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Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 73:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

I once spent nearly a year with a Jungian psychotherapist working through some personal and relational issues. At one point in the process he asked, “What does it mean to be an Ogden?” We expanded it to, “What does it mean to be an Ogden/McCarahan?” My mother was a McCarahan.

I am in a unique position to answer that question, since I am the keeper of the family history documents on the McCarahan side, and have most of what is available on the Ogden side. Their psychological significance is another matter, something most of us never quite finish discovering.

Many people are “into” researching, recording, studying, and sharing “family trees.” Advent (the season leading up to Christmas) is an appropriate time to examine the significance of family trees on a larger scale. Christmas, biblically and, for many, in contemporary celebration, is a time that's about family. Matthew opens his Gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, and Luke includes another version of the genealogy early in his Gospel. (Neither is part of the lectionary readings for this week, but you can check them out in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 if you wish.)

Some of the readings for this Sunday can be an occasion for thinking about our “religious” family tree. Isaiah, chapter 11 actually begins with the image of a tree—well, actually a stump. It looks ahead to “a shoot” which “shall come out from the stump of Jesse . . .” (vs. 1) Jesse was the father of King David. Isaiah goes on, in the same verse, to speak of this anticipated descendant as “a branch” growing “out of his roots.” Tree images all over the place—roots, a stump, shoots, branches. In talking about family history we often use such language, speaking of our “roots,” the various “branches” of our family, etc.

In the reading from Romans Paul freely adapts some of Isaiah’s words, speaking again of “the root of Jesse.” (Romans 15:17) In the Gospel lesson from Matthew the image of an ax “lying at the root of the trees,” which are in danger of being cut down, is more troubling, but it comes in the context of a common ancestor, Abraham, being identified.

This one to come from the root of Jesse has come to be seen as the “Messiah,” the “Christ,” Hebrews and Greek words, respectively, for one to be anointed as king. As time went on, it came to refer to a king who would come from above to restore all things to harmony so that peace and justice would reign. Isaiah, chapter 11, contains an ecstatic poetic expression of that dream and hope. “ . . . with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (vs. 14) Even the predators and prey in the animal kingdom will live in peace.” (vs. 7)

The reading from Psalm 72 prays that the king will “judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice,” defending “the cause of the poor,” giving “deliverance to the needy,” etc. (vss. 1-4)

Unfortunately talk of family trees can lead to division as well as unity, one trying to lay greater claim to this or that ancestor so that brother and sister are alienated and/or separated. “Mom loved me more than you!” Words like those of John the Baptist in Matthew, chapter three, have been interpreted over the years in ways that have led to great division among those who look to Abraham as a common ancestor.

Christians have claimed the vision of Messiah has been realized in Jesus. Some despise Jews who reject that claim, and some Jews see the Christian claim as blasphemous. The followers of Muhammed are descendants of Abraham as well, and revere Jesus as one of God’s prophets, but not as Messiah. Jesus becomes a point of division rather than unity.

John the Baptist, in Matthew 3:9-10, reminds the descendants of Abraham that, if the tree they have become does not bear fruit, it can be cut off. Other scriptures suggest that they can be replaced and other branches grafted into the original trunk. Some, over the years, have interpreted this to mean that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s favored people. Those who make such statements are not likely to build good relationships with the Jewish community, our cousins as descendants of Abraham.

I believe God’s vision of harmony is bigger than our various religious communities. Romans offers a vision of a more inclusive community. It includes Gentiles (see Romans 15:9-11), but not to the exclusion of Jews. It prays that “the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another . . . that together you may with one voice glorify God.” (vss. 5-6)

I grant that it is not that simplistic, that we still have to come to grips with who “Jesus Christ” is for us in our respective traditions, but I do not believe John the Baptist was saying that all the Jews of his day had an ax at their roots. He was addressing those who didn’t bear fruit. I believe his words today can be seen as a message to all who claim Abraham as an ancestor. “Show your claim to this ancestry by bearing the fruit of a faith that is like that of Abraham, an expression of the family tree that has grown from Abraham’s roots.

So, here are the larger family tree questions to be answered. Starting with our own particular tradition (Christian, Jewish, etc.), what does it mean to bear fruit in that tradition? What does it mean to be brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.? Now think of the Abrahamic tradition of which three major religions of the world are expressions. Ask again those questions about bearing fruit, being brothers and sisters, etc.

Finally, we can expand our outlook to the entire human family. We all trace our ancestry back to God, metaphorically if not literally. Ephesians 4:6 speaks of “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” What does it mean to be a fruit-bearing tree that has emerged from that root? Can we seek a kingdom in which we acknowledge the family tree whose many branches help keep the entire tree growing?

I believe that Advent is a time to dream about and realize such a family tree.

A footnote: I have been greatly influenced by a family systems book (addressed specifically to religious leaders) entitled Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, by Edwin Friedman, a Jewish rabbi and family therapist. He looks at the dynamics of the families who are members, the dynamics of clergy families, the dynamics of congregations as families, and how the three interact. He poses a question to clergy: “Who in your family ordained you?” He’s asking who in your family most influenced you to become a clergyperson. In this week’s reflecting on our family trees, I think that question can be expanded to, “Who in your family has been most decisive in shaping the branch you have become?”

What kind of fruit is our family tree, personal, congregational, religious, and beyond, bearing?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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