Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
December 8, 2019
Texts: Isaiah 35: 1-10; Matthew 1: 1-17
My mother never tired of telling me of my origins, the heritage I should have been proud to claim: this person was a Civil War hero, that person was a such-and-such, and as he did the genealogical research to get my mother into the Daughters of the American Revolution, a group she desperately wanted to join, my father would tease her that one day he would learn that she was also descended from some band of pirates or horse thieves. My mother did not think that was funny.
None of us knew much about my father’s family, only that they arrived by ship on Thanksgiving Day 1909. Because he saw his origins here in America, my father wasn’t too interested in researching his own past, his own origins back in Finland. I, on the other hand, wanted to know more about that half of my origins. So, just imagine my delight when I saw a young man at a Finn Fest con-ference who through using parish records that had been digitized was able to tell me of those origins, more than 300 years of them. And then I went to Finland, to the village where my grandfather was born I was able to go to the old village church. All those begats and begots in Scripture make sense. You need to know where you come from.
This desire to know one’s origins is, of course, one of the driving forces behind the movement for opening up adoption records; many adopted children want to know their biological history, where they really came from. Of course, the biological mothers who gave them birth often wanted to forget that painful part of their own history and often became upset when their children came to claim them. Many of us need to find our past as a clue to our present or future, as in the Gospel reading today.
There are two genealogies of Jesus, one we read this morning at the beginning of Matthew and another in Luke 3:23-34. They have different starting points, reflecting the audience for whom the Gospel was written. Scholars be-lieve that Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish audience to bring them into the Christian fold; hence the emphasis on Jesus as a descendant of Abraham and tying him into the line of kings of Judah.
Luke’s Gospel, on the other hand, has a more univer-sal message with Jesus being traced back to Adam, the mythological father of humankind. The genealogies differ radically for the period between David and the deportation to Babylon. The early church fathers and some of the more literalist readers of Scripture have waffled their way around this problem by saying that Luke’s genealogy connects to Mary, although the text never actually states that, while Matthew’s connects directly to Joseph.
There are many functions of genealogy. In Hebrew Scripture, the record keeping of the begats and begots kept family lines straight and enforced racial purity, a con-cept important since Jews saw themselves as set apart, a chosen people. The foreign was seen as corrupting. We have similar approaches in our twenty-first century xeno-phobia. The DAR, that august group my mother desired to join, was mercilessly pilloried by Herblock in The Washing-ton Post as they convened each year at Constitution Hall passing resolutions designed to keep America pure and, of course, white.
In the countries of the European continent with the exception of France genealogy plays a very important role since citizenship is determined by the law of jus sanguinis, or right of blood, rather than jus soli, or right of the soil, that is, where you were born. Our Anglo-American tradition has used place of birth for almost a thousand years; it was not invented by the Fourteenth Amendment, as some xenophobes would have you believe.
Under jus sanguinis, citizenship or nationality is deter-mined by parentage, often back several generations. Let’s assume you were born in Germany of a Turkish father and a Bulgarian mother. Where would your citizenship lie? Well, it would depend on where your parents’ parents were born and what the law of their particular countries might say. As a result, you might be stateless, unable to carry the pass-port of any nation.
In the thirteenth century, England solved this serious mess by simply stating that anyone born on English soil was a subject of the Crown. Since you were a subject of the Crown, you owed loyalty to the Crown. And today, if you are born in England, France, the U.S., and many other countries that have adopted jus sanguinis, nationality, citizenship, and loyalty are easy to determine. That’s some-thing today’s Know-Nothings should consider.
What do our origins tell us about ourselves? That somewhere in a distant past, humankind arose from the dust of the earth and recognized that it shared a common bond, had common fears, common hopes and common dreams. That sometime in the distant past, human beings looked up into the night sky or at the ocean and realized that they were not alone but part of something larger than themselves.
Our origins tell us that we grow and develop as we are able to transcend restrictive lines of our own geneal-ogies to embrace those of other genealogies as fully human as ourselves. Matthew’s account, for example, includes Rahab the Canaanite woman who helped Joshua conquer her city. Our origins also tell us that love can indeed conquer fear, hate, and envy if we but open our-selves to its possibilities.
Our origins also speak to our history. There is a delightful cartoon of the little bird asking grandpa Eagle to define who or what he is: The little bird notes that he has some yellow feathers and some brown ones as well as red ones and that he has a tuft of white. He goes on to note all the different things about himself. “What am I?” he little bird asks. “Hm-,-m,” answers Grandpa: “That makes you an American!”
Indeed it does. Most of us in this room are part this and part that, a stew of different vegetables which when cooked, comes out just right. There are some people who have a difficult time with the idea that they have the elements of a stew. Even in those countries that try to define themselves by their national purity, like Hungary, a simple 23-and-me test will show how utterly mixed up the origins are—central Asia, picking up this and that along the way. And the Finns, Swedes, or others are just as mixed up.
I have to admit that the one thing I find amusing about the 23-and-me tests is watching the responses by some people when they learn they have something in their background they never even suspected. One of our ESL volunteer teachers this week took the test and learned she was seven percent Finnish. “Where do you think that came from,” she asked. I suggested all those Viking pillagers who tore through the northern part of Ireland during the early Middle Ages obviously had some who decided to stay there.
It is fitting that I chose this Second Sunday of Advent to look at origins, for I did not realize until I began to pre-pare this sermon that this coming week includes December 12, my own parents’ wedding anniversary; hence my own origins in an absolutely concrete way. By the way, my father never did find that horse thief.
Let us pray: Merciful Creator who formed us in your image, help us to remember that we all have our origin in your grace and in your infinite love. In the name of him who shows us the way to your grace, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.