Rediscovering the Essentials

Rediscovering the Essentials

A sermon by Philip Amerson, St. Marks United Methodist, Bloomington, IN

April 26, 2020, Third Sunday of Easter

Introduction: Let me begin by asking you to consider two questions: First, what in your life’s journey thus far has prepared you for this time of staying at home?  Second, what are you learning while staying at home that will help you better live on the journey ahead?

  1. Darkness and Sight

Sarah Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT, is one of our nation’s leading researchers of exoplanets — those places across the universe where the right conditions may exist for life, as we know it, to appear.  Professor Seager understands as few of us do, that sometimes we need darkness to truly see.  You see, exoplanets are often hidden by brightness of nearby stars.  Dr. Seager also knows that sometimes journeying through the dark places of our personal lives allows us to see ourselves and our relationships more clearly.  Eight years ago, her husband Mike, died of a rare cancer.  Mike gave space for Sarah’s career to flourish.  He was house husband and primary care giver for their two young sons.  As Sarah put it, she never had to shop for groceries, or cook or pump gas… all she had to do was find another earth.”[i]

Sometimes we need darkness to see, as two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus were about to discover.  Who were they?  We have the name Cleopas as one of the travelers.  The other is not named. I love the mysteries of this story – this is a parable inside a parable and it is for then, and now.  This story is filled with surprises.  It has become so familiar for many of us – perhaps too familiar.  What might it help us see for the first time?  In this season of pandemic and fear, eager to get back to business-as-usual and back to something “normal,” who and what might we re-discover to be essential?  Where is our true home? What might our eyes be opened to see for the first time?

Our images may not include the possibility that one of the travelers is a woman.  There have been several paintings with an artist’s depiction of these two travelers; however, few if any, depict one of them as a woman.  In my mind this seems more likely.  You see, there are surprises for us here.

In this time when the world has been turned upside down by a microscopic coronavirus – when our personal worlds have been capsized, thrown into disarray, we might well understand the situation facing these Jesus-followers who are headed “home;” but home has become an unknown territory.  This fellow Jesus, a promising rabbi, had taught, healed and helped people face disappointment, death and despair.  He had brought hope. Now it had been dashed.  The words “we had hoped” leap from the lips of these travelers.  As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Living life with hope in the past tense is worse than death.”[ii]

Those disciples, like us, are caught between two worlds – for one they had hoped — and in one they now lived.   Richard Rohr writes: “It would be difficult to exist in this time of global crisis and not feel caught between at least two worlds—the one we knew and the one to come. Our consciousness and that of future generations has been changed. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle.”  [iii]

  1. The Essentials

It is in these times that we discover again who and what is essential.  Is a haircut essential?  Well, it is if you are a barber!  A veil has been lifted and we now discover persons who are essential.  Who is essential in your life?  We discover the essential work of custodians, public safety workers, those who stock the grocery shelves, nurses, truck drivers, physicians, those who collect the garbage… this list goes on and on. 

Are clean air, water and a healthy natural world essential?  As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, arrived on Wednesday, for the first time in years people in many places saw blue skies, nearby mountains, fish in streams and canals – we are seeing things we had not known we were missing. We now can see – if we look —  that we are interconnected with every other person on this planet.  We are connected with the entirety of our ecological systems. 

As Will Willimon puts it, we are discovering, like these early disciples, that “Jesus is on the loose.” Like a guest who shows up and starts teaching us the lessons we have ignored for too long.  Might we see the interconnectedness of all things? Might our global environment be struggling with an infection – a virus or too much pollution?  Could our vibrant sphere, this planet, our earth home, be struggling with too much use of fossil fuels, too much travel, so much greed, an ignoring of caring for the health of our natural gifts?

We are discovering that planning, science, good information, wise governance and preparedness are essential.  Just-in-time production and delivery now leaves us sorely unprepared — for this sudden change in what is needed for a quality life… for life itself.

Almost 70 years ago, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs: physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization and transcendence.  I hadn’t thought of this in years, decades.  Today, it has become more obvious and important.  While we are sheltering-in-place, or staying-safe-at-home, we are discovering again these – and other – core human needs.  What would you include as essentials?  What would your hierarchy include?   If like me you have discovered such things as the importance of belonging with others in new ways – family and friends, caring for the neighbor.  Some who you have not thought of in months. 

