All in the Family

All in the Family:

[A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, 2018]

Philip A Amerson                                                                               December 23, 2018

Fourth Sunday of Advent                                                                 Micah 5:1-5b, Luke 1:39-49

First United Methodist Church                                                        San Diego, California

Poem: On the Mystery of the Incarnation by Denise Levertov

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Introduction:

Genesis 4:9: הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחׅי אָנׄכִי   (English pronunciation: ha•sho•mer a•csi a•no•csi?)

This is a most ancient and challenging question for all humankind.  It is recorded in Genesis the 4th chapter, 9th verse.  ha•sho•mer a•csi a•no•csi?

My pronunciation, no doubt, has bruised the Hebrew.  I hope I have done no permanent damage!  It is a question that waits for our answer.  This Advent, in this nation, in our world, in San Diego, here is our question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” When asked the whereabouts of his brother Abel, Cain hurls the words back into God’s face.

In counterpoise, in Luke’s Gospel, we have the exchange between two women – Mary and Elizabeth.  Each is pregnant with the answer.  Each is carrying God’s incarnational response to Cain.  They are carrying an answer to the sinful, endemic, selfish proclivities in our human condition.

Mary and Elizabeth are kinfolk – two women, one older, the respectable wife of the priest.  The other, her cousin is a young, unmarried girl from the back waters of Galilee. Neither Mary or Elizabeth fit my picture the way I would tell the Christmas story.  In the face of social disapproval, they sing beautiful songs.

Walt Wangarin writes of this story:  “Mary, when she heard the news, ran south to a particular province named Judea, to a particular hill and on that hill, to one particular house and particular woman in that house to her friend, her cousin, Elizabeth.  “Elizabeth, hello.”  Just as the angel had greeted Mary, Mary greeted Elizabeth and Elizabeth began immediately to laugh. 

And just as the angel had sung a celestial song for her, Mary sang a song for Elizabeth.  “My soul,” sang Mary. “Oh cousin, my soul does magnify the Lord.  My spirit rejoiceth in God my Saviour.  He is keeping his promise to us.  Elizabeth, I’m going to have a baby!” 

So then, in the middle of a gloomy world there were two women, (singing and) laughing.  They laughed until they couldn’t laugh anymore and then they began to weep for gladness and God looked down from heaven and saw them and God laughed.  (From Wangerin, Walter, The Manger is Empty.)

Biblical Scholar Raymond Brown points out the birth narratives in Luke’s Gospel contain three of the most famous hymns of Christianity beginning with Mary’s Magnificat  – “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices.”  Then, the Nunc Dimitis, the hymn Simeon, Elizabeth’s husband sings and then the hymn of the angels — Gloria, in Excelsis Deo.  In fact, the entire gospel of Luke continues, full of ballads – told and sung.

I encourage you to read Mary’s song in the first chapter of Luke, this Christmas.  She sings of a world turned upside down – where the human family is rewoven into a kinship network where the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things.  Mary’s song arises from the Biblical call for a time of Jubilee.  Her song is a little introduction to the Beatitudes, the blessings, her son would teach in a few years. Here is our introduction to Christmas – Cain’s question is answered by with the joy and prophecy of Elizabeth and Mary.

We have heard Bob Wilson’s experience this morning. The surprising realization that when one seeks to bless the stranger – it is the giver who is also blessed. I have known others, like Bob.  There are many in this church, do you know the story of Gary and Myrna Cox and their befriending a homeless man?  It’s told in a little book Gary wrote.

Or, I could tell you of Alberta Dink the violin teacher in her late seventies who decided to teach violin to inner city children.  At her funeral a dozen years later over 60 children stood in the chancel of her church and played in her honor – one of those young man was by then in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  Or, there was Francis Neighbors who lived on a modest income but saw that every child in her congregation received a birthday card each year with a few dollars tucked in to help celebrate.

Christmas is a time for rethinking what we mean by family.  There was a little-known phenomenon in many communities in this nation of parents who lost a son on active duty in Vietnam.  I knew such a family.  Their son was always bringing someone home for dinner.  These parents decided the best way to honor him after his death was to frequently welcome a stranger to their table.

Let me close with a recent story of women: Tanuel Major and Grace Imathiu.  The Rev. Grace Imathiu is the pastor of our sister congregation in Evanston, Illinois.  On November 19th she received word that a woman, simply identified as “homeless,” was found bludgeoned to death on the church’s doorstep, the outside alcove.  Can you imagine?  What would we do?

