I’m strangely fascinated by the way that the 4 Gospels in the Bible begin and end. They say every story has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. How a writer begins and ends their story has everything to do with the story that they tell in the middle. The 4 gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are arguably telling the same story – the story of God’s saving love for us in Jesus Christ. And yet, they are so different – particularly how they each begin and end.
The Gospel of Mark dives right in with the Baptism of Jesus – that’s the very first thing. It then moves breathlessly through the life of Jesus – all the way through the cross to Easter – where we find the empty tomb –no sightings of the Risen Christ – just the faithful women – last at the cross, first at the tomb, trembling and bewildered -- and the gospel ends, saying, “And they said nothing to nobody.”
The writer of the Gospel of Luke calmly announces at the beginning that they are writing an orderly account of the life of Jesus – starting with the birth stories, where the story of a life begins , and then moving steadily through the life of Christ. But Luke doesn’t stop at Jesus’ death – there is Resurrection – and appearances of the Risen Christ. And then Gospel of Luke turns into the Book of Acts, and there’s Pentecost – as the Good News of Jesus moves steadily, step by step, out into the whole known world. An orderly account.
The Gospel of John has a wonderfully cosmic start. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” And then, the writer pours forth word after word – image after image – how this Word becomes flesh. And then the writer ends the Gospel of John like this: “These, these are just some of the things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, there would not be books enough to hold them all.”
Our second Scripture this morning is how the Gospel of Matthew begins, Matthew 1:1 –
“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram...
and so on, for another 19 generations, and then:
16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. 17So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the [exile] to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the [exile] to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
We celebrate the written word of Scripture.
We celebrate the living word, Christ among us.
Now why would anyone start a story like that? -- with a lengthy genealogical list, with what my grandmother used to call the “begats”—Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat Judah. Even in Biblical times, that couldn’t have been the most interesting way to start a story.
Well, maybe we could start by thinking about why folks are interested in genealogies today – and lots of us are. You can crowd-source your genealogy on Ancestry.com, trace your family tree back, with the help of others who are doing the same. Or you can even send in a DNA sample to 23andme.com – and find out something about who and where you are from. Your ancestor begat your ancestor, and so on, and so on, all the way down to you and yours.
Years ago, my Aunt Pody – my grandmother’s sister – traced my Dad’s side of the family all the way back to County Leitrim in the North of Ireland, and Yorkshire in England. She and I were texting back and forth this week, and she told me that she also found that the generations in our family also seemed to share an interest in medicine and learning and teaching.
On my mother’s side of the family, my Grandfather Newlon became particularly interested in following the historical record to confirm that, in the Civil War, his grandfather, a Union soldier, was a prisoner at the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia.
My Aunt Pody’s work located one side of my family in a place– we have deep roots in Indiana, and even deeper roots in Ireland and Yorkshire. Her work also located us in vocational traditions – a shared work in the world.
My Grandfather’s work located the other side of my family in history– in the big events of history – where were we – what side were we on?
We look to genealogy as one way to locate ourselves in the story.
Where do we fit in the broad sweep of things?
The writer of the Gospel of Matthew begins the gospel with a genealogy to locate Jesus in the broad sweep of God’s saving action in the world, from the very beginning, across the generations – and by locating Jesus there, to locate us there too. There we are with Jesus, in the broad sweep of things.
You see, perhaps more than the other gospels – Matthew’s community seems to be a community that has suffered a recent trauma – a painful, disorienting conflict. From the tone of the gospel, scholars think that Matthew’s community may have been thrown out of or split with another community. They seem to be arguing strenuously against something or somebody. In that First Century – Rome burned the Temple in Jerusalem to the ground – so folks throughout what would become the Judaism that we know today were trying to figure out who they were, without the Temple. Matthew’s community found that in Jesus – and they likely found it in a way that included both Jewish and Gentile believers. And somehow all that put them on the outside. The experience was traumatic, and disorienting, and bewildering.
And so the writer of Matthew begins with a genealogy, to ground the story. They locate Jesus firmly in God’s saving work across the generations – from Abraham, to King David, to the experience of the people in Exile, now to Jesus. 14 generations, and then 14 generations, and then 14 generations. With a number of outsiders included in the list, and women too – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary the mother of Jesus – and implicitly, those who follow Jesus. The writer of Matthew says to his community – we are part of this story too. Biblical scholar Eugene Boring asks, “What does the writer of Matthew want us to believe about this text?” And then he answers, (1) Jesus is the fulfillment of what has gone before, connected to everything that has gone before; (2) the story of God’s work is inclusive, Jews and Gentiles, women and men; and (3) God is at work across the generations.
Last week, we started our Epiphany series – “The Work of Wonder” – thinking about how we experience God made manifest in the midst of us – something beyond our comprehension – and how we make sense of that and somehow find in that the work that is ours to do. We talked about “light for the next step” – sitting in the here and now – seeing it real – and following our curiosity to the next step. That’s the first thing.
This week, we name the reality that sometimes the here and now can be rough – and overwhelming – and disorienting. Like it was for Matthew’s community. And so our experience of the here and now needs something more – something more to steady us. Trying to understanding our immediate context is necessary, but sometimes it is not enough.
It’s like that Reinhold Neibuhr quote on the front of the bulletin: “Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context in history. Therefore we must be saved by faith.”