I have discovered that movement is a fantastic privilege.  When we lose the freedom to move about freely, we face difficult choices about our identity.  Pico Iyer wrote travel books suggesting that “We travel initially to lose ourselves and next we travel to find ourselves.”  But later, Iyer wrote a critique of his earlier writings entitled: The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere.  Borrowing from Thoreau he wrote: “It matters not where or how far you travel — but how much alive you are to the place you are.” [iv]

And, for me, knowing about home is an essential – Home, where we can prepare for the journeys ahead and practice seeing in a new way.  Home is not where you sleep, it is where you stand; it is what and who you value. It is hard to get your bearings when in midair.  So, home is more than a place.  Home is a work in progress.  Home has less to do with a piece of soil than a place for the soul.  Nelle Morton, in her book The Journey is Home taught us many years ago that “home was not a place. Home is a movement, a quality of relationship, a state where people seek to be ‘their own,’ and increasingly responsible for the world.”[v]

You see, we do not know where Emmaus is geographically.  Frederick Buechner puts it this way, We do not have to know where Emmaus is… we just know that it is seven miles from heartache and heartbreak.   Even better, I like the notion shared by John Dominic Crossan who says, “No one, then or now, knows where Emmaus is… maybe it is nowhere… or maybe it is everywhere.

This story challenges our notion that it is our job to somehow find Jesus.  Too much of our theology and church work in North America presumes that we are the ones who are to set about to discover Jesus, as if he has been lost.  No.  Instead, like in this story, it is Jesus who finds us along our journey and in our home… The resurrected Jesus on the loose, finds us, and teaches again what is essential.

Where do you find hope?  Where do you see Jesus on the loose?  I have found hope in poetry, song and good writing.  If you have a chance, read the blog of John Robert McFarland, Christ in Winter.  We miss seeing John and Helen in church each week these days — but we can read what he writes. It is a gift and I often read it to discover that Jesus is on the loose in ways I had not seen before.  Thank you, John, you help me discover an unexpected Jesus.

  1. The Table – Journey and Home

So dear friends, in this place and time, what do we learn when we journey?  And, what at home prepares us for the journey ahead?  Four things I hope you remember from the retelling of the Emmaus story today:

  1. Sometimes darkness is essential to more clearly see.
  2. Jesus is on the loose all around you.
  3. At Emmaus the tables are turned and disciples re-discover hope.
  4. This hope is a journey. Home is a journey, that may become a permanent residence.

When I think of Jesus on the loose, I think of friends who have helped me see that the stranger just might be the Jesus on the loose, of Christ incognito.  I saw this most clearly on a journey I took with two friends, two characters, Ernie Teagle and Raydean Davis. Ernie was a cardiovascular surgeon in Belleville, Illinois.  Raydean, a Methodist pastor who served during most of ministry in university settings.  We had been reading some Latin American theologians and had the crazy notion of riding motorcycles all the way to Costa Rica to visit with some theologians there. 

When we arrived at the border with Mexico, we discovered that we would be charged a crossing fee as well as a tariff.  You see, the Mexican authorities thought we might be trying to bring the motorcycles there to sell at a profit.  Then we learned that between the Texas border and the Guatemalan border with Mexico, there would be fourteen other check points — each requiring the payment of a crossing fee.  So we turned the bikes around and decided to fly to Costa Rica.  Heading for New Orleans we ran into a terrible rainstorm.  We were soaked and the heavy rain and wind seemed to get only worse.  Just over the Texas border with Louisiana, we found a Holiday Inn and decided to shelter there for the night.  We were drenched.

Once we were settled, we headed to dinner in the hotel.  No one else much was there.  There was a waitress, and obviously a cook because food came to the table.  There was the fella at the front desk.  No one else.  My crazy, wonderful journey friends, Raydean and Ernie said to the waitress “Would you bring us another one of those dinner rolls and a bottle of Merlot?  And invite the cook, the desk clerk, the custodian and anyone else here to come and sit with us for a while.”  They did. 

