Sunday, December 9, 2018

Sunday's sermon@Highlands

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, part of which was read this morning, Paul exhorts the people to be ready for the day of Christ…as though that day was to be sometime in the future. Well, today is the day of Christ. Jesus is here among us.

During Advent we often talk about waiting for Jesus as though he hasn’t already appeared. Oh, I know it’s tradition but something is amiss when 2000 years after the birth of Jesus, some are still waiting for the fulfillment of the promises and some have waited longer than others.

Unlike the shepherds keeping their flocks in that field, or King Herod who laid awake at night wondering what this child would mean to his kingdom, unlike the innkeeper who had no idea who he denied a room to…we know the rest of the story.

We know who this child is and what his coming is supposed to mean to the world. We’re not so confused as the shepherds, we know to reject Herod and his heirs, we’d never tell Jesus there is no room in the inn.

We heard him announce that he was sent to proclaim the Good News to the poor, to free the prisoners, to restore the health of the sick and to end the oppression being visited upon the most vulnerable.

Unlike those who lived in the shadows without much hope 2000 years ago, we heard God introduce Jesus with these words, “"Here is My servant, whom I have chosen, My beloved, in whom My soul delights. I will put My Spirit on Him, and He will proclaim justice to the nations.”

The Gospel of Luke 3:1-6 tells a story about one person who was unwilling to wait any longer. It was the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod ruler of Galilee during the high priesthood of Caiaphas. Luke isn’t a name dropper. Luke is setting the stage when he lists the names of those who had reason to fear the coming of he who the rest of the world awaited.

Those names matter. Herod had so much at stake if the promises of Jesus’s birth came to pass that he ruthlessly killed every infant in the land hoping that one of them might be Jesus because he so feared the coming of the kingdom of God and what that would mean to his cruel and oppressive reign.

But, Jesus was not among them. Like those refugees walking hundreds of miles to the US border to escape the violence in their homelands, Jesus’s mother and father fled to Egypt where they were afforded the radical hospitality God expects to be given to refugees and the baby was saved from Herod’s sword.
30 years later, Pontius Pilate found his place in history as the Roman who sentenced Jesus to die after the fundamentalists of his day offered Jesus to be executed. Luke drops those names as a way of telling us just what the times were like and why people were awaiting a savior.

Along comes a strange fellow, Jesus’s cousin John. As John begins his strange ministry, the paths are crooked, the rough ways not smooth. Luke has jumped ahead of the Christmas story here. Jesus is now 30 years old. All this time, he’s been working in his father’s carpentry shop wondering what to do with his life. And along comes John.

Maybe you had a cousin like John, someone who made your parents nervous. Joseph and Mary probably didn’t want their son to hang with Cousin John. Can you blame them. Strange fellow stirring up trouble, hanging out down by the river, screaming at people, saying crazy things about God, things you didn’t hear in the Temple. Mary and Joseph attempted to redirect Jesus, taking him to the Temple to learn from the priests. The 12-year-old Jesus ended up teaching them a thing or two.

Cousin John’s voice is crying out in the wilderness. There is something about a voice that cries out in the wilderness that attracts young revolutionaries like Jesus. You know how Cathy stands up here every Sunday morning and says, “Welcome to Highlands. May the peace of Christ be with you”? Well, John welcomed the crowd by calling them a brood of vipers; yet for some reason the crowds grew, some serious about what John had to say as opposed to what they were hearing in the faith community in which they had grown up, some just curious, others wanting to know what might come out of John’s mouth next.

What came out of his mouth next were words quite different than anything they had heard before. When they asked, “What then should we do?” he asked them, “Do you have two coats? Well, share with someone who has none; and do likewise with that food you’ve been hoarding.” Even the dreaded tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
“Stop cheating the people, collect only what is due and stop trying to line your own pockets.” The Roman soldiers had their own issues. They asked, “And we, what should we do?” He said, “Quit being bullies. Your job is to protect and defend the people, not to extort them.” All of this led the common folks to ask whether he might be the Messiah.

