loving God could kill that which God loved, even though God had been rejected. The prophetic tradition culminated in Christianity's central story where God offers humanity God in human incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth -- and on the cross humanity rejects that gift.

In Christianity's central story, God's response can be a model for our own. God accepts the rejection, even to the point of death. The Easter narrative is a story of overcoming, that no rejection is final, that after a time in the tomb of hopes, what had been dashed to the ground will be raised and returned to life. The Eucharist is a model of accepting the rejection and turning it inside out by transcending it, turning symbols of a rejected gift into symbols of life, love and acceptance. When we share the bread and wine, we share in God's work of turning rejection into acceptance.

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