March 13, 2022

Series: March 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon




Genesis 9:18-27

18 The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.

20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. 21He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. 22And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25he said,

‘Cursed be Canaan;
   lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’
26He also said,
‘Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
   and let Canaan be his slave.
27May God make space for Japheth,
   and let him live in the tents of Shem;
   and let Canaan be his slave.’

Matthew 12:38-42

           38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ 39But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 41The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! 42The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 


            Thom Brennaman didn’t know his mic was on.  He was calling a baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Kansas City Royals when he used an anti-gay epithet in reference to what was later revealed to be San Francisco.  When it was brought to his attention, Brennaman proceeded to launch into an on-air apology, which he, incidentally, awkwardly interrupted to call a home run.

            His apology is an entry into an important exploration.  We’re not so good at apologies, perhaps in part because we have made the stakes so high for admitting mistakes, for being wrong, and for acknowledging we have learning or growth to do.  So, while clearly embarrassed, Brennaman did the “if I hurt anyone” move, which shifts the onus conveniently away from him.  He added that he was a man of faith, and then said, “That is not who I am, and never has been” even though by definition it was who he was, at least for an instant, moments before.

            Saying, “That’s not who I am,” after doing something wrong is a common tactic for someone who doesn’t want to be labeled as the kind of person who did the wrong thing they did.  One says something racist, and says, “I’m not a racist” or the favorite, “There’s not a racist bone in my body.”  One says something anti-gay and says, “I’m not homophobic,” and the favorite, “I have gay friends.”  In a sense, this is perfectly understandable.  Who among us wants to be defined by our worst moments?  Who hasn’t said something untoward that we would argue isn’t the truest reflection of our values? 

            Still, the claim that we sometimes turn to, “that is not who I am,” is an interesting one.  If it’s not who I am, who is it?  Did someone else take over and say those things through my body?  If I am not the person displayed by my actions or my words, then where does my true self reside, in the ideals of my head, and if that ideal never shows up in the real world how true or real is it?
The words that slip out in our worst moments may not be consistent with who we most are or are most of the time, but they come from somewhere inside, thoseparticular words come out of us for some reason.  We’ll get back to what to do about that.  It doesn’t aid the apology to say it’s not us.  It undoes the apology because it releases us from doing the work of figuring out from where in us those words or some action come.  It may not be all we are, but it’s part of who we are and that part warrants exploring, if we want to grow at least.

            When it goes unexplored, it can grow and become worse.  Let’s take an example of biblical proportions.  Does anyone know where the biblical justification for slavery came from? It’s not the fact that slavery was a given reality in the ancient world and probably not even that Jesus never explicitly spoke out against it.  No, justification for slavery was often traced back to the first passage you heard today, about Noah and his sons, particularly his son Ham.  Has anyone ever heard of “the curse of Ham”?  This does not refer to a dreaded Easter dinner. Noah gets drunk and passes out—but of course that’s not who he was—and Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” (Gen. 9:18).  Cursed be Canaan, Noah says when he sobers up and learns of it—Ham fathered Canaan—and Canaan is destined to be the slave of Shem, and their descendants in kind.

            What’s the big deal, you might ask, “saw his nakedness”?  As is often the case, the Bible is shrouded in mystery and euphemism.  I read a 10-page academic paper on just this line. It’s unclear what this moment was meant to describe, though there are prevailing theories:  Ham castrated Noah.  Ham had a sexual encounter with Noah.  Or, Ham simply saw Noah naked, but this is an offense because in the ancient world to see was to take, to have ownership of.  Nobody really knows precisely what is implied, but it’s bad. This may be a story to explain why some peoples grew to be enemies, or slaves and captors.  We tell mythic stories to understand why things are the way they are.  Think Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome. 

            Whatever function this story played in ancient culture, I would hope our contemporary Christian faith would see clearly that using it to justify modern race-based (or any other kind) slavery is ludicrous.  Yet, when European colonialists entered Africa and discerned that Ethiopians and Egyptians were the descendants of Canaan, they birthed the curse of Ham as justification for slavery of dark-skinned people.  We untangle that interpretive strain so we can cut the supposedly biblical and theological support for an inhumane institution as slavery.  Apartheid, similarly, was supported theologically.  In our new officer training just last Sunday, we spent time talking about the Bel Har confession, which is in our Book of Confessions.  (Did you know we had a Book of Confessions, statements of corporate faith?)  After engaging a litany of Scriptures, Bel Har, which is a South African document, rejects the notion that we can separate people by race on the basis of any Christian justification, and professes, “the church…must witness against and strive against any form of injustice” (Bel Har 10.7). 