No, John said, but he is coming. While John waited, his preaching landed him in Herod’s prison. There he awaited the executioner’s axe, pondering the suffering of the oppressed, waiting for the justice Isaiah promised would come with the kingdom of God. John got to wondering about his cousin. He sent messengers to ask Jesus bluntly, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for or should we keep waiting?”

Those same messengers are at the door of the church this morning. They wait outside not knowing whether they will be welcome inside. “Are you the ones we’ve been waiting for or should we keep waiting?”

They want to know whether the church cares about them and the injustices of their world. They’re waiting like good, little Advent celebrants. For them it’s not about tradition. It’s about their lives and they want to know why they have to wait so long for what others already have.

Candles and hymns, sermons and calls to worship mean nothing to them. If those things mattered, they’d fill these pews. Those walls would have to be rolled back and chairs added. They want to know whether there is anything going on inside this church that is relevant to their lives and the suffering they endure under the reign of Herod’s successors.

Let me be honest. I am saying these things because I need your help on this. We have to figure out what is it that we have say to those who wonder why they are still waiting outside?
2,018 years after Jesus was born, a lot of people are still waiting for justice. Refugees wait at our border, prisons overflow with people waiting for reforms promised by the politicians, the poor wait for a few crumbs to fall from the tables of this wealthy nation to trickle down.

At this Season of Advent, God has placed on my heart the especially long and dangerous wait of our Transgender sisters and brothers. Their government, at the urging of some of our fellow Christians, plans to define them out of existence, churches tell them the God we ask them to believe in made a mistake when they were created. They are told they’re not even worthy to die for their country on foreign battlefields.

They want others to believe that these human beings are somehow an aberration, a flaw, a problem, a disease—rather than a marvel of God’s infinite world. And here we are, a More-Light Presbyterian Church, the only one in Wyoming, claiming to proclaim the Good News that God loves you and that we love you. Our website touts our values statement assuring people that all are welcome here and will be safe and loved among us. But, how would those who still wait know?

By definition, silence cannot be heard. It can’t be heard by either the oppressed or the oppressor. Silence makes the wait longer as the heirs to the Roman Empire visit injustice on Transgender human beings. We don’t want to find ourselves one day looking back on history like the elderly German woman described by a preacher on a progressive Christian website I frequent.

A 60-something woman called me in tears. She remembered boxcars crammed with desperate people passing through her German community and the hollow-eyed horror etched onto the faces. She said, “Those people were Jews headed for the camps, weren’t they? And we said nothing. We did nothing.”
Our government and some of our fellow Christians are cramming new victims into psychological boxcars. Not a one of us is too young to understand what is happening.

Dr. Ilan H. Meyer, a scholar at UCLA, expert on how stigma and prejudice and marginalization impacts the lives of targeted people, says, “People are scared and they’re tired of being scared.” Being scared causes some of God’s children to take their own lives, others to go into hiding. Imagine the pain of being told your government doesn’t want you to exist and that some churches are hoping you’ll burn in hell.

Transgender people have reason to be afraid. Since 2013, at least 128 Transgender and gender-expansive humans, God’s children ALL, have been murdered in the U.S. At the end of 2017, we mourned the loss of 29 more — the highest number ever recorded. As I preach, at least 22 Transgender people have been killed in 2018. Others take their own lives at an alarming rate, particularly among teenagers dealing with the bullying and rejection that comes with realizing who they are.

Last August, the governors of 16 states asked the Supreme Court to declare that Transgender people have no employment protections under the law. Shamefully, our governor, in our name, joined the effort to marginalize and legalize discrimination against these our brothers and sisters.

Advent, the wait for the birth of Jesus, was never supposed to be a time when any of God’s people waited in fear of what was to come. Denying dignity to Transgender individuals, has a devastating effect on their well-being and self-worth as it diminishes God’s hope for the world.

