Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia
To listen to the sermon click here.
Good morning Christians seekers and friends
Have you ever wondered about the names we were given? Did any of you ever struggle with your name? Go through that time when you hated your name and wanted it to be something different? I’ve got to say I have always liked my name. I have always liked it even though it means that for the entirety of my life I have spent a good deal of time explaining to folks and irritated DMV and credit card employees that my first name is not Ruth – it is Ruth Anne and that I do not have a middle name. In fact, in New York, one particularly uncooperative DMV employee refused to put my given first name on my driver’s license because, what my parents apparently did not know when they named me was that unless I had a hyphen between the Ruth and the Anne it could not BE my first name in the State of New York. So, for a few years my New York driver’s license read Ruth comma Anne comma.
Anyway, I have always liked my name regardless of the endless explanations about my double first name and the fact that almost no one pronounces my last name correctly. Both of these names were given to me by my father. The story goes that the name Ruth Anne belonged to a beloved childhood friend of his who had died when they were children. And my surname came to me through my father and his father. I am the last living member of my family with this surname as both my sister and my aunt decided to take their husband’s name when they married. I chose to keep mine when I married in honor of my grandfather who had chosen to keep his father’s name, too, even though his sister and brother had both kept their mother’s name as is customary in Spain. So, Antonio Jose Garcia Mayoral became Antonio Jose Garcia…. And my father became Joseph Charles Garcia…and I became and remain Ruth Anne Garcia.
Now I hope I didn’t put you all to sleep while I went through a little of my genealogy—because, honestly, it is not interesting to anyone outside of my actual family. I am not, after all, related to the Queen of England or the King of Spain. And genealogies can be dull – nothing more than a long list of names. It is for this reason that so many of us often skip over the genealogies in the Bible. The first chapter of Matthew for example begins: “An account of the genealogyof Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham and proceeds to list “…all the generations from Abraham to David [which] are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, [which are] fourteen [more] generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah [which also number] fourteen generations. Meanwhile we might find our eyes glazing over and our minds thinking can we just get to the birth of Jesus already?
Yet, this genealogy, while often overlooked, is incredibly important to understanding how God chose to come and dwell among us. Jesus’ family tree, traced all the way back to Abraham by the Matthean author, was not just proof of his birthright as the Son of David; the Messiah. By choosing to trace Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham, Matthew also is indicating that this Messiah has come, not just for the nation of Israel alone, but for the whole world. Also important to note, in first century Israel, numbers, themselves, were imbued with symbolic meaning. The three lists of fourteen generations would have then been understood as multiples of the ‘holy’ number seven which is said to represent God’s creation. So, the three sets of 14 were to represent six sets of seven, or 42, with Jesus Christ beginning the seventh day, if you will, that completes and culminates God’s creative and redemptive work in the world. Make sense?
If you need something even more compelling, looking at who Matthew includes in these generations is also fascinating. While Matthew traces the generations through the fathers and sons, he also includes the names of four women. And, no, it is not the usual ones. Sarah and Rebecca are nowhere to be found in these lists. Matthew includes instead the names of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah”—that is Bathsheba. What do all these women have in common? None of these women would have been seen as ‘perfect match.’ The first, Tamar, had to trick Judah, by disguising herself as a prostitute, into fulfilling his promise and giving her an heir and her rightful place in his family. Rahab the second woman listed was a Canaanite woman who lived in Jericho but whose cunning saved the two Israelites who had come within Jericho’s walls as spies. Although she was a prostitute, she was the mother of Boaz who would marry Ruth, another foreign woman from Moab, who after the death of her husband, joined her mother-in-law when she returned to Bethlehem. That our savior’s family tree is a little more Real Housewives of Israel than perfect Rockwellian family, Matthew makes clear by not even bothering to refer to the fourth woman, Bathsheba, by name. Rather he makes the point that she was in fact the wife of another; Uriah, whom David killed because he wanted Bathsheba for himself. Matthew, whose gospel spends a good deal of time recounting how Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecies, also seems to be reminding us that as glorious as the titles we human beings bestow on kings and rulers, they are ultimately bestowed on human beings, just like us, with all our flaws. The point is that Jesus didn’t have impeccable credentials. We don’t need to either. (show sign) Since I know we are all a little tired this time of year, I made a meme to explain Matthew’s point.
