A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian in Boise, Idaho
Dec 30, 2018
I was always the person in my family who wanted to know the family tree. Even though I was adopted, and none of the blood, genes, or quirks from that tree ran through my veins. While I’ve always been grateful to have been adopted, I’ve also always wanted to know more about the trees from which I’m rooted—rooted by birth and rooted by adoption.
I would dig through the old photo albums, looking for resemblance that could only be coincidental. After I pestered my parents and grandparents for information, I’d dig through records at the library. I traced the Auld family name back to a cattle rustler in Scotland hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
Now we can log into Ancestry dot com or one of the other genealogy websites, or DNA tests reveal that the stories our family told about our ancestors were true stories, or slightly less factual.
I don’t know about you, but I wanted to find out I’m related to Joan of Arc and Charlamagne, and instead discovered I’m related to cattle rustlers and poor Irish, who escaped a potato famine and moved to the United States on a packed ship. I’m related to people who converted to LDS in Denmark and then came to Southern Idaho to find the promised land of ‘milk and honey’. Welcome to Pocatello?
And it turns out Jesus’ genealogy is not much different than ours. But rather than ancestry dot com or microfiche at the library for the records, Matthew looks to scripture to tell the story. And he finds the names we know—Abraham, Judah, David. And he tells us of people whose stories aren’t as familiar to us. Salmon, Jaconiah, and Zadok.
For Matthew’s listeners, the list is more familiar than it may be to us. For many in his congregation, they had grown up as Jews, well versed in the tradition of their ancestors. They would have been used to hearing the stories those names conjured up for them.
And Matthew tells the story of Jesus family history in a way that connects the past that his congregation knew well to their future life as followers of Jesus the Messiah, which was a story that hadn’t been told before. And which was a bit of a departure from what those good, Jewish people had expected their life of faith to take.
As we read and preach the story of Jesus as told by Matthew in the coming months, notice how he will frame Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection, through the stories of the Hebrew Bible.
Jesus is both a continuation of that story and a departure from it. The continuation is seen from the first verses of the gospel, as Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy. Jesus is a son of David, the heir to the messianic promise of Isaiah and the other prophets. Jesus is also a son of Abraham. In Genesis 12, God promises Abraham that his descendants would be a blessing for the entire world, even more broadly than as savior of the Hebrew people.
The departure comes in a few ways. Matthew mentions a lot of men in this story, who begat and begat. So much begetting. That’s a pretty traditional way for a patriarchal society to tell a family tree. But Matthew also mentions 5 women, which is a departure from the norm.
Tamar was forced to seduce her father in law, Judah, because he wouldn’t give her in marriage to one of his other sons after her husband had died.
Rahab, played a key role in the fall of Jericho, but at great cost. In order not to be killed with the rest of her city, she helped the Israeli army. She and her family lived, but her people all died.
There’s Ruth, who was a foreigner, an undocumented migrant, and the grandmother of David.
And Bathsheba, who is only mentioned here as the ‘wife of Uriah’, and David had Uriah killed so he could claim Bathsheba as if she were property.
As my colleague and friend Robert Williamson writes:
“While naming these women reminds us the successes of Israel from Abraham to Jesus, it also forces us to remember and acknowledge the dangers and abuses women face in a patriarchal society, both then and now. The successes of these women also reminds us of the failures of the men around them.”
Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus gives us a real family tree, gnarled and crooked, with more than a few bad apples. It’s also a tree with deep roots and branches strong enough to bear the weight of our hopes and expectations for the messiah.
And then there’s Mary, the mother of Jesus. The fifth woman mentioned. “…..and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”
As I mentioned a few weeks back, when we heard of the angel’s visit to Joseph, Jesus takes his place in Joseph’s family tree because of adoption. Which is another way the story is a disruption.
As I’ve been discovering my birth family, and it’s gnarled and twisted family tree, I’ve noticed the language we use to describe families can be problematic. People will ask me what it’s like to find my “real” family. By that, they usually mean my birth family. But to me, my real family is the one I know, the people who raised me. I think this language disconnect reveals the power and privilege that blood and genes confer in our world. Biologically related families can be great, don’t get me wrong. But they aren’t the only way we connect with each other.
