Why the Begats Matter

People’s lives are at stake.

if we want to stand for justice in our world.

Atatiana Jefferson was murdered by a police officer this week. She is the most recent victim of murders of innocents. I lament her death, but lament is not enough to stop the madness. I have a responsibility to see her as my kin. The Gospel demands of us this radical reconstrual of our identities, attitudes, and behaviors.

The Christian New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew begins with “begats.” Genealogy matters in the recorded story of Jesus.

Genealogy in the New Testament is also a bit peculiar as genealogies go. The Gospel of Luke’s begats are different than Matthew’s. Why is that? Did the two writers have two different family Bibles (and thus two different versions of Jesus’s ancestry)?

Scholars disagree on why Luke’s and Matthew’s genealogies differ, and this essay is not the place to muddle through the scholarly debates. What is clear is that genealogies held value for both of these ancient writers.

Genealogies say something about who we are by saying something about who our ancestors are. They also set boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Who has the right bloodline to inherit this or that name or property or authority? Who begat whom with whom and from whom? Genealogies set parameters for personal, social, and political life stories.

What do Jesus’ genealogies tell us about his identity?

Most genealogies in patriarchal societies focused on male ancestors. That is what makes Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew so striking. Note some of the names recorded by the writer of Matthew as part of Jesus’ family tree:

Tamar (Genesis 38)
Rahab (Joshua 2)
Ruth (The Book of Ruth)
Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)
Mary (the mother of Jesus)

Women are included in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, even some Canaanite and Joabite women. So-called “outsiders.” Women who were deemed scandalous. The genealogy even includes an unnamed woman, “the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” We know her as Bathsheba.

Surfacing “subjugated knowledge”

Matthew’s genealogy brings to mind for me the work of French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. Foucault constructed “genealogies” of contemporary practices and institutions. His aim was to show how present power dynamics emerged out of struggles, conflicts, alliances and power plays that are too often buried or forgotten.

Foucault sought to surface “subjugated knowledge” that is routinely muted or disqualified by dominant or more powerful voices.

Matthew’s Gospel disrupts the usual bloodlines and histories to include the stories of outsiders in Jesus’ genealogy. If Jesus was born to remake the world and transform the human story, then he needs a subversive and radical genealogy that includes those routinely discounted. Matthew gives us that.

Who do we name in our genealogies?

Why does this subversive begatting matter? The reason, for me, takes the shape of a question:

Who do I name in my genealogy? I have my family tree, of course, the one that Grandma recorded on those pages in the center of the Crainshaw Bible. I have a responsibility to be aware of my family’s history. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus urges me to take this a step further. Matthew’s genealogy urges me to pay attention to whose names are not recorded on those glossy family tree pages.

The presence of the women in Jesus’ genealogy signals that Jesus’ life-story will inaugurate a new and unexpected identity for the people of God, one where subjugated knowledges, bodies, and stories are respected and embraced as kindred.

A call to radical kinship

Too many people in our communities today face violence, danger, and even death because of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, economic reality–in other words, because they reside in realms of “subjugated knowledges.”

The time has come for those of us who claim kinship with Jesus to reimagine our genealogies. Who are the Tamars, Rahabs, Ruths, Bathshebas, and Marys in our communities? In our life stories? Where can we encounter those whose wisdom and voices have been subjugated or denounced or destroyed by the powers that be.

Whoever our Tamars, Rahabs, Ruths, Bathshebas and Marys are, we need to name them, lament the pain they have experienced, confess our participation in the injustices they have endured, and do whatever we can to celebrate our kinship with them in the beloved community of God.

And our responsibility does not end with lament, confession, and celebration. People’s lives are at stake.

Jesus calls us to stand with those relegated to and endangered on the margins, even if we risk our own security and privilege by doing so.

The begats matter in the genealogy of Jesus. They matter for us too as we work to extend radical hospitality and inclusivity to others. And they matter if our lament over Atatiana Jefferson’s death is to move us to everyday actions that, because we are her kin in God’s beloved community, resist injustice in all of its forms.

Summer Solstice Epiphany

I do not understand why some of our nation’s leaders are doing what they are doing.

Because I do not understand their actions, I have gained even greater clarity about why I do what I do as a theological educator at Wake forest University School of Divinity.

Let me explain.

Today is summer solstice in the U.S., a day when the sun shines longer than on any other day of the year. Hostile and violent forces are at work in our world today to keep hurting people from knowing the hope and warmth of life’s light. We need these extra hours of sunlight to seek how to live God’s Gospel truth in our times. We need a summer solstice Epiphany.

What is a summer solstice Epiphany?   The ancient sages in Matthew 2, commonly known as the wise people in the Christian Christmas story, followed a God-flung orb of light to Jesus’ birthing place. Many Christian traditions have located the story of the sages’ journey on day of the liturgical year in January known as Epiphany.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “a striking appearance.” We cannot wait for another January to look for God’s light to reveal a way for the human community to journey toward justice and renewed hope. We need to ask now what the manifestation of God in Jesus means in a world where so many fear for their lives, where too many innocents are abused and slaughtered. How are we who live in a world of such harsh and immoral realities to incarnate Incarnation—right now? These questions are urgent. People’s lives and well-being are at stake.

