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.


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)



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

We Walk

Dear Friends,                                                                                                   Advent 2017

          We walk.  Every day.  Our fitbits record the steps.  The base goal?  Ten-thousand steps, nearly five miles.  The actual goal is to stay fit, keep our health.  Bloomington is a good place to walk.  The B-line trail is nearby, five miles of paved, safe hiking… soon to be extended.  Indiana University is three-quarters of a mile from our condo.  That’s 1,480 steps for Phil and 1,535 steps for Elaine.  Sometimes we stroll them, sometimes mosey, most often to a pace metered by the music playing in our earphones.  To grocery, library, barber, shops, restaurants, theater, museum, opera – we walk.  It’s a joy – mostly.

We left the farm in LaPorte, Indiana last Advent and headed to Bloomington.  The move spilled across the calendar of 2017.  After jettisoning decades of accumulated “stuff” through an estate sale last year, we find we actually miss only a few of those former treasures.  This year has been given to renovating the condo, sorting boxes, and reconnecting with many marvelous friends.  We worship at St. Mark’s United Methodist, two and a half miles away.  We haven’t walked there yet, but look forward to bike rides to church come Spring.  So, Advent 2017 finds us in our new primary home, a condo in our walk-about community of Bloomington.  Our lives are already full and overflowing with new activities and places of service – and, of course, there are I.U. sporting events for Elaine to attend (yes, she has basketball tickets).

Our grandsons Zack (9) and Colin Murray (14) are in Chicago.  Our California grandchildren, Gus (7) and Ellie (4), now live in Oakland.  Every month or so we travel north and/or west to steal as much grandparenting time as possible.  Their silly jokes, hugs, wonder at the world and whimsy are another way we “stay fit” and enjoy our health. These young ones carry so much delight and potential. 

Son Drew teaches at Hastings Law School and daughter-in-law Erin continues her work as research physician and faculty member of the UCSF Medical Center.  Tom and Lydia Murray, live in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, a nice walk to Wrigley field.  The Murrays are active with St. Paul United Church of Christ and the Lincoln Park Homeless Shelter.  Tom is Managing Director at JPMorganChase.  Lydia is a Senior Manager for Deloitte. Elaine and Phil also keep a small apartment in Chicago for a frequent get-away in that great city – and grands. 

We wish you and yours the very best this holiday season.  Not all of us can walk, but we can determine to journey away from the fears and bigotries so evident just now.  Might we all journey as if we were escorting Mary and Joseph, so that that baby Jesus might be born anew in our world.  It is recorded that Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, probably walking most of the way, or maybe Mary rode a donkey over those rocky and steep paths.  Depending on their route, 90 miles more or less, it took them a week or so.  Despite the terror all around they seemed to step out in hope for a better world.

Daily it seems we have reason to fear and grieve.  We see the damage done to our freedoms, our environment, and to others who differ in their race, religion, language or place of birth.  We walk a rocky and precarious path.  Even so, our hope for you and for all is for there to be abundant laughter, good health and new discovery of the remarkable friendships possible all around. We commit to join others in building emerging communities of resistance and hope. In these times when bigotry, division, ugly speech and greed seem to control the future, we know our prayers require action.  So, we keep walking toward the hopes of those Bethlehem pilgrims and away from the ugly betrayals of this past year.

We walk together with you –

Elaine and Philip Amerson, 500 N. Walnut, #306, Bloomington, Indiana 47404

E-mail addresses:;




What you take into your Hands, You take into your heart

Via Hand and Heart: Part II

The Knotted Gun sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reutersward, United Nations, New York

 December 14th, 2012.  Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut.  It has been three years — such horror.  If there were ever evidence that we are following a misguided path regarding access to guns in our nation, Newtown is the evidence.

Twenty-seven murdered.  Children, teachers, a principal — all sacrificed to our nation’s inability to think or act rationally to protect the innocents.

In the early autumn of 2013, ten months after the tragedy, I was invited to preach in a congregation in downstate Illinois.  During the sermon on the text of “reaping and sowing,” I spoke of our inability to address the gun violence in our culture.  At that point, ten months after the Sandy Hook murders, Congress was still unable to offer even the slightest form of intelligent response of healing or hope for an alternative approach.

