Knowing Your Story

Fun to be tied to importance, and to a larger story

It’s fun to be connected to people of “importance.” And we like telling those stories if we have them. There is a reason why the term “name dropping” exists. And if you are unfamiliar, the urban dictionary defines name-dropping as

“Referring to someone who is popular or famous in order to let the other person know that you yourself are popular and actually have friends. The event being described is usually a lie, or the story was exaggerated. Most of the time name dropping is used by people who think they are cool, but are not.”.

Name dropping is telling the story of the time you ran into a professional athlete. The time I ate lunch with Al Gore. The time someone ran into a pop star. The time I ate lunch with Al Gore.

These stories of running into people of prominence provide us modern folks with connection to the larger stories around us. If you have met Michael Jordan, or have had lunch with Al Gore, you feel part of the larger American story – in a fairly weak way, but in a way that other people might be able to relate to. It makes you feel cool, or of importance

Another way of feeling connected to a larger story is through family. In the United States, most folks have lost connection with their ancestral roots for more than a couple generations. Some have forgotten them. Some peoples were ripped from their lands of origin via the slave trade, and have no way of finding their roots. Connecting to one’s family history is another way of being connected to a larger story. It is a privilege to know where your family is from, and I have found it very meaningful to know where they are from, how they got here, and even the awful things that they were a part of to secure land in North America.

So what does this have to do with our story today?

John the Baptists Origin Story

In our text today – Zechariah, John the Baptist’s dad, prophecies uses a little bit of name-dropping. He connects John to Jesus, and he connects Jesus to Abraham and King David – How convenient to connect your son to Abraham, the man that started it all, and David, the tradition’s most beloved King.

At first glance, John the Baptist birth story is a hard one for me to swallow. To review – Zechariah and Elizabeth deal with infertility. Zechariah goes to the temple to light incense and an angel appears to him, saying that Elizabeth will become pregnant.

Zachariah doubts it.

I don’t blame him. In Luke 1:18 He says to Gabe, “How can I know that this will happen? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”

Gabriel has little grace for such doubting.

Gabriel says “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Gabriel also says that Zechariah has to name his son John.

9 months later Elizabeth gives birth – perhaps a scary experience because of her age.

The baby was circumcised on the 8th day, as done in Jewish tradition.

Then their relatives say that they should name the baby Zechariah, after his dad, and Elizabeth says no. They asked the still speechless Zechariah to write a tablet and he wrote “His name is John.” Immediately, he was able to speak again and the first thing he said was our scripture for today.

Part of a Larger Story

It is very interesting that the first thing Zechariah wants to say is how John is part of a larger Jewish story. He also links him to Jesus, his relative, who will bring about Salvation. And then to Abraham and David. That’s some pretty big name dropping in the Jewish community.

I am imagining when our little baby comes in April, listing off leaders in our country, perhaps a founding father.

“My child is born! Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and by the way this child’s father had lunch with Al Gore, (pause) aaaaand my child will prepare the way for the next president.”

Zechariah was a pretty proud parent, right out of the gate.

However, my metaphor only goes so far. I have no familial connection with Al Gore.

Genealogy is a key way that one understands they are Jewish, and Zechariah is naming that connection, tying John the Baptist to a history, to a people, in a way that John the Baptist can understand his own subjectivity in the world.

And it’s a way for us Gentile readers to understand the gospel’s connection to the Jewish Tradition.

Comparing Luke to Matthew and Mark/Tying in the Advent Theme

Genealogy is done in many ways throughout the gospels .It is interesting to compare Zechariah’s brief version of Jesus’ genealogy, Abraham and David, with the genealogy of Jesus given later in Luke 3. In Zechariah’s prophecy, He just includes David and Abraham. Later on the author provides a long list of Jesus’ ancestors, and that goes the whole way back to Adam. The author connects Jesus to an even larger story.

When comparing Luke to the Gospel of Mark, there is no origin story for Jesus or John There is no genealogy for Jesus either. Mark just jumps into the story.

When comparing the gospel of Luke to the Gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, there is a very interesting difference. The writers of Matthew include 4 women.

Four women have too often been shamed or ignored in our tradition. Tamar, Rehab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.

In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, we see the name Tamar – A woman who was violently abused by Judah’s family. Until a couple weeks ago, I thought there was only one Tamar in the bible, however, there are actually two in the bible, and I was getting their stories mixed up. I guess I have been doing my fair share of ignoring.

In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. we see the name Rahab, a sex worker, who literally lived on the edge of society, who chose to help to strangers.

In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, we see the name Ruth, an outsider – a Moabite, who takes a giant risk to move from her home to the land of Judah.

In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, We see the name Bathsheba, a woman who was assaulted by the very King David that Zechariah was celebrating in his prophecy. The famous man that he wants to connect with his son.

As we all know, this desire to be connected to king-like people who use violence against women is still very popular even today.

Matthew’s history is a little bit fuller. A bit wider. It’s a little more honest. It shapes the family of Jesus as a little less perfect than Zechariah’s “Abraham” and “David,” two patriarchs that the church perhaps thinks too fondly of when considering some of their actions.

