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Advent 1: Skeletons in the Closet

November 27, 2016

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016. The pastoral prayer was written and led by The Rev. Sarah Henkel.

“These things that are told to you from the past have a value that is your responsibility to carry. They not only have value because they had use in the past but you must also give them value.”

– Wisdom of the Great Sioux Nation

Matthew 1:1-17 (18-25)

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

Many of you know how fascinated I am with genealogy. A few years ago I took what I already knew about my family, along with the many holes, mysteries and dead ends in my family story, pieced it together with photographs inherited from a great aunt, inscriptions in the front of family bibles, notes from distant relatives, and uploaded it all on ancentry.com. Within a very short time I was meeting new branches of my family tree, swapping information online, answering some of my questions and discovering new ones. I was pleased to find several generations of “solid citizens”: The Rev Fielding Washington Love and a number of other Baptist pastors, benefactors of an Episcopal church in Maryland, as well as innkeepers in Pennsylvania, railroad workers, steamboat captains, wine growers, and lots of farmers.

I am less sure what to think of the Illinois father who named his youngest son William Tecumseh Sherman in 1876. Presumably he intended to honor the civil war general whose practice of ‘total war’ had captured Atlanta and whose memoir had come out the year before. But this same general was at that time carrying out the government’s genocidal policy against indigenous people in the Great Sioux War of 1876. That’s a tough name to live with. In any case, my William Tecumseh Sherman became a baker. Several family members learned to live with serious physical disabilities, including loss of limbs. And then there were the truly colorful characters: Richard the pig thief who came to the Colony of Virginia as an indentured servant as punishment for his crime. And Elizabeth Knapp, the “Witch of Groton” Massachusetts, who was the first recorded case of spiritual possession in the new world. And Jonathan Plowman, who was a spy, a patriot and a privateer (read pirate) during the Revolutionary War.

I realized the other day that I’ve never preached a sermon on the genealogy of Jesus, though I did used to require every one of my confirmation students to create their own. Because where we come from tells us a lot about who we are. If you were to sketch your own genealogy, how far back could you trace? Any eyebrow-raising characters in your history?

The anonymous author of the Gospel we have attributed to Matthew was only the second person to try his hand at writing a biography of Jesus. Mark was the first, and he set the pattern others would follow. Twenty years later, Matthew had Mark’s Gospel, along with a collection of Jesus’ sayings, before him as he wrote. Of the 661 verses in Mark, Matthew copies all but 53 of them. In creating his own gospel story, however, Matthew omits some things, adds or expands others things, and re-orders, revises or abbreviates still others, to create a new biography of Jesus. And it begins right here with the genealogy. Mark didn’t have one; he began his story with John the Baptist beside the Jordan River. But Matthew, Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus.[1]

In the ancient world, biographies often began with long genealogies. A genealogy established a lineage of wealth, power, and prestige, which the subject must live up to, or sketched the history of character, distinct bloodlines, or divine favor one had inherited. The many biographies of Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor when Jesus was born, all spoke of his miraculous conception, divine calling, and mission to bring peace (through conquest) to all the world. The point of a genealogy is to build expectation for the life to come. Jesus’ genealogy would be no different.

The genealogy of Jesus the Christ immediately evokes the entire sweep of Hebrew scripture and Hebrew history, from God’s creation of the heavens and the earth down to the present day, which is the effect Matthew is after. He wants us to feel caught up into a much larger story, the story of God’s purposes being worked out both in hearts and in history. And he wants to show us the hinge on which this history turns, the work of Jesus: in forgiving sins, freeing us from oppression, and establishing God’s reign among us. It will take him the whole gospel to show us what this means. But it is all foreshadowed in this genealogy. [2]

Matthew wrote his gospel for a community of Jesus’ followers in the Syrian city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s of the first century. Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, just behind Alexandria and Rome itself.

Matthew’s community was small, perhaps a few hundred in the city of 200,000. He writes in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, destruction of everything sure and certain about Jewish life. His community may well have included refugees from Palestine, as Rome refused to let any Jews remain there after Jerusalem was sacked. The Gospel of Mark, written in Palestine, had encouraged Jesus’ followers not to defend their city, but to flee to the hills. Perhaps it was just this kind of refugee who carried Mark’s Gospel to Antioch in the first place.

Whatever the case may be, Matthew’s opening words, “This is the Genealogy of Jesus the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” assured his community that no matter what loss they had experienced as Jews, no matter how hard pressed they were by Rome, God was still sovereign over history.

