Monday, February 20, 2017

Yesterday's Sermon@Highlands

“When loving your neighbor isn’t enough”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
February 19, 2017

This morning, the lectionary elves hath provided us with verses from the Book of Leviticus. More New year resolutions promising to read the entire bible cover to cover have been halted in their tracks when the reader stumbled onto Leviticus. So, it seems as though the elves are toying with preachers when they stick in verses from Leviticus.

But there it is, and not just Leviticus but the 19th chapter. Part of the “Holiness Code.” This is God’s rule book directing what Israel must do in order to maintain the holiness of the community. So, let’s dig in. Leviticus may just be more interesting than you thought.

The first thing you notice as you study Chapter 19 is that there is no distinction between what we might call “religious” concerns and “secular” concerns. All of life matters to God -- what we eat, how we do business, whether our sexual relationships are ethical, how we care for the land, our relationships with family, neighbors, and strangers -- all of it matters to God.
For those who think the Greatest Commandment was a Christian creation, Leviticus relieves us of that assumption. Remember this is the Bible Jesus read and there it is in chapter 19, verse 18, perhaps the most famous verse in the whole of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And then God spoke to Moses about a matter that was important to God from the earliest times and one that most surely troubles God today, that is how are we to treat the foreigners among us. “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.
Love your neighbor as yourself. Love the foreigner as yourself. Be holy, as God is holy. This book is more than a list of arcane rules and customs. It is a profound statement for all people.
And so, when Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Mount, he starts there and goes a step beyond. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ a law that meant justice should be measured. It meant that if someone pokes your eye out, he should not receive the death penalty but rather a consequence relatively equal to the offense. But Jesus taught us to handle injustice a bit differently. 
“But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Did you hear that? Don’t resist evil? If someone hits you on one side of the face, let him hit you on the other? I don’t know Jesus. Maybe being able to eat ham and avoiding circumcision isn’t worth all of that. I mean really, it isn’t good enough that we love our neighbors, he expects us to love our enemies and even pray for those who wish us ill.
I am reminded of what I heard a writer say on NPR awhile back. I don’t recall his name but the gist of his words stayed with me and they seem handy this morning. QUOTE: “I don't intentionally obscure meaning but I am uneasy with clarity.”

I’m afraid I prefer it when Jesus’s saying and stories are more obscure with less clarity. I prefer God’s word when it is hidden away in Old Testament books that no one ever reads. But here it is in the Christian Gospels, a part of what may be the greatest sermon ever written…and it is handed down to us in the clearest of words.

Now, I am not especially worried that I will have to face the decision of whether to turn the other cheek after getting popped although my wife thinks that may well happen after one of my newspaper columns. And I’m not worried about anyone taking my cloak in a lawsuit…but it’s been a while since I prayed for my enemies…a long while.

Gotta tell you, right about now I’m feeling for the rich young man who made the mistake of asking Jesus how to get closer to God; you remember that? Jesus said, “Follow the law…maybe referring to what we heard from Leviticus…but then Jesus said there’s one more thing.  “Sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” That young fellow just couldn’t do it even though Jesus had told him that is what was required of him if he really wanted to be close to God.

Now, this morning we hear Jesus say that if we want to be the children of our Father in heaven, one of the things we must do is pray for our enemies and those who persecute us. Really?

Just maybe it’s a message I need to hear, one we all need to hear in these confusing and divisive days. Jesus’s message comes at a time when our nation is so divided that it may be impossible to achieve God’s hopes for us without some healing. We’re divided Democrat and Republican, progressive and conservative, bitterly divided by class and color and religious beliefs. As important as healing those divisions may be to God, no one wants to be the first to begin that process.

There are more reasons every day to dislike one another; seemingly fewer reasons to pray for one another. Couples divorce because one voted for Clinton, the other for Trump.  People walk away from friendships over political or religious differences. A dating site offers an app called “Hater” based on research says it’s more likely that two people will bond over what they hate than what they share. The editor of The Week Magazine says we have become a Darwinian culture.

But there it is…set forth in perfect clarity in the Gospels. The voice of Jesus. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

So, who will go first? Me or those who offend me? This week I received an email from Pastor Shaun Sells of Calvary Chapel Church. Pastor Sells is also a leader in the Wyoming Pastor’s Network, which lobbies for laws to permit discrimination against gays and transgender people, against a woman’s right to choose and against marriage equality. Those who persecute people I love.

