Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kings, human and divine

Texts: 1 Samuel 8 1-20 (Israel asks for a King); Revelation 1 4-8 (ruler of the kings of earth); John 18 33-37 (King of the Jews?)

On this Reign of Christ Sunday, I reflect upon human kingdoms, God's Kingdom, and two different visions of Christ as King. Our Scripture readings provide us with background.

The reading from First Samuel tells how Israel changed from being a group of tribes under the rule of priests 3,000 years ago to a centralized monarchy under King David. It also lists the problems that often plague human kingdoms.

The reading from Revelation shows Jesus in Heaven ruling over the kings of the earth. It portrays Christ the King in all His Awesome Majesty.

Our Gospel reading from John shows Jesus on trial before Pilate as the supposed King of the Jews. Before the might of the Roman Empire, Jesus is all-too human and powerless. But he is the bearer of God's truth and love and hence is a king to whom we can give our allegiance without reservation . . .

Last Sunday, in our reading from First Samuel, we learned of the miraculous conception of Samuel, and how his mother Hannah handed him over to the Chief Priest Eli so that he could serve in the Temple in Shiloh all the days of his life. Today's reading show us that Samuel is not a big fan of monarchy.

Samuel is now an old man. He has succeeded Eli as Chief Priest and ruler of Israel. But Samuel's sons prove themselves unworthy to be his successor, hence the demand of the Israelites that Samuel find them a king.

Samuel does this reluctantly, first anointing Saul as the King of Israel, and then later anointing David as Israel's second and greatest King. Through Samuel, God warns Israel that having a king will bring them taxation, slavery and war. The monarchy will be a disaster for Israel, which the rest of the Old Testament confirms.

1,000 years after Samuel and King David, Jesus comes before Pilate as an arrested criminal. The kings of Israel have long since been deposed by other empires: Babylon, Assyria, Greece and Rome. Only puppet Jewish kings like Herod remain; the real power lies with Caesar in Rome.

Many Jews in those days longed for a new King David. He would be God's anointed, the Messiah, or the Christ. Peter and the disciples thought they had found their new King in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus told them he was this Messiah, but he would not be a king like David. He would be a king who will be rejected and killed.

However, the dream for a Christ who would be like a new King David lived on long after the disciples. For instance, in the fantastical book of Revelation, Jesus as the Risen Christ is pictured sitting on a huge and elaborate throne in heaven. He is said to wield a sword, which he uses to wage war and kill untold numbers of the wicked.

Revelation attacks the Roman Empire more sharply than any other book in the Bible -- although it uses Babylon as a code word for Rome. As Peter had hoped, Revelation shows Jesus attacking Rome in the way King David had attacked the enemies of Israel -- with war, death and destruction. Revelation provides us with amazing images, which show up in hymns like the triumphant ones with which we began our service and with which we will close the church year today.

But Jesus' power is not military might; it is the power of Love. We accept him as our King because He is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus comes before Pilate with nothing but his integrity and divine presence. Because he speaks "truth to power" Jesus is killed; but by being raised to new life and inspiring his followers to also speak truth to power, Jesus shows us that love is stronger than violence and empire.

Just as Pilate felt powerless in the face of the hatred of the religious leaders and their mobs who demanded Jesus' death, so later emperors would learn that their power could evaporate in the face of the rebellions of simple people who resisted the empire's authority and refused to kill for it.

Both the non-violent resistance of Jesus before Pilate and the triumph and violence of kings like Saul and David have a place in our Bible and in our tradition. The more majestic images might have fit better before the two world wars when Christianity was the official religion of the empires of czars, kaisers and kings in Europe. But now that those days have passed, these images can still help us to express some of our anger at injustice and our confidence in the ultimate triumph of truth and love, both for us as individuals and for the world.

The other side of Christ as King --  resisting injustice without violence, even accepting death on the cross -- expresses a core truth of our lives. In the face of bullying, we can choose non-violent resistance that preserves our love of God and neighbour, though it might cost us dearly.

For our hymn of response, I chose "You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd" because it juxtaposes the two sides of Christ as King. I hope you will hear  both as we sing it in a moment: prince and slave, defeat and victory, death and life, and so on. The hymn also talks about the narrow way where, with grace, we neither become victims of empire nor react in violence against it. The same narrow path is also offered to us by God when there are conflicts in our families and communities.