Think of watching the news over the last three years – and the tumult, the disruption, the chaos – just this week, we thought we were on the brink of yet another war. I’ve heard folks say over and over, “It’s just too much – how can I even keep up – there’s so much to do – where do I even start?” I’ve said that too.
To get our bearings, we need to zoom in, but we also need to zoom out.
A few months ago, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Krista Tippett’s “On Being,” and she was interviewing folks about their experience of social change. One of them was America Ferrera the actress and activist; the other was John Paul Lederach, professor emeritus of International Peacebuilding at Notre Dame. Krista Tippett was asking them how they understand and move in and through the tumult of our time.
Lederbach said that he leaned into something that his teacher, sociologist Elise Boulding, used to say – that we live in a “200-year present.” And he explained it like this:
· Think back to your very first memories, and think of the oldest person who would have held you when you were an infant, and then think of when they were born.
· Then, think right now to the very youngest person you know, the very youngest person you might hold, and think of what a reasonable lifespan for them might be – 70 or 80 years – and think to what decade they might live. [HOLD ARMS OUT]
From here to there, “we are held and touched by – and we will hold and touch the lives of people that span a 200-year present.” Our present moment is a part of all that. We are a part of all that.
You can do your own personal math. For me, the oldest person who first held me was likely my Great Grandmother Elise Ruark, who was born October 30, 1891. If I think to the youngest person I know now, in my family, that’s probably my youngest step-nephew who is 4, or in this congregation, maybe baby June who is just a few months old – and so think out to the year 2100.
From here to there, we are held by – and we will touch the lives of people that span a 200-year present. We are a part of all that.
The work that is ours to do is connected to all that – we are not alone. So it’s not our individual work to solve to completion on our own all of the biggest problems that confront our world – but it is our work to figure out – what, within the big sweep of things, is ours to do. It is our work to understand our lives and in connection with the work that has been done in love by all who have come before, and handing off our work and our world to those who come next – to work together side by side – and then to trust them to take up the work where we must leave off.
Genealogy helps us see that in terms of family. The diaper we changed today, the meal that we made, the argument we had last night at the dinner table, the hand that we held, the tear we shed – they are all part of the big sweep of things – generations of love forged in family. Within that, we find the work that is ours to do.
We could think of that in terms of this church – we are connected in this moment to all the ways that God has been at work in this place, since this church’s beginning in 1897 when the congregation gathered over in Montgomery Chapel. All thatis connected to the work you are doing now, discerning where you move next.
I thought about it a lot in my work with Janie Spahr – particularly during the toughest defeats along the way. As many of you know, Janie is a pastor who was welcoming LGBTQIA+ people, embracing our calls to serve, our marriages, our families, long before the denomination and the world ever did. And the church prosecuted her for it. I was one of her lawyers. And again and again we lost. But Janie has always seen – with this quiet groundedness – how her work stands on the shoulders of all those who have come before – it stands with a broad community of those working for justice and love even now – and that it matters for tomorrow – whether today it is win or lose – because ultimately it will become complete in the work of generations.
I think of it in terms of the work this congregation does in response to our climate emergency – if ever there was an issue that depends on us understanding how interconnected we are – that is it.
And, as we think of our observance of Martin Luther King day next week, I think of his work, the progress that he didn’t live to see, so much work that remains to be done to dismantle systemic American racism – and how he had that clear sense that “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” He located us in the broad sweep of God’s saving work in the world, and insisted that we find – within that arc – within that sweep – the work in this moment, and this day, that is ours to do.
There’s a theological word for this – “providence”—God is at work in the world all the time – from the beginning of time; right here, right now; through the generations, until that day when all this will be complete – when all things will be made right, and we will gather at the river – all of us together.
From the very start of the Gospel, the writer of Matthew locates Jesus – and us – in the broad expanse of God’s saving and loving work across the generations. The writer begins with a genealogy, and then in just a few chapters, brings us to the shores of the river – the River Jordan – and with Jesus, we walk into the waters of baptism. Baptism is an embodied sign of how we are encompassed in – how we belong to – the broad sweep of God’s loving, saving action in the world. Jesus walks into the waters, and says to John the Baptist, “This is right and good, a fulfillment of all that has come before.” And a voice from heaven says, “This is my son – my child – whom I love. With him, I am well pleased.” In our baptism, we glimpse our place in all that.
Our lives will hold and touch the lives of people who will span a 200-year present. That 200-year present is connected to and part of the broad expanse of God’s loving, saving work across the generations. We are a part of all that.
And within all that, in the tumult of our day,
standing on the shoulders of those who have come before,
taking care to shape a world that we can hand along to those who will follow –
in the wonder of all that –
what lies before us, in each moment
is to find the work that is ours to do – God’s beloved children –
each of us, and all of us together.
© Scott Clark, 2020. All rights reserved.
This is a paraphrase of a question I heard my friend and teacher Dr. Polly Coote once say of the end of the gospel of Mark.
This description of the background of Matthew’s community is drawn from Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, v.8 (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995); Ulrich Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew(Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp.14-21, and Herman Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanity(Crystal Press/Omega Books: San Rafael, CA, 1976), pp.26-43. These three scholars posit different specific descriptions of the community of Matthew; the themes articulated here are gleaned from a reading of all three.
 America Ferrera and John Paul Lederach, “The Ingredients of Social Courage," interviewed on the On Being podcast with Krista Tippett, June 7, 2018 (updated June 7, 2018), https://onbeing.org/programs/america-ferrera-john-paul-lederach-the-ingredients-of-social-courage/