1 Samuel 16:1-13
March 19, 2016
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
In June of the summer before Armen and I “retired” to move to the Vineyard we spent three weeks living on several of the Lakota Sioux Reservations in South Dakota with a group exploring “Learning Nonviolence With the Lakota”. At the very beginning of the trip we visited the state prison in Sioux Falls to meet with some Lakota prisoners and to hear about their experience of trying to live nonviolent lives in the prison milieu. My anxiety was high as our van approached the prison grounds. I wondered what it would be like on the “inside.” Needless to say, we were only given access to the outermost areas of the prison campus. We entered a sunny courtyard and two young Lakota men, Mike Standing Soldier and Stan No Heart, arranged some picnic tables so that our group could sit more or less in a circle for conversation with them. This all happened a lot of years ago. Many of the details of their stories are lost to me now, but one story vividly remains in my memory.
Mike Standing Soldier told a story from his childhood when he asked his grandfather “Why are white people the way they are?” – referring to his experience of white prejudice and his exposure to racism and indignity at the hands of white citizens and local bureaucrats in his brief life span. His grandfather answered: “They have lost their drum, they have forgotten the dance, and they do not know where the bones of their ancestors are buried.”
Those words have stayed with me all these years as I have continued on my own spiritual path. They surfaced again as I was reading today’s scriptures – – especially the phrase
“they don’t know where the bones of their ancestors are buried.” Across this country, many of us of us do not know where the bones of our ancestors are buried. While there are a lot of Vineyarders who can trace their ancestry back for many generations, many of us of us can’t go back more than 2, maybe 3 generations at the most, when we try to tell our kids their family history. As a nation of people who have come from someplace else, many of us have lost any deep connection to “the bones of our ancestors.” We have, in some very essential ways, become spiritually uprooted and ungrounded. In the process, as a nation, we do not always have a strong and healthy sense of who we are. When we don’t know where the bones of our ancestors are buried we are in danger of becoming disconnected from our own history, our own sense belonging to a great stream of life. Without a firm grasp on our own stories, we are vulnerable to finding threat where none exists. The unfamiliar face becomes the other, the stranger, possibly even the enemy.
I’d like to suggest that this morning’s scripture lessons help, in a way, to root us securely in a lineage that goes back several thousand years. As a people of God, it is a lineage, an ancestral line, that we can all claim as our own. We began with Samuel’s search for a person whom God desired to anoint as king. In early Biblical history, kings were made and unmade in the service of the Divine purpose. King Saul was the first king of Israel. He lost God’s favor due to disobedience. This led to the search for another king. Through a bit of subterfuge, Samuel, God’s priest and prophet, makes his way to the tribe of Jesse. Samuel rejects several of Jesse’s sons as candidates for kingship. Finally, the youngest son, a shepherd, is brought before Samuel. David, the baby of Jesse’s family is anointed to become the great King David who would unite the tribes of Israel and lead them to the heights of glory.
Reading the genealogy at the beginning of the book of Matthew can be pretty dull stuff until we realize that this is our genealogy as well as the genealogy of Jesus. It is the place where we find our roots in our faith tradition and it has a lot to tell us about what a complex and diverse, and even quirky, family we are as the people of God.
In Native American tribes, there are always members of the tribe who are the memory keepers. They are the ones who remember the ancestors and can tell the stories that go back at least seven generations and often much farther back than that. Some of you can go pretty far back. With effort I can trace back one line of my lineage to the 1700s, but for the most part I can only go back 3 or 4 generations – and many of the stories are lost with only names and dates surviving. Whenever I would talk with my dad about family history he would jokingly say “You might not want to look too closely. There’s probably a lot of horse thieves in the family tree.”
But we do have a fascination with our ancestors. ANCESTRY.COM and mail order DNA testing and other similar resources are gaining in popularity as people seek to understand where they came from. The first 17 verses of Matthew are an ancient forerunner of our digital age efforts to reclaim our lineage.
Our faith ancestors are a fascinating bunch. Matthew’s story carries us backward from Jesus 42 generations! Now that is an ancestral line! One of the benefits I have derived from studying Torah with Jewish friends is that I have come to embrace the many rich and colorful characters in the first 5 books of the Bible as my own family of grandparents and great grandparents – – an oooh – – the stories!!
Most of us are familiar with the story of Grandfather Abraham and Grandmother Sarah. We’ve heard how Grandfather Abraham packed up the family to head out on a faith journey without knowing where he was going or where he would end up. We try not to think too much about how he passed Grandmother Sarah off as his sister to save his own skin – with her ending up in a foreign king’s harem until Abraham’s trick was discovered. We might not ever think about Grandmother Tamar who seduced her father-in-law, Judah, to gain some justice for herself and as a result gave birth to Perez who would be the great grandfather of Nachshon.
