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You Can’t Choose Your Family ~ Matthew 1: 1-17

It was last winter, I believe, when I was channel surfing one Friday night and came upon a show in which the actor Matthew Broderick was researching his ancestry. Broderick is a “star” of some note: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” (classic!) “Biloxi Blues,”(not bad) “Godzilla” (horrible) and “Glory” – the wonderful story of the first all African American regiment which fought in the Civil War.

Broderick, on this TV show, discovered that his great-great-great grandfather was killed in the Civil War and buried in a non-descript grave in the middle of some small town that had been forgotten. He had not known of this ancestry, this connection to the past.

And I remember the close up of Broderick’s face when he realized he was standing on his forefather’s grave. It was “awe” that I saw – surprise and wonder. Humility, deep reverence, it was as if a new light switch of connection had been turned on. Broderick, at that moment, seemed like just a “regular” guy.

I certainly don’t know my ancestry very well – “Lentz” is German. I know I have a bit of Welsh through my father’s mother’s side “Davis.” Deanne’s family is all German except for her mother’s side “McKee” – so Scottish-Irish. My Dad has a birth certificate of his great grandfather born in Germany in the 1870s.

As far as I know I don’t have any criminals or such in my background – but no minister’s either.

I remember getting pulled over by a Cleveland Heights police officer (I mean, who hasn’t?) and when the young officer saw my license he got rather wide-eyed and asked, “Are you related to the police chief?!”

Yes, the police chief of Cleveland Heights is a Martin Lentz. I thought about responding: “Oh, you mean Uncle Marty?” – but decided I should be responsible and truthful, and so I admitted, “No,” and got the citation.

It is interesting, isn’t it, to know where you came from? To think that I am a result of two distinct family lines that go back across the centuries and the millennia until they all merge in the one DNA stream that seems to come from the very first “humans” that wandered around Africa – and that you are too; and to realize that the farther we go back the more we are related. And that African, European, Semitic, Asian, Hispanic – and all the other strands of the human family are connected, are related. We make so much of our differences – what would happen if we emphasized the connections?

Connections as Americans, as beloved children of God – remember Jesus wasn’t much for nuclear family values – he “dissed” his own mother and brothers and sisters – saying family ties didn’t matter as much as the tie that binds us together in humanity – those who do the will of God. It seems that the more broadly we connect ourselves the better.

This challenges me in light of the political conversation about immigration or as we approach the 9th anniversary of 9/11 and continue to consider our national security. It appears to me as if we are being prodded by this passage to consider a whole renewed mind set. Instead of being “conformed” to this world and its “us” v. “them,” and “they are not part of my tribe, my ancestry, my nation, my race, my heritage” kind of thinking, I wonder if we are not being challenged to be transformed “by the renewing of our minds” in Christ Jesus to a broader view of who is in and who is out? And I am sure that as we move closer and closer to the heart of Jesus – all distinctions fade away.

Now this “transformation” – this new way of looking at the world through the lenses of Christ – might not be popular in political circles, and might not be practical for policies on immigration or homeland security. But our primary goal as beloved children of God, it seems to me, is to be grounded in the radical implications of the Gospel. Certainly our relationship with Christ changes our perspective on “those” people – whoever the “those” happen to be – Muslims, Hispanics, gays whomever.

It was peculiar to read Matthew 1 this morning. Just a bunch of names! Who cares about Salathiel, or Azor, or Zadok, or Obed, or Abiud? Just a bunch of Semitic folk. What do they have to do with you and me?

There is no story in this chapter, no obvious theological lesson, no pithy memory verse to take home.

And the whole genealogy isn’t even correct. There are gaps. And it certainly doesn’t match up with the genealogy in Luke. But of course, talking about Jesus (who, according to the tradition wasn’t born in the “usual” way – so to speak), the line “Oh, he has his Father’s eyes,” takes on a whole new meaning!

But I love this passage; it is one of my favorites. For many of the names do tell a story and when they are added up they proclaim something divine, something worth our attention.

Take Isaac: think of what he had to endure. His dad Abraham tied him up and put a knife to his neck. That’s going to do a lot for father-son relations. Then we read about Jacob – who, of course, shouldn’t have gotten the blessing because he stole it from his elder brother, Esau. Jacob was a liar, conniver and manipulator.

It is a weird genealogy. Where is Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah – the great matriarchs? Instead we get Tamar – a widow – who bore twins to her father-in-law Judah (yuck), son of Jacob, who thought Tamar was a temple prostitute so it was o.k. to have sex with her. We get Rahab, who was a non-Jewish prostitute in Jericho and protected Israeli spies. Ruth, another non-Jew, who follows Naomi. And did you notice “David, the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” You know who that is: Bathsheba – who doesn’t even get named. David had her husband Uriah killed so he could rape her. These were the women who were absolutely crucial to God’s reconciling plan.

Then there is Mary, that mysterious young woman – only the “theotokos” the “Mother of God” – who in this genealogical list is slighted. Instead, the focus is more on the ancestry of Joseph who wasn’t even the biological father according to tradition.

This genealogy takes some weird turns.

You have good kings: Hezekiah and Josiah. And you have evil kings: Jehoiachim and Manasseh. And you have a whole bunch of no-names who probably didn’t every have a clue that their lives had any significance at all. They were just going about their lives doing what they always did.

Yet all of these names connect us to stories filled with immigration, deportation, naturalization, occupation, exile. To criminals and saints. To  royalty and scum. They’re all connected to the Messiah – to God – and to you and to me.

I am reminded of James Joyce’s description of the Catholic church, but it is an apt description of the kingdom of God. He wrote: “Here comes everybody!”

This passage reminds me that my presence is part of some much larger narrative that doesn’t go through the usual channels. You and I are part of a narrative of other people, connected to the magnificent story of God – and God’s redemption of the world. Just as we don’t choose to be part of any particular family, I am not sure we really chose to be a part of this universal family.

This passage underlines the Incarnation in bold strokes. It is not just the birth of Jesus that proclaims Emmanuel – “God with us!” – but each of those people,  known and unknown, who somehow glimmer with the glory of the unfolding power of God and with each of you.

You and I are connected – in Christ, brothers and sisters. There is no “us” and “them,” only “we.” Being part of the lineage of God is not due to your holiness, your faithfulness, your anything – it just is, you just are, part – because God is God.

And each one matters – there are no ins or outs. And this realization that we all are connected drives us into the world with abundant hope – with abundant generosity, with abundant hospitality, with abundant compassion. For as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “We are all bound together in a single garment of destiny.” That is the gospel truth that is expressed in these verses – a single thread connecting good and bad, slave and free, black and white, gay and straight, young and old, woman and man, Muslim, Jew and Christian.

So this discovery makes me connected to Matthew Broderick as he stood on the holy ground of his great-great-great grandfather’s grave and, awe-struck, came to know who he was in a whole new, profound way. I remember him saying, “I never knew.”

Just because you never knew doesn’t mean you never were.

And you may feel that way too about these verses –  that you “never knew.” Well, now you know.

Remember you can choose your friends, but you simply can’t choose your relatives. And I believe in the deepest part of my soul that life shaped by wonder, awe and surprise, broadens horizons and boundaries and includes more and more, and that it is far better than the voices in our culture that are shaped by suspicion, fear and sameness which narrow perspective, close possibility, and limit potential.

So ask yourself, when you are listening to your favorite television shows, when you are listening to anything or anyone – does it broaden your mind and expand your hope?

Thanks be to God – who has included us, you and me and every other Tom, Dick and Harry, and Tamar, Ruth and Mary through Christ, with all the saints and all the sinners in the great circle of the kingdom.

Amen.

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