Another hymn in the Bible captures both sides of Christ as King. It is from St. Paul's letter to the Church in Philippi. The first half describes Jesus as humble servant, emptying himself even to death on the cross. The second half describes Jesus exalted to glory.

Paul's prayer is that we accept Jesus as our next king -- the anointed one we both scorn and crave, the king of both gift and cost; the king who asks us to accompany him in death and the king who assures us that new life flows from those deaths. I close with Paul's hymn from chapter two of Philippians. Paul writes:

"Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
  but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name that is above every name,
   so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bow,
   and every tongue confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord."

Thanks be to God.


Lyrics for "You Lord Are Both Lamb and Shepherd" by Sylvia Dunstan

You, Lord, are both lamb and shepherd.
    You, Lord, are both prince and slave.
    You, peacemaker and sword-bringer of the way you took and gave.
    You, the everlasting instant; you, whom we both scorn and crave.

Clothed in light upon the mountain, stripped of might upon the cross,
    shining in eternal glory, beggared by a soldier's toss.
    You, the everlasting instant; you who are both gift and cost.

You, who walk each day beside us, sit in power at God's side.
    You, who preach a way that's narrow, have a love that reaches wide.
    You, the everlasting instant; you, who are our pilgrim guide.

Worthy is our earthly Jesus! Worthy is our cosmic Christ!
    Worthy your defeat and victory. Worthy still your peace and strife.
    You, the everlasting instant; you, who are our death and life.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Farewell Mark, hello Luke

Texts: 1 Samuel 1:4-20, 2:1-10 (Hannah's Song) * Mark 13 1-8, 24-28, 32-33 (destruction of the Temple)

Periodically, predictions about the end of the world crop up in popular culture. The next projected doomsday is just five weeks away -- December 21st, 2012, based upon a reading of the Mayan Calendar of ancient Central America. At the winter solstice next month, this Calendar ends one 5,000 year-long cycle and begins another. Some people think that earthquakes will wipe out all of humanity on that date.

The latter disaster scenario was the premise of the blockbuster movie "2012" released three years ago. But despite how close Dec 21, 2012 now is, I have not seen much mention of this fearful prediction this Fall. This pleases me because like many people, I don't take such predictions seriously.

I mention the end of the world for two reasons: first, the church calendar begins a new year two weeks from today with Advent; and second, each church year ends and begins with Jesus' apocalyptic prediction about the destruction of the Temple and about the end of days that we heard today in our Gospel reading.

The title of this sermon, "Farewell Mark, hello Luke," refers to the fact that with the start of the new church year on December 2nd, our church along with many others shift the focus of our weekly worship from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of Luke. In fact, today is the last time that the weekly suggested Bible readings includes a passage from Mark until November 30, 2014. And like the first reading from Mark assigned 12 months ago for the first Sunday in Advent on November 27th 2011, the last one today also comes from Mark's apocalyptic 13th chapter. But more on the apocalypse later. For now, I will focus on our church calendar.

Here in Borderlands, we follow a three-year biblical reading list, which has been used by many denominations, including the United Church of Canada, for the past 20 years or more. When I was a child, my father didn't follow such a list. He chose a text to preach upon each week as he saw fit depending on the time of year (Christmas and Easter being the most obvious examples) or the needs of the the community.

But today, most churches follow an assigned reading list, the Lectionary. It is a way of reading through much of the Bible over a repeating three-year cycle. Each year focuses on one of the first three Gospels: Year A covers Matthew; Year B, which we are just finishing, covers Mark; and Year C covers Luke. Selections from the fourth and final gospel, the Gospel of John, which is quite different from the first three, are read during Easter each year; and the rest of John is covered in Year B, the year of Mark. John is added to the Year of Mark since Mark is quite a bit shorter than either Matthew or Luke. In fact next week, which is the final Sunday of Year B, the Gospel reading for Reign of Christ Sunday is from John.