Matthew completely disrupts that prejudice we have. The very son of God is adopted into his family tree.
Families, whether adopted or biological, can be problematic. I know that not every adopted child is grateful for adoption the way I am. I know that not every birth mother has had the experience I have had. I also know that many people don’t feel like they ‘fit’ in their biologically born families either. I know many families have step parents, and other important ways we connect to each other. Families, even the best of them, are complicated.
And if there is any place we can be honest about the way our families are complicated, it ought to be right here, at church, where we worship a God who chose to be born into the midst of a hugely complicated and imperfect family.
I encountered some pushback this week in an online clergy group when talking about adoption in this text. More than one person made some comment about how we shouldn’t be too quick to use the word ‘adoption’ with this story. One person argued adoption is not “normal”. I think that person was trying to make the point that few people are actually adopted, so it isn’t a common experience, but that wasn’t what she said. Others pointed out that not all adoptions are great, which is true. Others pointed out that not everyone gets adopted into the family of David, or that not every adopted person can say God is their birth father. Yes. All of those things are true.
I was surprised at how hesitant people were to claim that Jesus was adopted into Joseph’s family, and I wonder if their concern is that it would make him less a child of Abraham or less a child of David than if he’d been born into the family. Could they not see an adopted Jesus as a “real” child of Joseph?
I’m a real daughter of George and Esther, as much as my siblings are. I’m an inheritor of their family tree, even though I don’t have all of the same genes and DNA.
Whether you’ve experienced adoption in your own family or not, even if it isn’t “normal” for you, we are all adopted into God’s family.
Paul, in the 8th chapter of Romans, writes:
“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—” (Romans 8:15-17a)
Paul develops the theme further in Galatians 3:28-29:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
If we belong to Christ, we are Abraham’s offspring. And Jesus started that journey through adoption, becoming Abraham’s offspring because Joseph said “yes” to the angel and adopted Jesus.
Matthew tells the genealogy in groups of 14 generations. If you count the generations, however, the last batch only has 13. I’m sure scholars somewhere can explain why that is, but I confess to you here, I did not spend this week after Christmas tracking down that answer.
I’ve got an answer though. I think we’re the 14th generation. I think Matthew leaves room for us to join the story, to claim our place in this family tree. And whether we’re born into our families, or adopted into them, at some point we claim our own identity and relationship.
Matthew is, perhaps, giving us space in the first verses of his story about Jesus for us to say “this is my story too” and to claim our own identity as sons and daughters of Abraham, Tamar, David, Ruth, and Salmon, Zerubabbel, and Azor.
We begin a new year in the coming days. I don’t know if you’re a believer in new year’s resolutions. I don’t really put much stock in them, especially if they require me to suddenly, magically have will power. A few years ago I resolved to eat more guacamole, and that one has worked out pretty well.
I’m wondering though, as we enter this new year, if it would be worth reflecting on how we can better claim our branch in God’s family tree, trusting in the promises and believing that God is at work in our lives, seeking good for God’s children.
And I hope we can offer room for others to claim their branch of the family tree too. If there is room for me in Jesus’ family tree, and room for you, then surely there is room for all kinds of people we might not naturally claim as family.
One of my favorite books when I was a kid was Go Dog, Go, by PD Eastman. Lots of dogs in cars, driving somewhere fast, with interludes about a lady dog’s hat.
At the end of the book, the destination of all the dogs in cars is revealed to be a giant tree, playing host to a giant dog party.
And that’s the image I have of God’s family tree, as seen in Matthew’s gospel. There is room for all of us. And some are eating cake, others taking naps. Some are jumping on trampolines and being shot out of cannons. Dogs who had been rivals become dogs who are celebrating together.
It’s possible your family tree is more dignified than that, and that’s okay too. However you view it, though, I hope it is a tree with plenty of room for all of who you are. And with good hats.