“The Earthly Promise”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Matthew 1: 1-17
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
My first trip abroad was to Scotland and England. This was 1997; I traveled with my father. We spent a few days in Edinburgh, a few days in the Highlands, and a few days in London. There were planes, trains, and automobiles. Here was my first taste of haggis and my introduction to the nectar of the gods. I was surprised that the vast majority of the British Isles, United Kingdom, formerly known as Britain— I was surprised by how much of it was wide open fields filled with sheep and just a few people.
This trip, like so many to follow, brought the history books and essays and lectures of my education to life. For three years I lived and breathed the sixteenth century in book after book. For a week I walked the Scottish Reformation and the English Reformation that followed. I stood in the house of John Knox and felt admiration; I stumbled upon the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots and felt a deep revulsion. History became personal.
As luck would have it when I ventured to the Cathedral of St. Giles, the main artery of the Scot’s rejection of the Mass and the introduction of Presbyterianism, history and the future collided. Standing in the sanctuary stripped of statue and stained glass, a deacon of the church after discovering I was a Presbyterian pastor shouted at me for an hour. He shouted and shouted until he worked himself to a crescendo: “There is no bishop but the Christ!”
I am lucky. Wherever I go, I meet people like this. There must be some sort of cosmological, metaphysical serendipity that draws such folks to me. In this instance of Christological time, the shouting deacon was not upset with me. He was rejecting the temptation of ecumenical relation. The Church of Scotland had just been asked to elect a bishop to represent them at the international level of church relations. This was the bold dream of church leaders after World War II: a church of the world, common faith first, particular expression second. This dream was nurtured, grown and was now ripe after 50 years of work. All they needed was the Scots to elect a bishop. Yet, as the deacon made so terribly clear, they need us to not be Presbyterian. “There is no bishop but the Christ.”
As this was the first day of our journey I didn’t really take the deacon’s words to heart. He was bombastic and far too enthusiastic for my taste. “There is no bishop but the Christ!” What I didn’t know then was that he was tilling my soul for planting. The upturned earth was seeded day after day as we traveled through Scotland. As we traveled I read John Knox’s, History of the Reformation. It is a long list of martyrs. The men and women who sought to bring the Bible to the people, to give the church to the people, the men and women who died so the church would be free from the bishop’s hat and greedy grip, these people came clear to me as I traveled with my father.
By the time I reached London and Westminster Abbey and stumbled upon the grave of Mary, Queen of Scots, the bombastic shouts of the deacon, “There is no bishop but the Christ,” these words were now personal. I stood before the grave of the Queen that martyred the ones who made a way for us. Died for us. Unaccustomed to such emotion I was shaken by the thought that so many died for my freedom, so many gave their life so I could read the Bible, so many suffered so the church would be for all, not the tradition of a few bishops.
There is no bishop but the Christ!
Our reading today from Matthew seems quite dry at first. A list of names, begets and begottens over and over again, forty-two times to be exact. Like the first time I heard the deacon, this list can fall a bit flat, a kind of academic exercise, something not reaching the heart. The reading can appear as unimaginative as the family trees where the lines branch and branch and branch in successive brackets of faceless names. It is not an understatement, though, to say our reading today is the birth of the church, the church where Jesus is king, and bishop, and prophet alone.
On a different day than this, we could explore the list for its provocative claims. The men in the list are sometimes good and sometimes bad. But the women, who are not supposed to be there, the women are very provocative. On a less historical day we could explore how Tamar was a widow who played a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law and thus provided her with a child and heir for the family tree of Jesus. Again, on a different day we could explore how Rahab was a prostitute and a Canaanite who betrayed her people and with her child become an heir for the family tree of Jesus. And Ruth, who was not a prostitute, but was offered shall we say and was not an Israelite she gave birth to a child who would be an heir to the family tree of Jesus. And this leads us to Bathsheba and her adultery with David and the killing of her husband, Uriah the Hittite, which led to the loss of a child before she gave birth to Solomon who would be . . . say it with me . . . an heir to the family tree of Jesus.
I say this to suggest: the genealogy of Jesus is not dull!
Full nerd confession: when I saw that the genealogy of Jesus fell on the Kirkin o’ the Tartan and Reformation Sunday, I was filled with glee. This passage, the first of the New Testament, is important and profound for all of Christendom, but it is at the same time, uniquely specific for us. This is our purpose. Not a very fun passage. True. But this is our calling.
A bit of background might help us hear the call.
