Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year Sermon at Highlands: “It was a very good year”

“It was a very good year”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
December 30, 2012

Just as Paul wrote letters to the churches about whom he cared, my sermon this morning, on the last Sunday of the old year, is a letter to you, the faith community at Highlands.

To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ at Highlands, Grace to you and peace from God our Father. In my prayers for you I always thank God that our paths have crossed, for the friendships of the last years and for the way we have grown together in our faith.
You have tolerated my preaching from the pulpit and my outspokenness in the community. I know that you have not always agreed but you have been willing to listen and consider and we have learned from one another.
Your work and your faith are bearing fruit and growing in the community. Each of you join one another in seeking the knowledge of God’s will even as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
As a community of faith, you remind me of the early church as they gathered to read the stories of Jesus, pray together, uplift one another and share that which they had with one another and people in need throughout their communities.
Your story is told in the second chapter of the Book of Acts where it is written of the early church, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
Brothers and sisters…is that not a description of our little church? We have devoted ourselves to the teachings…here and in the community. We have gathered as the body of Christ and we have reached out to others through a far from traditional Bible study, Bibles and Beer, to share the stories with those who seek a different way to learn.
You have lifted one another in prayer during a year of joys and concerns, of celebrations and sorrows, always there for one another…not a person among us who has not been supported by the people who are a part of this community. Highlands has been intentional in making its mission about those within these four walls even while we have also cared about those who may never sit in these pews yet are in needs of God’s love.
The list of community ministries to which you have given meaningful financial and personal support in the last year is blessedly long. I am going to name each of those ministries. After each name I will say “God has no hands” and you’ll say “but ours.”

I don’t know about you but my heart swelled with pride on Christmas Eve when there were people form all over the community at our candlelight service learning about the mission work of this little band of Christians.

Aspen Winds Visitation (say it God has no hands…)
Connections Corner (Circles)
Highlands Community Garden
Interfaith Family Support Services, or Family Promise Needs, Inc.
Meals on Wheels
Recover Wyoming; and
The Wyoming Family Home Ownership Program

There are those of you who devote yourselves to prayer ministry, to publishing the newsletter that keeps us in touch with one another, who volunteer to greet and provide coffee and treats for fellowship, who care for the property, spend time doing the business of the church, visiting those who are ill…day by day…spending time in your faith…at times not even recognizing that is what you are doing…as it comes natural to do God’s work.

This year we stopped worrying about how many people came to church on Sunday and began concerning ourselves with how many lives we touched in the community…there may be 35-40 people here on Sunday, but Connie and her volunteers touched the lives of that many this week at Family Promise, add to that the folks you visited at Aspen Wind, those whose recovery was supported by you at Recover Wyoming, the families who had food on the table because of what you gave to Needs, the homeless men and women who enjoyed a hot cup of coffee and ate meals with fresh produce from our community garden…because of you, the families coming out of poverty because you give time and money to Connections Corner and the Wyoming Family HOP, the Boy Scouts whose lives are nourished in this building…those who are hearing the Bible stories some for the first time all in a new light at Bibles and Beer.

Everyone of them is as much a part of the Highlands faith community as those who come to worship with us on Sunday morning…they may never know us, they may never hear the name of this little church…but they know the presence of God through your faithful work in the community because you know that God has no hands…BUT OURS!

Paul’s letter to the Colossians reminds me so much of you. Paul’s list of the five virtues he says characterizes their relationships with God and one another also characterize you and your relationships with God and each other. “Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”

For the Apostle Paul, these "virtues" describe the character of active Christians, living as God's people who are called out of their ordinary lives to be a community especially dedicated to God and those with whom they share the community. This small Christian community is very much alive because it embodies the very gospel by which it was called and that it proclaims.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is not speaking about individuals but about communities-communities of faith. Paul is saying, “This is what a church looks like. It’s not a building, it’s not a membership, not a group of people satisfied with themselves and their piety. Paul envisions a community in action. As the community lives in Christ putting on the godly virtues of “Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,” the work of the Lord is manifest in the community through love.

Highlands is a community of faith very much alive in Christ Jesus. Today…on this last Sunday of the old year let’s celebrate the gift of God through Jesus Christ and the call answered by this small community of faith to care for one another and for those outside of the walls of this building. You have done that and I give thanks to God for your work and for your love.
Indeed…it was a very, very good year. AMEN

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Does the 2nd Amendment protect children?

This year’s journey to Bethlehem was re-routed through Sandy Hook. Visions of the baby lying in a manger transfigured into images of young children lying in coffins. Tragically this season was as much about the “Slaughter of the Innocents” as the birth of the Prince of Peace.

We’ve been here before. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood, Tucson, a theater in Aurora, a shopping center in Omaha, a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and now Webster, New York. Too many times angry, sometimes deranged people with guns used their last day on earth to make it so for others. Somehow this feels different. Twenty dead six and seven year olds, bodies ripped apart by bullets, will do that.