Tanuel Major, 49 years old, had bedded down for the night next to the doorway when she was murdered.  The shocked congregation sought to find their way after this tragedy.  Pastor Grace, one of the fine preachers in Methodism, was born in Kenya and now pastor of this historic church faced the question, What to do?  Unsure, she said, “Violence crossed the line and showed up in church.”  “We are here because Tanuel Major was homeless… We are here because homelessness is an affront to human dignity… an affront to God… We are here because Tanuel’s story has been woven into our story. We are here because stories wake us up and give us clarity.”  She was asking how to join in the song of Mary in this situation?

The congregation organized a memorial service and other actions.  It wasn’t too late. They sought to “adopt” themselves into Tanuel’s family.  Persons from the congregation – trustees, food ministry, educators and more — were involved.  Tanuel’s sister came from a distance to one worship service.  She spoke, “Tanuel was a person – not a homeless person, she was a person.” Afterward, Pastor Grace asked who would sit with the sister, a visitor, more than twenty people left their normal pew perches and joined her. They placed Tanuel’s ashes in the church’s columbarium.  Imathiu said. “What does this say about God and what does this say about us who are disciples of Jesus? We’re taking it from a very different perspective. This is challenging us to … open our doors even wider, and to be even more connected and involved with the community of people that are either homeless or face violence.”  (Sources: Jonah Meadows, Patch, 11/20/18 and Kristina Karisch, The Daily Northwestern, 11/25/18)

This is a season when we consider who is in our family, and who is left out – this is a time when folks travel for miles to be with those they love.  The middle class and upper middle-class folks in Evanston discovered they had been overlooking family members.  These were family members God’s son Jesus was always welcoming to his table.

How far from our front door are unseen members of our family?  Well, it’s 590 miles from San Diego to Paradise, California.  It’s 2,084 miles from San Diego to Evanston and it’s 17 miles to Tijuana.  And, there are some, we call the “homeless,” who live up the hill, a few hundred yards above us.  Saint Paul’s answer to Cain’s question is summarized in Romans 7:14, “No one lives to himself.”

Who would believe a pregnant teenager about to give birth, out of wedlock, would bring to the world the Messiah?  She heard the word of God and responded – with song and laughter.  She gave birth to Jesus, the rebuilder of the human family.

Rachel Farbiarz is an artist, attorney and scholar of Hebrew scriptures. In a commentary on Genesis 4:9.  She writes: “The ‘neighbors’ for whom you must care are not only the people around you, but the entirety of this large, unruly human family from which you are a lucky, and burdened, descendent. Each member of this family is your ‘brother.’ And none, therefore, are you free to abandon.”…We are simply not at liberty to allow the gulfs created by national, cultural, linguistic, religious, or racial differences to separate us.  Instead, we must step up to this haunting question whenever it is asked and answer resolutely: “I am my brother’s keeper.”  (Becoming Every Brother’s Keeper: All Humanity Descended from One Family, By Rachel Farbiarz, in My Jewish Learning)

AMEN.

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Micah 5:2-5a
5:2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.  5:3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.

5:4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;  5:5 and he shall be the one of peace.

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 1:40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit  1:42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  1:43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  1:44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 1:45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,  1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

pdf copy of All in the Family 12-23-18

Blood Letters — Faith Faces Despotism

Blood Letters — A Witness to the Church

Earlier this year, the book “Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China” written by Lian Xi was published (New York: Basic Books, 2018).  I commend it to you.  Lin Zhao’s story is that of a young woman who confronted with tyranny, regained a centering point by reexamining and recommitting to her Christian faith.  She moved from being a dedicated member of the Communist Party, then experiencing the tyranny of Mao Zedong, to become a voice against totalitarianism.  Awakened again to her Christian faith she rejected the deceits and brutality around her exhibited by authorities. 

In seeking to find a life of integrity and truth amid the brutality and despotism, this remarkable woman drew on the Christian faith she had learned as a youth when educated in Methodist Schools.  Her faith became the source of hope — and truth.  She wrote letters and essays that circulated among the faithful outside of prison.

blood letters cover

In prison, authorities took away her paper and pens.  Lin Zhao continued to write.  She wrote on torn pieces of bedding, using her own hair and blood from pricked fingers to compose her letters and reflections.  Later, when she was given writing implements again, she often continued to write with her blood.  Lin Zhao was martyred in 1968 for her beliefs.  She is seen as the most famous of the martyrs of this time. Today, thousands in China continue to be inspired by her resistance to evil.