Following the worship service a well-spoken gentleman approached.  He didn’t appear angry but he did begin by saying he wanted to disagree with the sermon.  “Okay,” I said, “Please share; I am eager to learn.”  At this point he said that I should not have mentioned guns — “talk about violence, if you must, but when you make it ‘gun violence’ you make it political.  People can also hurt others with a knife.” He went on “if more people were armed the innocent could be protected from the crazies.” 

I was speechless, frightened really.   I didn’t want to have an argument right there in the fellowship hall.  A long pause followed.  I prayed.  He was obviously a sincere, intelligent man — one who had the courage to speak of his disagreement.  After what seemed like an eternity, I reached out and took his hand, still not knowing what to say.  Then, these words came, “How long have you worshiped fire arms?  Is it possible that you may have substituted trust in guns for trust in God?”  To my surprise he squeezed my hand and instead of taking up the argument he said, “I’ll have to think about that” and dropped his head.

Later I found out that this man was active in state politics… If he changed his perspective on the gun lobby his work would be in jeopardy.  He too was frightened.

The scripture lessons at Christmas tell the story of the birth of Jesus, yes.  There is more.  This story continues as it moves toward the story of the slaughter of the innocents and Jesus’ family becoming refugees to avoid his murder.  Herod sends out word that all the male infants should be killed.  I am reminded of the cover of the New York Post the day following the Sandy Hook tragedy.

tumblr_mf2xwj6iFj1rv4aqro1_1280Congress continues to give more protection to gun owners than to the innocent ones who face the terror of sick, troubled and misguided folks who find it easier to own a gun than have a license to drive a car.  We are not helpless… even in the face of difficult odds against change.  Let me suggest that you look to the work of the Brady Center at Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In Part I of this reflection I spoke of the movie Witness and the scene where the grandfather Eli is speaking with young Samuel about the gun he has found.  He says to the child “What we take into our hands we take into our hearts.”  This is one of two scenes I will always remember.

When the movie first came out in 1985, I was teaching an urban studies class for future pastors in Chicago.  One afternoon the class went to see the movie and then came back to discuss it together.  There were about twenty students in the class, approximately half of them were from the Mennonite or Brethren traditions.  The other students were a mix of Presbyterian, Baptist, Reformed and Methodist. 

The discussion turned to the second unforgettable scene for me from the movie.   It is near the end of the film.  Gunmen come to the Amish farm to track down and kill Detective Book and members of the Lapp family who witnessed a murder in Philadelphia.  What ensues is dramatic, haunting and amazing all rolled into one.  I won’t spoil you by giving you the ending of the movie, but I want to share the reactions from my class to one scene in particular.  The grandfather is facing an approaching gunman.  He looks into another room where Samuel can see him as he motions.  Grandfather Lapp’s hand is out at his side, clenched and moving slightly up and down.  The boy understands and runs to perform the unspoken task. 

In the debriefing of the movie Witness with that class in 1985, I asked how many thought the grandfather was signaling for Samuel to go ring the bell to gather the neighbors.  All of the Mennonite and Brethren students raised their hands.  I asked how many thought the signal was to go get the gun… almost all of the rest of us thought it was signal to get the gun.

The difference in what was seen by the two groups continues to haunt.  One group had grown up knowing the power of community when faced with danger; others of us had learned to prefer force and power.







An Advent of Sustainability

A Sustainable Advent: Integral Ecology

Dateline – Paris, November 30, 2015:  It is the first day of Advent and the leaders of nations around the world gather to seek ways to address the dilemmas created by Climate Change.   While there are some who believe that concern for the climate is antithetical to economic prosperity, there is a slow and steady awareness among business leaders that an alternative to this old either/or model can emerge. 

Interestingly this environmental summit begins on the first day of Advent.  Advent is a season filled with of stories of exile and a longing for home.  It is a time of waiting and watching.  Paris, touched so recently by terror, knows something about the challenges of exile and the welcoming of strangers

For me, the question of Climate Change is a leading edge of growing faith understanding.  This issue is a way I continue to “learn to learn.”  Sustainability is another way of speaking of the human responsibility to provide enduring care for God’s creation.  So… Advent is a time to wait, think anew, and reconsider my beliefs in the light of new lessons from scripture and science.

