Genealogies are strange and curious, genres.
A genealogy is a study of relationship. It’s the tracing of family lineages and history, for good or for worse. For centuries, genealogies have existed as the main source of understanding who we are. In ancient societies, one’s identity is defined as much by one’s family history, as by individual achievement or accomplishment. The question “Who are you?” would be answered by a description of fathers and mothers, of tribal histories and royal legends.
Yes, genealogies are strange and curious genres. So we shouldn’t be surprised that when we turn to the opening page of the New Testament, we are greeted with a daunting biblical pedigree. Genealogies are found throughout the entire Bible. The book of Genesis records the descendants of Adam and Eve, Abraham, and Cain, and Seth. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we are given the Table of Nations, the descendants of Noah, and the tribes of Israel. But when we turn to the Gospel according to Matthew, we are thrown right into the deep end, right into a thick and storied record of ages past.
Luke begins his Gospel with shepherds and miraculous births. Mark doesn’t have time for lavish beginnings. Mark rushes right to Jesus’ ministry. He begins right with Jesus in the Jordon. And John, well John has his incarnation, his mystery, his poetry.
But not Matthew. No, Matthew begins with a genealogy, a record, a past. Before the beatitudes, before the miracles, before the baptism, Matthew buries us with names of ancient kings and patriarchs. Matthew attempts to answer right from the beginning, ‘Who is Jesus?’ And he does so not with grand theological imagery or mystifying gospel story. Instead, he begins with an important but incomplete definition … by means of genealogy.
And Matthew’s task is simple: tell those who read this Good News that Jesus follows a line of some holy and not so holy men and women who, against all odds, the story of God continued and grew for generation after generation.
The biblical writers sought out to ensure that we who hold this sacred text millennia later would be able to look back at the peculiar assortment of people that make up this ancestry and wonder in amazement at the sacred genes woven together in the man that would change the world forever.
Through this genealogy, this tree, we begin to see that the roots of faith are planted in hearty soil. We read these names and recall the grandest stories of God’s people. People like Abraham and Rahab and David. We recall the trembling fear and overwhelming trust of Abraham who God called to uproot his life and travel to a strange and new land to build a covenant with God and God’s people. We recall the compassion and bold bravery of Rahab who showed great kindness and mercy to God’s people, even at the risk of imprisonment or death. Neither Abraham or Rahab were perfect. They made their fair share of mistakes. But their steadfast response to God’s call is clear. And for that, their lives are bound up with the life of Jesus. Informing his every move.
When we read this genealogy, we begin to see in Jesus the faithfulness of Abraham and Sarah, the courage and confidence of King David. We hear in his parables the Wisdom of Solomon, the counsel and might of Jesse. Jesus was formed anew by those who came before him. He embarked on his ministry blessed by the presence of these holy women and men.
Yes, Matthew wants us to know: Jesus comes to us not on his own, but with the stories and memories of generations before him. Matthew wants us to read the words and actions of Jesus alongside those of Abraham and Rahab and others. The author wants us to know that those whose footsteps Jesus followed were not perfect, but whose strengths and values forever shaped the ministry of the man from Nazareth.
That’s why the Bible offers us these genealogies, even of Jesus. Because it matters that Jesus was both the Son of God and the Son of Mary. It matters that Jesus was descended from David, and that David descended from Rahab. It matters that Jesus, as perfect as he may be, is descended from people as troubled, complex as they come. Their faith, their stories, their failures all mattered in making Jesus who he was.
And now, here in the time and place, formed by over two-thousand years of history and tradition we gain our own genealogy in Christian faith. The Christian genealogy includes Peter and Paul and Mary, those early believers keeping the light of Christ alive in the greatest darkness. We have within our genes the spirit of the great Protestant Reformers, along with Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa. We have within us the DNA of women and men whose call for justice and love, despite all odds, persevered in the face of oppression and power.
Of all people, we at Old South understand what was done before us matters. We are people who have been formed by our history. For our genealogy includes the ardent spirit of radical inclusion that birthed this congregation three centuries ago. Our genealogy includes the courage of colonial abolitionists and the passions for freedom and liberty that formed this nation. Reflected in us we find the legacy of preachers and laity struggling for the causes of civil rights. It includes the bravery in the face of the unknown to open—to unhinge—our doors to those suffering and dying of AIDS. Our genealogy includes the humility of Samuel Sewell and the integrity of Samuel Adams. Reflected in our ministry, in our mission, is the spirit of Phillis Wheatly, America’s first published black poetess, and Jacob Manning, a minister here at this church and a radical abolitionist.
As those who visit this place, or hear of us around the world, read our genealogy, they too will wonder in amazement at sacred genes we hold.
Over the course of these past two years at Old South Church, I have had the honor to share in the life of this community of faith. I stand in awe that I have been invited into the thick and raw moments of your lives … to rejoice with news of new life … to thank God for another month sober … anoint the brow of the dying or hold the hand of the mourning. I have been honored to lament together, rejoice together, feast at the Lord’s Table together. It has been a privilege to join together Sunday after Sunday, Thursday after Thursday, to sing praises to the Living God.
You my sisters and brothers, have taught me more about Christian discipleship than whatever could be learned in seminary lecture halls or in textbooks. Leaving this place, I have a new genealogy forever grafted onto my heart. You have given me new DNA, you have made me who I am, who I am to be.
I leave formed by you. I leave transformed by you. I depart from this community with you in my genes, hoping that those I meet in the future will be able to see just a glimpse of you in me.
I leave this place, hoping others will see in me the prophetic imagination found in you.
I leave this place hoping others will see in me just a glimmer of the generosity, kindness, and joy found in you.
I leave this place hoping others will see in me the commitment to the poor and marginalized, the openness to curiosity, the trust in tradition found in you.
I leave this place hoping others will see your cries for justice, your acts of mercy, your taste for beauty, somewhere in my heart.
Genealogies are strange and curious genres. They have the power to form us. Like those whose stories come alive in Holy Scripture, we carry with us the names and stories of those who came before us, and whose company we keep. And in that same way you have formed me. You make up my DNA. And I carry with me forever your names and your stories. And with grace and hope, those I meet in times to come will see you in me.
Thanks be to God. Amen.