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How’s Your Tree?

Jarrett McLaughlin

December 15, 2019

Matthew 1:1-16

 

Scripture – Matthew 1:1-16

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

Scripture – Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and 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.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and Joseph named him Jesus.

Sermon:

Less than two weeks to go ‘til Christmas, folks.  Are the presents wrapped?  Have they even been purchased?  Is the menu set?  What about your exterior illumination?  How’s your tree?

Am I stressing you out?  I’m stressing you out, aren’t I?

Let me ask you – on this, the third week of Advent – Are you feeling more Norman Rockwell and the home is alight with a soft glow and it’s scene after scene of holiday perfection?  Or are you feeling more Clark Griswold – slightly crazed and confident this whole holiday enterprise could go off the rails at any moment?

There’s a scene in Christmas Vacation where the Griswold’s doorbell emits this ominous tone – signaling the arrival of loud and boisterous family members who thrust heavy suitcases into waiting arms.   Then Clark says “If you need me, I’ll just be outside…for the rest of the season.”

We are right at that middle point between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it may seem like it’s all-too-soon to get back together with family already. This kind of focused family time leads some to say that the best Christmas lights are tail lights…leaving the driveway…family going back where they belong.

Try as you might, family is the one thing you cannot escape.  So let me ask you again – how’s your tree?  Not your Christmas tree, but your Family Tree.  Let me tell you about mine.

On Jackson road, in the middle of rural Rowan County, North Carolina there sits an old farm where my Father grew up.  It has an old, gray barn that collapsed years ago.  The 1911 farmhouse is still there.

There’s a dirt track that cuts through the acreage and if you followed it far enough – tucked back in the woods you just might find what my family calls “the other place.”  It’s an old, hand-built house that is falling apart – last I saw, no roof, two of the four walls were down.  It’s a wreck.

The interesting thing about the Other Place is that not a single soul ever lived in that house.  It made a nice place for my Father to store his peanut crop when he was a teenager, but that house never became a home.

It was built by my great grandfather, Daniel McLaughlin – my brother’s namesake – and he was apparently quite a character.  He kept a moonshine still way back in the woods.

On the weekends, he had his ten year old son, who would be my Father’s uncle – and I kid you not his name was actually Ditzo – well, Ditzo had to go with his Father and Uncle Cag down to Salisbury – the big city – where they’d “enjoy” some of their homemade spirits with the locals, and ten year old Ditzo’s job was to drive those grown men back home when they were “unable to do so on their own.”

So that’s the kind of guy who built “the Other Place.”

Daniel was the youngest of seven boys – and he wanted to acquire some land to start his own farm.  Well instead of actually spending money and buying land like his brothers before him – he instead went up to his widowed Mother’s place and said “Ma, how about you give me the land that belongs to the family and in return I’ll take care of you for the rest of your life.”

She was getting on in years – you know, like in her 60s – so Daniel figured “the rest of her life” couldn’t be that much longer.  I bet for a schemer like him this seemed like a really good plan to get his own land.

“Well what do you think, Ma?” he said.

“No,” she replied, “I don’t think I want to do that.”

Well – in a huff, Daniel stormed out and took his savings and he bought up a piece of land nearby that would henceforth be called “The Other Place.”  He started building that house with his own two hands, and just as he was finishing, his Mom comes to him and says “You know, I was thinking, why don’t you move in with me up at the main house and you farm the land and just live with me for whatever time I have left – after that it’s yours.”

She got him.  And she got him even one better – that woman lived well into her nineties, so “the rest of her life” was a looooonnnnggg time.

Daniel and his mother Amanda and most of the other McLaughlin clan are all buried at Prospect Presbyterian Church – to most of the world they’re just some names on a grave marker…but there’s so much more there than just a name.

So that’s how my tree is doing?  How’s your tree?

It may not make for a great page-turner, but Matthew begins the story of Jesus with a family tree – Joseph’s family tree to be precise.  It’s a long recitation of fathers and sons, and boy does it have some odd names: Aminadab, Rehoboam, Jehoshaphat, Zerubbabel…if you’re expecting in 2020, the only Baby Name book you need is the Bible.  (Come on people, Make my dreams come true – I’ve always wanted to baptize a little Zerubbabel).