Matthew begins his gospel with a profound theological claim of God’s devotion. Abraham led to Isaac [read thirty-nine names of men and four women of question] and this led to Joseph. In the forty-two names what we miss at first glance is the promise of the earth given to Abraham. God promised to Abraham that he would make of him a people, a people of the earth. Again and again (42 times) the maker of heaven and earth chooses to keep a promise: I will make of your people a blessing to all, I promise. The Gospel begins with a promise of the earth.
You and I come from some place. Genetically, biologically, physically, historically, spiritually: we are not phantoms that appear; we are a link in a chain. We are who we are; we are ever a part of a long flowing stream of history and tradition and families. Sometimes our families are great; sometimes our families are broken. If ever you stopped at one moment and judged, the verdict could go many ways depending on how far you looked forward or backwards.
We come from somewhere. Yet, no matter where we are, according to Matthew, we have the promise of God, a promise of blessing to the people. This promise is theology. God spoke. In our reading today we have the powerful picture of people receiving a promise and God keeping that promise to the people. God spoke and it was so.
Walking through the streets of Edinburgh and the tombs of Westminster, the power of this promise came clear to me as Matthew offered it. The promise was not only that Abraham’s people would be great and blessed, the promise was to the earth. From this one I will make a great people. In the Scottish highlands and the pages of John Knox I could feel and see the power of the Reformation. This word, this promise, this blessing of the earth was for the people, about the people, of the people.
God spoke. I will bless you; I will make of you a people. This is the earthly blessing. Knox, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, our heritage, gave this word, what God spoke, to the people.
This is the power of the genealogy of Matthew. This gospel, this good news, is not an idea or a movement or an empire or the privilege of a few. This good news is about being good people, being a people who bless and do not curse.
De Kimble was the organist of First Presbyterian Church of Pataskala, Ohio. It was her idea to have a “kirkin’”. I didn’t know what it was. She said, “we need a bagpiper.” Given I had no idea what she was doing or a clue as to what it would take to get a bagpiper, I said, “just do it.”
From this we crafted a service of worship.
As we crafted this service the folks of Pataskala First Presbyterian asked questions. “Will you wear a kilt?” I said, “me, in a kilt, not an attendance booster.” Some asked about a horse because a former pastor rode a horse. “Will you ride in on a horse?” I thought of many ways to convey to them what I thought of in terms of horses and me and finally I just said, “no.”
On the day of my first “Kirkin’” I stood at the railroad tracks down the street from the church. The choir was there as well as a semi-disheveled band of Presbyterians. It was cold. There was a cold moment of waiting to see if anything would happen. And then, two vans pulled up.
Out of the vans came six bagpipers and three drummers. Each of them took a swig of nectar from silver flasks and said, “we are ready.”
It turns out that when De contacted a bagpiper she actually contacted a bagpipe corps. She hired nine fellows to help us.
At 9:45 on a sleepy October morning in the middle of the middle of Ohio, everyone was awake. The bagpipe corps bellowed and shook the town. They led us down Main Street to the “Kirk.” What a racket we made. The world was called to be.
As an aside, I would hear for years afterward about, “the insane racket that morning, what was that about?”
A few years later, De Kimble died of breast cancer.
That racket, that world called to be, that lovely woman: such is the promise of genealogy.
We are the Protestants of the Reformed Tradition. We are shaped of Calvin, forged in Knox, balanced of Luther, and ever ready to bolt. We fight tyranny and jettison greed. We are the protesters, the ones who refuse to accept injustice or weak compromise. “There is no bishop but the Christ!” And we are the ones who proclaim, “this is the Word of God for you.” Not a few, not a tradition of the elite, you, the people, the many.
Many times, in many ways, I have heard the bagpipes. I have followed the lonely piper to the grave. I have watched a Tatooine of mass pipers. Yet, the one I love, is the piper who calls people to arms. The piper that calls them to fight.
The fight is not with guns and bombs. The fight is to uncover and reveal the long promise of God, the blessing of the earth. “I will make of you a people.” This is a hard fight.
Matthew begins his gospel with a long promise. In Abraham we find the beginning of promise. In Jesus we see this promise kept. The people become a church of blessing.
What is a church? It is a people of blessing.
We are this promise. Not for a few. We are this promise for everyone. How will this be? How can such a promise reach everyone? This is Matthew’s genealogy. Anyone you think you should discard, anyone you think should be excluded: they are all a part of “us”.
God spoke to Abraham and it was a voice from heaven. But the voice gave a promise of the earth. So . . . many will try to make Jesus a matter of heaven, a God to be above all. Go there; do that. But then come back to earth. The life of Jesus, the birth of Jesus, was a promise given to the earth. Heaven can wait. Heaven is patient. Let us find the promise of the earth, let us bring the word of God, the promise, to all the people. Amen.
- Genesis 17:1 - 8
- Matthew 1:1 - 17