On my desk is a copy of the encyclical “Laudato Si” offered this spring by Pope Francis. The subtitle of this fine document is “Care for Our Common Home.”  Drawing on the witness of the pope’s namesake, St. Francis Assisi, we are encouraged to seek an “integral ecology.”  Care for the earth, it’s creatures and all human beings is one, indivisible task — it cannot be separated into parts.  Our commitment to care for the poor and stranger among us is related to our care for the earth; they are one focus. [Link to Ladato Si: Care for Our Common Home]

For years I have pondered the power and beauty of scriptures related to the the creation.  The call for an integral ecology is another way of saying the deepest spiritual themes of scripture and faith are interconnected.

I think of Genesis 1, where we are told that God sees everything that has been made and announces “behold it is very good.”  I consider passages like the 24th Psalm (“the earth is the Lord’s and all that is within it”) or the majesty of Psalm 104 or 148 — or Isaiah 40.  All of these passages are linked speaking to how we are to relate to our neighbor — especially the widow, orphan and stranger.  Our Christian scriptures culminate with Revelation 21 which speaks of the fulfillment of creation as a new heaven and a new earth.  

For me, the most haunting passages comes in the eighth chapter of Romans, one section of which reads: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in childbirth right up to the present time.”  It goes on, “Who hopes for what he already has?  But if we hope for what we do not have we wait patiently for it.”

Advent is a time of waiting… in hope… and then taking steps toward a more integrated way of living as people of faith.  This is a time to ask and answer some hard questions, no matter your stance on how to proceed.  [Link to: NY Times: Short Answers to Hard Questions about Climate Change]

Sadly, there are climate skeptics who deny both science and these compelling scriptural injunctions.   Many in the U.S. Congress are voting against the plans that will be offered by the current U.S. administration this week.  Sadly, these skeptics do not offer any alternative ideas.  They simply deny the science — and the scriptures.  Leaders in more than half of the states are suing the administration over this climate care agenda.  Okay, congress and governors, disagree if you will; however, offer some alternative.  Especially if you make claims about being persons of faith.  At least speak to the matter of stewardship and God’s desires for the care of the earth.

If one is an intelligent Christian, this season of Advent is a time to think carefully about God’s call for us to care for creation.  The science regarding the dangers of climate change is compelling.   Even if it were not, we persons of faith are to be good stewards of all we have been given.  If you are a person of faith and cannot support the Paris proposals, then speak clearly about alternatives as to how we should live with care and respect for creation.  Advent is the perfect season to think this through and then begin to offer alternatives in the new year.

If, like me, you are both a person of faith and trust the science, then we may have the greater task.  How can we help others understand?  How will we live?  What will we do to bring about change.

One encouraging sign comes from persons in the corporate world who are ready to help address the climate crises.  Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates will be announcing the creation of a multi-billion dollar clean energy fund, tomorrow, November 30th, at the opening of the Paris summit.  This announcement comes after and in addition to his announcement this summer that he was investing more than $2 billion in renewable energy that will encourage both “productivity and sustainability.” 

Early reports are that several others are joining Mr. Gates in the creation of the clean energy fund; however, many donors wish to remain anonymous because there is still a considerable lobby of persons who are climate change skeptics among corporate leaders. 

This skepticism and resistance is changing, and apparently quickly, Steve Schein, a former CEO and now professor in the business school at Southern Oregon University has recently written “A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership.”  In it he suggests that more and more business executives are displaying an ecologically informed worldview — a worldview that for many of them has been nurtured since childhood.

2015, Pines in Yellowwood Forest

Several years ago a friend took me on a hike that led to a grove of trees in Indiana’s Yellowwood State Forest.  It is a wonderful natural cathedral.  The white pine planted in the mid-to-late 1930s are now over 100 feet tall.   This grove is still a spiritual place for me.  It is an Advent place — my Advent wreath —  where I pray and think.

It is more than a place to think and pray.  You see, as lovely as these trees are they are dying too soon. 

Planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, they are in an area that is often swampy and this forest lacks the necessary biodiversity of the wider forest and ground coverings all around.  Still, this grove of pines is far better than the land there previously; land that was eroding and abandoned due to the Great Depression that so scoured the region in the 1930s.  Something had to be done then… and it was.  These trees, now one of my favorite cathedrals, were planted over 80 years ago.  This was a temporary fix, perhaps only lasting 100 or 150 years.  It does, however, give space for further ways the natural world might, groaning as in childbirth, bring yet another season of beauty and hope.  Even if it is only a temporary fix, success at the Paris summit needs to be a part of our Advent prayers in 2015.