Matthew’s Epiphany story reveals powerful wisdom for our times. The sages, upon encountering the child Jesus, went home by another way (Mt. 2:12). I am struck by two things about this story on this day in 2018 of creation’s longest light. First, the sages had a home to go to. They were people with positions of power in their contexts. They could go home. Second, the sages decided to take different, less familiar route home to resist doing what Herod asked them to do. They decided not to take a route that would perpetuate a state-sanctioned system of violence and injustice. They risked something about their own lives because of what they encountered in the faces of a young child and family. Could they have gone back to confront Herod? Perhaps they should have and perhaps they did. What we know is that having encountered the truth of who God is in the face of a child, their usual way of going was changed.

This is why I do what I do as a theological educator who is also a Presbyterian Church (USA) Minister of Word and Sacrament. I believe this is also why we do what we do at the School of Divinity. We invite students to be aware of their power as human beings and religious leaders to resist Herod by following the unexpected ways of the Gospel. We spend time in conversation, worship, and prayer across our many differences seeking God’s wisdom for how we live and learn together. We also foster in each other a capacity to discern ways to risk something about our own lives for the sake of the lives of vulnerable others. This is work worth doing—work that must be done—in a world where too many people are denied their worth as human beings.

On this day in June 2018 when the God-flung orb of light called the sun looks out from the skies longer than on any other day of the year, perhaps our souls will be stirred anew. Now is a time for us to shine the light of Gospel truths on lies perpetuated by people who abuse their place and power. Is this stirring—this call—new? No. We here in the U.S. need to lament and atone for a history of injustices justified by people who have bent and are bending their version of the Gospel toward their own ends. We are haunted by questions today that have followed us across the landscape of our history. Have we forgotten or perhaps never understood what it means to be children of God created in the image of God?

The sages in Matthew saw God in the face of a child. Can we? Do we? Can we see God in the face of Antwon Rose, an unarmed teenager shot by a police officer in Pittsburgh this week? Can we see God in the faces of children and mothers and fathers separated by injustice at our borders and within our communities?

We need Epiphany. We need a new understanding of and commitment to what it means to be human together, created in God’s image and living in community here on and with God’s earth. I do not understand why some of our nation’s leaders are doing what they are doing. I do know why I do what I do at the School of Divinity. I do what I do to encounter and be in community with students whose passion for ministry and whose deep belief in the power of Gospel Good News make me continue my vocational journey in transformed ways. I do what I do at the School of Divinity because I believe our work together changes us and sends us out, knowing that we are called as we go to risk something about our own lives for the sake of the lives of others.

I wrote the following poem/prayer for a January Epiphany Day. I have revised it for this summer solstice call to Epiphany.

Star-watchers.
Eyes wide opened
by unexpected light
in backyard night skies,
“Bearing gifts they traversed afar” to
investigate
explore
consider.
Then—eyes wide-opened
by what they saw—
rerouted,
home by another way.

Ah, the peculiarity of Christmastide Epiphanies:
shepherds
cows and sheep and donkeys,
an angel-frightened teenager
and a dream-troubled carpenter.
sky-gazing Zoroastrians
on camels’ backs
tracing a celestial light-beam to an
unfamiliar place.

But what of the rest of the story?
Menacing messages from powerful places,
weeping of innocents,
mama and daddy,
baby held tight
fleeing
violence
death.
Did they know—
To keep their bodies safe
was to keep safe God’s Beloved Child
but only for a moment.

In all of it—
holy visits and visions and vistas
detours and deliberate stars
midnight border crossings
into unfriendly backyards
children’s cries
wailing lullabies
“Hush, little baby! Don’t say a word.”
Immanuel—-God-with-us?
In us?
Through us?
In spite of us?

Galactic light-spheres align yet again
Sacred solstice sun shines into night hours:
Burn away the fog of unknowing, O God.
Give us eyes wide-opened
by what we see.
Call us to another way
so that we risk our lives to
bring together
Life
Love
Hope

 

Answered Prayers

Dr. William Barber, II, is a hero. He wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the New York Times on February 3, 2017, following the National Prayer Breakfast. I have continued to think about that letter and the powerful words he quoted from Frederick Douglass (1818-1895): “I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
*********
“These times we’re living in
call for courageous people,”
the preacher said that day.

I am not brave.
Never have been.

Bravery is something to be
read about in storybooks
where quixotic heroes
ride out on prancing
stallions to do battle,
sabers flashing in
magnificent sunlight.

Bravery is something to be
prayed for in church
where harsh living
daylights must first pass
by saintly stained-glass
sentinels of bygone years
before being transmuted
into the kinder, gentler
beams that caress Sunday
morning’s bowed heads.

Isn’t it?

Or maybe we should
pray for freedom,
like Frederick Douglass did,
walking in faith
until our legs are braver
than our thoughts.

So, in this present cloud
of unknowing, being not
brave, we resolve, if
we can find the honesty
to do it, to live on
as best we can,
stringing together each
momentary breath
like pearls of hope to
place with the gentleness
of a lover around our
fear to name its wounds
as our own and journey on
not in spite of
but with it.

For out there, where the
times we’re living in
call for courageous people,
the groaning ground that
soaked up the life-blood of
all who died unjustly just
trying to live
needs the redeeming touch
of feet determined to walk
with their fear until
their legs have learned
to move each day to the
rhythms of justice,
mercy, and love.