I was slow.  I had a vague idea of what was going to happen – I should have known better.  When we had all gathered, Ernie looked at Raydean and said, “Okay, you’re on.”  Raydean asked everyone to come in close.  He asked each person’s name and then he broke the bread and shared the wine.  As Fred Craddock has said, “Had they known before the invitation that the stranger was the Christ, one can imagine the red carpet and elaborate preparations.  But it was with tired and hungry travelers that they shared bread.  They prepared supper, and his presence made it a sacrament.[vi]

St. Augustine said that breakfast the next morning is a sacrament, if one knows that Jesus is present.  As the meal was shared these disciples’ eyes were opened.  They were changed from those who said, “we had hoped” to ones you exclaimed, “did not our hearts burn within us!” 

The funny addition to this story is that the next morning we rushed off on our motorcycles and made it to the New Orleans airport just in time miss our flight.  So, we waited another day and again, in another hotel, Raydean blessed the bread and wine and we shared these gifts with a new group of strangers who became our friends.

The text in Luke says that after the meal Jesus disappeared.  These two folks who had walked seven miles to arrive home were now ready for the journey, they were now eager to rush back to Jerusalem to tell the others of this experience.

May you understand that sometimes it takes darkness to see more clearly, that Jesus is loose in the world, that tables can be turned and bring new awareness and may you know that home is also a journey… and the journey is also your home.  What we learn as we stay indoors can prepare us for the journey ahead.  Amen. 


[i] The Daily, NY Times, The Sunday Read, The Woman Who Might Find Us Another Earth,” April 19, 2020

[ii] Taylor, Barbara Brown, Gospel Medicine, p. 21.

[iii] Rohr, Richard, “Between Two Worlds,” Center for Action and Contemplation, April 26, 2020.

[iv] Gate, Tom Montgomery, March 14, 2018, from the blog Spiritual Detours.

[v] Morton, Nelle The Journey is Home, pp. xix.

[vi] Craddock, Fred, Luke: Interpretation, p. 121.

After the Storm — The Congressman Responds

Χριστός ἀνέστη! Easter Redux

The congressman responded – in three days! An email arrived late yesterday from Congressman Trey Hollingsworth. A response in three days? Normally I wait weeks/months — often no response comes. Okay, I admit to chuckling when I thought, “Three days, that’s the time Jesus was in the tomb.” Good for you Congressman! Someone in your office was working on Saturday. I would guess there were dozens who wrote him about his comment that we should “put on big boy pants” and give attention to securing our future lifestyle over loss of life.

So, what I received was boilerplate, I know. Nice generalities and lofty, vague words of concern. There were many others who received the same response, no doubt. However, there was a difference in tone — less strident, fewer overtones of conspiracy. While the response was generic and suggested we needed to be thoughtful, the underlying message appeared to be the same.

This post includes first thoughts on my-response-to-his-response and concludes with some suggestions for us all about where we go from here. But first… It’s Easter!

For the world’s Orthodox Christians this is Easter Day. For me, it is Easter Redux. At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the celebration began late Saturday night when blazing candles filled the church. Christos Anesti!” the priest shouts at midnight and the Orthodox worshipers respond: “Χριστός ἀνέστη!” – “Christ is Risen!” But this year it was different.

Normally that flame starts in Jerusalem and is carried by plane, helicopter or other transport to Orthodox churches around the globe. However, this year, the pandemic has changed that. Normally Orthodox churches are packed. In some communities the priest moves through the community from house to house blessing the homes of the believers. Not this year — this pandemic has changed that.

Our world has been changed — even so, from the stillness and the isolation, from the sheltering alone/together, I hear the unifying desire of people of faith everywhere — Χριστός ἀνέστη! Christos Anesti!

There are other refrains. Persons of other faith traditions share their light in this time of sadness. And, nonreligious persons who seek the common good join their voices and hands toward a better future.

We also hear persons who say “we will never return to normal” while others say “we need to return to normal as soon as possible.” Which is it?

Truth is, there will be no returning to normal and, truth is, we need to do more than lament our loss.

