May the Faithful God grant that the woman who is coming into your house be like Rachel and Leah; the two of them built up the house of Israel. May you prosper in Ephrathah and establish a lineage in Bethlehem…A Lineage in Bethlehem…
Let us pray: May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.
Family is complicated, and not only around the holidays. Family represents the most intimate and enduring bonds in the world of the Scriptures, and to some degree, in our own. Yet families are also sites of tremendous pain, disappointment, rejection and, alienation. Family is complicated. And whether we have walked away or been put out, been disinherited or divorced, there are bonds that remain. Whether written in the pages of a family Bible or woven together in an ancestral family tree on a website that brings lost relatives together, the weaving of names and relationships into a genealogy paints a picture but doesn’t tell the whole story.
All of those people around the thanksgiving table and in the family group chats are connected through a lineage that tells a story of love and family, struggle and survival, births and deaths, without all the messy details. It is like a photograph at a family funeral. If you look closely you can see the cousin who is standing off to the side by herself, which married couples are cuddled up and which are not. But you can’t see all of the stories of heartbreak or, restoration and reconciliation in a photo or, in a genealogy. And then, there are those who are not connected by blood or marriage or, ritual or partnership or, adoption, who are also bound to the family tree, like a vine that encircles, adding its beauty to the tree around which it winds. Family is complicated.
In many ways, families in the Scriptures are like ours. They may not pose for beautiful pictures in matching pajamas around the tree but they have a public facing presentation like a family photo on a holiday card — that’s what genealogies are — and then, there are the stories with all the gory details behind the photo, behind the genealogy.
Biblical genealogies often hide the ugliness in families by naming the names without the scandalous and, sometimes horrific details. They skip over all of the particulars of troublesome people in problematic relationships to sketch a line of connectedness to those who have gone before. Like saying, “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Yet without Sarah we don’t have to address Abraham’s incestuous relationship with her as his sister. Without Hagar we don’t have to discuss Sarah’s enslavement of her and Sarah’s surrender of Hagar’s body to Abraham for his sexual use and forced reproduction. Without Keturah we don’t have to discuss Abraham starting another family but refusing to inherit those children. Without Rebekah we don’t have the important notice that not all patriarchs were polygamists and not everybody did it that way in those days; people made choices within that culture just as we do now. Without Rachel and Leah we don’t have to discuss family betrayal, loveless marriages and blended families. Without Bilhah and Zilpah we don’t have to discuss their enslavement and Rachel and Leah’s and Jacob’s use of their bodies as non-consenting reproductive surrogates in a bitter sister sibling family feud.
In fact, the author of Ruth makes a similar move in the communal blessing bestowed upon Boaz, Ruth’s new husband: May the Faithful God grant that the woman who is coming into your house be like Rachel and Leah; the two of them built up the house of Israel.
… Rachel and Leah; the two of them… no mention of the slave women on whose backs and in whose wombs they “built up the house of Israel.” Sometimes hearing the full story of characters we have loved since our childhood Sunday school, drawn pictures of and pretended to be in Christmas and Easter pageants, can be like learning some of the uglier stories about our own relatives. Just as when funerals and wills and DNA tracing unearth unwelcome connections and unknown siblings. In the same way, there is a world of difference between saying, “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and saying, “Hagar, Sarah, Abraham and Keturah; Rebekah and Isaac; Leah, Rachel, Jacob, Bilhah and Zilpah. Genealogies keep secrets but they don’t keep them very well. They invite questions and conversation whether or not we like the answers.
The story of Ruth is a genealogy with some of those details filled in. I don’t have time to tell you about all of the scandalous parts and what really happened between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing room floor.
The story of Ruth is also the story of a lineage, the lineage of David and will become the lineage of Bathsheba on the other side. It is an answer to the prayer articulated in our first lesson: May you prosper in Ephrathah and establish a lineage in Bethlehem. David is in many ways the most important person in the Hebrew Bible. He is God’s anointed. When read in Hebrew, he is God’s messiah. When read in Greek, he is God’s christ. (Bad Bible translations would have you think that Jesus is the only one to have born in that title in the Scriptures.) King Cyrus of Persia also received that title. So, when some years ago, an enterprising snake oil preacher down the road from us took their two names using the Hebrew form of Cyrus and named himself David Koresh, writing himself into that lineage, I knew it wasn’t going to end well. I’ve always said that if more preachers knew Hebrew, they would’ve seen him coming for what he was.