The importance of telling truth to our past

For whatever reason, the writers of Matthew include 4 women whose stories often get overlooked. Our histories often overlook people. The desire to change how we overlook people, makes history a very hot topic today. How we tell history is at the center of many of our political debates. Some schools have been banning history books that address our country’s racism, and on the other hand some schools are ditching old books for text that are critical of things like our country’s origins.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Professor Of Peace Justice & Conflict Studies at Goshen college, spoke at forum this past week at Bluffton University. She told the story of the bus boycotts during the civil rights movement, and compared the story that we are often told, with a story that includes a wider breadth of involvement in the civil rights movement.

First, She shared the commonly told story of how Rosa Parks was tired one day and decided, on her own, that she was not going to get up from her seat when the driver demanded for her to move for a white person. And in doing so, Rosa started up the civil rights movement.

This narrative gives us a story of the civil rights movement that was very individualistic. A story of the civil rights movement that relies on heroes that make extraordinary actions.

Shands-Stoltzfus then shared a fuller history. One where there were actually many Black women that refused to move on the buses. 15 year old Claudette Colvin was actually the first person to refuse to get up 9 months earlier than Parks. Colvin’s story is very interesting on many levels. Colvin was seen as “feisty” and “uncontrollable” by many adults and as a result, the civil rights leaders decided to not organize around her case. Especially once she became pregnant right before her case came to the court. A young pregnant black girl was not going to be the ideal case to catch the sympathy of white people. So they switched to Parks.

How does understanding the civil rights movement, as a collective action of many people – not just individual heroes- change how we imagine action today. How does telling the story of the incredibly brave actions of people like Claudette Colvin, a person that doesn’t fit the respectability of white people, change how we imagine action against systemic racism, today. White people still demand respectability from black movements of justice. Why are we prone to such narratives?

How about another set of stories told in different ways – my family story. I could tell my family story by talking about how generous my great grandpa was to his children – providing my grandpa with enough land to farm so that his family could have enough wealth to live as middle class Mennonites. This wealth provided my dad and his siblings many opportunities, whether it was access to farming, education. This allows me to have access to a similar lifestyle, which I am thankful for.

Or I could tell it in a wider, deeper, more honest way. My great-grandpa, during the great depression, somehow had enough wealth to buy out many farmers in the community who were going under. This land, a hundred and fifty years earlier was “purchased” from the Shawnee, by colonist., The Shawnee’s Chief in the region, Chief Kishaqukillous, was known for his deep convictions as a peacemaker, and his peaceful actions during the French and Indian War. Kishaqukillous probably had a stronger peace witness than the Amish that were taking his tribes’ land. This prime farming land gets passed to my grandpa, who has a very successful farming career.

The second way of telling that story, which no one in my family has ever told me before, sheds a different light as to who I am today. The history that I am connected to. Perhaps a deeper and wider story.

How about our own stories. Do we tell the stories of our individual lives honestly – even if it is just to ourselves. Are we willing to own the parts of ourselves we do not like. The things that have happened to us that are painful. The decisions that we have made that we regret. Can we allow our stories to be deeper and wider.

Unfortunately in church, there is high pressure to act like we all have it all together. I feel very susceptible to this. Who does not want to present well. Like Zechariah – presenting his son John the Baptist, and his connection to Al Gore, I mean Abraham.

It takes a lot of bravery to tell yourself the truth, about the narrative of your country, your community, your family history, or your own life. It takes a lot of courage to tell these honest stories not only to yourself, but to others as well.

The importance of dreaming, and hoping, for what is to come.

A reason why it is important to know one’s history and stories, in a wider, fuller, and honest way, is because it shapes one’s hope.

After sharing John’s connection with Jesus, and Jesus’ brief genealogy, Zechariah switches to his prophetic hope for John’s future, and the hope for his people, whose history he just told.

Zechariah says, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”

Zechariah has hiiiigh expectations for his son. He also has a lot of hope.

If the hope that we have is based on an incomplete story. And incomplete history, how can we hope to be the reconciling Christians that we are called to be. How can we hope to be part of the healing in our world, if we are not willing to look at our own part in contributing pain in the world. How can we hope to heal from our own pain if we are not honest with ourselves about our own lives?

In our town here in Bluffton, our mural does not depict painful parts of our history or how this land was cleared for Swiss Mennonites to settle. How does our village hope to be a flourishing community without recognizing our fuller history. How can our village hope for a better future, if it can not tell its wider story. The story that includes those who have been marginalized and continue to be marginalized today.

This advent, starting next week, we are looking to remind ourselves of a wider history. We are going to reflect on how the stories of women have been left out of our biblical and cultural histories. Through Joanna Harader’s Advent book, Expecting Emmanuel, We are going to look into the stories of 7 women who helped prepare the way for Jesus’ birth. It is not a traditional Advent in this way, but it allows us to widen our understanding of Jesus, of our connection to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish history, and it allows us to reflect on how women are treated in these stories, and how women are treated today. By deepening and widening our story, maybe there is a deeper hope that can emerge from our season of advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

In this season, my prayer is that we can draw a wider picture of our own stories, both in our sacred texts, in ourselves, in this church, and in this broader community, so that we can hope and dream of a future that can reconcile even the most difficult parts of our past.