The Lectionary doesn't only focus on the four gospels, of course. There are 23 other books in the New Testament and 39 books in the Old Testament; and the Lectionary tries to cover them as well. Each Sunday, the Lectionary suggests four readings: one from a Gospel, one from an Old Testament book, one from a New Testament letter, and one of the 150 Psalms. On most Sundays, I only chosen two of those four readings, with a bias towards the Gospel selection, and sometimes I take a few liberties with the suggestions to fit other purposes.

This three-year cycle leaves out some of the Bible -- small bits of the Gospels, a few passages from the letters of Paul and the other letters, and quite a bit of the Old Testament. But I like how it tries to be thorough, and how it weaves these readings around the yearly church calendar of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and the long Season After Pentecost.

Reading lists for Scripture have been around for as long as Judaism and Christianity have existed. The three-year Lectionary cycle which Borderlands and many other United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches now follow has its roots in the Vatican II Council of the Roman Catholic Church of the 1960s; and I think the Lectionary is a wonderful example of inter-church cooperation. The widespread use of this list has led to a greater emphasis on the seasons of the church year and to the creation of new aids for worship leaders. It also means that with our reading today, we say goodbye to Mark for two years.

Five years ago this Fall, a New Testament course I was enrolled in also made a switch from Mark to Luke. In the first half of the course, we had focused first on Matthew and then Mark. When we returned from Reading Week, our professor began by saying three things: one, that we would now turn to Luke; two, that we would use a different method for studying it (namely the response the text evokes in the reader rather than an historical or scientific analysis of the text); and three that he would start us off by giving his response to Luke. He told us that he didn't much like it!

I was pretty shocked by his statement. How could a seminary professor, an ordained minister in the Lutheran church, and the teacher of future United Church ministers say something negative about Luke, one of the four Gospels upon which so much of our faith and tradition are based?

Eventually, though, I came to understand my professor's viewpoint. He objected to Luke when he smoothed off some of the rough edges in the stories of Jesus found in Mark. He recognized that Luke was a more sophisticated writer than Mark and was a skilled storyteller. But perhaps some important things found in Mark might be missing in Luke.

Now, this course on the Gospels did not lessen my own affection for Luke. But I appreciated our teacher's main point that there are differences between the four  gospels and that having four of them instead of one gives us a richer view of Jesus. So I will now offer a bit more about what we learned about the four gospels.

Scholars think that the first Gospel to be written is Mark, probably in the year 70. Matthew and Luke come about 10-20 years later, and both of them copy Mark, often word for word. Commentators make a big deal when Matthew and/or Luke make deletions or changes to Mark as they copy him.

Matthew and Luke also add to Mark some sayings of Jesus, such as the Beatitudes, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Each one also adds some material that is only found in either Matthew or Luke. John comes last, about the year 100, and while John may have had one or more of the first three gospels in front of him when he wrote, he tells a quite different story from the first three with a different tone and emphasis. For these reasons, John is known as the spiritual gospel.

This set of ideas about the gospels explains a lot: why so much of Mark is repeated in Matthew and Luke and why John is so different. It also allows us to see how different early Christians interpreted Jesus' life and message.

There is much that I love about what is unique in Luke's portrayal of Jesus: the birth narrative with stable and shepherds, the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Luke adds after the reading about love of God and love of neighbour that we read from Mark last week; the parable of the Prodigal Son; the story about walking with the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus, and so on.

I look forward to trying to preach to the the needs of this community in relationship to the Gospel of Luke during the new church year, which we begin in two weeks. It is not that I will never mention Mark again in a sermon until November 2014, since the changes and additions that Luke or Matthew make to Mark can sometimes show us important things. But as always, we rely on the Spirit's guidance when we read, interpret and act upon the sacred writings of our tradition.

When discussing biblical scholarship, it is also helpful for someone like me who loves intellectual puzzles and arguments to remember that we don't worship the Bible. We worship God: the Sacred Ground in which live and move and have our being. Scripture readings, sermons, and prayers are only crude attempts to point us towards God in Christ and to remind us of the values of love and justice that we hold sacred. We rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to help us limp towards God as we pray, preach, and carry out our work of loving service to our community.

Which brings me back briefly to our two readings from this morning -- Hannah's song, and Mark 13. Hannah's song from 1 Samuel also points us towards Luke because Mary's song of joy and liberation, the Magnificat, which she sings when she learns she is pregnant with Jesus. Mary's song seems to be modelled on Hannah's and is found only in Luke. We will read the Magnificat with joy this year on Advent 4, December 23rd.