As intolerance, bigotry and suppression of descent rise in our world today, the witness of Lian Zhao becomes especially significant.  As attacks on a free press surge threatening to overtake truth and decency, this singular voice is a gift to us all.

My sermon on November 25th referencing her story — and that of many others.  If you wish, you can read it here: God’sMirrorforChurch 11-25-18.

We give thanks for the courage and witness for all of God’s people, especially for the witness of Lin Zhao.

Mirrors of Truth

Mirrors of Truth

We are arriving at the Reign of Christ Sunday (Christ the King).  It is the conclusion of the seasons known as Kingdomtide and Pentecost.  2018 is one of the unusual years when the Reign of Christ Sunday comes after Thanksgiving.

The scripture lesson is from John’s Gospel, the 18th chapter.  The lesson tells of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate — the Roman Governor who questions Jesus and has yet to be answered verbally for two millenia.   Pilate asks “What is truth?”  Jesus is SILENT —  He just stands there.  He has already given the answer by how he has lived.  Truth is discovered in right relationships rather more than in right answers.

Parker Palmer in To Know As We Are Known writes “In prayer I begin to realize that I not only know but am known.”  Palmer says “Truth is in relationship… “The hallmark of a community of truth is in its claim that reality is a web of communal relationships, and we can know reality only by being in community with it.”

So the sermon tomorrow will focus on the mirrors of truth I have known over the years — those who included me in the conversation toward truth.  [You can find it on the church’s webpage at http://www.fumcsd.org.]  I will be speaking of Olive and Sidney Anderson.  We knew them in Atlanta when in graduate school and teaching at Emory.  They worshiped, as did we, at Trinity UMC in downtown Atlanta.  Here is a part of the story that unfolded slowly as we knew them:  Anderson, Sidney (An Disheng) (1889 ~ 1978) – Methodist Mission Bicentennial.

Their amazing lives – the lives of these two were mirrors into the Reign of Christ which came into view as we were blessed to know folks like these and call them friends.

More recently another has demonstrated what God’s realm is about.  Bob Wilson worships every Sunday at San Diego First UMC.  He sits about six rows back on pulpit side.  His wisdom and good will exudes to those around him.  Recently Bob has made a generous response to the victims of wildfires in Paradise, California.  You can read about it here: Bob Wilson’s Generosity.  [http://enewspaper.sandiegouniontribune.com/infinit/article_share.aspx?guid=68587f94-6283-4340-ae0f-107fc920b4d9.

Folks like Sid and Olive Anderson and the Bob Wilson, each in their own special way, leave behind a legacy that answers the question “What is truth?” They answer through their lives, each in his/her own unique way.

Yeats speaks of the truth of legacy-making through relationships in this poem.

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun,
Now may I wither into the truth.

William Butler Yeats, The Coming of Wisdom With Time

Response to the Violence at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

October 27, 2018

Members and Friends of First United Methodist, San Diego,

We learned on national news of the terrible assault on members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Immediately our thoughts turned to friends in the Jewish communities here in San Diego.  I want us, as members of First United Methodist, to speak with a loud and clear voice against any such anti-Semitic acts of terror.  In this time, we will stand with these our neighbors. 

I ask you to join me in prayer.  We will have special prayers in our services tomorrow and we will continue to raise a voice against such crimes in the days ahead. For nearly forty years our congregation has joined in an annual Thanksgiving worship with friends at Beth Israel of San Diego.  Just this past week members of our staff met with Rabbis Michael Berk and Arlene Bernstein to plan for our service together on November 21st at Temple Beth Israel.  Dr. Fanestil will be preaching at the service this year.  Let’s show our solidarity with our neighbors by joining in this service.

First United Methodist Church will stand against such intolerance and violence.  It is evidenced so frequently in our nation and world today.  I want us to be such a voice for any group targeted for abuse or discrimination in our city.  Especially now, however, we stand with these friends at Beth Israel and Jewish communities around the globe.

