Sermon Library

Sermon Library

Sun, Dec 15, 2019

Names we cannot pronounce

Duration:18 mins 50 secs

This year as we wait for the coming of Christ, we are following our Advent theme, “The Other Christmas Tree.” We are starting at the beginning of the New Testament, with the first chapter of the first book. And what we find is that the Gospel of Matthew begins not with angels and shepherds, not with donkeys and miraculous stars. No, the Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ family tree.

Together we are seeking to find our place in the family tree of Jesus. So far, we have met Abraham; Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba; and this past Wednesday night Pastor Nadine introduced us to King David. There remain many, many names in this genealogy. I read them all for you last Sunday and I will not force you to suffer through that again this week. Instead we will follow the writer of Hebrews in chapter 11. This chapter is often called the great roll call of the faithful. As the chapter comes to a close, it quickly lifts up a variety of spiritual ancestors - some named and some unnamed. So, let us hear this Word from God to us today from Hebrews 11, beginning with the 32nd verse:
32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In the year 1773 a twenty-three-year-old young man by the name of Johannes Reiych boarded a ship headed for the New World. As the story is told he had been born in Nuremberg, Germany to a family of some means. His father was engaged in the manufacture of watches and jewelry. Young Johannes had spent three years in England acquiring an education and representing his father’s business interests, but his heart longed to see the New World. One day he happened to come across a captain of a vessel about to sail, so Johannes expressed his interest but also stated that he had no funds to pay for his passage. The captain offered to take him across and bring him back free of charge, so Johannes readily accepted.

The ship landed in Baltimore in the fall of 1773 and after landing the captain demanded passage money from Johannes. Johannes was in a new strange land without any money or friends so he was detained and sold into indentured service. In return for four years of his labor Johannes received “meat, drink, apparel, and lodging” from his master. Certainly not the life this watch and jewelry maker’s son had expected.

Well, Johannes worked diligently for his master and received his release in December of 1777. In 1781, he married a young woman by the name of Susanna Maria Entsingerin, also originally from Germany. They had traveled across the ocean together on the same ship and after the death of her father mid-passage; Susanna had also been sold into service to pay for her journey. After their marriage and a move to Pennsylvania, Johannes supported his wife and six children by working as a teacher and scribe. At some unknown point, Johannes Reiych changed his name to the English, “John Rich.” And it is through John’s son Henry, and Henry’s son William Sr., and William Sr.’s son William Jr., and William Jr.’s son Adin Sr., and Adin Sr.’s son Adin Jr., and Adin Jr.’s son Douglas, and Douglas’s son Matthew that my children William, Samuel, and Rebekah Rich of Augusta, GA can trace their family tree back to the first Rich to visit these American shores.

Yes, that is the family story my aunt and uncle told me when they gave me a family genealogy book for Christmas more than twenty-five years ago. Our family line is pretty clear, at least once we arrived in this country, but, as in all family trees, there are a few crooked places. One I find most interesting is with my grandfather’s uncle William. You might have heard several William’s in the family names I read a minute ago, but after my grandfather’s uncle the name drops out of our family line.

Turns out that my great-great grandfather William Rich Jr. had two sons: William and Adin. As a young man entering the work force the younger William became a Milliner in Philadelphia. Milliners are hat makers and apparently William was quite skilled. However, at the time in Philadelphia all the popular milliners were French. “Rich” was English and the family’s original “Reiych” was clearly German. So, William changed his name. He added an “e” with an “aigu” to the end of “Rich” to make it the French sounding “Richẻ.” And business in his hat shop picked up. But the name William now resided in a different branch of the family tree - that is until Sarah and I decided to name our first born.

Yes, family names are an essential part of a genealogy and family story. They tell us who we are and to whom we are related. It is still the case today. I have lived in some communities where after introducing yourself to someone new, you will be asked, “Now tell me who your mother was.” Not who she is - i.e., her current married last name - but who she was. Because who she “was” ties both you and her to her family of origin, her people, and her roots.

Looking through the names in Jesus’ genealogy, we find some very familiar ones, the stories we know and like to tell. That is why we have met Abraham and David on Wednesday nights. The four women we have encountered are familiar but perhaps not quite household names. So, this month we have spent a week on each of them in Sunday School plus last Sunday’s sermon.

However, there are more names that we do not know and maybe cannot even pronounce. For example, do you know Nahshon? During the Exodus from Egypt he was the head of the tribe of Judah. When the tabernacle in the wilderness was dedicated Nahshon brought an offering:

One silver plate weighing one hundred-thirty shekels, one silver basin weighing seventy shekels … both of them full of choice flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; one golden dish weighing ten shekels, full of incense; one young bull, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; one male goat for a sin offering; and for the sacrifice of well-being, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old.[1]

Sounds like the family was pretty wealthy for a while! But you don’t remember that story? I had to look it up myself.

Or maybe you know the stories of Jotham, the son of Uzziah? No? Neither do I. As 2 Kings 15 tells us, “The rest of the acts of Jotham, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah?”[2] Unfortunately that is a book that made it in the Bible, so the rest of the acts of Jotham are lost to history.

Many of the names listed after the deportation to Babylon - those like Azor, Achim, and Matthan - are not found in the Bible anywhere except in this genealogy. So, we do not know their stories either. And yet here they are, intentionally recorded by the author of the Gospel according to Matthew as part of the story of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Why would these forgotten, hard to pronounce names be included? We typically think that history and the present are directed by so called Great Men. In 1840, Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle put it his way:

Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modelers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world's history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.[3]

Yes, the whole history of the world can be written primarily through the biography of the heroes. We generally think this is the case.

Now, the result of believing that theory of history is that there is no real place for you and for me in the story. Yes, if you and I as ordinary individuals see something that is wrong or needs to change or be different, then our instructions are to ... wait. Yes, wait for the hero to come and fix it. After all, history is their story, not the story of regular, ordinary people like us.

But, my friends, there is another theory of history. A theory we see in all these names we cannot pronounce in Jesus’ family tree. Instead of history depending on great men, change happens through movements with ordinary individuals joining together to make a difference. For example, author and speaker David LaMotte says:

They did not teach me in school that Rosa Parks was a day in, day out, activist. That she had been secretary for the NAACP in Montgomery for twelve years before she was arrested. For twelve years doing the dramatic and heroic work of … keeping minutes in meetings.[4]

Yes, Rosa Parks, a hero of the American Civil Rights Movement did not change the world in one day. She spent twelve years keeping minutes in meetings. I’m not sure how many of you love going to meetings and especially taking minutes at them! Not exactly hero work, right?

And then what happened in Montgomery after she was arrested? If Rosa Parks had been the only one to refuse to ride the bus the next day, what kind of change would have happened? No, it took approximately 40,000 African-American bus riders, day in and day out from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956 - more than a year of boycotting the bus for change to happen. Not heroes, not names recorded in the history books, but thousands of unnamed folk. Names lost to history. But that is how the world changes.

So, my friends, no matter the last name you carry – whether it is easy or hard to pronounce, whether you have had it from birth or changed it once or twice along the way, there is a place for you in this family tree. Because the name that truly matters is the one we received at our baptism - child of God; brother or sister in Christ; beloved.

Together this family has been changing the world, from Abraham to David, to Jesus, to all those who though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised; to you and to me. We stand in a long line of grace, so, let us not neglect the tasks of this day: to make things a little better, a little brighter, a little more peaceful, a little more loved until the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess the name that is above all names - Jesus Christ is Lord.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

Latest Sermons