According to a traditional story, all the Israelite slaves who were escaping from Pharoah were huddling on the shore of the Reed Sea – looking at the cold, dark water and then at each other and saying “you go first – -No – YOU go first.” Nachson took the leap of faith and walked into the murky water – – up to his knees – – up to his chin – – up to his eyeballs – – when – – finally, the waters parted and Israel crossed the Reed Sea on dry land. Now – – there is a courageous great grand father to be proud of! Nachshon lives on to become the grandfather of Boaz whose mother is Rahab – a prostitute. Boaz marries Ruth – a non-Israelite – a stranger – a widowed outsider – and eventually he and Ruth become the great grandparents of David. 14 generations! And we have barely scratched the surface. The next 14 generations produce many kings – some wise – like Solomon, David’s son. Some great reformers like Hezekiah. Others not so great, like the inept Jechoniah who was the first of the kings to go into exile and who was later cursed by Jeremiah – that he might never have sons.
The next 14 generations after that produce names that are less familiar to us – more obscure – until the lineage gets to Matthan, the father of Jacob who is the father of Joseph who is the husband of Mary who is the mother of Jesus.
Matthew’s is the only gospel that takes the time to set down the genealogy of Jesus. So I have wondered why? Why does this writer want us to know where Jesus came from? And what can we learn for ourselves by paying attention to our spiritual family history? What is the point of including the ancestors at the beginning of the story of Jesus when it is so easy to just skip over them and ignore them? What do we gain from knowing Jesus’ family history?
There are a couple of things that I take from the stories that are embedded in Jesus’ genealogy. First, placing Jesus with his ancestors helps us to know that as a human being he came from somewhere – he had roots – he had a cultural identity. He had heard the stories of his ancestors from the time he was a child. He was rooted and grounded in his sense of who he was and where he came from. As a Jew, he was accountable to all the generations that preceded him. We don’t often think of him as being a person with a family history – with grandparents and great grandparents who had hopes and dreams and expectations.
Second, by telling us about Jesus’ ancestry, Matthew helps us to understand a little more about why people were so eager to accept Jesus as a Messiah when he finally appeared on the historical scene. Matthew creates the family history that tells the story of the longing for a leader for Israel – – and he gives it a very human face. The story grounds the reality of Jesus in the flesh and blood history of a real people.
Third, Matthew gives us the opportunity to graft ourselves into that family tree just by being connected with Jesus as the center of our faith tradition. The branches of Jesus’ family tree are full of illustrious figures like King David and Abraham – but they are also filled with people from the margins – – widows, wise people, prostitutes, adulterers, foreigners, and a few scoundrels. The genealogy teaches us that all are welcome and part of the great family tree. Matthew leaves no one out.
But lastly, my own personal take on the importance of the family history is that without too much searching, we can see the trace of God weaving throughout the stories and adventures and relationships of all the colorful characters – -God’s trace flowing through history in flesh and blood people. I think Matthew gives us a lot of permission to look at our own physical family tree and see the trace of God weaving its way through our personal histories as well. From Abraham to Jesus, generation after generation divine influence and grace is demonstrated in the story. We might entertain the notion that that Divine influence continues on in our own family patterns and ancestry – always working to bring about the intention of the Holy One – regardless of how unpromising our own family trees might appear to be. The genealogy of Jesus gives our own biological family history significant meaning. Our ancestry becomes a means of grace. Whatever the twists and turns our lineage has taken, it has brought us to this moment in time.
As we move deeper into Lent and into this year, 2017, we will be continually confronted by issues of identity – – by questions about who belongs and who doesn’t. Our fears about people clinging to the delicate branches of the human family tree will be cultivated and exploited. Whole families will be left wondering when and if they will ever feel safe and at home in the human family. It behooves us to learn about and embrace our spiritual ancestors – to discover from their rich diversity what they have to teach us about identity and inclusion.
We can learn as much from their imperfections and scandals as we can from their illustrious and God-inspired accomplishments. As we continue the journey toward Jerusalem in the weeks ahead, may we be more alert to searching for the bones of our ancestors. May we be about the work of fleshing out our own stories so that we can see how they blend and harmonize with the stories of the rest of humankind.
At the end of our visit with Mike Standing Soldier and his friend, Stan No Heart, a very soft and gentle clasping of hands was passed around the circle with the whispered words “Mitakue Oyasin” – – “we are all relatives.” A prison courtyard seems like the last place to look to find hope, but there it is in the story of a young boy and his grandfather’s wisdom. Finding our drum and learning to dance is the stuff of another sermon. For now it is enough to think about re-collecting the bones of our ancestors so that we might find the way to live with all our relatives in the world in greater peace.