(Preached at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, Virginia on 9/2/2012)
Genesis 9.18-29: “The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God shall 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.” After the flood Noah lived three hundred fifty years. All the days of Noah were nine hundred fifty years; and he died.”
The smell was unbearable. Though he had lost track of the days, Ham was still unaccustomed to the rocking of the boat and the smell of damp animals constantly bombarding his senses. As he made his way throughout the bowels of the ship, checking on his brothers and their families, feeding the animals, and plugging leaks, Ham’s tortured mind kept replaying the details of what brought him to this ship.
His father had always been a quiet man; he mostly kept to himself and lived a humble life. His daily routine was not often interrupted until the day he began gathering copious amounts of wood from the forest. Ham could not understand the change in his father’s ambitions, but he respected him enough to not question this new driving force. Over the months a ship began to form out of the collected wood and Ham, along with his brothers, helped their father by collecting two of every animal from the surrounding countryside. Ham’s unwavering faith sustained him through the trying months where a ship stood in an open field, miles from the nearest water source. When others would have doubted his father’s project, Ham remained steadfast. And then the rain began. As the days passed, and the rain continued, Ham began to understand why his father had dedicated all of his energy to the giant raft; a flood was coming.
Ducking underneath the wooden support beams Ham pondered whether or not the boat would ever again rest on solid land. Tormented by the incessant rocking, Ham went onto the deck of the ship in order to calm his system. Usually filled with noise and activity, when Ham arrived on the deck all was silent and most of his family had gathered on the side of the boat. Worried that someone had fallen overboard, Ham rushed to the edge of the boat with his eyes drawn to the water until his father, Noah, placed a hand on Ham’s shoulder and pointed to the mountaintops that pierced the edge of the horizon: their journey was coming to an end.
The months after the flood passed by without the interruption of any major catastrophic elements. Ham and his brothers were initially shocked to discover the absurd amount of devastation that had been underwater. But as time passed, they cleaned and prepared to create a new home. While Ham and his family settled back into normalcy, his father began to cultivate fields of grapes in the same manner that he built the ark – he kept to himself yet worked with profound dedication. Eventually the fields yielded their fruit and Noah began to produce an abundance of wine.
One morning Ham was distressed to discover his father missing from his usual presence in the fields and went off to find him. Upon entering his father’s tent, Ham took in the disheveled room and tried to make sense of what was before him: Noah was completely naked surrounded by a number of empty wine bottles. Ham looked upon the body of his father and felt sorry for him, for his trials and tribulations with the ark, for his drunkenness, for his nakedness, and for his shame. He left the tent in order to find his brothers Shem and Japheth and tell them what had happened.
After debating what needed to be done, Shem and Japheth found a cloak and laying it on their shoulders they walked into their father’s tent backwards to cover the nakedness of their father. Throughout the day Ham continually walked past Noah’s tent and waited patiently for his father to awake. When Noah finally awoke from his drunken stupor, news of his nakedness and drunken escapade from the night before had made its way throughout the family. Noah, usually a man of few words, angrily made his way through the camp until he stood before his sons: “Ham I have come to curse your son, my grandson, Canaan; lowest of the slaves shall he be to his brothers! My other son Shem, blessed by the Lord my God you shall be, let your nephew Canaan be your slave! Japheth, may God make space for you in the tents of your brother Shem, and let your nephew Canaan be your slave!”
… I have no idea what this passage means. I am starting my third year of seminary and I haven’t the faintest idea how this scripture made it into the canon. I have dreaded this moment over the last few months, knowing that I was invited to come in my home church, where I would stand before so many people I love and care about, people who made me into the Christian I am today, people who helped nurture my call to the ministry. I have been terrified about preaching this sermon because I simply have no idea what this scripture means.
