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.

+++++++

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

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Has shared laughter gone into hiding?  Shared laughter has become a stranger to our nation and the church.  I miss the merry heart, spoken of in Proverbs 17.  Expressions of common joy are secluded, perhaps kidnapped or a part of a gaiety-witness-protection-program buried underground somewhere.  Shared laughter, healing laughter, earnest and sustained laughter, seems hard to find.

IMG_4796I still laugh, but too often alone… or with people who think much like me.  Such singular pleasure is a place to begin.  Small signs of whimsy, mirth and delight are starting places.  When I miss those, I quickly get lost in my prejudices and despair.  I lose the lightheartedness that can serve as a lubricant to God’s desired wholeheartedness for me.  A little laughter keeps my ideological GPS in tune and my prejudice-constructed life-maps from being read upside down.  Recently I had a reminder of such a gift.

On a winding road in central Kentucky, the junction ahead at first confused me, then delighted.  I could turn left and go NORTH or turn right and go… uh… NORTHAnd the path straight ahead (NORTH by the way) was posted with a NO TRESPASSING sign.

If I wished to go NORTH, which way should I go?  I laughed out loud.  This reminded me of the certainty as to direction I hear from pundits and preachers who speak confidently of the only true way forward — their way.  Traveling this day and familiar with this particular road, I knew the path I would take.  I wondered about others who followed, who arrive at this junction — first timers.

I believe the certainty, that there is only one way, a best and only road ahead puts the nation, and the church, in hands of humorless demagogues.  For our nation  such certainty means that every choice is binary with no ability to value and learn from those who have different perspectives or life experiences.  Any sense of a commonweal is set aside.  In the church such certainty turns the theological task into a marshaling of doctrinaire pronouncements.  Instead of theology being “faith in search of understanding” we have one narrow set of understandings setting the limits of our faith.  Not much shared joy here.  I believe laughter can be medicine for the soul and oxygen for a suffocating nation and church.

On my wall is Wendell Berry’s poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.  Near the end, he counsels, “Laugh.  Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful even when you have considered all the facts.”

I am asking what has happened to shared laughter — among friends and with those who disagree?  I don’t mean the little individual chuckles coming from late-night television parodies or the smile after reading ironic memes about the state of the nation.  I mean the sense of well-being that is born of a shared hope beyond our calculations.  What I miss is the ability to laugh at ourselves, to visit with others who may hold differing opinions and enjoy each other’s company.  It is the joy of discourse and community that is creative and constructive and larger than our personal prejudices and proclivities.  Laughter is not sufficient for our salvation but I believe it may be a necessary vestibule to hope and renewal in finding a way forward.

Aimee Laramore writing in the March 7, 2018 blog Voices on Stewardship  helps me when she writes, “The great theologian Dave Chappelle introduced a concept that made me laugh out loud when he spoke about imperfect allies. In his most recent special, he offers a poignant description of not understanding some of the differences in societal demographics and ended with his personal truth on the matter. Is it possible in our faith communities to be honest about the things we don’t understand? He repeatedly said, “I don’t want to harm you. I want to support you. I just don’t understand you.” I believe we should do a lot more earnest laughing about our own discomfort about diversity in giving. At the very least, a heartfelt response is authentic.”

Much more shared EARNEST LAUGHING with IMPERFECT ALLIES is called for in the nation and church.  In these time of “Fake News,” made-up statistics and certainties that avoid scientific evidence, we might look again to the realism of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  In response to the horrors and potential devastation from threats of fascism he wrote “Laughter is the no-man’s land between cynicism and contrition.”  In his Children of Light, Children of Darkness, Niebuhr argues “Humour is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer… Laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humour is fulfilled by faith.”

In an effort to offer something constructive for churches (and our society) I recently wrote a paper on what I see as the mistaken, and humorless efforts to repair the church by implementing certain business practices.  This is a well-meaning effort but of little purchase if it simply is composed of one perspective, outside of dialogue with those who view the church differently (see: FruitFixPubShare02-01-18).  My long and rather tedious musings needed the benefit of EARNEST LAUGHTER WITH IMPERFECT ALLIES.

I did find a chuckle when I read a quote from St. Louis area United Methodist pastor Diana Kenaston who captured my paper’s conclusions when she wrote:

So we look at statistics and we call them ‘vital signs.’  We commission a report and draw an electrocardiogram on the front.” 

IMG_4799

In two sentences, Rev. Kenaston covered what took sixteen pages and forty-nine footnotes for me to say…  and this without ever reading my paper!  I LAUGHED.

I knew my research paper was insufficient.  (Even so, I inflicted it upon many friends and my students.)  Reading Diana’s quote helped.  However, some other uncommon laughter was needed.  Some candor from imperfect allies might help.  The ability to learn of my mistaken understandings, and laugh with those who had another view, might help each.  Until then I don’t believe much progress is made. 

Might I sit with those who disagree and talk, and learn?  Might we make a common alliance to agree to disagree?  Until then, good as any research might be, it would be of modest value.  Yes, I have reached out to my imperfect allies — several times asking to hear from them.  Might those who offer their products, known as “fruitful congregation” initiatives be open to dialogue that might lead to understanding?  As yet, no response to my multiple requests.  Still waiting.  Even more, I am eager to experience a little shared laughter.

Until then, or even if such shared conversation never arrives, I am helped by the poetry of the fourteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart.  He gives me a joy-filled perspective at this junction for our society and church.

He writes:

Do you want to know

what goes on in the core of the Trinity?

I will tell you.

In the core of the Trinity

The Father laughs

and gives birth to the Son.

The Son laughs back at the Father

and gives birth to the Spirit.

The whole Trinity laughs

and gives birth to us.

[Meister Eckhart, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, translation and editor Matthew Fox (Bear and Company: 1983), p. 129.