Last Sunday I began a four-week series, "Family Stories," focusing on that crazy, dysfunctional crowd we all know and love from Genesis.
This is one of those instances in which a sermon title really didn't end up "working" with the finished product. I dislike having to come up with titles so early in the week!
This is also an instance of a sermon that felt better in the anticipation than in the final analysis. Ah well...
Sermon Series: “Family Stories”
Sermon: “A Race to Judgment”
July 6, 2008
As our country celebrates Independence Day this weekend, I think most of us are feeling that this is an historic year for citizens of the United States, in ways that are both exhilarating and troubling. On the one hand, we have just come through a presidential primary season in which the two final candidates for one major party were a woman and an African American man, and in which the final candidate for the other major party is a distinguished Senator and Viet Nam war hero. In terms of Presidential politics we would seem to be in a watershed year, breaking barriers of race and gender, and welcoming our veterans home at last, no matter the outcome in November. On the other hand, a glimpse at any newspaper or time spent listening to radio or TV news reveals that we are in a phase of great economic anxiety and upheaval: the mortgage debt crisis, foreclosures, the escalating cost of energy including the gasoline we pump into our cars, the concurrent spike in cost for everything that requires transporting, including food… all these signal difficult times for many Americans. Exhilarating and troubling.
Our scripture passage this morning could also be described as both “exhilarating and troubling.” Today begins a four-week sermon series, “Family Stories,” focusing on the tales of our ancestors in faith from the book of Genesis. Today’s passage begins as what is perhaps the best-known story in the Old Testament is coming to an end, the story we know as “Noah and the Ark.” As we come upon Noah and his three sons, the floodwaters have receded. The animals have filed out of the ark and are, presumably, roaming the countryside, searching for new habitats in which to settle. After months upon months in the ark, the family is released at last from something which must have felt like a kind of prison, even though it saved their lives. And at this moment of release and restoration, God speaks these words of wondrous promise and comfort:
I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. ~ Genesis 9:13-15
Imagine: not only release, but the promise that God will never again be the purposeful agent of destruction of all living beings. As sometimes happens in scripture, we are startled by an image of God that seems very human… almost penitent, remorseful. In both English and Hebrew, “bow” can mean an implement of war (bow and arrow) and an array of color in the heavens following a rainstorm. God promises solemnly, with the beautiful image of setting the divine bow in the clouds, that God has set down the implement of war. The almighty promises not to use it against living beings again.
Exhilarating! Release, restoration, renewed commitment. But the verses that follow can only spell trouble. Noah, a man of the earth, plants a vineyard and gets drunk on his own wine. As he lies uncovered in his tent, his son Ham enters and sees him. There is a strong prohibition in scripture against this very action, uncovering the nakedness of one’s parent. It carries a sexual connotation, to be sure, and the prohibition is an instance of what can be called “placing a fence around the law.” We do this all the time. Take speed limits, for example. What is the driving force behind speed limits? We do not want people to go 150 miles an hour, and then get into accidents that might injure or kill them or others. We place a fence around that undesirable, extreme result by instituting a speed limit, which, hopefully, will keep people far away from that bad outcome. In scripture, if the strong prohibition is against sexual contact between parents and children, then a fence is placed around that law, by forbidding the children to even see the nakedness of the parent.
Ham violates this law, we don’t know how, exactly, and he immediately tells his brothers—perhaps to help them to avoid doing what he has done. The brothers take great pains to cover their father, to restore his modesty. When Noah awakes, he knows what has happened, and he pronounces a curse on Ham’s descendants beginning with his son Canaan.
[Noah] said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” Genesis 9:25-27
This is so startling, coming as it does immediately after God’s offer of the bow of peace to all living beings. That it is a curse leveled on Noah’s own descendants makes it all the more horrifying. Notice that he doesn’t directly curse his son, the guilty party, but rather curses his grandson and those who come after him. To consign one’s own family to slavery is a shocking act, a repulsive act.
What is really going on here? There are so many ways we could think about this story, so many ways of trying to understand it. Taken at face value, it would seem to be the story of a family that has responded to long months of stress by descending rather severely into dysfunction, with boundary violations and recriminations and long-lasting damage to the entire family system. Taken at face value, if all Ham has done is to wander accidentally into his father’s tent, the enormity of his father’s anger would seem to be displaced… perhaps it is not safe to be angry with the God who has destroyed all living things, but it is safe to turn on one’s children. These are all possibilities. But there is much more to this story than the “plain-reading” of the text.
If we look at the historic and biblical context, it suggests we employ a technique of asking, who benefits from such a curse? When the people of Israel have been singled out as God’s particular and chosen people, guess who will be among their chief enemies? The leading contenders have to be the Canaanites and the Hamites. The Canaanites inconveniently inhabit the land that God promises to the Israelites. And “Ham” eventually becomes synonymous with “Egypt”—Egypt, where the Hebrew people will eventually themselves become slaves. There is motive for the Israelites to preserve a story that condemns these hated enemies to slavery.
We can look also at this passage as it has been used, its history of interpretation… again, asking, “Who benefits from this understanding?” And the sad, devastating truth is that this story has been used throughout history to validate the practice of slavery, particularly of people of African descent. “Children of Ham” was eventually used in scripture to describe people from Egypt and Africa. Even to this day, there are people who still harbor enough hatred and resentment to invoke this curse.
There is still another way we can read this passage. We can read it in the context of the full witness of scripture. This is a strong Presbyterian tradition: we use scripture to help us to interpret scripture. And the strong, full witness of scripture cries loudly and passionately against the institution of slavery. The stories of Exodus portray a God who hears the cries and moans of people who are held as slaves, and that God acts with a mighty hand to free them. In this context, the so-called “curse of Ham” shrinks in significance, and we are able to see it as it is: the lashing out in anger of a man against his own kin, without the blessing of God to back it up.
The Presbyterian Church is part of a Christian tradition that refers to itself as “the church Reformed, and always reforming, according to the Word of God.” As another Reformed tradition has expressed this idea, we try never to put a period where God has put a comma. We recognize that God is still speaking to us. This is a principle that was affirmed by our earliest ancestors in faith in what would later become the United States. John Robinson was the pastor to the first pilgrims to travel to the New World on the Mayflower. As his congregation prepared to make the dangerous journey to religious freedom, he preached a sermon in which he told them: “There is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word.”
Today, this year, I believe we can be proud to be both Presbyterians and Americans, even as we live together through times of change and anxiety in church and society. In every age, our church struggles faithfully to hear how scripture is speaking to us today. 1967 was the year in which demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam drew tens of thousands of participants, the year in which the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” the year in which Israel fought in the Six-Day War, and the year in which, in the case “Loving Vs. Virginia,” the US Supreme Court affirmed the rights of couples to marry, no matter their race. In that same year, responding to the Civil Rights movement, our church ratified a new creed. As we read this small portion of the Confession of 1967, we can give thanks to God for God’s word heard fresh each morning. As we remember this odd and little-heard story of Noah and his sons, we can know that God’s promise of life still stands for our own broken and hurting families. As we remember how Christians of one era honored the fullness of the witness of scripture, we can give thanks that we too have the opportunity and the freedom to do just that, each and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.
From the Confession of 1967
God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between brothers [and sisters] and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all [people] to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.