Second Chances for Prickly People

Since 1983, Ancestry and other subsidiaries like, Twenty-three and me have shed insight for many people into their family background. Treasure troves of new relationships, connections with people previously unknown have helped people discover details that they only heard rumors about before. Stories and documents have surfaced to fill in holes in family lore. Like piecing together parts of the proverbial puzzle, more of a picture becomes known.

Like genealogy that we hear opening the gospel of Matthew, the writer needs us to know that the Messiah is coming from a long line of God-fearing people. Fourteen generations between Abraham and David. Fourteen more generations from David to the oppression and exile under the Babylonians. Fourteen more generations until the coming of Christ. We might remember some of their stories from Sunday School or Sunday mornings gone by. Others we might scratch our heads and debate how to pronounce some names. When we dig into their stories, we discover that there were prickly people. This morning as we talk about prickly people – I am defining prickly people as those who ‘just in the getting through life’ are hard to get close to. I want to clarify I am not talking today about those who are toxic or destructive. There are those who are best to remain healthily disconnected from. This is for prickly people. Maybe it was their defense mechanisms throughout life, that made them hard to snuggle up to and understand. These parts of a ancestors of the faith are not swept away but included as a vital part of the genealogy of Jesus.

What is the defense mechanism do you think of first? Denial! Denial is refuting what was going on even when it was directly before them(1). Judah, son of Jacob and Leah, ends up unknowingly impregnating his daughter-in-law by thinking she was a temple prostitute. He attempts to deny his paternity after denying her marriage to his next sons after the death of her first husband, his son, in the levirate tradition. Check out Genesis 38 for the full story. While his defense mechanism was understandable, Tamar called him to responsibility and the continuation of the line of Jesus. Judah became father to Perez and Zerah, continuing the genealogy of Jesus.

Did you know that the sweet gum seeds that we handed out earlier were in high demand this last year? This prickly and seemingly unhelpful seedpod made an incredible and crucial contribution to humanity. The compound seed capsules within the prickly sweet gum are a naturally occurring source of shikimic acid, one of the main ingredients in the manufacture of Tamiflu.(2) Hopefully, you have not needed Tamiflu in your house. Tamiflu is prescribed when the flu hits to shorten the flu, reduce the contagion, and lessen the symptoms. When flu was raging, and the medication was in short supply, the prickliest source was the most dependable source of health and wellness. Isn’t it like God to have the prickly seed pod in the flower of the sweet gum?

Another more familiar example from the genealogy. A man after God’s own heart. How about David in the genealogy of Jesus? David wanted the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba to be his own – so he made it so. David had Uriah killed in order to marry Bathsheba. He rationalized his actions from start to finish to bring the events in line with his hopes. Rationalization is putting something into a different light or offering a different explanation for one’s perceptions or behaviors in the face of a changing reality. David was prickly, particularly when he wanted something. I can imagine that the biblical text is not the only place where we all know people like this. Do you have people in your own mind?

Earlier this week, I gathered with women in professional ministry for our annual Advent gathering. Our Bishop, Peggy Johnson, shared with us meditation on another kind of pine, the Jack Pine. This tall tree grows 30-70 feet in height and begins with their branches many feet off the ground. The jack pine is native to the northern parts of our country and into Canada. It is home to the Kirtland Warbler, who will only build nests in a young jack pine. However, the most interesting thing is the flower of the jack pine, the pinecone, remains completely closed off, keeping the seeds for the generation of pinecones inside, until fire comes. Fire is the only the way that the pinecone with open and release its seeds. It could be years that the cone will remain closed, until the heat from a fire causes the pine to release its seeds.These kinds of cones are called serotinous cones. Talk about a defense mechanism!

Bishop Johnson reminded us that we often go through challenging times and become more fully who God has called us to be. Our seeds, planting hope, are only released in those circumstances. This Advent season, we hear of the refiners’ fire as in the prophet Zechariah 13:9: “And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God.’” Forest rangers intentionally set controlled fires to release the seeds of the jack pines and to care for the health of the whole forest.

It was the prophet Isaiah that God spoke through about a wholistic vision for the whole community to bring about health and welfare for the people. The prophet Isaiah proclaims to the beaten down and underappreciated people of Israel that God’s vision is first for the leaders who will come after the forces are defeated. When Israel is restored, the leader will fear YHWH, make decisions for those who have suffered based on what the people need. I know it is disappointing right now, says the prophet, look forward to the future. A better time is coming. When even predatory animals will be able to be alongside their prey! The time is coming when those you are irritated by, will no long irritated with every little thing. So, begin to live into that way. Let the children lead you.

Nationally, we are moved by the concept of children leading us. We are moved by Ruby Bridges leading the way for children to together in school, even when anti-racism work makes us uncomfortable, or prickly, ourselves. We are captivated by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who is speaking out about climate change and its impact on generations to come, even when we are doubtful about her conclusions. We are curious about Muzoon Almellehan, a Syrian activist and refugee working out of the United Kingdom to keep Syrian girls in school, even when our own lack of knowledge gets in the way.

The United States Department of Justice established a permanent home in 1935. Shaping the agenda and giving voice to the era was vital. From 1938-1941, 61 murals funded by the Public Works Arts Project were completed in the Art Deco building. Each mural revealed artistic vision of what justice in this nation should/could look like.

One of the most striking images emerged from the mind of Symeon Shimin, a Russian born immigrant to Brooklyn, New York. In 1938, Shimin was hired to paint a mural, and “Contemporary Justice and The Child” was born.2 It took four years to complete the mural, which can still be seen on the third floor of the Department of Justice building in Washington D.C. today. It is a national reimaging of a little child leading them.

Some years, on the second week of Advent, we hear the voice of John the Baptist. John the Baptist would certainly have been called a prickly person. No one would have accused John of being warm and fuzzy. John the Baptist’s words call followers of Jesus to repentance and change. They call us to bear fruits worthy of the repentance. We are not just offering cursory sorrys for bumping into someone, but rather contemplating how we need to change AND doing it, under the tutelage of the prickly Teacher John the Baptist.

Preparing for the reign of God is life changing work for us and for creation. We have defense mechanisms because we have been hurt before. I invite you to take your sweet gums and offer it to someone else. I know that they are prickly. There are a few of you that would rather not touch them at all. We have spoken this morning about other people and their defense mechanisms; however, we all have them. They begin from an important place to give prey a shot with their predators. For you and I, we need to give others a second chance and sometimes third chances. Just like God has been giving us second chances, let us give second chances to the prickly people in our life to reconnect towards a vision of God’s peace.

This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ

Thanks be to God Amen.