Who Matters?  Why?

A sermon preached at First Church, UCC Middletown, Connecticut, on December 4, 2022

Isaiah 11:1-9

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A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, 
the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, 
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. 
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; 
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, 
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, 
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; 
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, 
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; 
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 

Mt 1:1-17

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 Uriahand 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. 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

When life gets stressful, I start reading cozy mysteries.   They’re really fun, for me – no one gets hurt badly, or permanently, or on-stage…. the deceased is often someone no one knows, or likes, often never really becomes part of the story….   and usually, even though they are low stress, the best of them have well-drawn characters who are not ignoring today’s society.

Well along those lines, some years ago, I found a series by Ann B. Ross… definitely a cozy, though not a mystery.  Ross’s protagonist is a Southern lady, a widow in a small North Carolina town.  Her name is Julia Springer, and in the opening book, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, we meet a lively, sharp-tongued and proud woman in her middle 60s, recently widowed.  They’re not perfect, but they’ve been a lot of fun over the years.

Miss Julia, as she is known, is the social leader of her town; she believes that everyone looks to her to know the right thing and to be the town’s model of decent behavior.  Decades of marriage to the super-perfect and demanding Wesley Lloyd Springer trained her to be swift, sure and unimaginative in interpreting what the right thing is in any circumstance.  She has built her life on being, and being known as, the most righteous person in town, in the most righteous marriage.

Then her husband dies – suddenly, and with no preparation.  He had a fatal heart attack in the front seat of his new car, parked in front of the house after coming home from a late meeting one Thursday night.  She discovers him the next morning, and her world begins to change.

It turned out that the man she’d lived with, and not always easily, was not the paragon of virtue she’d thought.  Her late husband was a usurious banker, a mean-spirited landlord, an exploiter of other folks’ problems, and in the final insult, and kept a mistress with whom he had a son.

It was devastating.  Every single thing she’d built her pride on: her husband’s honesty, competence, compassion – and now his basic decency – was gone, and along with it, her social position.  She was humiliated all the more when it turned out that every one of her friends had known about the mistress and the son.

Julia’s picture of herself is destroyed by the truth of her reality.  There’s a whole series of books about her; they’re light reading and pretty funny.  But they are also the story of a woman who, after facing the truth, rebuilds her life.  Her basic honesty about what has happened changes her world.  Instead of living in the midst of secrets, she takes the mistress and her son in.  She learns to trust, makes stronger friends, and practices a faith which is built on the idea that “no matter who you are, you are welcome here” (though she doesn’t put it quite that way.  It’s not easy; she struggles throughout the series with her habitual assumptions – men are untrustworthy, for instance, or poor people are trashy.  But in book after book, she moves deeper and deeper into a better life.

I hope you’re wondering what Miss Julia has to do with that interminable genealogy I read!  Well how about this:  the genealogy is there to tell us that Jesus is a direct descendant of King David, and through King David, a descendant of Abraham.  And the author throws in the tidbit that each section represents 14 generations, which to the Jews of that time would have been an auspicious number.  Any number that’s a multiple of 7 has both literal (it really is 14) and figurative “wow, 14 reminds me of the 7 days between sabbaths, or the seven days of creation, or whatever.

All that’s nice, but there’s more in that list than sets of seven, or even proven descent from David.  That’s because hidden in all those names of dads are four, and only four women.  You all know that the Bible rarely mentions women, right?  Back in the day, we weren’t all that important to history.  Let’s be honest; it’s only been in the last fifty years or so that our world’s gotten more committed to remembering the names of women.  So, it’s important that in this long list of men with hard to pronounce names, there are four women.

Tamar.  Rahab.  Ruth.  The wife of Uriah (we know her as Bathsheba, but Matthew didn’t apparently want to name her).  Four women.  There were other women, of course, but only these four were remembered.  

Here’s the thing.  Every one of those women had something “wrong” with her.  Not one of them had an unspotted record, not by the standard of their time, and mostly not by ours either. 

Tamar’s first husband died and left her childless; her second attempt at marriage left that husband dead as well – and still no child.  Everyone thought she was cursed.  No one would marry her.  But she wanted a child and she wanted that child to be able to be her father-in-law Judah’s heir.  it’s a complicated story, but in the end, she is pregnant, Judah is the father, and there’s lots of scandal.  Tamar was daring and smart and scandalous.

Rahab kept an inn in Jericho.  Our Bible makes it clear she offered more than rooms and bed.  Her reputation was only saved by the way in which she helped Joshua win the battle of Jericho by giving safe space to him and his spies.  And she’s not Jewish; she’s Canaanite, an outsider.  Rahab was daring and smart and of ill-repute.

We all know Ruth.  She’s a fixture of sentimental readings at weddings even though that beautiful passage is about a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law.  Now, unlike the other women in this list, no one suggests that Ruth is immoral, but everyone knows that Ruth is the fullest of outsiders.  We remember that Ruth was daring and smart and hard-working and loyal – and not a Jew.

Finally there’s Bathsheba.  I think we all know enough of that story that I don’t need to go into detail.  We know Bathsheba and we know she committed adultery.  

Not one of these women was fully acceptable.  And that’s the point of our conversation today.  Miss Julia thought that her position came because her husband was so impressive.  It was only later, after his death, that she began to understand that in the sight of God it’s not our money, or our position, or our public acceptability that really matters.  As she begins to move out from behind her husband’s assumptions, she discovers that what really matters is welcoming the stranger, loving those who are unimportant.   

As we study the Scripture, we discover that in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, are embedded the names of four unacceptable women.  That list is not a list of the greatest women of all time, or the greatest men.  It is a list of people who are a mixture of good and bad.  And in there, not one entirely impressive woman; not one woman who, back in the day, would have been easily welcomed in any home.  

Life is hard.  As Wendell Berry writes, “we live the life we’re given, not the life we planned” or expected, or wanted.  Doing everything right, getting to where our goal pointed us – that’s not always going to happen.  

No matter how hard you study, no matter how good your grades, if neither of your parents went to college, it’s going to be harder for you to go and succeed than it will be for someone whose parents went and graduated.  

No matter what your goal in life, if you get addicted to alcohol or drugs, your life will be harder.  If your spouse moves out… if the place where you work goes bankrupt… if, if, if… then …..

And when “then” happens, who are you?  Are you less welcome in God’s world if you’ve been arrested?  What does this story say to you?  Are you less welcome in God’s world if you’ve been divorced?  Or if your parents abused you?  Or if you’ve had trouble holding a job?  Or if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all that’s on your table?

What does the Gospel tell us today?  It tells us that we live in a world, a faith-world, where you are welcome, as you are, with all your past.  If those women, immoral and unwelcome, can be celebrated as the ancestors of Jesus Christ, how can you not be welcomed with open arms?

God does not hold back his welcome and save it only for the righteous.  God welcomes everyone to the Table; God welcomes everyone to the family.  

In the dark of December, in the gloom of Advent, we claim once again this welcome.  We light our Advent candles to remind ourselves that the baby who will come will change everything, has changed everything for us.  

It may be dark.  Everything may have gone to pot. It’s likely we’ve done things we’ll regret the rest of our lives, and some days it can be hard to get out of bed.  But no matter where we are on life’s journey, we are welcome here, in God’s house, in God’s family.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child