            We can only untangle these confused threads if we are willing to follow them back inside us, to go right to the belly of the whale, so to speak.  Or, actually in Jonah, it’s a big fish.  Here’s what I mean.  You know the story, or if you don’t, here it is, Jonah is swallowed by a fish and lives for three days there before being burped up on the shore (makes a great children’s time).  Jesus refers to that story in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus foretells being in “the heart of the earth” for three days after the crucifixion.  That will be the sign that the leaders ask of Jesus. Jesus will embody the Jonah journey.

            Mystically, what Jesus embodies for us, is the path of descent, the journey inside, to the gut, and then the journey of ascent to enlightenment.  We often want only to jump to the light, without mining the depths of the darkness. We have to go in.  We have to explore the darkness—and I want to be careful about light and dark metaphors.  Doesn’t that make us uncomfortable?  Yes!  That’s why we often avoid it.  I have been in plenty of places where my station in life is exposed in a way that makes me uncomfortable, but those are the times I have often learned the most. 

            I understand why people want to look away from certain parts of our history.  They’re painful.  They’re not flattering.  They feel threatening, and so we, some of us, maybe all of us to an extent, feel defensive. I didn’t do that (personally)! No, but you may have benefited from it, and you may be inadvertently maintaining a legacy that is unfair. Nobody is going to come away feeling good from a study of how boarding schools were used to destroy the culture and many times the lives of indigenous people, except perhaps descendants who finally have their inherited experiences honored, but we need to do it.  Have you seen those old photos of bison skulls piled several people high?  It’s heartbreaking, yet it keeps us in touch with what wanton killing can do.  Nobody feels uplifted learning about slavery, or Jim Crow, or the Holocaust.  It reveals the worst of us.  It’s painful to revisit, far less painful than for those who had to endure it, and we owe it to them to do so.  I will never forget that one place in the Holocaust Museum, and so many people reference this portion, where there’s this bridge over what is a river of shoes collected from victims.  Excruciating.

            So, we don’t want to go there, but if we don’t go there, not only might we end up there again, as the old saying goes, we won’t fully understand how we got here and what here looks like for different groups of people.  We have collective territory to explore as a people, and each of us has our own depths to mine.  Jesus, Jonah, they embody the descent into the unthinkable, the belly of a sea beast to be churned by acids that threatens to digest us, the belly of the earth, the grave, the seat of death and hell itself, so that they can emerge into the fresh air and light of heaven and earth.  That is the cruciform path, to the heart of evil and suffering and through it to the resurrection on the other side.  That is the path of Christ, and that is the pilgrimage we endeavor to take during Lent.

            From one sport to another, and if you’re not a sports fan, these are just the backdrops to help us see larger dynamics at play.  Kyle Korver is a recently retired professional basketball player.  He’s white.  He wrote an interesting article for The Players’ Tribunein which he went through a series of events and experiences of his teammates of color. These lead to some really tough conversations among the players.  Korver, who thought of himself as pretty enlightened on such matters, had his eyes opened, and was challenged in ways that was probably not a whole lot of fun. Through it all, he came to terms with some realities he had missed, and he grew, and committed to keep growing.  Here’s a grace - sometimes resisting is actually harder than just diving in and learning.  As with many things, the anticipation is worse.  Korver essentially said his work was, his commitment needed be, to learn history, do his homework, listen the experiences of others, and hold his peers accountable. 

            How differently might it have sounded if that baseball announcer had instead said, “I’m sorry.  What I said was wrong, and it is hurtful.  I’d like to think of myself as not that person, but clearly, I am, to an extent, that person, and I don’t like it.  I am a man of faith, and it is my faith that doesn’t grant me a pass, it invites me to take a journey, a journey into the heart of some pretty hard stuff, so I can be better.”  As a community, we should support that vulnerability and commitment.  We should encourage it and practice it.

            We can just try and keep our gaze above the surface, but you know, things will continue to eat at us personally or collectively from within if we don’t use the gift of this season of introspection to “go there.”  Let us use Lent to go deep inside and find out what we can discover, even things we wished we wouldn’t find, knowing that we’ve been promised on the other side of that darkness, a greater light awaits.