First, we need to look to science, wise governance and theological/ethical understandings and give our best to reducing the effects of this scourge, saving as many lives as possible AND at the same time we need to begin to offer new economically just ways forward. I believe we can shape ways that save as many lives and the health of as many as possible and at the same time offer new options for a strong and more just economic future.

What if we worked to share Christ’s light around the world in new ways? What if we were to move beyond the corrosive and divisive powers at play and aspire to a new way of living? Kidar Nelson has recently completed a painting entitled After the Stormhttps://www.cbsnews.com/news/artist-kadir-nelson-after-the-storm/. (CBS News, April 19,2020) He pictures dozens of folks, young and old; persons of all hues and cultures in a compelling human pyramid. Together, hands and arms interconnected, they are looking to the horizon. Nelson says, “I would challenge everyone and anyone to fill their days with creating something that’s going to help themselves get to the next moment, to the next hour, to the next day, to the next week, so that by the end of this experience, we’ve created this beautiful document that shows where we’ve been, who we are, and how we’re going to move forward.” (See: kidarnelson.com)

My temptation, and I fear the temptation of too many, is to anger. On all sides there seems to be a deep desire to blame someone, to settle some score, to act on some accumulated grievance. Do I believe some have behaved badly. Yes. Are some still seeking to reshape the narrative, turning mistakes into efforts to malign others. Yes, I do see this. There will be a day of accounting. However, for now, I urge us to give our energies to imagining and aspiring toward a better future. Like Kidar Nelson, let’s bring the gifts and interests we have into a time of creativity.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C. our leaders still talk of “relief packages.” Word is that “Relief Package – IV” is in the works and will soon be approved. Okay — good. Let’s get support for those who are suffering with health and with their financial futures — individual persons, small businesses, hospitals, communities and corporations we will need as we imagine a better future together.

Shaping and funding relief packages now is important. Envisioning a new way our economy can function and all lives can be improved is essential. In his letter Congressman Hollingsworth wrote: “It is the duty of elected officials to present a plan to the American people that acknowledges this reality. We must have the difficult conversation about how we can minimize both the risk to American lives and the risk to our American way of life.  Then, we can move forward as a country.

Yes, let’s have those difficult conversations. I agree. Let’s hold them in places where folks are welcome to disagree, agreeably. Let’s move away from photo ops with a few supporters, to Town Halls where many voices can be heard and new insights gained.

Yes, let’s move forward, but not with the foolish notion that we can go back to the normal. Let’s think together about what we have learned in this time. Let’s think together about what we have learned about supply chains, research needs, rural health options, personal safety equipment. What does this mean about our international relationships and the reality that our global community carries with it opportunities as well as threats? Let’s talk honestly about that.

What does “moving forward” mean? Later this month I will say more — more about this creative opportunity, more about the dimensions of God’s will, more about what we can learn from our history and, mostly, more about how we Christians might live with love toward all people and all of God’s creation.

For now, I wish you all a belated Easter greeting. Christos anesti, Χριστός ἀνέστη

No, Pandemics Are Not God’s Will

No, Pandemics Are Not God’s Will!

I was surprised, shocked actually, by the thousands who read my letter to Congressman Trey Hollingsworth (Indiana, 9th Congressional District). Hollingsworth said that in the face of our COVID-19 pandemic we had to choose securing our livelihood even if it meant sacrificing some lives. Since then, the congressman has walked back his statement. Now says he was “only saying this was a difficult choice.

While I appreciate the congressman’s more moderate verbiage, his underlying message remains the same and is obvious: even if some people have to die, we should give greater preference to commerce over the current efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.

Responses to my letter were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, there were only a handful who argued that this pandemic was God’s will. God’s will? Sadly, I find such perspectives as not only wrong-headed, but dangerous. Is it God’s will that children are abused? Is it God’s will that persons are afflicted with cancer? Was the holocaust God’s will? This pandemic is in no way God’s will! I hold that God expects us to do something about this suffering and death. It is in our response to such tragedies where we can begin to discover God’s will. Over the centuries we have seen God’s will displayed by folks like Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer or Father Damien. Many of the horrific realities human beings face are rooted in poor, uninformed, and sometimes evil, human decisions.