But his email was an invitation to lunch. Said he’d buy! He’d read one of my recent columns and wrote, “My goal in meeting with you is to have good conversation, not to change your mind. I find that in all the discussions I have heard at the legislature no one is talking to the other side, so we see these gross mischaracterizations of the others views.”

There’s a LOUISE ERDRICH quote, “We do know that no one gets wise enough to really understand the heart of another, though it is the task of our life to try.” 

A week from tomorrow Pastor Sells and I will try. We’ll break bread together and I will spend the week praying that it will open a door to a relationship that probably won’t change anyone’s mind but may change both of our hearts. So…in ways I did not anticipate, the Spirit of God has given me an answer to my question…if we are going to heal the divisions, who will go first? This week it was not me who chose to go first I confess, but instead it was my evangelical colleague, which said to me that as difficult as it may be…that anyone who follows Jesus should be the first.  AMEN

Sunday, February 19, 2017

One legislator's inquisition

The story is told of when the French ambassador to Spain met Miquel Cervantes. He congratulated Cervantes on his book “Don Quixote.” Cervantes whispered in the Frenchman’s ear, “Had it not been for the Inquisition, I could have made my book much more interesting.”

That reminded me of the Wyoming legislature. I spent 44 years working those halls. From 1967 until 2011, I attended every session; as a reporter, as a legislator for a decade, a lobbyist for 22 years and an agency head for eight. Each experience was uplifting and pleasant except those last eight years, which caused the PTSD preventing me from walking those halls today.

Many legislators have unsupported suspicions that agencies are hiding something and if they dig enough they’ll find it. With few facts and little background, they substitute the modicum of their knowledge for that of “in the trenches” professionals who work fulltime in programs these legislators blindly target during their brief 40-day stint in the Capitol City.

Observations from the sidelines support a belief that it’s gotten worse. Some members are more ideological, less aware government workings, and more given to operate on notions and prejudices. They venture outside of their lanes of expertise, entering debates armed with preconceived assumptions rather than facts.

Representative Tom Walters (R-Natrona) and his war on Wyoming’s suicide prevention work is an example. Walters has no background in the complex issues of prevention. He’s a rancher with a degree in Animal Science whose biography says he’s a member of two organizations; the Fair Board and the Natrona County Republican Party. He also has a personal vendetta against the Department of Health’s suicide prevention program. And he has a platform. He’s a member of the Appropriations Committee.

Wyoming has a serious suicide problem. In 2015, 157 of our neighbors took their own lives, the second most tragic rate in the country. In 2012, the state halted the distribution of prevention money to disconnected community programs using a hodgepodge of non-science-based ideas to address the problem. Instead, funds were granted to a single agency, the Prevention Management Organization. It assures every community is served by well-trained personnel using best practices based on data and research.

That created a political problem. A program in Walters’ district lost funding. Someone complained. Without disclosing his relationship with the complainer, he took up the cause and still carries the flag five years later. Using his perch on the powerful Appropriations Committee, Walters offered this unsupported accusation, “This organization has had over five years now, six years, to get things straightened out, and they have not; and this department just continues to say ‘give us more time and we will make it work right.’ And they are proving that they just want more time and they're not getting it done.”

Walters ignored that in the last five years, the program conducted nearly 1600 sessions, training 45,000 Wyoming citizens on methods of helping suicidal friends make a different choice. Forty-four percent say they’ve actually used those skills to prevent a suicide.

Based not on these facts but on Walters’ “alternative facts,” legislators slashed the prevention program by $2.1 million. The new cuts alarmed even the Governor who earlier reduced funding by 11%. Mead acknowledged that addressing suicide costs money adding, “There’s an even larger expense for not taking care of it.”
Ignoring some facts and distorting others is not ethical. Neither is the wide-spread practice of offering third reading amendments to avoid meaningful debate and public input. It’s trickery and it’s a strategy employed too often by your elected representatives. On third reading consideration of the budget bill, Walters took his vendetta the distance. He introduced an amendment to prohibit use of state funds for the Prevention Management Organization.
Although colleagues saw through the charade and voted down his last-minute attack, Walters seriously damaged critical suicide prevention work. To paraphrase Cervantes, “Had it not been for the legislative inquisition led by Walters, Wyoming’s suicide prevention effort could have been much more successful.”