Our other reading, Mark 13, with its warnings of wars, earthquakes, and falling stars  probably does not point towards the end of world next month. Instead, it probably betrays the dire times when Mark wrote down the stories of Jesus. As Mark was writing, the Roman-Jewish war of the late 60s was coming to a close. Jerusalem was burned to the ground. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed, and the Second Temple was utterly destroyed. Perhaps it is this context which gives the Gospel of Mark such relevance and immediacy today. Like Mark's community, we too live in an time of wars and rumours of war, of which this week's fighting between Israel and Gaza is one of the latest and most frightening instances.

When Mark told the story of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem to face his death, his first hearers could relate to the horror of it all too well. But by the time Luke copied and changed Mark's version 15 or 20 years later, the horror of the destruction of Jerusalem was starting to fade in memory. Luke's community was trying to live inside a Roman Empire that did not seem as violent and hostile to Jews and Christians as it had in the time of Mark. So Luke emphasizes different things than Mark; and I believe that our Bible is richer because of this.

The end of the world will come some day. But as Jesus said, "About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come."

With Hannah, we look forward in hope to a time when the poor are raised up and the oppressors are overthrown. With Jesus, we look forward to a new heaven and earth even though its birth pangs may be frightening. And each one of us looks forward in hope to union with God in Christ at any moment, and at the end of life.

So this Fall, as we end one church year and start a new one in two weeks, may we approach the stories of Jesus, whether told by Mark or Luke, Matthew or John, with our hearts open to their mystery and power. May we continue to rely upon the Holy Spirit to guide us in our worship, in our understanding, and in our work of service in this community. And with God's help, may we do all this as Christ's followers on the path of faith hope and love.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

War and remembrance in the age of Obama

Text: Mark 12 28-34 (the greatest commandment)

November 11th is a solemn day of pride and pain in which we remember the fragility and sacredness of human life. Today's sermon ends on the theme of Remembrance. First, though, I reflect on our Gospel reading about love of God and neighbour. I do so by placing it against the backdrop of the results of the U.S. election last week.

These two topics -- Nov 11th and last week's election -- present a sharp contrast. Remembrance Day is a time for tradition, silence and ritual; a time in which we look back to the past with respect. The U.S. election highlights big shifts in our culture and points us to the future. My hope is that the contrast will help us to think about the challenge of how to respect the past and our traditions -- indeed the faith of our fathers -- in the face of rapid social change

Four years ago, the rise of U.S. President Barack Obama surprised and delighted many of us. But given the disappointments of his first term -- a slow recovery, high unemployment, and staggering deficits and debts; and given how vilified Obama has been in the media -- including outrageous claims that Obama is a secret Muslim, that he was born in Kenya and is therefore ineligible to be President, and that he is some kind of communist -- his re-election with 51% of the votes surprised me.

Don't get me wrong -- like most Canadians, I had hoped that Obama would win again. But with a lot stacked against him, I didn't expect it. His re-election is a defeat for the right-wing who spent more than $1 billion trying to unseat him. I also believe that his re-election contains warning signs for the church.

Here are what exit polls tell us about the U.S. Presidential election: the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, received the overwhelming majority of votes cast by white males, people over 65, people from rural areas, evangelical Christians, and people who go to church at least once per week. Obama won an overwhelming majority of the votes of blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians, city-dwellers, single women, unionized workers, and people who never go to church, as well as a healthy majority of the votes of people under the age of 30.

On Tuesday, voters in three states also voted to approve gay marriage and to legalize the possession and use of marijuana in two others. Candidates who had became notorious for their opposition to legal abortion even when a pregnancy resulted from rape were defeated. And the first Buddhist and Hindu candidates were elected to Congress as well as the first open lesbian.

These results reflect big changes in the United States. White male Christians and people of all colours and religions who oppose abortion, recreational drug use and homosexuality can now be out-voted by a coalition of secular city dwellers, recent immigrants, and non-Whites, even in a time of economic uncertainty.