I believe God’s will is now seen in heroes, like Dr. Birx, Dr. Fauchi and Dr. Francis Collins. Even more, God’s will is demonstrated in the nurses, grocery clerks, physicians, police and fire personnel, truck drivers, medics, researchers, and all who risk their own health for the sake of others every day. In my reading of scripture and knowledge of other faith traditions, such neighbor-care is at the core of what God wills for all of us.

Too much of what goes on in our nation these days is misconstrued somehow as God’s will. It is not. We humans have moral choices to make each and every day. There has been an emergence of phony-Calvinism evident in our nation over recent decades that somehow suggests certain events, tragedies and even election results are “predestined” as God’s will.

Those who genuinely read John Calvin’s work know he understood the importance of human agency as part of God’s plan. Anyone who knows the story of John Calvin’s ministry in Geneva knows the remarkable way he responded to the plagues in his time. His actions involved the quarantine of those who were ill, the seeking the best medical advice possible and an understanding that some brave persons would be called on to risk the care of those who were sick and dying. This was the core of God’s will. Calvin himself visited these plague hospitals to pray with those who were suffering, knowing full well that he was putting himself at risk.

Those who know me, know I am Wesleyan. I have my disagreements with Calvinist thought although the richness of his understanding of God’s intentions for human life are of great value. My reading of the theology of John Calvin offers absolutely no support for a nonsensical notion that this pandemic is God’s will! Nor, should his view of predestination be thought to support a passive approach to this pandemic.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, moved away from Calvinism. Still he also saw the important role of Christians as ones who expressed Gods’ will though wise medical practice. Now is a time to affirm that all life is to be valued and protected. All of life! We need to learn new ways to care for God’s creation, across the entire ecology of our human, animal, plant, water, air, stone and soils.

Yesterday, in what appears to be a coordinated effort to push for this false choice between lifestyle and life, “supposed” medical epidemiologist “experts” like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil (not an M.D.) made similar arguments to those made by the congressman. Dr. Phil suggested that car accidents and smoking kill more people every year than this virus. Okay — first, one wonders how he knows, as this virus only started claiming victims a few months ago (it has not yet been a year). And secondly, while people choose to drive and smoke, I haven’t heard of anyone who chooses to be infected by this virus.

Even worse, Dr. Oz said that if we returned now to free movements and social contacts it would “only cost us 2 to 3 percent, in terms of total mortality.” Two or three percent? In the United States that could mean over six million deaths! Really? One wonders why we must suffer from a pandemic of confusion and poor logic along with this virus. How many will needlessly die from such pandering?

There are better ways to help our businesses than sacrificing the lives of millions. In fact, the return to the “normal” of 2019 too quickly, very well could lead to even more mortality AND long term economic and commercial damage. Congressman Hollingsworth is right in saying these are difficult choices. However, he is wrong if he fails to consider the likelihood that this pandemic will come in waves, just like the Spanish Flu, in the early Twentieth Century. He is also wrong if he buys into a simplistic either/or of commerce or life — he says the question is complex. Okay how will the policies he supports demonstrate this?

This pandemic will bear a cost in both lives lost and economic suffering; our response needs to begin with an understanding of human agency. Are we responsible? Do we decide what our economic theory and practice should be? Or is this a time we will make our economic theories into our “Gods” that will determine and limit our ethical choices? What we need now are clear-eyed, well researched medical, economic and, yes, I would argue ethical/theological responses to this crises. That is, in my view, God’s will.

Congressional Big Boy Pants

Congressional Big Boy Pants

Just when you think things can’t get more ridiculous, along comes a congressman from my district that makes an astonishing remark. Congressman Trey Hollingsworth, Indiana’s Ninth Congressional District actually said that we should all put on our Big Boy Pants and agree that protecting our lifestyle during this COVID 19 pandemic is more important than protecting life.

