January 21, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
No matter how old we get, no matter how far from childhood we’ve come, family always seems to be with us. And I don’t mean it in a physical sense like they’re always dropping in with a car full of luggage to disrupt your routine and eat you out of house and home but what can you do about it because, after all, they are family? I’m talking about the way they take up residence in your psyche, for some as a quiet warm background of memories that shape how you think about the world, for others an intrusion of prickly experiences that feed your insecurities or cause discomfort about who you’ve become. Who you are is not simply a function of your biology but is also a result of the mix of the values, personalities, opinions, quirks, loves and hates of the people who surrounded you growing up. Now you may be a very different person than your mother or your father or any of your siblings because you are not enslaved to that background, but neither is it ever completely gone. It’s all there in the attic of your childhood but as you grew into adulthood, you sifted through that attic and decided what was valuable and worth keeping, and what parts you’d rather store on a back shelf out of sight. Maybe there were some things that you wished you could throw away — maybe you wished you had never heard your grandmother’s comments that you’d never amount to anything and would love more than anything to toss those memories from the attic of your psyche along with the doubts that constantly creep into your soul every time you re-live them — but we can’t ever fully rid ourselves of our past. We can, however, choose which parts we will allow to shape us. Becoming an adult is the process of sifting through those values, experiences, and voices of the family that surrounded us as children and deciding what we will keep and what we will reject, and though the process begins in earnest as adolescents, it continues for our entire lives because, in a sense, the work of becoming an adult is never finished. We are always asking, “Is this the best person I can be? Is this the person God has called me to be?”
Sure, admittedly there are some people who never reflect on who they want to be as a person. There are some people who will simply drift through their time on earth as an unthinking product of their biology and their experiences – but such people are living out their lives with no more purpose or intent then plankton on the waves. The rest of us, and I would hazard to guess all of those who purposely engage in a religious community like a church, are seeking to make sense of what we have inherited from our families and how to craft the best life we can from that inheritance. Simple statements like, “I hope my children will see me as wise as I saw my father,” or “My mother had such a great sense of humor that brightened people’s days and I hope I do too,” show a reflection on one’s inheritance. Those without the benefit of parents of strong character reflect on how that absence has affected their lives and consciously look for others to use as role models for filling those gaps. The importance of this intentional sifting, weighing, reflecting, keeping or rejecting the inheritance of our early years of life to shape who we have become led the paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to famously say, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” In other words, we are all biologically human — there’s nothing you go do to change that, at least not in the 21st century. Maybe by the 22nd or 23rd century you will be able to download your consciousness into a bionic body which will certainly raise the question of what it means to be human but I will leave the 23rd century preacher to deal with that. In today’s world, your humanness is a given, but the reason you are here in this church this morning is because your primary identity — the way you think of yourself, the questions you have, the answers you seek, the choices you make or don’t make, or wrestle with whether to make — these all arise from your spiritual self. Your spiritual self has heartaches that cardiologists can’t cure; the injustices of the world cause knots in your spiritual stomach that no Alka Seltzer will relieve. In the deepest most important parts of yourself, you are a spiritual person on a human journey who periodically stands in the attic of your inheritance to choose what to take with you on the journey through the rest of your life.
In the early eighteenth century, the English explorer Samuel Hearne was on an expedition through northwest Canada to the mouth of the Coppermine River when just a few days into their journey, a party of Indians stole most of their supplies. He wrote in his diary, “The weight of our baggage being so much lightened, our next day’s journey was more swift and pleasant.” 1
To be a spiritual person on a human journey is to decide what from our past we really need to carry into our future. It is to think about our connection to God, and to deliberately choose which parts of our inheritance will provide purpose and meaning to our lives and enhance the lives of others. What have you brought along with you from the ideas, experiences, and world views of your family growing up? Which have you rejected? Which keep dragging you back into the attic, undecided about whether to keep it or leave it behind? What treasures might you have neglected that could benefit from a fresh look?