Our congressional delegation’s response was disappointing. Sandy Hook caused others to reassess, not Mike Enzi, John Barrasso or Cynthia Lummis. They cling to threadbare NRA positions. Wyoming is a “guns” state but given the choice, wouldn’t we prioritize children? Don’t be certain. Their constituents responded to the pain in Connecticut is buying more guns in Wyoming.

There was a time in Wyoming history when cowboys were required to check their guns at the Marshall’s office as soon as they tied their horse to the hitching post. Even old west communities felt safer when guns were controlled. Today legislators are more concerned with their “A” rating from the NRA.

Why are mass killings now a part of American life? It’s not like that in most nations. In the last 50 years, 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings happened in the United States. Finland was second with two. Among developed countries, America has the highest gun homicide rate and the highest number of guns per capita. America has more gun homicides than all other high-income countries combined, two-and-a-half times as many as Iraq!

The Supreme Court has ruled the right to bear arms is protected but not absolutely. It’s subject to regulations and controls. The Second Amendment allows citizens to bear arms but not to bear the kind of weapons used in this slaughter. One website ( selling the Bushmaster model used at Sandy Hook describes the weapon (quote is abbreviated but verbatim).

“The Bushmaster rifle is legal in most states but unfortunately is illegal in a few states because of certain features (you know what states you are, wake up and give your citizens their rights!) We know we might hear a lot of negative feedback and disagreement because we are saying an AR with a .223 round is a great survival rifle. Do we care? Actually no we don’t. With 30 round magazines and the option to purchase aftermarket magazines that will hold even more rounds, this rifle has the capability to put a lot of rounds down range very quickly.”
The ad promises this gun can fire as many as 180 rounds in less than two minutes. “There is a reason why so many militaries around the world use this kind of weapon.”
These weapons were invented for only one purpose, to kill a lot of people very quickly. That’s why, as the ad says, militaries around the world use it. Army’s should have it, but not our neighbors.
The NRA is right about the culture. Children are force-fed an unhealthy diet of violence from movies and TV to computer games and cage-fighting. Guns are also part of American culture. Nations with lower levels of gun violence have all the former, little of the latter.
Self-reflection should move us from grief to the advocacy stage of the post-traumatic process. It’s time for people of good faith to speak. Gun-lovers, gun-haters, mental health experts, those with a stake in a dysfunctional cultural bent toward violent expression, need to abandon their talking points. There’s no room for them in those Sandy Hook graves.

Sandy Hook must change America if Bethlehem changed the world. The Biblical journey to Bethlehem included three wise men. Hopefully we’ll have that many wise men and women willing to make the sad journey through Sandy Hook.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Last Sunday of Advent Sermon at Highlands

“Souls Magnifying, Spirits Rejoicing”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
December 23, 2012

I love it when Christmas falls on a Tuesday. It gives the church a three-day Christmas celebration beginning with Sunday morning worship, continuing with Christmas Eve and culminating with Christmas day. Three days to focus on what it means to be Christians, what it means to each of us and to the world.

The manger scene will come tomorrow evening along with the shepherds and the Star. Today we are yet in Advent. Waiting. We await the birth as a time to discern its meaning. This morning we celebrate Mary and her faithfulness, seeking to learn what it is an unwed, pregnant teenager has to teach us…what it is we should learn from that moment when Mary came to understand the import of the child in her womb.

Cathy has read the Gospel story of Mary and Elizabeth and the moment they realized the fruit of their wombs would change the world. Here is another version of that same story.

“When the angels said, ‘O Mary, indeed God gives you the good news of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honor in this world and in the Hereafter, and of those who are near to God.’ 

Would it surprise you to know this story of Mary and the birth of Jesus is told to Muslims in their holy book, the Quran (3:45-51) which then continues to teach:

 ‘Jesus will speak to the people from the cradle, and in old age, and he will be of the righteous.’  Mary said, ‘My Lord, how can I have a son when no man has touched me.’  He said, ‘So (it will be,) for God creates what He wants.  When He decides something, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.  And He will teach him the Book and wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel.  And (will make him) a messenger to the Children of Israel (saying), ‘Indeed I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. And I have come to you with a proof from your Lord, so fear God and obey me.  Indeed, God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him.  This is the straight path.”

You see…Mary, the mother of Jesus, is considered one of the most righteous women in Islamic tradition. She is mentioned even more in the Quran than in the entire New Testament and is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran.

Imagine that…Christian and Muslim scripture finding common ground in the celebration of the mother of a Jewish rabbi? Is that not hope for the world? What a joy it was for me to find that place where Christian souls join with those of Muslims to magnify the Lord, a place where souls are magnified and the spirits of both great faiths rejoice in the coming birth of Jesus. I hope it does the same for you.

A world that finds it easier to be disagreeable, a world often defined by its differences and its arguments, a world where Christians and Muslims are often at odds with one another whether on the battlefields of Afghanistan or the streets of American communities…that world…so badly needs to find those places where we intersect, places where are the same and the celebration of the birth of Jesus is one of them.