These brothers and sisters look out across the landscape and what they see in the media are Christians teaming up with the government to ridicule them, deny them basic human rights, and question the fundamental right every person has to know that they are loved by God and they are asking the church, “Are you the ones who follow Jesus or should we stay clear of you while we keep waiting?”

We know that Highlands is different, but how would those who need to know know? I included a link in the Clan this month and in this morning’s bulletin, to a Human Rights Campaign booklet. Take time to read it. It contains information to arm you with the facts you need to speak up and out for our Transgender brothers and sisters and it has practical, real ideas about what we could be doing at Highlands.

During our season of waiting, we at Highlands can’t quietly watch as others continue to wait. Let us think and pray about how it is that these people who are subjected to the indignities of a political and religious debate about how God made them…how would they ever know that Highlands exists as a place where they can be safe and loved.

While others await the coming of the Christ child, let’s spend our time figuring out how to let them know that at Highlands, their wait is over. The Jesus they are awaiting is alive and well here, in this church, among these people. Can I get a loud AMEN?

Friday, December 7, 2018

No more studies. Just expand Medicaid

At first, it looks good, as good as that tantalizing piece of cheese on a mousetrap looks to the hungry rodent. That would be the news that the Wyoming legislature is considering a “top to bottom” study of healthcare in Wyoming.

Among lawmakers, studies have always been employed to avoid doing what everyone already knows should be done. By now, everyone not a Republican member of the Wyoming legislature knows what should be done. Hundreds of studies have already been done. Medicaid should be expanded in Wyoming as it has been in 37 states including all of those red and purple states surrounding us except South Dakota.

The man placing the cheese on this trap led the fight to keep Wyoming isolated from states that figured out Medicaid expansion solves many of the problems all states share when it comes to providing access to and controlling the costs of healthcare. State Senator Charlie Scott has proclaimed himself the leading legislative expert on the matter, often using alternative facts to sway colleagues too lazy to study the matter for themselves.

Now, Senator Scott says Wyoming needs another study. The failure of Wyoming to do that which lawmakers and voters in all those other states have done is a monument to a legislator who has been around too long.

Charlie Scott was first elected to the legislature when Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. He has not aged well in the job but has accrued a great deal of power to impact the process and he knows the tricks of the trade. When Charlie proposes a “study,” what he’s really planning is another cover up of the facts in order to validate his long-standing opposition to Medicaid expansion.

When the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee met recently, he rolled out his plan for the study. He began by identifying the problem as he sees it. Among them is the fact that many consumers travel to other states for care, depriving Wyoming of that economic investment in our healthcare infrastructure. Before his proposed study even begins, Scott has a solution, which will undoubtedly find its way into the consultant’s list of recommendations. He would “force” you to stay in Wyoming for medical care, restricting your choices.

Studies of the impact of Medicaid expansion already answer that question. The Kaiser Foundation analyzed 202 studies of what happens when states expand Medicaid. Those states experience budget savings, revenue gains, and economic growth.

Did you hear that? There have already been more than 200 studies. The “Charlie Scott Memorial Healthcare Study” will add nothing new. Instead of relying on one lawmaker whose wrong-headed opinion is carved in stone, perhaps the other 89 members of the legislature could read at least a few of those studies and compare their results with Charlie’s averments.

In the years leading up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Scott told his colleagues it would never become law. After it passed he assured them the Supreme Court would find it unconstitutional. When the high court found it was not unconstitutional, Charlie told them the feds would never keep their promise to pay the lion’s share of the costs of expansion. Now that the feds have kept that promise, even as the current president does his best to ruin the ACA, Charlie falsely claims Medicaid expansion will bust our budget. The experiences of those other 37 states demonstrate Charlie was as wrong about that as he has been all along.

But, the man who would be legislator for life, wants two more years to study the issue, two more years during which low-income families will continue to suffer from a lack of affordable healthcare while Charlie Scott uses taxpayer dollars to guide the results of a study to more of his ill-considered and erroneous conclusions.

Charlie has set the trap and placed the cheese in front of his colleagues. They have taken it before. The question is whether they learned from prior mistakes.