Saturday, January 26, 2013

We Are In This Together

We Are In This Together
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
January 27, 2013
William G. Carter

            For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

            I realize it was now over a month ago, but we are still working through the implications of Christmas. A child is born, the shepherds are called, the wise men bow down. A great star in the sky announces to the whole world that the child comes as savior of all. We trace the family tree for Jesus, and it goes all the way back to the beginning – all the way back! The son of God is also the grandchild of Adam and Eve. We have a God who takes delight in us, who desires our company. These are implications of Christmas.

            Today, Saint Paul adds one more: "Christ has a body." That's his way of describing the followers of Jesus as a community. The presence of the Risen Christ is enfleshed in a single organism of interconnecting parts. We hold God's gifts in common, and our life together is a unity — a "common unity," or community. As we heard Paul say it last week, the Spirit works through all the faithful. Everybody is gifted to work for the good of all. That's true of every Christian community. It's written right into the DNA of every Christian church.

Isn't that the way it is with this congregation? We join together to pray and everybody has something to do. Between us and among us, the Word takes flesh in practical ways, and this is God's gift. In last Sunday's text, Paul told us how God gives to the church every essential ability. God equips his church to do his work in the world. Even in a congregation as small as Corinth, which scholars believe may have had fifty or sixty members at most, there was enough diversity to do the unified mission of God.

Sometimes you see this with great clarity. Six summers ago, I spent a little time in a monastery located two hours from nowhere. There are thirty men, bound together by prayer. They call themselves "Christ in the Desert," and live at the dead end of a fifteen mile canyon. Even though they live in seclusion, God gives them what they need. A couple of monks are world-class scientists who set up a solar power operation. Some raise bees and sell honey, others oversee a thrift shop in distant Santa Fe. Two of the brothers oversee a micro-brewery a hundred miles away, and joyfully share the product of their labor with others. One night they were whooping it up after the last prayer service of the day. The abbot winked and said, "There are two secrets to a good monastery: Christ and good beverages."

It was a picture of people living together in Christ. The Christian life is a communal life. It is a life lived with one another. There can be no such thing as a solitary Christian or an individual believer. That would be a contradiction in terms. We belong to God, and through God, we belong to one another. Maybe you remember the words of a favorite hymn:

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love:
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.
Before our Father's throne we pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares

This is a good description of the Body of Christ. The human body is a great metaphor for the church. It's a dynamic model: a body keeps moving and working unless it's dead. The body was muscles and bones to bear burdens. The body is material; there is no such thing as theoretical skin. A body has a life cycle: it is born, it grows, it matures, it declines — and for a body to have a future, it must reproduce.

And frequently the body has some kind of dysfunction. We can only guess what it was in the Corinth church, because Paul declares, "The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ From a far distance, Paul writes to that small church  that he founded. Apparently they experienced some competition, some exclusion, some arrogance. Paul declares it to be a spiritual crisis. All of us need one another. Without one another, we are incomplete.

To draw on another image, the quarterback can't say to the front line, "I have no need of you." Back when I played high school football, we had a quarterback who talked that way. He was pretty good, and more to the point, he took all the credit for being pretty good. "Did you see those three touchdown passes that I threw?" (Well no, we were busy blocking at the time.)

He'd say, "I don't know what this team would do without me." It got to be a bit much. Even the opposing team would murmur to us, "How can you stand that guy?"

So one day, right after he threw a touchdown pass that clinched the game, he started bragging about expertise. The coach called one of the linemen over and whispered something to him, and he came back and whispered it down the line. The quarterback called for the hike, and all of us on the line just stepped aside. The defensive line roared through and tossed him to the ground. Over on the sideline, the coach was rolling with laughter.

The furious quarterback picked himself off the ground and called a time-out. "Coach, what's so funny?" The coach said, "You are - - especially since you keep forgetting that everybody else makes you look good."

For the Christian life, truth resides in the community. No one person has it all; we gain it by living together, by sharing life, together, by looking out for one another. It is out of order to look at another Christian and say, “I have no need of you,” because that it simply not true. We do need one another; perhaps we don’t yet know how we need one another, but if we stay at it, we begin to see.