In contrast to the genealogies of emperors and kings, Jesus’ genealogy has both men and women; it has not only Jews but Gentiles too; and it features second-born sons. Despite the thoroughly patriarchal society in which Matthew was writing, he lifts up four women, two of whom were Gentiles – Ruth was a Moabite and Rahab was a Cannanite – and another, Bathsheba, was married to Uriah the Hittite. All four of the women mentioned fought fiercely to secure God’s promise for themselves and their descendants. They are each defined certainly by their sexual encounters with men – Tamar who slept with her father-in-law to provide an heir, Ruth who laid with Boaz in order to support her mother-in-law Naomi, Rahab a prostitute in Jericho without whom Joshua would never have conquered the city, Bathsheba who was raped by David and yet ensured her son inherited the title of King.[3]

And in a society in which privilege goes to the firstborn son, Matthew’s genealogy shows that God often selects the second, third, or even fourth to bear the promise. Isaac was Abraham’s second son. Jacob was Isaac’s second son. Judah was Jacob’s fourth son, and it is through his line that Jesus descends.

And while Jesus’ family includes fifteen kings, only two – Hezekiah and Josiah – were considered to be good kings. Six received rather mixed reviews in scripture, and seven were considered downright evil. They failed to walk in the way of kings and uphold God’s justice.

So like the thief and the witch and the pirate in my own family tree, like the steamboat captain and the utterly unimportant poor Appalachian farmer in my bloodline, those whom the society of that time would have considered “insignificant” or even “skeletons” are on full display in Jesus’ genealogy. As one theologian has put it,

The gospel writer did not hide the skeletons in Jesus’ closet, but listed them, so that we may know that the Savior has really come to be one of us – not just one of the high-and mighty, the aristocratic with impeccable bloodlines, but one of us.[4]

You can imagine Joseph, Jesus’ dad, telling him where he came from; walking him back through his family’s history – the good, the bad, the ugly – and reminding him of how God’s people had endured and hoped and dreamed across the generations. How they used all that they had and all of who they were to secure God’s promise in each generation at great sacrifice often to themselves and without certainty of success. And how the next part of God’s story was up to him.

st-joseph-prayer

Looking back over this storied history, and with the help of a dream, Joseph could see God at work. Looking toward the future with the same expectation, Joseph named his infant son Jesus, after the Old Testament figure Joshua who led God’s people into the promised land. His name means, God is our salvation.

O come, desire of Nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and discord cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

As we remember Jesus’ genealogy, let us also remember our own. Let us remember our ancestors’ struggle and sacrifice; let us remember the desire and risk and uncertainty that has brought us this far by faith, and let us, as heirs of this rich story, play our part. Our God saves.

Pastoral Prayer

Creator God,
Your saving story journeys through all generations
and into our present.

We thank you for the witnesses,
the ancestors whose wisdom and whose mistakes
accompany and inform us if we listen.

We pray for this generation and age in which we live and breathe.
We pray that there may be ways of violence and greed that stop with us.
We pray that there may be restored life and hope –
   the work of generations and generations before us –
that now bears fruit through us.

We pray for this planet earth who no longer can wait generations until we get it right.
We pray for wisdom now for the healing of our relationship
to the water,the soil, the air, all plants and animals.

We pray for the Water Protectors from hundreds of Native American nations gathered now with the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota to protect the Cannonball River, the Missouri River, the Oglala aquifer from the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline.  We pray for the protection of life as militarized police forces bear weapons to confront nonviolent water protectors. We pray with generations of Indigenous people who have been praying over this land for centuries through genocide and war and greed that seems without end. May there be an end. May freedom be born to this generation.

We pray for all who in these days are nurturing a spirituality of resistance to all that bears violence and hate.  Giving thanks for the hundreds who gathered in White Plains on Friday to say yes to strong communities and no to the politics of fear and division.

We pray for the nation of Cuba, for those who mourn Fidel Castro’s passing, for all who are anxious about the transitions of power in Cuba and in the U.S.  We pray for strength and clarity for the people of Cuba.

We pray for peace in all nations living with the daily realities of war.

We pray for the stories of joy and pain that are woven through our days…

(Prayer petitions from the congregation were offered)

Holy Spirit, move us out into this world to love. Continue to enliven this generations-long story of love that is stronger than death.  We pray in the name of Emmanuel, God with us, now and forever. Amen.

 

[1] Warren Carter, Matthew: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist. (Hendrickson, 1996).

[2] “To Save His People from Their Sins (Matthew 1:21): Rome’s Empire and Matthew’s Salvation as Sovereignty” in Warren Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Exploration. (Trinity Press international, 2001).

[3] Amy Jill Levine, cited in Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. (Orbis Press, 2000). See also Elaine Wainwright, Shall We Look for Another?: A Feminist Re-Reading of Matthew’s Jesus. (Orbis, 1998).

[4] Justo Gonzalez, in The People’s Bible, (Fortress Press, 2009), p. 1414.

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