I am pleased about the strength of the coalition that supported Obama on Tuesday, although according to the polls, I should be on the other side. I'm no longer young; I'm a white male; I go to church services . . . often three times a week; and I live in a rural area. OK, that last item might be a little suspect. I still feel pretty much like a city person, although I do love the beauty of this land, the people of our towns, and our work together in ministry.

And although I am one of those "suspect" church-goers, I worship and work in the United Church of Canada. Ours is a denomination that strives to become intercultural and to welcome newcomers, that has supported feminist, peace and anti-poverty concerns for decades, and that is now led by a gay Moderator.

The U.S. election signals trouble for right-wing, evangelical Christianity, I believe. The re-election of George W. Bush as President in 2004 was a high-water mark for the influence of the Christian Right. The 2012 re-election of Obama signals a marginalization of that current.

The urban, young and diverse coalition that voted for Obama includes many people who are turned off by religion. It's not that people in Obama's coalition would disagree with Jesus' teaching to love God and neighbour. The issue lies in how one answers the questions "what is the nature of this God whom we should love?," and "who are our neighbours?"

In the Gospel of Luke, the scribe we encountered in today's reading from Mark asks Jesus that latter question --  "Who is my neighbour?" Jesus answers with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The hero of that parable is a hated foreigner, a Samaritan; and thus the Parable suggests that love of neighbour extends to so-called "enemies."

Unfortunately, churches that campaign against gay rights and immigration reform seem to offer a different answer. In my opinion, the Obama coalition is more on the side of the Good Samaritan on the question of neighbourliness than are some churches.

Then there is the question of love of God. Even in this secular age, most people still believe in God -- but which one? There seem to be so many competing versions of God out there. Is God a terrifying Judge who punishes most people for all eternity in lakes of fire? Is God worried about petty issues of morality? Is God behind everything that happens, even pregnancies that result from violence or deaths in natural disasters and war?

Further, does loving God mean we have to turn our backs on science? Vote against gay marriage? Picket outside abortion clinics? Support tax-breaks for billionaires?

Many of those who voted for President Obama answer "no" to all the above questions. Many of them also think the church answers differently, which explains why they are turned off. They perceive church to be hostile towards them. They perceive the God who is worshipped in church to be a God of hate and not love . . .

Our culture has shifted, and the shift is not to the advantage of religion. Old certainties and traditions seem to be melting away beneath our feet.

A few weeks ago at a Bible Study in Coronach we were talking about immigration, and I suggested that all of us were immigrants. We have emigrated from a far off land called the 20th Century where values seemed more stable and have landed in a strange place called the 21st Century where the culture looks foreign to us.

Mostly I am encouraged by these cultural shifts even though they present challenges to the work of the church. I want to live in a society where "neighbour" is defined as broadly as possible. I want to worship in a church where "God" is a God of Love, of inclusion, of justice, and of welcome. I am grateful that the United Church is one in which humble service, faith in the midst of doubt, hope in the midst of darkness, and love in the midst of diversity are encouraged.

Here in Borderlands, the population shifts reflected in last week's U.S. elections are not readily apparent. But 90 years ago when our towns were founded, Borderlands was about as diverse a place as anywhere in the world. People from all corners of Europe and of many languages and creeds came to homestead and work here. Now, four generations later, our differences have withered away after years of joint work on the land, in communities, and in churches.

Still, the winds of change from big cities, immigration, and new lifestyles affect us just as much as people elsewhere. We may not always know how to relate to these shifts, or even notice when they are occurring deep within our own hearts and minds. But mostly I think that we should welcome them; and I look forward to our ongoing discussions about them.

War is another area where attitudes are changing; and once again, Barack Obama can serve as a marker of this change. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Obama was a State Senator in Illinois where he voiced his opposition to it. The rationale for the war -- that Iraq harboured weapons of mass destruction -- was proven false after the U.S. invasion. So now after the deaths of thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and more than $1 trillion in expenditure, Obama as Commander in Chief has withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq.

In the light of this history, how do the families of loved ones who died in Iraq confront this sacrifice on Remembrance Day?

For those who have lost loved ones in war, and for those who have served their country and survived to return home, coming to grips with their sacrifices must be that much more difficult when the legitimacy of the war is questioned.

Here in Canada, we have not had to face such dilemmas. Canada, unlike virtually every other country, has never lost a war. Nor have most of the wars  we have fought in been controversial. These facts don't make our losses less painful, but perhaps they make our task of Remembrance more straightforward.