At the same time, there is no room for bullying and manipulation, no room to dominate or demean. Not in a community where Christ says every single life has value. To live together as Christ’s body means that we always have to adjust for one another, or make room for one another. Sometimes we have to wait for one another – and the patience will do us good. The world out there is so domineering, so competitive, with people conditioned like bulldozers to push around everybody else. But in the life of Christ, we exist for the benefit of everybody – love does not “insist on its own way.” Love is for others.

            It’s hard to keep that straight, but that is the way of Christ. To live for the building-up of other, and not for our own swaggering self-importance. The truth of Christian life is this: we are only as fast as the slowest person among us, and the lowest person in our circle has the ability to reach as the one with highest reach. That is how it is, when people live together by love.

Here's a phrase to apply to the church and other teams: we are a complementary community. That's complementary with an "e." Not to say we shouldn't give one another compliments with an "I" — every group of people could benefit by letting the compliments outnumber the criticisms by a hundred to one. That would be a blessing! In fact, next time you are tempted to criticize somebody, try to replace it with three compliments. If you can't find at least three compliments to drown out the negativity, you may be the one who deserves to be criticized!

But I suggest we are "complementary" in a deeper sense: all of us complement one another. Others provide for the group what we cannot provide for ourselves. In the mysterious economy of God, the whole group is given exactly what it needs, to do in that moment exactly what it needs to do. One of the clearest ways to discover what God wants us to do is by asking what kind of resources are already given to us. Who is here? What are they good at? God's call will not emerge out of thin air, but out of this gifted community.

Everybody has a part to play. So what has God given for you to do? I call this the "Samuel Glenn Carter" principle after my nephew. When Sam was a little shaver, he was a bit literal-minded, so I liked to mess with him. I ask him, "Does your nose run? Do your feet smell? Then you are built upside down." He looked at me and said, "I don't get it." In his thinking, the nose should smell, the feet should run. And I pointed out, that when he ran away from me, he wasn't running with his nose.

Around the church, a nose is a nose. A foot is a foot. Everybody has something to do. God gives each one of us an essential gift for the church's ministry in world. That's the easy truth. The more difficult matter is figuring out which gift is yours, or yours, or yours. It begins by paying attention to one another — look around the room. Look deeply: how has God gifted each person here? What has God given to you, as your gift to enrich the rest of the community?

As some of you know, I returned late Friday night from five days of study leave. Each January I get together with a group of ministers. This was the twenty-third consecutive year. We study the Bible together, we play a little bit, but the whole experience is far more than work and play.

In our group is a man recovering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and a woman who has been clear of breast cancer for eleven years. Each has been a big help to the other. Three of them have survived the flooding of their communities in the past eighteen months; they share that in common. There are some of our group who are content with their lives, others who are frustrated, and a couple who never quite seek to be happy. Our group is a safe place for them to talk it out and find encouragement.

And talk about complementary abilities! Bob knows his Bible, Carl has a thousand stories. Virginia keeps us honest, Rob keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. Terry has a way with words, Pam keeps us practically grounded. Everybody feels like they have something to offer, and everybody keeps coming back.

So why do my friends get together year after year? To tell you the truth, they are some of the same reasons why people connect to a church: all of us belong. All of us share more between us than we could ever grasp alone. All of us have a God who keeps on giving, so there is more possibility and creativity here for our life than we could ever have imagined on our own. Our risen Lord Jesus Christ has a body and this is what it looks like.

One of my friends discovered she has a gift for hymn writing. Here's how she puts it:

There are many ways of sharing / But God's Spirit gives each one.
There are different ways of caring / It's one Lord whose work is done.
God, whose gifts are overflowing / May we hear you when you call;
Keep us serving, keep us growing / For the common good of all.

We've been baptized in the waters! / We've been given work to do.
When you call your sons and daughters / You give gifts for serving you.
God, we join in celebration / Of the talents you impart.
Bless each baptized one's vocation; Give each one a servant's heart.

All are blest by gifts you give us / Some are set apart to lead.
Give us Jesus' love within us / As we care for those in need.
Give us faith to make decisions / Give us joy to share your Word.
Give us unity and vision / As we serve your church and world.