The gospel of Luke opens the door to Jesus’ “attic” by beginning the account of his ministry with a list of Jesus’ ancestors. (The adoptees among you should note that Luke says that while Joseph has no biological claim to Jesus, Joseph’s family still informs Jesus’ self-identity.) As Luke lists Jesus’ ancestry, we come after only a few generations to one who would have been the highlight of the pedigree of any first century Jew — Jesus is descended from King David, the greatest King Israel had ever known. If Luke had stopped his recitation there, we would have been led to understand that Jesus saw himself as descended from Kings and that he, like his great to the 38 power (if I counted right) grandfather David, would have sought political power and the support of the elite. This is certainly what the crowds expected from him. How else would you expect the descendent of the King of David to behave? Kings rule by decree, they are power brokers in society, bestowing favor on those who curry that favor, discarding moral values when they prove inconvenient, and they play their courtiers, their allies, and their enemies off one another to enhance their own position. Kings rule through the use of fear and uncertainty, and are concerned ultimately as much about themselves as about their kingdom. King David may have been a great King to the people but God saw him as stained by blood, a man who had his saintly moments but was just as often a sinner in need of repentance. If Luke had believed that this is how we should understand Jesus’ ministry, he would have stopped the recitation of his ancestry at David but he didn’t. Jesus himself rejects this view when Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” and he answers, “You say so.” This wasn’t the part of his inheritance Jesus was determined to carry into his ministry.
Moving farther back in the genealogy, we arrive at Abraham, the father of Israel. This is where the gospel of Matthew ends the recitation because Matthew was writing to a community which had a number of Jewish members and so he wanted them to see the parallel between Jesus’ teaching and what they had learned in their synagogues growing up.
“See the echoes of Elijah, Moses, and Abraham in this man, Jesus,” Matthew said to his community to show them that Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel.
Luke, however, was writing to a more diverse group than Matthew’s and he wanted them to know that Jesus’ self-identity didn’t stop at Israel. As Paul said, in Christ there would be neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, and so Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam. He wants to ensure that we understand that Jesus’ story was everyone’s story. We, who are not the children of Kings, nor even the members of a first century ethnic minority, are the children of the first human beings to walk the planet, part of the same human family that in Genesis God called good, that God said was created in the divine image, that produced Jesus and who is now for us the new Adam, making possible a new way of living for all of us. 2 We are part of this holy family formed from the earth at the beginning of time by the heart and breath of God and made one again through his Son Jesus. This is our inheritance. When we go into the attic to sift through all that we have been given, deciding what to keep and what to leave behind, there now on the shelves, along with Aunt Beatrice’s eccentric ways and Uncle Charlie’s snorting laugh and Cousin Jasper’s inquisitive mind and sister Suzy’s kindness, are the gifts of Christ. There is the heart of Christ, so expansive toward others that it insisted on forgiving 7 times 70 times, there is a friendship so persistent that it reached a hand across choppy waters to save a dear one from drowning, there is a hope so steadfast it refused to yield even before the cross, there is a love so powerful that it triumphed over the darkness of death to return to save the broken hearted. Luke says that we are the spiritual descendants of Christ and as such, what he valued, what he believed, his courage, love, hope, and faith can inform what you value, what you believe, what you understand about the world and those around you. When you are questioning whether to extend a hand to your neighbor in need, you can say to yourself, “I am the descendant of the one who helped the lame to walk and the blind to see, and I too will do all in my power to heal the hurting.” And when you are feeling afraid, you can say to yourself, “Ah, but I am the descendent of the man who stood before the cross and did not falter and so neither shall I be afraid.” And when you are feeling hopeless, worried that the darkness will never lift, you can breathe in deeply the air of his spirit and remember that you are the descendant of the one death itself could not defeat. He rose again and so will you.
Or, you can put the treasures he offers back on the shelf in the dusty attic and go about your life as if you are no more than a plankton drifting on the waves. But I don’t think that’s what you want because if you did, you wouldn’t be here this morning.
We want to know that we are more than our biology and that we have choices about who we become. We want to believe that we are spiritual people on a human journey, and in this seemingly dry recitation of the ancestral record of Jesus, Luke assures us that we are — we are the children of the new Adam, who is Jesus. As a descendent of the new Adam, as a member of the family of Christ, we have inherited his spiritual gifts and can choose to shape our lives by them: by Christ’s values, Christ’s strength, Christ’s courage, hope, healing, and compassion. These are the treasures we have been given, and so we are called to leave behind the burdens that we no longer need to drag along on this journey and choose instead to embrace the inheritance we have been given in Christ.
Let us bow our heads in prayer and for the prayer today, I would like to read to you the prayer from of the letter to the Ephesians 1:17-19
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
1. From, “The Living Faith,” by Lloyd C. Douglas. He says this quote is from Thomas Hearne but the name of the British explorer who explored the Coppermine River was Samuel Hearne. I don’t know if Douglas was reading the diary of another explorer named Thomas or if he was mistaken but I’ve changed it here to Samuel.
2. Because of the Creationist debate, I feel the need to clarify that when I say we are descended from the “first human family to walk the earth,” I am using the biblical imagery of Adam and Eve as metaphor for our common relationship as members of the species homo sapiens. I accept the theory of evolution.