Conjectures from This Guilty Bystander – Part I

Conjectures from This Guilty Bystander — Part I

A preliminary note: It is June, season of personal anniversaries, marriage (53 years) and ordination (51 years). 

For United Methodists, this is a time when regional gatherings called Annual Conferences meet and plan– or at least that is the theory.  After a fractious and harmful called Special General Conference in February, it appears that the denomination which I have served for over five decades is headed for a nervous breakdown – or an amputation of various body parts.  Who knows what will survive and in what form?

I find myself thinking there must be some way to think about this in a larger context than “my denomination” and “my years of ministry.”  I am reminded of the marvelous quote by Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, then you are not thinking big enough.”

So, I turn first to Thomas Merton for a larger frame on the world and the church — then over the next several postings (don’t know as yet how many) I will share some reflections from the view outside my window.

Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was published in 1965.  This wide-ranging collection of snippets from his notebooks is a rich resource.  Merton wrote, “We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to beand spoke of the importance of “living fully in the condition of limited knowledge.

I recall the day a van load of us, young seminarians, were carted off to Gethsemani Abby near Bardstown, Kentucky. The Vietnam War was raging; I remember the compelling call from “Father Louis” to live fully into our Protestantism.  We should offer our delight in this struggle as “way-finders to the peaceable kingdom,” he said. Imagine my embarrassment upon learning later that this remarkable, robust monk, was in fact, Merton.
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When I read Merton I read a provocateur, a convivialist, whose insights push me forward.  My paltry, pale insights offered here are but wisps of smoke in comparison.  He writes as a “bystander” from the monastic life.  He shares “personal reflections, insights, metaphors, observations, judgements on readings and events.”  I write from the balcony of retirement — or at least my several recent attempts to retire.  I pray that while my thoughts will not match this master, I might have the vulnerability and a bit of the humility he displays in his work. Throughout Conjectures Merton reminds us of our vulnerability and that “We need not seek happiness, but, rather, discover that we are already happy.”

I will say more about near encounters with Merton and those who knew him in future posts. Before a few reflections on my denomination, United Methodism, and its current fracturing, this passage below from Conjuctures seems apt.

“I will be a better Catholic,” Merton writes, “not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot affirm and accept, but first one must say “yes” where one can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 133)

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I’m having that sinking feeling — “Help, help,” United Methodist’s cry, “we’re Melting!”  For me, these weeks of United Methodist Annual Conferences

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Disappearing Glacier on Columbia Ice field in Canadian Rockies

around the U.S. have been times of Despair and Delight.  United Methodism in  2019 feels like a glacier confronted with rapid climate change.  We are, as the Brits would put it, in omnishambles.  There are fissures all around.  I delight because each week in May and June from many Annual Conferences has come good news.  We are electing delegates to the next regular General Conference in the spring of 2020. Delight — a strong majority thus far, as represented by the delegates elected from Texas to Missouri to Florida to North Carolina want to turn away from the punitive past regarding our homosexual siblings.

Across the south and Midwest there is  change.  Trends strongly favor of Centrists and Progressives (as they have been labeled) picking up dozens of delegates.  Will it be enough to change things?  Well, probably not.  Legislation may change, but hearts and minds are less pliable.  It may be that we are stuck.  Many of these new delegates are folks who seek to reverse the harmful and mean-spirited actions take at the February 2019 Special General Conference —  reclaiming a more open stance for the church on issues of LGBTQI acceptance. The General Conference in February uncovered the ugly divisions that have been dividing the church for more that four decades.  The presenting issue is homosexuality but it is so much deeper than this. 

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Truth is the denomination in the U.S. has been melting for years and we have been seeking answers in all the wrong places.  Hearts and minds will never be changed so long as we see one another in categories, rather than as fellow children of God.

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I am told by friends I trust on all sides that there is no mending this shattered church.  “This broken family must now be dissolved,” they say.  Many families, kinship networks are already stressed and separated.  “Divorce is painful but it is not all bad,” I hear.  I am told “Methodists have done this before” — remember we divided over slavery in 1844!  I am told that United Methodism must be abandoned so that a new church can emerge.  To my ears some of this talk sounds a bit like the language from Vietnam when some foolishly said “We had to destroy the village to save it.”  Frankly, the talk of division comes too easily — Disaffiliation for what?  Toward what end?  It is the old metaphor of a glass half full and focusing on the empty part of the glass.  What is the value, the potential, of that which is already in place?  Yes, I will say it, there is a kind of naivete abroad when folks quickly say it is time to separate.

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Nor does this talk of division ring true theologically for me.  I think of I Corinthians 12 and 13 or the message to the early church found in Galatians.  This month our Gospel lections were from John 14 and John 17.  Are these not calls for the followers of Jesus to stay together?   The prayer of Jesus presented in John 17 has been called the High Priestly prayer and the Great Ecumenical Prayer.  Of course, Richard Rohr reminds us that United in Christ is not the same as the unity of the church.  I know.  Even more, however, I am shaped by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who even in the face of the division of his Lutheran Evangelical home in Germany between the Confessing Church and State church called on the focus to be on “Christ the Center” and not on the boundary lines of time and place.” Shall we separate now so that we can re-affiliate in twenty or thirty years?  Have the so-called traditionalists listened to their adult children and grandchildren about this issue?  A majority of young persons who call themselves “Evangelicals” don’t buy the desire to exclude  others based on sexual orientation.

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What might we do?  This is the question many have pondered and most (including bishops and congregational leaders) have felt powerless to answer.   It is about agency.  By this, I mean, no one seems to have sufficient influence to make a difference.  I am told that there are folks working on solutions behind the scenes.  This is precisely my worry — how many groups are there?  Doing what?  Trading what for what? It feels very “in house” and based on old paradigms.  Still, I acknowledge my ‘guilt’ in this whole mess.  Even more, I grieve the pain caused by a church that for so long did such damage to persons based on the bigotry and discrimination of homophobia.  I struggle with the question of what more might I have done?

My sense is that we are thinking too small, we are talking too much to ourselves, we are working in the star chambers called the Caucus Groups, General Conference, Annual Conference and Boards and Agencies. 

Isn’t there a larger frame?  Can we admit that we are asking the wrong questions? I think of Roseanne Haggerty’s Community Solutions and her emphasis on Housing First.  She shows the need to “flip the script” on homelessness.  First, she argues, provide a place to live!  Stop believing persons much first earn safe shelter.  Then work on the other social and emotional needs.  In the wider economy and ecology, this is a better, more cost effective way of approaching things.  And it also happens to be Christian!

What if instead of dividing up the church we saw the great potential of having tens of thousands of communities where we worked in new ways to offer a witness?  What difference might be made regarding our ecological crises?  What if we used funds for community environmental renewal ministries and didn’t funnel everyone though some sausage-making congregational development matrix?  What might we learn from economists? Health Care specialists?  What new patterns of citizenry? — make that discipleship — might be modeled?  Might United Methodists seek to live more fully into our heritage and be way-finders to the peaceable kingdom?  Well that is a dream that certainly extends beyond my life time.

 

 

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