For Paul says, "You are the body of Christ, and individually members of him" Look around: these people you see? They are the means by which Christ lives out the gospel in the world. Look around: we are the muscle and bones of Jesus. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved

Sunday, January 20, 2013

More Than Pretty Poetry

Isaiah 62:1-11
Ordinary 3
January 20, 2013
William G. Carter

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. 2The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. 3You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. 5For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

6Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels; all day and all night they shall never be silent. You who remind the Lord, take no rest, 7and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth. 8The Lord has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm: I will not again give your grain to be food for your enemies, and foreigners shall not drink the wine for which you have labored; 9but those who garner it shall eat it and praise the Lord, and those who gather it shall drink it in my holy courts.

10Go through, go through the gates, prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones, lift up an ensign over the peoples. 11The Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to daughter Zion, “See, your salvation comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”
 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
             A number of our people in our church began to read the whole Bible last year. It was a great initiative. Whether all of us finished it or not, it got us off the sidelines and into the pages. Every week, somebody stopped by my study to report on some aspect of their readings. Everybody discovered something new.

            “I can’t believe how big the Book actually is,” somebody exclaimed. “I got tired of the Old Testament genealogies,” another admitted. People remarked on the abundance of violence, or the similarity between people of that time and people of our own. One person said, “Sometimes I felt like the Bible could use a good editor,” while somebody else said, “I think the Bible has been edited too much.” One of my favorite responses went like this: “I was expecting to find more advice.” Another reader said, “There are an awful lot of poems.”

            Isaiah 62 is one of those poems. Like a lot of the Bible’s prophets, Isaiah spoke in poems. They were not the kind of poems that rhyme, although if you knew Hebrew, you might hear some rhymes. But rather, they are the kind of poems that speak in supercharged language that re-describes the world. Bible Poems don’t offer a lot of advice.

            If you are looking for advice, go over to the book of Proverbs, chapter 19: “A stupid child is ruin to a father, and a wife’s quarreling is a continual dripping of rain.” (19:13). You wouldn’t hear that in a poem. Or Proverbs, chapter 10: “The wise of heart will heed commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin” (10:8). That’s good advice.

            But what about the poem for today, from Isaiah 62? It does not suggest or explain. It never tells us what to do or how to do it. This is love poetry: “You shall be a crown of beauty . . . a royal diadem. You shall be called My Delight Is in Her.” It sounds like we are listening in to a poet murmuring sweet words to his Beloved.

And then we give it another look and discover this is how God speaks to his people! “As two lovers marry, as two people in love rejoice over one another, so shall your God marry you – and rejoice over you.”

            Nobody told me about this passage when I was young. Most of my instruction in scripture began with the do’s and the don’ts. “Here is how to live your life. Here are the rules for getting through life successfully.” It’s comforting to have a list of rules. Everything is clear. Behavior is spelled out. Blessing is given to those who are obedient. And I know there are some marriages that are designed that way. It doesn’t matter that they are not a lot of fun, because the commandments are very clear.

            But did you hear God speak to Isaiah’s people? There is affection -- and enjoyment. God is not a tyrant who browbeats or insists on his own way. God comes as a loving spouse to the people. “I come to take delight in you,” God says, “and we shall be a happily married couple.”

            Now, that is a remarkable picture in the best of times. What makes it simply is the time in which God says it. It’s almost six hundred years before Jesus. The exiles are wandering back from forty years of Babylon. They return to see the rubble of Jerusalem, their temple demolished, their economy busted. All the evidence that they were the Chosen People of God has been dashed down, with not one stone upon another.

            God says, “I’m going to change your name. Your name has been ‘Forsaken,’ but now I will call you ‘Delight.’ Once you called yourselves ‘Desolate,” but now I name you ‘Married,’ because you belong to me, and I take delight in you.”

            This is the language of matrimony. God announced, “Honey, we’re getting hitched!” And to whom is that word addressed? To worn-out old Israel, sagging skin, bruised and black-eyed, a couple of teeth missing – she is the one that God comes to and says, “I want you completely for myself.”

            Have you ever seen such love? I think of the story that surgeon Richard Selzer tells. He stood by the hospital bed of a young woman recovering from facial surgery. It had been a tricky operation. There had been a tumor on her cheek. Her mouth was twisted with palsy. The face was almost clownish, he said. To remove the tumor, Dr. Selzer had to cut a tiny twig of the facial nerve, the same nerve that manages the muscles of her mouth. Her mouth would have an awkward twist for the rest of her life. He stopped down to see her.

            A young man was in the room with her, standing on the opposite side of the bed. Together they seemed to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from the surgeon. They kept looking at one another.