I haven’t published much on my blog recently as I know there are many other valuable voices during this time. However, the letter below captures my “energy” and my sadness at the irresponsible ways many of our supposed leaders are seeking to avoid responsibility and blame others. So — here is that letter:

Dear Congressman Hollingsworth,

Greetings, sincere best wishes, and prayers for you.  Hearing your comments on a WIBC Indianapolis radio interview regarding our society in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic left me dumbfounded.  I thought the news reports that you said we should protect our “way of life” as being more important than the “lives of our citizens” was a reporting error.  Then, this evening, you doubled down suggesting again that we have an either/or choice of life or livelihood.  You were suggesting that some should be sacrificed so that our lifestyle would not suffer. 

I don’t know your faith tradition – you are listed in religious preference for congressmen as an “unspecified Protestant.”  Your comments are far afield from the teachings of people of faith and moral persons everywhere.  Could you please send me information on the teachings you follow?  Exactly what kind of Protestant are you?  Are you familiar with the teachings of Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Knox or others regarding the sacredness of life?  I am certain your Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish constituents would find your stance outside their understanding of the central value of life.  Most non-religious folks I know have a stronger moral core. Would you say you get your moral clues more from Ayn Rand or Jesus the Christ?  I am just wondering if you value that silly idea from Jesus and other religious thinkers about each of us being “our brother’s keeper.”  I guess such ideas are to be jettisoned in the event of a pandemic.  Lifestyle over the life of some – is this what you are saying?

So, I am “putting on my big boy pants” as you suggested in your interview and writing you about your comments.  (BTW, I have been wearing BBP for over sixty years.)  Might I be among those to be sacrificed so you can proceed with your livelihood?  If not, what are you saying? 

Three reflections for you to consider:

1)  Which lives should be sacrificed, exactly?  Suddenly, persons on the lowest rungs of our social order are deemed “essential workers.”  Are these the lives we now sacrifice? I am speaking of janitors in hospitals and nursing homes, those who stock shelves, work at checkout counters of grocery stores and pick up our garbage. What about our nurses, medics and physicians? Many of these persons struggled to have decent food and lodging prior to this pandemic — and are even more threatened now.  What are YOUR PLANS to make certain these “essential” ones critical to a restart our economy will be rewarded and well treated now and in the future?  Please send me a copy of the plans you supported for the needed economic stimulus and point out how lives of these essential workers are valued in the plan.  The plans you and your Republican allies in the House propose don’t seem to include these good and essential folks in your desire to get back to “livelihood” of those you think who matter.

2) As with so many things, you set this dilemma up as a dichotomy, either life or livelihood.  Binary thinking seems to be the way of so many, especially in the Donald Trump era.  Sir, if this false dichotomy is an example of wearing big boy pants, I would simply say, it is small, immoral and dangerous.  Just where will you draw the line as to human sacrifice?  I would genuinely like to know.  Maybe this is the way you want our social order to be handled?  De we want our health care workers following such a false choice?  How about our public safety officers?  Our teachers?  Might we encourage them to think about who should be sacrificed so that the livelihoods of those you prefer can be secure?  I would pray that when you make decisions regarding our nation’s fate and future you consider multiple variables and shape arguments that are more than a simplistic either/or.  NOW is the time for humility and exploring the difficult calculus of saving both life and lifestyle.  In my experience, those who wear BBP are the ones who understand that we do all we can to save BOTH life and lifestyle.  Fortunately, Governor Holcomb, a Republican who seems to wear his BBP well, is modeling a more mature view and practice.

3) Over recent months I have sent you questions regarding our national leadership — and you have avoided answering them.  I now understand a little better why.  You must have thought these to be a bother because they might require nuance, a humble admission that life is complex and that you might not have all the answers.

Perhaps a clarification or apology is in order.  Or, perhaps you might want to go help carry bed pans at a hospital in Jeffersonville or work with medics on a life-saving run in Greenwood or sit with the preschool children of nurses in Bloomington and then tell us all about your belief that life-style is more important than life.  It is not a forced choice – it is a false one — I think you know that.  I will wait to hear you admit it.

Dear sir, please stop embarrassing those of us in the Ninth Congressional District of Indiana you were elected to represent.  See if you can find some genuine BBP that might look like they fit a United States Congressman.

Most sincerely yours,

Rev. Dr. Philip Amerson