So, in a society that is rapidly changing, we take time each November to stop out of  respect; to look back in gratitude; to honour the sacrifices of past generations; and to offer support to those who have suffered in war or who mourn the loss of loved ones.

Love of neighbour demands that we honour and respect the ultimate sacrifice made by over 100,000 Canadian soldiers in wars of the last 100 years. We do this by wearing poppies and attending community services like the ones in the schools in Rockglen and Coronach on Thursday. We do it by offering prayers of thanksgiving for the freedom and prosperity most Canadians enjoy today and for the willingness of so many young people to offer themselves in service to their country.

Another way we remember war and honour the dead is by praying and working for a world of peace with justice.

The cultural shifts I have mentioned today also affect our work for peace. The church in North America is moving to the margins. From these margins, I pray that we can better speak out for peace. From this more modest place, we can continue to try to live out the commandments to love God and neighbour. We may not have the same reach that church had 100 years ago, but we have the Gospel, which is a pearl of infinite price.

Who is our neighbour? All of war-weary humanity is our neighbour. With God's help, we are commanded to love everyone in the world as ourselves.

Who is the God we are commanded to love? God is Love Incarnate -- Jesus the Christ. God is Love's Power -- the Holy Spirit. God is Love's Source -- our Heavenly Father.

Today with love, we remember and honour the sacrifices of our ancestors. We also look forward in modest hope to greater peace in this strange and wonderful new world called the 21st Century.

Peace with justice is not an easy goal. But we know that with the help of the God who is Love, all things are possible.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ancestors of Jesus; descendants of the Christ

Texts: Ruth 1: 1-18 (Ruth follows Naomi)* Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17 (Ruth weds Boaz)

"Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die." Today, if people know anything about the book of Ruth, it is probably these lovely words of fidelity, which are often recited at weddings.

When looked at in context, however, the passage might not seem appropriate for a wedding. Ruth is speaking not as a bride to her groom but as a recently widowed woman to her mother-in-law. She speaks at a desperate time when both women are grief-stricken, single and childless and living in a patriarchal society.  Today, I examine the context of the book of Ruth as a way to discuss both the ancestors of Jesus and the descendants of the Christ.

Ruth is a story about hardship, migration, loyalty, courtship and above all, family. Set 3,000 years ago, it is the eighth book of the Old Testament, nestled between Judges, which tells the troubled history of Israel following the conquest of the Promised Land and 1st Samuel, which tells of the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.

The book highlights the surprising fact that King David's great-grandmother is Ruth, a foreigner and member of a hated enemy nation, the Moabites. In the last lines of our second reading today we hear that [quote] "they named [Ruth's son] Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David." That David is King David, the second and most renowned of the kings of Israel.

Ruth also brings to mind the surprising fact that Jesus also numbers Ruth among his ancestors. Matthew begins his Gospel by detailing 40 generations that link Jesus with Abraham. 35 of those generations are marked solely by the name of the father, which is what one would expect in the male-dominated First Century when Matthew wrote. But there are five cases where Matthew includes the mother's name as well. These five are Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, Mary (the mother of Jesus), and Ruth.

These five stand out not only for being women in a long list of men, but also because all could be questioned for their morality; and because, except for Mary, they are not Jewish. Tamar was a Canaanite woman who seduced her father-in-law to conceive a son. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who helped Joshua destroy her hometown of Jericho. Bathsheba was married to the Hittite Uriah when she conceived a son with King David. Mary, of course, became pregnant before she was married. And Ruth was a Moabite widow who seduced her mother-in-law's rich relative Boaz to secure a second husband.

In passing, I will also note that the genealogy in Matthew 1 does not match the one found in Luke 3. Luke's genealogy lists 56 generations between Abraham and Jesus, not 40; Luke mentions no mothers, not even Mary; and Luke goes back farther than Matthew -- 19 more generations before Abraham all the way back to Adam. Among other things, these differences between Matthew and Luke reinforce the argument that reading the Bible as history often gets us nowhere.

But to return to Matthew's women: why does he single out four non-Jewish women of questionable morals in his genealogy of Jesus? Well, whatever his reasons, I'm glad he does so because it helps show how the Hebrew Scriptures have meaning for all people and not just for the Jews who first called them sacred.