            Suddenly the woman said to the doctor, “Will my mouth always be like this?” He explained, “Yes, it will. It’s because the nerve was cut.” She nodded, and was silent.

            The young man smiled. “I like it,” he said. “It’s kind of cute.” The doctor stood in quiet understanding, admiring the husband’s blessing. Ignoring the surgeon, the young husband bend down to kiss his wife’s crooked mouth. Selzer said he was standing so close he could see how the husband twisted his own lips to accommodate hers. He would show her that their kiss still worked.[1]

            God leans down and gives a twisted kiss to Israel. “You are mine,” says the Lord. “I take delight in you.”

            Mark this down: in the Bible, God doesn’t usually talk that way. But here, God “takes delight” in his human family. God sets aside all aesthetic standards to come to us, to claim us, to pronounce a new identity for us. God does not judge us as ugly or damaged or unnecessary. Oh, no – God sees the beauty first placed upon us on the days of our birth. There is nothing that we can do to remove that holy love. Nothing at all. Quite to the contrary, God wants to woo his beloved, and declare, “You give me joy.”

            It reminds me of the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Who could ever tire of that story? At the center of the village is a beautiful young woman named Belle. She loves to read, and shrugs off the pursuits of the brutish men of the village. When her father gets lost, she tracks him down at a strange enchanted castle, and offers to take his place so he can go free. The master of the castle is an enormous beast, once a handsome prince, but turned by a magical spell because of his arrogance and anger.

Belle begins to fall for him and the Beast cannot believe it. “Who, me?” he bellows. His character flaws led to his ugly appearance. His appearance causes him to be rejected and despised. But bit by bit, Belle stays at it. She sees the kind heart beneath all the fur. She understands his pain and doesn’t back off when he expresses it. She says he is beautiful. She persists until he starts to believe it himself.

We cheer at the story, regardless of when we first heard it, because we know it is a parable of God’s love for us. Love we didn’t ask for – but it comes anyway. Love we do not deserve – but it is given freely. Love when we are defeated and dejected, when all seems lost – and it is there, regardless of whether we believe it, or feel it, or see it. The love is there. The love is here.

And for some dark reason, we shrug it off. We think we are not worthy. Or we think that God had somebody else in mind. “Sorry, you have the wrong person. No, it’s not me.” Or we start joining that long line of religious people through the centuries who said that we become acceptable to God if we jump over a series of hurdles, and talk a certain way, or do certain things.

It’s all nonsense. The human predicament is noise and nonsense. Uncertain that God really might love us, we make a lot of noise. We turn our backs, and then say with all assurance, “See? Told you it wasn’t true.”

But then God comes to say, “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), pp. 45, 46.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Old Family Tree

Luke 3:21-38
Baptism of the Lord
January 13, 2013
William G. Carter

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.
He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, 
son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, 
son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, 
son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, 
son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, 
son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, 
son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, 
son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, 
son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David, 
son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon, 
son of Amminadab, son of Admin, son of Arni, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah, 
son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor, 
son of Serug, son of Reu, son of Peleg, son of Eber, son of Shelah, 
son of Cainan, son of Arphaxad, son of Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, 
son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, 
son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.

It’s OK if the reading of the text did not send thrills up and down your spine. It is a list. A list of names. A list of strange names. A list of names of people we never met, with no immediate connection to us.

            Right after he says Jesus was baptized, Luke gives us a genealogy. This is the recital of Jesus’ family tree. Luke does this here, right after the baptism when Jesus was thirty years old. At least he began with a couple of chapters of Christmas stories to get us on the hook. The Gospel of Matthew also recounts the genealogy of Jesus – and he puts it on the first page of the book.

            It’s a strange text for us, which is precisely why I selected it. The usual schedule for our readings refuses to touch it. There is never a genealogy in the weekly lectionary of readings. You know the reason. Why deal with a genealogy? Why deal with a list of names?

            Except that it’s not merely a list of names. Don’t call it a list. It’s a family tree.

            Ever see a family tree? There was one located on the acre that my great-grandparents owned. My forebears left the summer heat in Oil City, Pennsylvania, and drove twelve miles into the woods to relax in our family cabin. Outside, guarding the driveway was a large maple tree, probably three or four feet thick. Generations had carved their initials in the tree. People who were no longer remembered by name left their marks.