This is important to remember this 4th Sunday of Advent because if we are to truly understand the coming gift of God’s incarnation, we have to understand that when God acts to create, it is precisely in this world that God meets us and works God’s grace and mercy. Matthew’s birth story, then, is about real people in a real-life situation. We meet Joseph, betrothed to Mary, who is found to be pregnant even though they have yet to have marital relations. Now, while these two thousand years later on the 4th Sunday of Advent we know that Mary will give birth to the Son of God, in today’s story both Mary and Joseph are just two people faced with difficult and life-altering decisions involving religious traditions, laws, and their community which proscribe, to a large extent, the very actions they have determined to take. And their decisions have consequences.
I remember a good friend of mine in High School who got pregnant. Oddly enough, although I haven’t met many folks with my first name, her name was also Ruth Ann. We were close friends and in High School, people would call us Ruth Annes a pair. We looked as different as night and day. My friend Ruth Ann is very tall with naturally white-blonde hair and I was short and dark-haired. Anyway, she was a good friend and a good person too. I have a picture of me, Ruth Ann and my best friend Joni Ann at her house the day before I was to leave for my year abroad. She was only about five months pregnant so you can’t really tell in the photo, and by the time I returned home nine months later, she had given her child up for adoption. For me, it was almost as if it hadn’t happened. We all left for college then and she and I even attended the same school, but we never talked about it. It had been hard on her to go through her pregnancy in our small town. I remember she once told me that folks in town had avoided her and that some of our friends’ families didn’t want them to associate with her anymore. That’s what real life consequences looked like for her. I’m glad my parents, as strict as they were, never dissuaded me from seeing her or shamed her.
In today’s gospel Joseph, met as he was with a difficult decision, chose God’s righteous path. Instead of following the dictates of the law regarding divorce, Joseph chose to believe the angel who said “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” While it may be easier for us to identify Mary’s important role as the mother of Christ, what Matthew is reminding us is that Joseph’s role, while different, is similarly important. In naming the child, Joseph takes Jesus as his own earthly son and in so doing, makes Jesus the son of David through his lineage.
I have always loved St. Joseph. Maybe because he is also named Joseph, I have been thinking a lot about my own father, who was also a good and righteous man—and an incredibly tolerant father of three girls. As I mentioned before, he named me, and I have proudly chosen to retain his surname—Garcia—even though I know not everyone likes surnames like mine. On December 9th a young fourteen-year-old girl, about the age of Mary might have been, and who incidentally bears the name Natalia meaning ‘born on Christmas’, was deliberately hit by car in a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa because the driver said, “She looked Mexican.” While this kind of story breaks our hearts any time of the year, I feel it even more in this holy season when we are reminded of our responsibility to welcome God in all the many forms God presents Godself in one another. In the genealogy of Jesus, we are given a whole list of broken and real people who each played an important part in God’s redemptive plans — enemies of Israel, members of nations with whom Israelites were forbidden to intermarry, good people with bad reputations. We are the people of the incarnate God and we, like Mary and Joseph, have been given a responsibility to nurture and protect God’s children —especially the most vulnerable in our communities—those that are marginalized, minoritized or demonized. We are called to be like Joseph–righteous men and women.
I know that the magnitude of what needs to be done seems daunting, but I believe we are up for it, friends. God is with us through it all. My friend Ruth Ann, like her mother, is a teacher and a coach and she is a well-respected member of her community. She and her husband have five children all of whom have inherited her white blonde hair and his surname. While those girls from that photo long ago, were never the same after that summer, God has worked through all of our lives in different ways.
Friends, we have been entrusted with the great and loving power of Jesus Christ as both our birthright and our responsibility in this weary world. But we are not alone. If we wonder what we are to do, we just need to call on Jesus’ holy name—he who saves….Emmanuel…God is with us. As we approach the birth of the Messiah, let us look for Christ in each other – in each face, in each heart– in honor of the one to be born on Christmas Day.