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Jeremiah 11.18-23

Matthew 13.54-58

All in the Family

(The Gospel of Matthew)

Second Sunday in Lent

I’ve told you a bit about my own family tree in bits and pieces before.  My Dad’s parents both emigrated from England in the 19-teens.  My grandfather came over first, and my grandmother told him she would follow once he had built her a house, which he proceeded to do on Curtis St in Meriden, the same house in which their daughter, my dear Aunt Ruth, still resides at age 96.  On my first sabbatical we visited the English village of Holmfirth, where my grandfather grew up, and spent a night outside the tiny village of Froggatt in Darbyshire.  My Mom’s parents were born in the states, but their parents emigrated from Poland and Italy; my Polish grandmother grew up in New York City and my grandfather on the family farm in Meriden’s north end.  I’ve visited Italy twice, but never made it to Calabria, where my grandfather’s family came from, and I’ve never been to Poland.  But I am grateful to know a bit of where my family came from, and who knows, there may be one more trip to Italy left in me before it’s all over.  How many of you have done your own genealogies, or family tree?  So you know what I’m talking about.  There is something in us that wants to know where we came from, or more to the point, we want to know from whom we’ve come – we believe it can tell us something about ourselves, our character, our motivations, our values.

Matthew begins his story about the life of Jesus with a genealogy.  You may recall one Sunday two Advents ago when I read for you Matthew’s entire genealogy from Abraham, through David and Hezekiah and Zerubbabel and all those other nearly unpronounceable names straight through to Joseph, all forty-two generations, so I won’t do it again this morning.  But by beginning his story with Jesus’ family tree, Matthew is telling us there is something important about it, that we need to pay attention.  The same is true of each of the gospels:  the way the writer begins the story tells us a lot about how that story will unfold.  Last week we saw how Mark began his story about Jesus, not with his birth or his family tree, but with his baptism.  This week Matthew wants us to pay attention to Jesus’ heritage, and by tracing it all the way back to Abraham, we know that Jesus’ being a Jew is going to be central to Matthew’s story.  This is where Jesus comes from, Matthew is telling us, it is part of his character, his motivations, his values, and his Jewish faith is going to be at the center of the story.

I still have a hard time understanding how my Polish ancestry has shaped me, but it was my church-going grandmother who saw to it that I attended most every Sunday morning, and when in Holmfirth we visited the Wesleyan church where my grandfather’s family were both laity and clergy.  And I cannot begin to count the ways my Italian grandfather influenced me:   cooking, gardening, public speaking, and it was he who first put a violin in my hands.  Our ancestors are part of our story; Matthew is pointing to Jesus’ ancestors as important parts of the story he is about to tell.

But as much as the gospels are stories about Jesus’ life, it is important to remember these are not biographies.  If they were, they would be rejected out of hand because of all the places Matthew, Mark, Luke and John disagree with each other, sometimes contradicting each other outright.  But these are not biographies, they are gospels.  Dr. Eugene Boring, a professor at TCU in Fort Worth – I know, what a name for a college professor, right?  Dr. Boring.  Regardless, Dr. Boring wrote in his commentary on Matthew’s gospel about the way that a gospel differs from a biography:  a gospel is a literary work written to interpret the theological meaning of a concrete historical event. The historical event is the life of Jesus; Matthew’s theological meaning is Jesus’ place in the milieu of Hebrew faith and history; and the literary result is his gospel.  Now, right about here I was going to geek out on you and illustrate Matthew’s literary formula, his narrative structure and his storytelling methodology, but I need you to be awake for the offering and communion, so I’ll just ask you to trust me on this.  A gospel is a literary work written to interpret the theological meaning of a concrete historical event.

Remember what we said last week, the gospels present four different perspectives of Jesus’ life, and each writer understood Jesus differently.  For Matthew, what was most important was Jesus’ Jewish heritage.  For example, Matthew repeatedly quotes from the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament, when telling the story of the life of Jesus.  One of his favorite phrases is “As it is written,” which he says just before quoting from the Old Testament.  “As it is written, Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son…”   “As it is written, The voice of the one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.”  “As it is written, Here is my servant, whom I have chosen…”  “As it is written, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.”  And so on throughout the entire story.  OK, Matthew, we get it:  Jesus’ Jewish heritage, his family history is important.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and state representative Samantha Steckloff were in the news last week for all the wrong reasons.  Both women received death threats from someone who swore to “carry out the punishment of death” against the state leaders because they are Jewish.  Police have arrested the man who made the threats, but they are part of a disturbing rise in antisemitism across the United States.  Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League told CNN last week, “Unfortunately, whether it is in Michigan or other parts of the country, we are seeing the confluence of anti-government, Covid and other conspiracy theories combined with antisemitism, and we see how this is animating people to action.”  It is a nationwide problem that also hits close to home; our sisters and brothers at Chester’s Congregation Beth Shalom have had to hire an armed officer when they gather the High Holy Days among other services.  Can you imagine coming to Christmas Eve or Easter service and having to walk past an armed guard?   I have to admit, after reading through the gospel of Matthew who reminds us repeatedly that you and I follow a Nazarene Jew, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the persistence of antisemitism, even and especially among people who call themselves Christian, after the Jewish messiah.  Jesus was Jewish.  The disciples were Jewish.  Most of the early church was Jewish.  And yet here we are, with Holocaust survivors still living among us, having to call out antisemitic behavior and condemning it all over again.  Friends, these are not just our brothers and sisters, they are our co-religionists, we share a common legacy from a faith-based point of view.  You and I as followers of Jesus also trace our religious ancestry back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  All those unpronounceable names in Mathew’s genealogy are our heritage as well.

Now it is true, even in Jesus’ own day there were those who rejected him, faithful Jews who could not wrap their heads around Jesus.  Diane read for us the classic encounter from Matthew that gave rise to a phrase that we still use today, “A prophet is not without honor save in their own country and among their own people.”    It brings to mind the prophet Jeremiah whose own neighbors wanted to destroy him.  But one would think we have moved beyond such a bigoted, hateful mindset.  One would think.  But sadly, one would be mistaken.

Abraham – literally, ֱאברהם (av ra-am), the father of all the people – is our ancestor as well, which makes us – all of us – brothers and sisters, or as the bumper sticker on my truck used to say before it fell off, it makes us one human family.  I noticed this week in our Lent Devotionals – and there are still a few left in our narthex, if you’d like to take one – that several of the writers took a musical theme this week.  Kaji Douša took a page from Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” and Vicki Kemper quoted R & B singer Lizz Wright.  So I’m going to steal a page from the 1979 World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates who used as their rally music Sister Sledge’s disco song, “We Are Family:”  “We are family, all of my brothers and sisters and me.”  Perhaps if Matthew ever needed a theme song to go along with his story of the life of Jesus, this could be it.  After all, he begins Jesus’ story with the father, or ancestor of all the people, and concludes it on a similar note with the Great Commission:  “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them…  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the peoples…”  From start to finish, in Jesus our brother, we are family.

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