The names me by odd, but even stranger than the names are the stories behind them.  Don’t let all the halos in the paintings fool you – Joseph’s family tree is as dysfunctional as any.

Of particular interest in the genealogy is the presence of four different women.

In a culture that was all about fathers and sons, the fact that these women turn up at all is nothing short of incredible – but who are they?

The first is Tamar – I bet you didn’t know this – but in Genesis 38 Tamar pretends to be a prostitute and she tricks her father-in-law Judah into giving her children.  That’s…pretty gross.  But the fact of the matter is that Judah was not doing right by her so she got creative.

Next one up is Rahab – who didn’t even pretend, she actually was a prostitute – she lived in Jericho, but helped some Jewish spies infiltrate the city, and somehow she – an outsider – ends up in the line of King David.

Speaking of which, the next person is not even mentioned by name but it’s Bathsheba – Matthew just calls her “the wife of Uriah.”  It’s hard to say why she isn’t named specifically.  It might be Matthew’s way of calling attention to the fact that King David abused his royal power and arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle so that he could take Bathsheba as his – not first, not second, but THIRD wife.

Take a closer look at Joseph’s family tree and it’s like the poor guy is related to the cast of “The Young and the Restless.”

All of this serves as a preamble to this simple story of a young couple betrothed to be married, but suddenly it becomes apparent that the young girl is pregnant – and it ain’t Joseph’s baby.

Matthew takes care to say that Joseph was a righteous man – but that actually depends on how you look at it.

To say that Joseph is a righteous man ought to mean that he is obedient to Torah, to the Law.  If Joseph is righteous it means he will equally apply the principles of the Law no matter what.

Here’s what the Law says – you can find it for yourself in Deuteronomy 22:21 – the Law says that Joseph ought to gather all the men of his community, take Mary outside the city and stone her to death.  That’s what the Law says.

But Joseph doesn’t do that – instead he resolves to divorce her quietly. How do we reconcile this?  Matthew says that Joseph is righteous, that he’s obedient to the Law, but then he goes and ignores the Law completely.

It makes me wonder if Joseph is obedient to something other than the letter of the Law?  It makes me wonder if Joseph is obedient to the heart of God instead.

Now – before we go thinking that Joseph has that soft-lit Normal Rockwell halo – you have to imagine that this situation is really difficult for him.  Doubtlessly he had imagined a normal life with Mary, where they had absolutely normal children – and now he has to put all of those dreams away.  He must have been devastated to discover she was pregnant, but out of kindness, he decides to divorce her quietly.

Of course, before he can even initiate the divorce, an angel appears to him in a dream and asks him to do something even more difficult – take Mary as his wife, raise the child as his own, and lastly the angel says, ‘YOU, Joseph, are to name him Jesus.’  In Hebrew culture, to name a child is to acknowledge paternity.

Now – everybody in Nazareth knows this isn’t Joseph’s child – it’s obvious.  So in addition to being the guy who disregards the Law, in addition to signing up for a lifetime of “Mary and the Milkman” jokes behind his back, this angel is asking him to go one further – this angel is asking Joseph to adopt this child as his own son.

It might just be the greatest miracle of all in Matthew’s Gospel – but Joseph agrees to do it.  This righteous man who came out good in spite of a pretty messed up family tree takes in this “fatherless child” as his own – all based on the advice of some angel that spoke to him and him alone.

What is it that gave Joseph that kind of inner fortitude? If I understand Matthew’s sequencing, I think he intends to suggest that it’s precisely because of that very same family tree – warts and all.

On the one hand – Joseph can look back and see a number of “unconventional” families in his lineage – he can see that God works through and sometimes in spite of a pretty messed up family tree.

But Joseph can also look back to his ancestors and see Love… unconventional love…the kind of love that is perhaps more holy even than the Law itself. The one other woman that shows up in that genealogy is Ruth – as a Moabite, the Law says she shouldn’t even be there, but she is – grandmother to King David no less.

Ruth – that foreign woman whose husband died and then she followed her destitute mother-in-law Naomi back to Israel.

Ruth who said to Naomi “Do not press me to leave you, where you go I will go…not even death can part me from you.”