Take Ruth: she is not Jewish, but from a tribe that is hated and opposed by the Jews, the Moabites. The Jewish man she first marries has come with his parents and brother from Bethlehem to Moab because of a famine. When he dies, Ruth promises to follow his mother, Naomi, back to Bethlehem.

Once back in Bethlehem, Naomi helps Ruth meet and seduce Naomi's rich relative Boaz. God blesses this somewhat-questionable action by giving Ruth a son. Marriage to Boaz provides Ruth and Naomi with safety in a time when it is dangerous to be a woman without a man. Further, Ruth's son leads to a great-grandson, David, who grows up to be the most beloved King in the history of Israel. Then further down the generations, her son is also linked to the birth of the King of Kings, Jesus. So who are we to judge Ruth, Naomi or Boaz? If the Hebrew Scripture and the Gospel of Matthew hold them up as saints and not sinners, I can hardly disagree.

The Old Testament contain untold riches of story and poetry even as it also contains other passages that disturb me. An instance of the latter is found in this account from 2nd Samuel that shows how King David deals with his great-grandmother's people, the Moabites: [quote] "David defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought tribute." Not very edifying stuff, in my opinion.

Besides such violent episodes, the Old Testament is also filled with injunctions against inter-marriage between Israelites and others. Now, these injunctions would  disturb me more if it weren't for the fact that intermarriage keeps happening despite them! Many important Hebrew leaders -- including Moses, Judah, King David and King Solomon --  marry non-Jewish women.

The Old Testament includes demands for racial purity even as it details the gracious truth that many men, including Israel's central leaders, marry women from different nations. These so-called mixed marriages lead to great kings, and eventually to Jesus. In the end, the contradictions in the Old Testament around ethnic purity are resolved in favor of the universal salvation God promises to Abraham in Genesis: "All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you."

Today we live in a unified world where people from every continent, religion, and culture live side by side. It is a world with so many links of trade, communication and migration that humanity has become one. This reality gives us another vantage point from which to view the story of Naomi and Ruth. Like many of us, Naomi and Ruth are nomads: people who move where the economic winds blow. And like Naomi and Ruth, many of us are forced to overcome ethnic divisions and conventional morality in order to help one another and keep our families safe.

Ruth, despite her ordinary life, is also one of the ancestors of King David and of Jesus of Nazareth.

And what about Jesus descendants? 10 years ago, Dan Brown's bestselling novel, "The Da Vinci Code," which was later made into a Hollywood movie, made a splash because it argued that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had married and had children, and that their descendants were living among us to this day.

While many were entertained by "The Da Vinci Code," I don't take its historical fictions seriously. Besides, as members of the Body of Christ, we have another way to think about the descendants of the Christ.

In a few minutes, we will celebrate again the sacrament of Holy Communion. Not only does communion help us remember the sacrifice of Jesus. It also reminds us that we are incorporated into the life of the Risen Christ. When we eat the bread of life and drink from the cup of blessing, we graphically remind ourselves that we are the branches of a vine that is Jesus the Christ. In this most important way, we all become descendants of the Christ.

Who knows who the real ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth were? Matthew and Luke do not agree in their lists. Luke, by going all the way back to Adam, helps people like me view these lists more as theology than as history. Matthew, by including the names of four women who were from enemy nations of Israel, helps remind us that Jesus offers salvation not just for the people of Israel but for all of humanity. The fact that these four women also made choices that are at best questionable might also cheer us. Jesus' ancestors include ordinary people from many backgrounds who are just as prone to sin as any of us.

But even though we may not be sure who Jesus ancestors are, we do know who the descendants of the Christ are. It is all of us. We are people who hear the call of God in Christ and who come to His Table to remind ourselves that we have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. With God's help, we try to take up our cross and follow Jesus through the pain of everyday life toward a new life in God. God's realm, which is inaugurated in this new life, includes all families, all tribes, and all nations.

The ancestors of Jesus were a motley crew who look a bit like you and me. The descendants of the Christ are all the diverse people of the earth. Christ invites each one of us to come to His Table in order to die and rise again.

Thanks be to God.