Sermon | Looking back, looking forward
Text: Matthew 1:1-1-16
Speakers: Joel Miller and Mark Rupp
It was Carl Sagan, the American astronomer, who first popularized the idea that the elements that make up our bodies were made by the stars. Stars are an in-gathering of the most simple element, hydrogen, which fuses to form helium, carbon, oxygen, all the way up to iron, with higher elements forming from other star events like supernovae and neutron star collisions. The lesson, both scientifically sound and poetically beautiful, is that all things – everyone and everything we see - share a deep kinship and common ancestry, traceable back to the stars. “We are their children,” Sagan would say.
This universal kinship is something worth highlighting often in a worship setting, almost unavoidable when we get to biblical stories like God taking Abraham out to look up at the stars. Childless Abraham is fearful there will be nothing of himself that gets passed to future generations. God offers a promise that Abraham will indeed be an ancestor to many by having him gaze up at his own ancestors - the uncountable, unimaginably distant yet pervasively present stars.
In the last decade or so I’ve become interested in my more recent ancestry. I’ve told some of these stories in sermons and blogs. There’s my mother’s father’s side, the Lehmans, Mennonites pushed off their land in Switzerland, facing near starvation during a series of harsh winters, migrating to northeast Ohio for religious freedom and economic opportunity. There’s my mother’s mother’s side, the Planks, who migrated here accidentally, boarding a ship in the Netherlands to say goodbye to friends and having the ship set sail before they could get off, leading to five years of indentured servitude in Pennsylvania to pay for the trip they hadn’t planned. There’s my father’s father’s side, the Millers, my great, great, great, great grandpa Solomon Miller moving up from Maryland to be the first White settler on a plot in Seneca County, Ohio, the land patent signed by President Andrew Jackson himself, just a few years after the Seneca Indians were forcibly removed. There’s my father’s mother’s side, the Seeleys, with Robert Seeley even having his own Wikipedia page, a member of the original English Puritan expedition to Massachusetts, second-in-command in the war with the Pequots, one of the founders and first town marshal of New Haven Colony in Connecticut.
Some of these stories feel about as distant as a galaxy far, far away, while others feel more close to home. For example, if one were to follow the money of land sales and purchases, there is a direct line from that land patent in Seneca County to the farm where I grew up in Logan County.
I like the kinds of questions ancestral stories raise. Questions about destiny and personal freedom, responsibility, spiritual and material wealth - or poverty. What are the elements that have come together to make us, and how is the me I too often think of as an independent individual, embedded within a web of forces and communities with a life of their own?
These are the kinds of questions we might hear in the opening chapter of Matthew as he gives his genealogy of Jesus – an ancestral web of lives and stories into which Jesus was born. Our Advent worship season will be based on this passage. It’s coming sooner than we might think - just two weeks away. We wanted to use this Sunday as a preview of where we’re headed.
As we were preparing for and leading up to this sermon, I had a very simple yet profound experience that has stuck with me as I considered the themes of this text and our upcoming Advent series. To be honest, I think this encounter was either a horoscope or random social media post that I happened to scroll by one day. It simply said, “Be a good ancestor.”
At the time it felt like the type of thing you might find when you crack open a fortune cookie and wonder, “Is this even a fortune? What am I supposed to do with this?”
Be a good ancestor.
It was probably the word “ancestor” that caught my attention because that word had been swimming around my subconscious. As I was considering this text from Matthew and the theme of Jesus’s lineage, my focus had been on looking backward and asking questions like “What does it mean to honor our ancestors?” But this simple admonition– “Be a good ancestor.” –was a reminder that this work also calls us to look forward, to consider not just how we have been shaped by those who came before but also what we do with that formation and the world that has been handed to us.
How do we stand at this fulcrum point between what and who came before us and the world we hope to pass on to all those that are yet to come?
And I think what this Advent series will hopefully lead us toward is an understanding that honoring our ancestors does not mean simply handing forward a legacy as if we are merely another stop on a conveyor belt of time. Sometimes honoring ancestors is about learning their stories and allowing the virtues they held to inspire us to do similar things. But sometimes honoring ancestors means saying no more, means stopping cycles of harm or telling hard truths about those that came before us rather than glossing over their complicated lives.
During Advent we look toward the incarnation of Christmas, a time when God became human in Jesus. This season is about finding the Divine within the human, realizing the unity of flesh and spirit, and naming God’s story within our own stories. As we look at the women named in Jesus’s lineage and hear their messy, complicated, very human stories, we will also find the Divine woven through both their virtues and their vices, their traumas and their triumphs.
Matthew is the only gospel to begin with a genealogy, also known as a list of hard-to-pronounce names. Matthew was written as an independent document, but came to hold the place of the first book of the New Testament. It’s not exactly a thrilling way to open the scriptures unique to Christianity. But like so many other instances of scripture, there’s more than meets the 21st century eye.
Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry - beginning with Abraham, the star gazer, the ancestor of the Jewish people. He then moves forward in time: “Abraham was the father Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob and Jacob was the father of Judah.” But the genealogy doesn’t follow this pattern all the way through. As Mark just mentioned, there are women mentioned in this lineage.
It wasn’t unprecedented in the ancient world to mention a few women in a line of ancestors, but it was unusual. What’s even more unusual are the five women Matthew chooses to highlight: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah,” otherwise known as Bathsheba. If you don’t know the stories of these women, no worries. You’ll be hearing more about them in the weeks to come. A phrase I think summarizes well what they hold in common is “morally suspect,” at least in a certain way of accounting for morality.
But that’s only four names. The fifth and final one mentioned is Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Why mention women at all in a line of males from Abraham to Jesus?
And if you are going to mention some women, why, of all the options, highlight these morally suspect women? And why, for God’s sake, would Mary be among them?
Is this Matthew’s version of the bumper sticker “Well-behaved women rarely make history”?
We have only the smallest of windows into how Mary might have been viewed during her life. Matthew might be the first gospel in the New Testament, but Mark was almost certainly the first to be written. It provides the most unvarnished version of stories. In Mark chapter 6 Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. He’s starting to make a name for himself through healing and casting out harmful spirits. But the hometown crowd is skeptical. They watched this kid grow up. What’s so special about him? Mark quotes the crowds as saying: “Where did this man get all this?...Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” It was standard for men to be referred to as their father’s son, so calling Jesus the son of Mary could have been the equivalent to saying “Isn’t this Mary’s bastard?” Not a kind reference. Even Matthew softens this scene slightly by having the crowds say, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?
Is not his mother called Mary?”
Without a clear fatherly lineage did Jesus grow up under the stigma of being an illegitimate child? Was Mary the subject of constant rumors and local gossip? Maybe. There is a non-biblical first century source that refers to Jesus, son of Pantera, a Roman soldier. A couple prominent early Christian writers took it seriously enough to argue against its validity.
There’s a lot we don’t know about Mary. What Matthew would like us to know is that God has a habit of collaborating with “morally suspect” women and men, Mary included, to bring about life and goodness in this world.
Mary is the part of Jesus’s genealogy that we probably all can name, yet the inclusion of these other four women by the author of Matthew’s gospel should probably give us as much to ponder in our hearts as Mary’s well-known story. During Advent, our various speakers will have much more to say about the other four women and will expound upon their stories more fully, but we wanted to at least give a short reminder of who they were and why it would be surprising for them to be included.
To be honest, even I had to remind myself who Tamar was this last week, so just know that you are not alone if you are racking your brain for old Sunday School memories to figure out who she was. Actually, I would be a bit surprised if Tamar’s story was regularly included in Sunday School lessons because it is one of the many stories in the Bible that defy the easy moralizations and tidy retellings via flannel-graph.
Tamar was subsequently married to two sons of Judah who both died before she bore children with either one, so she was promised in marriage to a third son as was the custom in that culture. Fearing that this son would die as well, Judah sent Tamar away to wait until the boy had grown up enough to marry. And wait she did. Eventually Tamar sensed that she would not get what was promised to her unless she took matters into her own hands, so she tricked Judah, her father-in-law, into having sex with her by pretending to be a temple sex-worker.
From pretending to be a sex-worker to being primarily identified in the text as such, we come next to Rahab. Perhaps slightly more well-known than Tamar, Rahab’s story revolves around her decision to help the Israelite spies who had come to Jericho to scope out the land before the rest of the army came to conquer it. Even though she was on the margins in more than one regard, she is depicted in the text as a cunning woman who did what she needed to do to help her and her family survive.
Ruth enters Jesus’s genealogy as another outsider. After her husband died, Ruth returned to the land of Judah with her mother-in-law, giving her famous declaration, “Where you go, I will go. Where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Her mother-in-law had originally tried to send her away, but this fervent vow convinced her that Ruth truly did care for her and desired to stay grafted into this family tree.
Yet her story does not simply paint her as the dutiful wife and caring daughter-in-law. As her life in Judah unfolds, she also shows a sexual assertiveness, hatching a plan with her mother-in-law to secure the hand (and foot) of the man whose eye she had caught while gleaning in the fields.
The final woman in Jesus’s genealogy is not named directly in Matthew’s gospel, but we know her as Bathsheba. If we know anything about Bathsheba, it is probably what others did to her and how power was wielded against her. She had caught the eye of King David, who forced himself upon her and eventually had her husband killed in battle to try to cover it up. But we also find another Bathsheba in scripture, one who speaks boldly before the king and advocates for herself and her son. She was a woman who had power forcibly taken away from her but who also was able to step into her own power.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Most of them were outsiders. Many of their actions and identities considered sexually improper. Yet each one has a story that is retold and honored in its own ways.