Ruth who said “I am staying with you no.matter.what.”

Ruth has no business being in that family tree, but she is perhaps the very best of Joseph’s ancestors…because her’s is a story of a Love that transcends the requirements of the Law.

Joseph’s family tree has some pretty messed up branches, but it has also produced some incredibly faithful fruit.  Fruit that helps Joseph make a really difficult decision – to set aside the Law, to choose Love instead, to stay by Mary’s side no.matter.what.

One of the true characters in Meg’s family was her uncle Claude. Claude loved to travel – and frankly, he had the means to do so in style.  We’d visit him at his senior living center in Richmond during seminary – we’d often catch him napping – and when he stirred he’d always say “I was just taking a trip…Egypt this time.”

As a younger man, Claude went all over the world.

He loved traveling.  That is, until his first son, Claudie, was born.  The OB that delivered Claudie made some mistakes and Claudie was born with significant disabilities.

When Claudie was diagnosed, the doctor told them “this child will never develop – he will be a burden to you for the rest of your life – put him in an institution, forget about him, live your life.”  That’s what the doctor said.

Now Claude and his wife Nancy loved to travel, they loved to live their life in style, but they did not follow that doctor’s advice – they kept Claudie at home.  They raised him themselves.  They taught him how to live his life in style.  They stuck by his side no.matter.what.

Until his recent retirement, Claudie would ride a man-sized Tricycle to his job at the Collegiate school in Richmond…every ten years or so they would auction his Tricycle when it was time for an upgrade – people would bid thousands of dollars for that thing.  Claudie is an institution – easily the longest tenured employee at the school.  Thanks to his parents who loved him and stuck with him, Claudie has a life that matters in spite of some significant obstacles.

Sometimes, our families are filled with incredible stories of unconventional love.  Joseph’s family tree was the same way – I believe Matthew wants to suggest that all those stories gave Joseph the strength to say to Mary; to say to this mysterious Immanuel-God-With-Us baby, I’m going to stay by your side no.matter.what.

It’s interesting to wonder how much Joseph influenced Jesus.  It’s not like they shared blood or anything, but I can’t help but wonder how much this man left a mark on that boy’s life; because clear on the other side of Matthew’s Gospel, 28 chapters and 30-some years later, a very-much risen-from-the-grave Jesus stands on a Galilean mountain before his incredulous disciples – guess what he says to them.

“Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In other words – “I will stay by your side no.matter.what.”

I wonder where he learned that kind of love from?

I wonder where we might learn that kind of love from?

 

Jarrett McLaughlin , Pastor

Email: jarrett@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Jarrett grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina where he had a pretty regular childhood – riding bikes around the neighborhood, muddling through school, trying to play various sports (emphasis on try), going through a phase of wearing lots of black in high school, and through it all, always finding a place of welcome in the Church. Jarrett became a “traitor” to his NC State traditioned family when he went to UNC-Chapel Hill for college.  Missing youth group terribly, Jarrett quickly discovered Presbyterian Campus Ministry where, in addition to exploring his call to ministry, he also met Meg. After college, Jarrett served as a youth minister for one year and then spent another year traveling, spending a great deal of time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti living in community with disabled children at Wings of Hope. He then went to Union-PSCE Seminary (now “Union Presbyterian Seminary”) and then went on to serve as an associate pastor for mission and young adult ministry at Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City.  In June of 2013 Jarrett and Meg accepted a call to serve as co-pastor Heads-of-Staff at Burke Presbyterian Church. In July of 2013 they learned that they would be expecting. In August of 2013 they learned they would be expecting twins.  In September of 2013 they moved and told the Church all of this on their second Sunday. Jarrett is very much looking forward to NOT repeating that pattern as they accept the call to serve University Presbyterian Church. When not engaged at Church, Jarrett enjoys running and hiking.  He is also an obsessive music fan intent on keeping up with independent music of all kinds – reading blogs and record reviews, scoping out live shows and constantly spinning tunes in the car, home or office.  Most of all, Jarrett has a deep passion for the Church as a place of radical welcome and hospitality and tries his best every day to honor the ways he has experienced that in his own life as grace upon grace.