Now don’t get me wrong, my last two years at Duke Divinity School have been amazing. I have garnered a significant theological education, unrivaled in the United States. My professors have taken me through amazing lectures on a myriad of subjects. I have learned how to appropriately pronounce words like eschatology, pericope, pneumatology, hermeneutics, dogmatic apologetics, latitudarianism, curvatis, kerygma, infralapsarianism, and sometimes I even know what those words mean. I have served churches in North Carolina and Michigan. I have participated in funerals and comforted grieving families. I have celebrated with parents as the brought their infant forward to be baptized into the body of Christ. I have committed myself to the call that God placed on my life so many years ago, but I still don’t know what to do with Noah’s hangover.
To begin, everyone here already knows the real story about Noah and the Ark, it’s the one your children watch on Veggie Tales, and the one your grandmother told you when you were growing up – Noah, a man of God, is the only righteous human being left; God commands him to build an ark and procure two of every animal in order to repopulate the earth after the flood; the flood comes and desolates the land, but Noah’s faith in God’s calling sustains him and his family; after the water recedes God creates a rainbow in the sky signifying the new covenant… However, this is not the end of the story.
Over the last few years I have come to appreciate the fact that the bible is full of mysterious, confusing, and seemingly un-preachable, stories. Over the last month Jason Micheli has taken this church through some of the more bizarre collections of the Word of God: You have heard about: Isaiah’s unwavering faith in the Lord to the point of remaining naked for three years; David collecting 100 Philistine foreskins in order to marry Saul’s daughter; Paul literally preaching and boring a young man to death; and God jumping out in the middle of the night in an attempt to kill Moses.
Jason has skillfully and articulately brought these stories to life, he has connected them with the modern world and brought forth a message applicable for today. Moreover, he has done what every preacher is called to do: make the Word become flesh and dwell among us.
Unlike Jason Micheli, I do not have a particular story that reflects the scripture for the day. I’m sure if Jason were preaching this morning he would tell us about getting a call one morning at his last church to visit a family within the community. Upon arriving Jason would have discovered the father passed out naked in the living room after a night of binge drinking. Jason’s description of the room would be so vivid and adjectival that we, the congregation, could smell the burnt bacon emanating from the kitchen and feel the tapioca colored carpet under our feet. At that point he would take the time to describe with absurd detail the feeling of a bead of sweat developing on his temple and slowly running down to his collar. He would then tell us about the fight that happened between the drunken man and his son, and then give us a wonderful sermonic twist by emphasizing the grace of God and then end with a witty sentence that we would carry with us the rest of the day. Unlike Jason Micheli, I do not have a story about meeting a drunk, naked man asleep on the floor.
I do not know what to do with our story today.
Most of us have never even heard it; we are content with the Veggie-Tales version that ends with the wonderful rainbow in the sky. But, if we end the story with the Rainbow we are left to wrestle with one of the bible’s most troubling theological questions: If God destroyed the world with a flood in order to destroy sin, why is the world still so messed up today?
Genesis 9.18-29 is full of problems: theological, historical, and logical:
Noah, who “found favor in the sight of the Lord” (Genesis 6.8) and who “did all that God commanded him” (6.22) was set apart from this rest of retched humanity in order to survive God’s destruction. After the flood God blesses Noah and commands him to be fruitful and multiply three times, insuring him and his family that God would never again “curse the ground because of humankind.” And how does Noah react? He builds a vineyard, gets drunk, and falls asleep naked in his tent. This doesn’t make any sense. Why would the one human, the only one God chose to save, ruin this blessed opportunity of life on drink and nudity? Why would he so defile the earth that God just saved? Why would he blatantly ignore the covenantal rainbow in the sky for a night of debauchery? It doesn’t make any sense.
But the passage isn’t over yet: Ham, the faithful son of Noah, the one who stood by his father through the ark’s construction and the great flood, Ham discovers his father’s naked body. Ham, like any good son, tells his brothers in order that they might cover up their father’s mistakes, his nakedness and drunken behavior. And how does Noah reward his faithful son? He curses his own kin! It doesn’t make any sense.