I will never forget the moment discovering E.A.S. + G.W.C, carved inside a heart. Elizabeth Ann Stewart + Glenn Wilbur Carter. They put it there before they were married in 1957, a few years before I was born. The thought was staggering to a young child. I couldn’t believe it: my parents were alive before I was born! I reached up to trace my finger in their carved initials. It was like I was touching history. And when a tornado pulled that tree out of the ground, it felt like a chapter of my life had been removed. Don’t call it a list. It’s more than a list.

The teenagers on the mission trip stopped at a graveyard. We handed out newsprint and charcoal, and said, “Go find a gravestone and rub a name.” Every name that returned, some faint to read, others clear – every name represented a human life, a human story. One name was accompanied by two dates: 1832-1839. She was seven years old. Was life cut short by illness or accident? We did not know the story. But the fourteen year old with charcoal on his fingers was deeply affected. “She was the same age that my little sister is now.”

Don’t call it a list. It’s more than a list. What is most curious is why Luke should include this list. Joseph was the son of Heli,  son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph . . . He was named after somebody five generations before. They would have remembered the name.

My younger daughter is Margaret Rose. She hates it when somebody calls her Megan because that’s not her name. Her name is Margaret. My grandmother on my father’s side was named Margaret. She was pleased that we named one of her great-grandchildren after her. I said, “Well, Grandma, actually we didn’t name her after you,” and Grandma said, “Oh yes, you did!” She lived for four more years after Meg was born. She held her in her arms only a few times, but the generational blessing was given. It’s stated in Psalm 128, “May you see your children’s children.” The human race continues; that is God’s blessing.

And the genealogy pushes us to the past. It points to those from whom we have come. If you go over to the first chapter of Matthew, he doesn’t restrict it to men only. He includes some women, some curious women. Go poking around in Jesus’ family history and who do you find? Rahab, the prostitute. Tamar, the incest victim. They are on the list, which is more than a list. There is Bathsheba, whom King David stole from her husband before ordering his death. There is old grandmother Ruth, who was a Moabite woman. Jesus had Moabite blood in his veins! Now, that’s interesting. It is Matthew’s way of saying the birth of Jesus was an unusual birth.

Sorry to tell you, but Luke doesn’t have that much imagination. He only mentions men. Seventy-six men. A long line of men: Melchi was the son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er,  son of Joshua. That’s what it says: son of Joshua. Joshua and Jesus are the same name. Did you know that? In Hebrew, it is Yeshua, which means “God saves.” In Spanish, the name is Jesus, a common name. There have been a lot of baseball players named Jesus. And the meaning is the same: God saves.

            I bet you thought the last we would be doing today is reciting a list of names – except it’s so much more than a list. Don’t call it a list.

            A few years ago, I was preaching at the Massanetta Springs Bible Conference, near Harrisonburg, Virginia. It’s an annual summer pep rally for Presbyterians. We do pep rallies with a lot of sermons, and I was one of the preachers. There was a beautiful young woman who worked there. She was the director of development. Her name was Revlan. That was her name. She looked like she could model in a makeup commercial.

            She was a Virginian, from the Shenandoah Valley. One day at our lunch table, I watched her work. An old duffer hobbled up with his food tray, his pants hiked up to his lungs. She stood and helped him take his seat. She sat down with a big smile. She offered her name, he spoke his, and then she said, “Who are your people?” That was the magic question. It must be the Shenandoah Valley Question: “Who are your people?”

This old guy sat tall, started reciting names, telling stories, sharing connections. Revlan sat with a big smile, took it all in. this is how she did fundraising, by asking about relationships, generations, connections, and values. By the time she was done, she could have filled in the amount on his check – because she took him seriously. It began with one question: who are your people?

            “Jesus, who are your people?” He could tell you. Any Jew in the first century could tell you. He could trace the generations back for hundreds of years. This was the Palestinian way. This was the Jewish way. You could go into a town where a member of your family have lived. And if you recited your generations, the people there would open their doors to you. This is how we can be certain that Jesus was not born in some backyard cave . All Joseph had to do upon coming into Bethlehem was to begin the recital of generations . . .

Simeon son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim,  son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David . . .

And with that, every home would be opened to Joseph the son of David.[1]  These were his people.

