Isaiah 16:1-5+Psalm 33:11-22+(Ephesians 3:1-6)+Luke 3:21-23, 31-38
In barely one month’s time, we have read two gospel selections that I have never in my entire life heard read in church on a Sunday, and I certainly have not preached a sermon on them. This is one of the joys and challenges of using a new and unfamiliar Sunday lectionary.
I am referring, of course, to this genealogy of Jesus from Luke. On the First Sunday after Christmas, we read the Matthew version of this, except rather than listing the patriarchal line, our reading listed the matriarchs, the women (where their names were known) rather than the men. One of the more striking things about that was the realization that most women had no names. They weren’t even mentioned in the bible.
This time, we get the standard Lukan genealogy, but in addition to the men’s names, we get the women’s, too, where they are known. Please note that this is a completely modern invention. Jewish genealogies always went through the male line. What Dr. Wil Gafney has done in these revisions is to offer a corrective, to make visible what has long been invisible: the women.
Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus begins with the first of the patriarchs, Abraham and, we might add, his wife Sarah since she was rather essential in this. Luke takes a different approach. Rather than starting at the beginning, he starts with Jesus, as the text tells us, “the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli” (3:30). Luke does not equivocate on Jesus’s identity as the son of God, but he does at least acknowledge that Jesus’s paternity was not a cause for concern among his contemporaries. In the version we read today, we hear the names of the fathers and the mothers where they are known, and if you look closely, there aren’t very many of them.
Mary, Bathsheba, Ruth, Rahab, Tamar, Leah, Rebecca, Sarah, Eve.
A prostitute (Rahab), a victim of sexual assault (Bathsheba), a second choice for a wife (Leah), a foreigner (Ruth), a woman who played favorites and deceived her husband (Rebecca), the one who tormented her woman-slave (Sarah), and the woman who started it all and has been seen as little more than the temptress of Adam since the story began (Eve).
This is a great collection of women, most of whom survived and thrived against daunting odds, but through the eyes of the compliers of our story, they were ancillary to the important stuff, the story of the men and their wars and disputes and property acquisitions.
One of these women, Ruth, is from Moab, a foreign country. It neighbored Israel on the far side of the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan. Moab figures in our reading from Isaiah this morning not as a place where the enemies are but where people are in trouble and need a place of refuge. We do not know what the dispute was, but the prophet is telling daughter Zion to welcome them. Welcoming of foreigners, of strangers, may have been a commandment of Moses, but in practical terms, foreign women were seen as a threat, distracting men from tending to their farms and fields and families. Foreign women worshipped foreign gods and led the people astray.
When the people of Judah returned following the Babylonian Exile, they made offerings of thanks in the temple, and in the 9th chapter of Ezra we read
‘The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus, the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way.’ (Ezra 9:1-2)
And all the men were ordered to send their foreign-born wives away along with the children they had born. It is one of the less beautiful parts of our story.
And this is why it is so important to see Ruth the Moabite in the lineage of Jesus. Ruth, the great-grandmother of David, the faithful daughter-in-law who refused to let her widowed mother-in-law Naomi return home alone. She’s right there, one of only nine named or referred to in Jesus’s lineage.
Our gospel this morning begins with Jesus being called Beloved by God. This long genealogical narrative is the source, the genetic line, of that belovedness, through his mother, Mary. Jesus may be the son of God, but he is also woman-born. That is part of our story that has often been relegated to the margins. By reclaiming the role women have in our salvation story, we open that story to all people, not excluding, but including.
How we tell our story matters. Who tells that story matters. When I was growing up in the church, I could not even imagine a woman celebrating the Eucharist because I never saw one. Now, I have colleagues – women priests – whose children ask them if boys can be priests, too. (Never fear, men still outnumber women as priests, although among recent ordinations, the number is about even.)
We often hear in secular culture that representation matters – racial and ethnic diversity, gender identification and sexuality – if young people are to imagine a world where everyone is included in all facets of human life. The same holds true in the Church, not just so that children can see all kinds of people in leadership, but because we believe that is how God created us. Teasing out the stories of women in our holy texts when they are, for the most part, rendered invisible, is part of making whole what has been broken, a story that has not been told.
This week, the Church commemorated Florence Li Tim-Oi, who was ordained as an Anglican priest on January 25, 1944. Yes, you heard that right. 1944. She was the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion, ordained at a time during the Japanese occupation of China when there were no male priests available to celebrate the sacraments in certain areas. There was such an outcry after the war that, not wanting to be a cause of disunity, she gave up her license to serve as a priest but not her ordination. Beginning in 1951, she spent the next 23 years in a reeducation labor camp where intellectuals and professionals were sent during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Even in that span of time, women’s ordination had not yet been regularized in the Episcopal Church. In 1981, she emigrated to Canada where she resumed priestly duties and was honored at Westminster Abbey in 1984 in recognition of the 40th anniversary of her ordination. In her memoir, she wrote, “I would like the story of my life to encourage women to serve God patiently and happily…. Perhaps I can be a small, tiny strength to help. I hope.” Her example, the one she calls small and tiny, it mattered to all women who came after her, aspiring to serve in God’s church fully as we have been called.
So, remember Ruth the Moabite and Rahab the prostitute and Leah who was loved less than her sister Rachel. And remember Florence Li Tim-Oi. All of them and so many more are part of our sacred story. This is all part of the Good News, that we are all embraced in the story of our salvation, swept up into the death and resurrection of Jesus, so that no one is left out. There’s an old hymn that my dad used to sing, “I love to tell the story.” I hope we can all learn to love this story so that we, too, will love to tell it the story of Jesus and his love.