A couple years ago I told the story of how the nativity scene we put up every year when I was growing up was made of Precious Moments figurines. Cutesy little (mostly) whitewashed figures that gave the impression that the nativity was made sacred by virtue of its tidy, clean, precious figures. But I have to imagine that the scene around that original manger was far from precious. And even though they aren’t depicted in any nativity sets that I’ve seen, these women also show up in the great cloud of witnesses around the manger, and their stories are not necessarily the precious moments we would expect.
One of the many things I love about Matthew’s genealogy is the kind of Jesus it introduces us to, and thus, the kind of community Jesus sought to create. You can’t get to Jesus except through Tamar. The line to Jesus runs straight through Rahab and Ruth. Bathsheba too, and Mary all add their elements, fused within the fiery core of their lives, now given and shared, God’s partners, mixed and mingled within the person of Jesus.
And, mixed and mingled within the community Jesus called into being. This is, afterall, what most of the gospel stories are about. This root stock of Jesus’s life grows into a family tree of people who have no business otherwise being considered part of the family. Those on the margins are drawn into the center. Those with unpayable debts are forgiven. Children are blessed. The disabled are celebrated for their faith and given full stature. Laborers and fisherfolk become models of the kin-dom of God. And women are the first apostles of the resurrection.
During Advent we return to the ancestral roots of all this. We look to Mary and these women who hold within their bodies the life God is birthing. We consider those who aren’t biological mothers but who have just as much mothered the promised Divine life into this world. We consider how we might, in Mark’s phrase, be a good ancestor. Our lives also fusing elements that will be made newly available to future generations.
As we wrap up our conversation about what it means to consider our ancestors, I have a bit of a confession to make. I know this will probably hurt the hearts of people out there like Larry Less and others who absolutely love genealogical research, but I am just not that into it. This past week, I hauled out the two books I have that chronicle the ancestors of my paternal grandfather and grandmother. I sifted through lists and diagrams of Rupps and Gochenours going all the way back to the mid-1700’s. I read of their journeys from Basel, Switzerland and the Alsace-Lorraine area to Virginia and Ohio and their eventual intertwining in Fulton County. I tried once again to figure out how exactly I’m related to the Wyse family but got lost in the various branches of cousins.
By the end of it all, my only real takeaway was that my great-grandfather William Rupp was quite a handsome man with a nice, strong jawline, which left me feeling like there may still be hope for me. Or at least that I need to learn to work my angles like I’m in a black and white wedding photo from 1901.
I know that I have inherited more than just my jawline from those whose DNA I share because it’s not just their genes that have formed me but their stories as well. Yet even though none of us get to completely deny these biological legacies, the idea of chosen family is one that is perhaps just as important. The lives and stories of those we choose as our families and those who choose us form us just as much–perhaps more than–those that simply share our DNA.
And, indeed, Jesus’s genealogy points to this as well. Even though Jesus was conceived through Mary and God’s Spirit, Matthew traces his genealogy through Joseph’s line, a chosen family of faith with all its heroes and villains and everything in between. This family tree of faith with all those grafted in along the way and their complex stories are the fertile ground in which Jesus was formed and nurtured. A lineage and a legacy he honored by choosing to acknowledge its complexity while also working to help it become the best version of itself for those who would come after.
Just a few more things about this upcoming Advent season. Today you may have considered it a bit ironic that two guys are up front preaching about the importance of women’s stories. During Advent through Epiphany, November 27 through January 1, for seven different services, including Christmas Eve, the pulpit will be filled by seven women from this congregation. We’re basing the season on a new book by Mennonite pastor Joanna Harader called Expecting Emmanuel: Eight Women Who Prepared the Way, An Advent Devotional. It includes beautiful artwork representing each woman, and we’ll have six of those images displayed throughout the season. And if you’re thinking Wait, that’s five women in Matthew’s genealogy, with seven different speakers and services, based on a book about eight women who prepared the way…..Yes, that is a bit confusing, but I can assure you that worship planners have things pretty well mapped out.
In addition to our worship services, on December 4th during Cookie Sunday, the Christian Education Commission will be planning an intergenerational activity that will help further explore these Advent themes. You may remember we did something similar a few years ago with our Lent theme focusing on the cross, which was a lot of fun to watch parents and children and people of all ages participating together in various spiritual practices.
Advent is a season of preparation and waiting and anticipation, and this sermon was a sermon of preparation and waiting and anticipation for that upcoming season of preparation. It was a looking back but also a looking forward, which is really what any present moment is when we slow down long enough to truly be in the present moment. All the people, the stories, the places, and things that came before us have shaped this moment, but they don’t define its future. And the more we take the time to understand, contemplate, and perhaps even ponder in our hearts the things that have shaped us, the more we are able to take actions and move toward the kind of future we wish to see in the world. So whether it is Advent or pre-Advent or any of the other present moments you find yourselves in, may you have the space to be fully present and listen for the Spirit of God threaded through past, present, and future.