The peace of Christ,

Philip Amerson

Let Caravans of Hope Be Our Response

Caravans of Hope — Our Response

“CARAVAN” it is a word being used to stir up fear among the good people of the United States.  You can hear it daily — the underlying message is “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Those of us who follow Jesus need to respond. We need not accept the false dichotomy being offered. 

There are humane and Christian alternatives we can choose.  It is not the either/or of “barbarians at our gates” versus “wide open borders.”  As a nation we can respond with safe and honest practices of processing those who seek and deserve asylum and those who don’t.  There are many constructive ways to offer hospitality and security at the same time.

Those of us who claim to march with the Prince of Peace, who came to earth surrounded by the message “Fear Not,” must respond.  How?

4ACAAA1700000578-5574353-Mexico_says_it_will_break_up_a_caravan_of_migrants_headed_toward-a-70_1522783521361

One possible response is to form our own Caravans.  Let’s make them “Caravans of the Spirit,” “Caravans of Hope and Love,” “Caravans of Compassion.”  Might we join together and march in another direction?  All of us can actually move toward the borders of our nation or at least to the borders of our daily routines to welcome, to send a message that we stand with those who suffer from FEAR — all of them — those brothers and sisters looking for asylum from terror in their home countries, AND those in the United States who are being misled by the deceits of some who seek to divide us and leave many to dwell in a muddle of fear.

Might we substitute HOPE for the HATE that is being encouraged?  Will you join in making today a day when you participate in Caravans of Hope?  From Eastern and Southern Europe, across the British Commonwealth and along the borders of the United States, in our hometowns, in our shopping malls and public spaces — 

DSCF2547

real people are facing the tragic reality of being demonized by those who seem to have no ethical or Biblical moorings. 

Let’s recommit to forming and joining our own caravans — ones that welcome and offer Biblical hospitality to the stranger and sojourner.  The time for a new direction can begin today through simple acts of including others with a smile, a kind word, a gift to those who work with refugees and a VOTE in the coming elections.   These acts indicate we are part of the LARGEST CARAVAN EVER — a Caravan of Hope.

 

 

 

Strong Leaders Serve

Strong Leaders Serve

8661153044_41a654cfbe_zWeek by week we gather at First United Methodist Church in San Diego.  I learn more about this good congregation and the ministries they provide.  The photo shown here is of the church shortly after it moved to the Mission Valley area over 50 years ago.  At the time it moved to a place of dairy farms and orchards. 

Today, it can truly be said this is a place that reflects the old hymn “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.”

This past Sunday we spoke of the importance of leaders who serve — HANDS OF THE STRONG.  Little did I know when I chose this topic back in June that it would also be a week of indictments, guilty pleas, new disclosures of the abuses of Catholic clergy or the tragic misguided leadership at Willow Creek Church, the well-known and influential mega church in Illinois.  Nor, did I know that this would be the weekend we would grieve the passing of Senator John McCain.  In the sermon preached on 8/26 we spoke of leadership and remembered the remarkable life of integrity and humility lived by Senator McCain.  It can be read here: HandsofStrong BLOG 8-26-18.

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Elaine beside “The 8” Freeway and the Church Beyond. Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life

So, what of the future?  The photo to the right was taken last week.  It is image of the church taken from a department store parking lot across the busy I-8 freeway.  Elaine, my spouse, is pictured here.  As I consider our future and the leadership that will be required, my prayers go out to the people who will continue the great ministries of this congregation long into the future.  As the United Methodist denomination seems to have lost its way — and is caught up internal controversy — in what Bishop Ken Carder has rightly described as “tacky” (with attribution to Will Campbell).  It is places like San Diego FUMC — and hundreds of churhes across the nation —  in the middle of the busyness all around that offer hope.  Here the vision of a world beyond the corrupt present will endure.  In such places.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forever Abiding

FUMCSD-01.jpgForever Abiding

My God my bright abyss                                  Into which all my longing will not go        Once more I come to the edge of all I know And believing nothing believe in this.    Christian Wiman

Abiding.  In a new place, with new people.  New friends.  Our second Sunday at San Diego First United Methodist Church. 

Attached is the sermon entitled “Forever Abiding” preached on August 19, 2018.

Prayers are appreciated for this fine congregation.  Forward we go.

Shalom,    Philip Amerson

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Sermon — Forever Abiding 8-19-18 BLOG