And it’s not only a local thing, not only a Bethlehem relationship. Luke is very clear that Jesus is a Jew. He structures the book that way, begins his gospel in the Jerusalem temple with the priest of Zechariah, and concludes it in chapter 24, with the Christian believers worshipping in the temple. Luke says Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, like every male Jewish child. Jesus was taught Torah and discussed it with the teachers in the Temple. His family kept Passover every year. They didn’t wink at it; they journeyed three days by foot to Jerusalem. They did this every year! Because Jesus is a Jew. These are his people. . .

Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah,  son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. . .

That is the Jewish family tree. But the most curious thing of all is that Luke does not stop there. For Matthew, the line goes back to Abraham, father of the multitude, “exalted father” of the Jewish race. It’s like the family that told me years ago in Connecticut how their ancestors came across the sea on the Mayflower. They were important, a significant New England family, because they arrived on the Mayflower. And then, somebody else said, “Well, what did they do before they came across on the Mayflower?” there was no answer, because for the family, and its significance, and its wealth, that was not important. It only mattered back to the Mayflower.

But when Luke speaks of Jesus, he takes it all the way back. I mean all the way back . . .

Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech,  son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan,  son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam . . . son of God.

            Now, that’s interesting. At his baptism, the heavens open, the dove descends, and God says directly to Jesus, “You are my son. You are my beloved child.” And when the genealogy is recited, it goes all the way back to Adam, the first child of God, the original Single Father. Jesus is named “Son of God” at his baptism, and traced back to the first “Son of God” in the genealogy. That is to say, Jesus is both a member of the human family and also mysteriously its source. He comes for everybody. Not just for some, but for everybody.

Fred Craddock loved to tell the story of the time he took his wife to vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains. They lived in Oklahoma at the time, where Fred taught at a seminary, and they got away to somewhere around Gatlinburg. They were having dinner in the Black Bear Inn, with one whole wall of glass looking out on the mountains.

In the middle of their meal, an old man wandered up and said, “Hello!” Fred nodded quietly and said, “Hello!”  “Are you having dinner?” Well, yes, we were.

“Where are you from?” he said. Well, Fred wanted to say, “It’s none of your business.” But he said, “Oklahama.” And he thought, “I’ll get rid of him,” so he said, “I teach preachers at a seminary.”

“Oh, you’re a preacher? Do I have a story to tell you!” And he pulled up a chair and sat down. Fred said, “Yes, have a seat,” but he was thinking, “Who does this guy think he is?”

The old man said. “I grew up in these mountains. My mother was not married, and the whole community knew it. I was what was called an illegitimate child. In those days that was a shame, and I was ashamed. The reproach that fell on her, of course, fell also on me. When I went into town with her, I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who was my father. At school the children said ugly things to me, and so I stayed to myself during recess, and I ate my lunch alone.”

He said, “I was in an orphanage, and began to attend a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. It had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face and a heavy beard and a deep voice. I went to hear him preach. I don't know exactly why, but it did something for me. However, I was afraid that I was not welcome since they didn’t know who my father was. So I would go just in time for the sermon. When it was over I would slip out because I was afraid that someone would say, `What's a boy like you doing in a church?'

He said, "One Sunday some people lined up in the aisle before I could get out, and I was stopped. Before I could make my way through the group, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and caught a glimpse of his beard and his chin, and I knew who it was. It was that minister. He turned his face around so he could see mine and seemed to be staring for a little while. I knew what he was doing. He was going to guess who my father was.

“He paused and said, ‘Boy, you’re a child of . . .’ and he paused again. ‘You’re a child of . . .’ and he paused. I knew what was coming. I knew I would have my feelings hurt, that I could never go back there again.”

“The preacher said, ‘Boy, you’re a child . . . you’re a child of God. Why yes, I see a striking resemblance!” Then he tapped me on the back and said, “Now, you go claim your inheritance.” I left that building a different person. That was the beginning of my life.

Fred said, “Sir, what’s your name?” He said, “Ben Hooper.” Ben Hooper… Fred said, “My father used to tell me when I was just a child how the people of Tennessee had twice elected as governor a fatherless child named Ben Hooper.[2]

Do you know what we can say about Jesus? It was supposed he was son of Joseph ... who was son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God. I suppose you could say the whole human race is connected to him. And he comes for the whole race to say, “You belong to God.”

Jesus, who are your people? “You are.”

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 28.
[2] This well-oiled story comes from Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 20010) 156-157.