That lineage in Bethlehem is a messianic lineage. And, at the heart of that lineage is Ruth, a Moabite woman in her second marriage having been widowed, having made the decision to stay with the family who took her from her people as a young woman to be a bride. But Ruth is not alone. She has Naomi and the local women as part of a circle of witnesses and they call the names of Tamar and Rachel and Leah of ancient days who become her genealogy. These women are not all in the same lineage if you count by blood and marriage. But they are woven together in a spiritual family, a family into which we have been adopted and woven. There is more than one way to make a family. Like them, many of us have spiritual families and families of the heart in addition to families of blood and marriage. For some, families of choice are closer and safer circles of love and nurture. Love and lineage do not always go together. Sometimes we rewrite our own genealogies in our heads and in our hearts, writing some folk in and writing others out.
Our gospel reading is a reweaving of the messianic lineage in Matthew. It ties Jesus to that ancient messianic lineage in Bethlehem through Ruth. Unlike the lineage and genealogy we read, the evangelist we call Matthew traces the thread of the fathers culminating in Joseph – whose relationship to Jesus is complicated – and does not tell us how Mary is related to Ruth and Bathsheba and David.
But we are not lawyers trying to find a lost heir for a grand inheritance. We are, all of us, long lost relatives who have been found. And lest there be any question as to who we are and whose we are, we have been adopted in to this grand and glorious lineage. For as our epistle says, when the fullness of time had come, God sent God’s own Son, born of a woman…that we might receive adoption like children.
The gospel writers will continue to tell us that Jesus is the son of David, we should also hear that Jesus is the son of Bathsheba and the son of Ruth and the son of all the women that Ann Patrick Ware was able to recover from the Scriptures and weave together in our gospel reading. Now that is a family tree full of skeletons and strange and bitter fruit. Our families are no different.
Yet, whether we are acquainted with all of the skeletons in all of the closets or not, we can still love our family and be proud of our lineage even when we’re ashamed of a particular person or in the midst of a family feud or, have ancestors or relatives who have committed crimes, abused their partners or children or, profited off of the enslavement and abuse of other human beings. They are still our family and lineage. We can love them with mixed feelings, hating what they have done. And, we can celebrate the characters that are important to our ancestral sacred stories without celebrating their transgressions.
We would also do good to remember that every person incarcerated or convicted of committing a terrible crime against another person is somebody’s child, somebody’s cousin, the uncle we don’t talk about, the niece who has had her children taken away, the spouse we loved but had no idea what they were doing in their other life. We may be the one with the DUIs, the addiction, the history of, or the survivor of, intimate partner violence. They are all in somebody’s family tree, likely every family tree, including our own; family is complicated.
In this season when we tell family stories, ancient sacred family stories and the stories of our own kith and kin, we must be mindful that we have a sibling with whom we have had a difficult and sometimes downright deadly relationship across the ages. Christian antisemitism is more than a family feud. And by Christian antisemitism I mean specifically the religious antisemitism that is articulated in the Church, in our doctrines and theology, in our music, liturgy and prayers and, sometimes in our sermons. And that is all in addition to the white supremacist terrorists who come from Christian homes and churches, many of whom belong to white supremacist churches, who fill the internet with vicious stereotypes and incite and commit violence against our Jewish kin.
We cannot adore the Blessed Virgin and the precious baby Jesus and stay silent as people, whether they bear the name of Christ or not, spew forth antisemitic venom in our presence and in the world. Just imagine that every Jew joke or stereotype you have ever heard was applied to Mary or Joseph or Jesus.
But in truth, it should not take that for us to stand up and speak up. We are family. Family is weird, frustrating, annoying, disappointing, fiercely loyal, powerfully loving, a safe harbor in a storm and, welcomes you home over and over again. Family is love. The genealogy of the Church is a testimony to love that endures even when the individual people and circumstances don’t seem to call for it. It is love that knits us together in Christ as the Church. All those threads of love and lineage come together in God’s love made flesh in the womb of a virgin, a lineage in Bethlehem, rooted in love that ties us to Judaism. We are family. And family is complicated.
May God the Mother and Father
of Avraham, Yitza’ak and Ya’acov,
Sarah, Hagar, Rivqah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,
Who took the tangled threads of their lives
And wove a tapestry of Redemption
In the Body and Blood of Miryam l’Natzeret
Continue to weave the strands of your life
In the Divine design. Amen.
Advent III, Year A, A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church
Ruth 4:11–17; Psalm 78:1–8; Galatians 4:1–7; Matthew 1:1–16