You see…our souls magnify the Lord and our spirits rejoice not in our differences but in those places where our understanding of God or Allah or Yahweh intersect. We may not agree on doctrine and there may be plenty of fundamentalists in all religions whose goal is to divide us…

BUT there is an intersection…a place where our beliefs, whether we are Christians, Jews or Muslims, there is a place where our beliefs intersect with the needs of the world…an intersection where we can gather as one and magnify the soul of the Lord through the rejoicing of our common spirits.

That intersection comes most fully through Mary’s prayer.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

It’s called the Magnificat and is also known as the Song of Mary —it is sung or spoken liturgically in Christian church services. It is one of the most ancient Christian hymns. Its name comes from the first word of the Latin version of the song.

The Magnificat is found in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:46-55) where it is spoken by the Virgin Mary upon the occasion of her Visitation to her elderly cousin Elizabeth. After Mary greets Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, the child moves within Elizabeth's womb. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary sings what is now known as the Magnificat in response.
The canticle readily reminds us of the Song of Hannah, from the Hebrew scripture, 1Samuel 2:1-10. Listen to the similarities:
Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.”
I want to take us back to the Hebrew Bible scripture Cathy first read. It was the prophet Micah who said: O Bethlehem of from you shall come forth one whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 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; and he shall be the one of peace.

In the words of the prophet Micah, in Hannah’s Old Testament prayer, the words of the Quran and Mary’s Magnificat we find the meaning of our wait. The world was then and is today awaiting the one who scripture…Jewish, Muslim and Christian…said would raise up the poor, scatter the proud and lift up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and allow us to live secure in the peace he brings.

God did not send Jesus to divide the world between Christians and non-Christians but to unify all the world around God’s hopes for it…

…and in that our souls magnify the Lord and all of our spirits whether they be Muslim spirits, Jewish spirits or Christian spirits rejoice. AMEN

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tis not the season for whining

Whining makes me grumpy when it comes in the name of Christianity. Listen, despite FOX News, there is no “war against Christmas.” Second, it’s time to stop moaning about materialism. Giving gifts has always been an inherent part of the celebration and Christmas gift-giving is inherently materialistic. Have you priced gold, frankincense and myrrh lately? Finally, if you complain when a clerk says, “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” get over it.  
Worry about that which actually threatens the meaning of Christmas. Congress may approve devastating budget cuts in programs helping those who are hurting, homeless and hungry while some Christians are complaining about the greetings some store clerk uses? Bah humbug…or “give me a break.”
While Christmas is a holiday for most Americans, it’s not a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus except for Christians. It’s a secular holiday, even for most Christians. Ask yourself, do you see people lined up for church services in December like they lineup for Black Friday sales at Thanksgiving?

Set aside Bill O’Reilly’s silly assertion that Christianity isn’t a religion but a “phil-o-so-phy” as he put it (can you imagine the uproar if Barack Obama had said that?). Christianity is a religion. If Christmas was a “Christian holiday” taxpayers couldn’t be required to pay government workers for not working that day. The Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Atheists, agnostics and people of non-Christian faith have challenged the tradition of declaring Christmas a state holiday.

If lawyers opposing the lawsuits argued the case like some Christians they’d have stood before the judge and said, “Your honor, Jesus is the reason for the season. This is the day Christians celebrate God sending his Son to live among us. We want all Americans to celebrate this day accordingly.” There’d be no paid holiday. Those who insist that everyone believe Jesus is the reason for the season seek the government’s help to “establish” Christian teachings. That can’t be done on the taxpayers’ dimes.

Christian lawyers didn’t make that argument in the courtroom. They offered evidence proving the secular nature of the day. Judges agreed. Therefore, many still get paid for not working on Christmas. If Christmas were solely a holiday celebrating the birth of the Lord of Christianity, a paid holiday for public employees would be unconstitutional.

So, don’t object when someone says “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Just say thanks for the paid holiday and go celebrate in the way you choose.

Furthermore, Jesus is not the reason for the season for non-Christians. That’s okay. Do you really think Jesus’ birth certificate on file in Bethlehem says he was born on December 25th? Please. We Christians appropriated the celebration of the winter solstice from the pagans, called it Christmas, and made it our tradition.
Still Christian zealots like the American Family Association encourage shoppers to boycott stores using greetings like “Happy Holidays.” They’re the same folks who think schools should teach our children how to pray. Schools aren’t responsible for teaching our children to pray and store clerks aren’t responsible for keeping “Christ in Christmas?”
The insistence of some Christians on building crèche’s on public property, singing hymns at kindergarten Christmas plays and requiring the use of religiously-correct greetings makes the case for those who believe the government violates the 1st Amendment by recognizing Christmas but not the holidays of other faiths.
Fellow Christians, that leaves it to us. Respect the beliefs of others while observing your own. For me and most Christians “Jesus is the reason for the season.” If you share that belief, fine. Make it so for your own family. Take your children to church, teach them the Gospel story of Christmas, and take personal responsibility for teaching them the meaning of the day. Busy yourself with the celebration rather than concerning yourself with how others choose to celebrate.
To all…enjoy the holiday and the freedom to celebrate it as you choose. Happy holidays.