But then things get worse: Noah doesn’t single out Ham for discovering his sin. Instead of reacting harshly against his own son, he curses the family of Ham’s son Canaan, Noah’s own grandson. He demands that Canaan remain in subjugation to his uncles Shem and Japheth. Noah’s tirade in the thick of his hangover sets a dark tone over his progeny and sets in motion a familial schism that has frightening biblical consequences.
Maybe you already know this, but I was surprised to discover that this is the only time in the bible that Noah actually speaks. He has patiently obeyed his Lord to the point of building a giant ship and never once opened his mouth. Only now, only after his alcohol induced nakedness does Noah say anything. Our only recorded words from one of the Old Testament’s greatest heroes are the rejection and curse of his own family.
This frightens me. I feel like the happy cartoonish version of Noah and the Ark has been ripped away from me, and I am only left with a sad old man embarrassed about his sin. I can remember learning about Noah from my own grandmother as a child, I remembered thinking about how lucky he was to survive, how smart he must have been to build that giant boat. And now I am frightened. I put a lot of faith in Noah and I’m afraid that he’s just not that special.
But you know what frightens me the most? More than Noah getting drunk, and more than the fact that he curses his grandson, the thing that frightens me most is that God is no longer at the center of the story. As I was preparing the sermon for this Sunday I reread the first chapters of Genesis up until the flood and I realized that our scripture today is the first time in the bible where God does not appear directly.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the cosmos, the galaxies, the universe and everything in it. God created them and understood them to be good, full of order and life, running over and full of abundance. And then God, in the greatest act of love, gave it all to us, the ones created in his image, calling us to care for and keep God’s creation in order that we might enjoy its beauty. Humanity was created to be the faithful stewards of God’s universe, accountable to his lordship and wonderful guidance.
Yet we human beings do not like to be servants to anyone, especially not to God. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, rebelled against the goodness of God by disobeying his command. But God did not abandon us. He made for humanity life abundant and stood by at civilization developed. He remained faithful to us, when we were least faithful to him. Humanity continued to act wickedly, we let evil and strife rest on our hearts, and for some reason God stood by his creation. He picked one man, Noah, to remain in the wake of his destruction. God actively chose to give humanity another chance through Noah and his family, yet Noah ignores the grace of God.
God has been intrinsically active from the beginning of existence up until the aftermath of the flood. Genesis 1-9 have been centrally focused on creation event, and God’s relationship with his creation. And now God is no longer at the center of the story. Instead of rejoicing in the good God that saved him and his family from certain destruction, he drinks the wine from his vineyard, falls asleep naked, and curses his grandson.
God is no longer at the center of Noah’s story.
Where is God in your story?
I am in divinity school, and ironically enough it is one of the most difficult places to find God. We spend so much time talking around God, and through God, below God, and about God, that we forget to talk to God. I have become consumed with thoughts about my own ordination process, and what kind of church will the conference assign me to at the end of the year if they commission me, when instead I should be thinking about how can I make God’s kingdom come on earth.
Maybe some of you are like Noah and me, where God is sometimes no longer at the center of your story. Some of you might be lonely and miss the companionship of a friend or spouse when we as a church could be working to reflect the goodness of God’s communal creation by reaching out to those in out pews who need relationship the most.
Perhaps some of you are consumed by your own sin, afraid of the damage it has caused and will continue to cause when you could be contemplating the forgiveness Christ proclaimed from the cross toward his accusers and torturers – no one is beyond the loving embrace of God.
Maybe some of you are unemployed and are worried about the responsibility resting on your shoulders when this church could be reflecting the church instituted by the God who became flesh in Christ that cared for one another through giving to any who had need.
Perhaps you are afraid to die, you’ve come face to face with your own mortality and you can’t stand the sight of it when we could all readily recognize that one day we all will die, but just as God became flesh in Jesus Christ and mounted the cross, Jesus was resurrected from beyond the grave; God has called each of us to something greater than our own mortality.
I don’t know what to do with Noah’s story. I don’t know what brought you to church this morning. I don’t know if you’re afraid, or if you’re lonely, or if you’re tired, or just complacent. But one thing I am sure of, with every fiber of my being, is that God is supposed to be the center of our story.