Sunday, March 31, 2013

“What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a-happening”

“What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a-happening”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
March 31, 2013

You know…I feel sorry for the post baby boomer generations. The only way you have to understand the crucifixion and the resurrection is the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We baby boomers had Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In a three hour musical, he explained it all and we finally understood what Sunday school teachers and preachers had been trying to get through to us for years.

Jesus Christ…Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar
Do you think you're what they say you are?

And isn’t that the question we Christians have been trying to answer for ourselves, and others, for the last 2000 years? Jesus Christ…do you think…do we think…you’re who they say you are? Andrew Lloyd Webber put into Herod’s mouth the words we have all been asking.

Jesus you just won't believe
The hit you've made around here
You are all we talk about
You're the wonder of the year
Oh what a pity if it's all a lie
Still I'm sure
That you can rock the cynics if you try

And like the disciples back then…his disciples today are still asking…

What's the buzz?
Tell me what's a-happening.

And JESUS is still responding…

Why should you want to know?
Don't you mind about the future?
Don't you try to think ahead?
Save tomorrow for tomorrow;
Think about today instead.
If you knew the path we're riding,
You'd understand it less than I.

It all makes me think Jesus would have been surprised by the extent to which Christians celebrate the resurrection. A lot of Christians will tell you the Resurrection, the empty tomb on Easter morning, is the core of Christianity. I had a conservative Christian tell me recently that without the resurrection…his faith would be meaningless.

Jesus Christ…Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar
Do you think you're what they say you are?

Remember when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They told him people thought he was the resurrected John the Baptist or Elijah. Apparently…the idea that a prophet could come back to life was not especially surprising to them.

And apparently Jesus thought there was more to following him than his own Resurrection. Jesus once told a story of a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs, Jesus said, would come and lick his sores.

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

And again Andrew Lloyd Webber puts words into the mouth of Herod that sound like the words we have used in our lives.

I only ask what I'd ask any superstar, what is it that you have got
That puts you where you are? Oh, I am waiting
Yes I'm a captive fan…I'm dying to be shown
That you are not just any man

And Jesus says I can’t convince you of anything by simply returning from the dead.

But if you are the Christ, Yes the great Jesus Christ
Feed my household with this bread
You can do it on your head.

And Jesus says…resurrection is not about what I did or what you think I can do. Jesus says, “If they don’t listen to the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” It’s all too much for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Peter who says to Jesus...

I think you've made your point now
You even gone a bit too far to get the message home.
Before it gets too frightening we ought to call a halt
So could we start again please?

But as with the rich man who failed to tend to Lazarus…the die was cast…a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to there cannot do so. And again Jesus says…resurrection is not about what I did…it’s about what the prophets have been teaching for hundreds of years…what God calls you to do through their voices…feed the hungry, bring justice to the community, take care of those in need…which is why the lectionary this morning takes us beyond the resurrection stories of the Bible to the Old Testament book of the prophet Isaiah who lived centuries before Jesus.

Isaiah says God doesn’t want to change the world by simply bringing one man, even his own son, back to life. God wants us to participate with him in the creation of new heavens and a new earth; the prophet says that new earth will be a place where no more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, and where old people will live out a lifetime in dignity; a place where those who build houses will inhabit them; those who plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

Resurrection is not about the restoration of a single life…resurrection means everything is new…if it occurs, it will usher in a new way of doing things where justice prevails…God’s people shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord.

Before they call God will answer, while they are yet speaking God will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox. They shall not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Those are the words of the prophet…words to which Jesus…the one who was to die and remain in the tomb for three days before being restored to new life…was referring when he said, ‘If they do not listen to the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

The celebration of the Resurrection is a commitment to bring new life to ourselves and others based on ancient teachings about our relationships with God and others. Yet we continue to look for an easier way…some think by simply believing that Jesus rose from the dead, we have it made…but when we ask the disciples’ question, “what’s the buzz, tell me what’s a- happening?” we can hear Jesus telling us…it’s not about me coming back to life…it’s about you regaining your life. It’s not about spending three days in a tomb…it’s about the day you decide to leave the tomb your life has become and live for the moment. As the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus sang:

Why should you want to know?
Don't you mind about the future. Don't you try to think ahead
Save tomorrow for tomorrow. Think about today instead

And today is the day to think about the meaning of the resurrection…the day when we begin to see God’s vision for a new heaven and a new earth where we participate in giving new life to those who have too long laid in the tombs of oppression, injustice, poverty, addiction and racism.

The Peter of the Gospels put it this way, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; and he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

And the Jesus of the opera makes it simpler…

Neither you Simon Peter, nor the fifty thousand
Nor the Romans, nor the Jews. Nor Judas, nor the twelve
Nor the priests, nor the scribes, nor doomed Jerusalem itself
Understand what power is…Understand what glory is
Understand at all. Understand at all
If you knew all that I knew my poor Jerusalem…you'd see the truth
But you'd close your eyes. But you'd close your eyes
While you live, your troubles are many…poor Jerusalem
to conquer death you only have to die, you only have to die.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Is being a Republican the only qualification for public office?

On the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, the media, who once joined the Cheney-Bush drumbeat for war, decided it’s time to blame someone. “Someone” is “someone else,” not themselves. A decade later they are unanimous. The blame falls, they say, on George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. Who’s to blame? The fiddler, the fiddle, or those who requested the tunes?

Only the intentionally self-deluded refuse to acknowledge Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld lied about the threat Iraq posed. Most Congressmen knew they were listening to liars. The media knew it as well.  But there’s something so alluring about seeing other people’s children going off to war that neither Congress nor the media were about to allow a little deceit to get in the way of “the rockets’ red glare.” Judeo-Christian values? No.

Ten years later more than 3500 Americans have died. The financial toll is nearly a trillion dollars. The future financial and emotional costs of caring for the tens of thousands who have returned with debilitating war injuries are incalculable. So who is responsible? Those who knew Dick Cheney was a liar, or those who acquiesced in the lies?

Understanding how government is permitted to inflict this kind of damage on its own people requires the people of Wyoming to look into a mirror. Your guy Cheney did this. He lied! But Wyoming is a place “where seldom is heard a discouraging word” about those responsible, especially when they’re fellow Republicans.

Listening only to FOX News and Limbaugh, you would have known the truth. There never were any weapons of mass destruction. Cheney fibbed. Saddam Hussein had no connection to 9/11 or Al Qaeda.  Our troops weren’t welcomed as “liberators” as the vice-president predicted.

Still 70% of Wyoming voted for those who lied about going to war. Yeah…Bill Clinton lied but nobody died. Yes, Clinton lied under oath. Bush and Cheney lied despite their oath. Clinton was impeached. Bush and Cheney were reelected. If there is an “R” behind the name, little else matters to Wyoming voters.

It doesn’t end there. In 2012, 70% of Wyoming voted for Mitt Romney even though he dissed 47% of you. In the same speech, Romney admitted he actually bought a Chinese factory filled with young girls and women working for pennies, living in dormitories with bunk beds stacked three high, barbed wire and guard towers surrounding the grounds. Seventy percent of you voted for Romney knowing he personally witnessed those conditions and bought the slave-operated factory claiming guards weren’t there to keep workers in but to keep those who wanted to live like that out. 

Justice apparently matters little. The only Wyoming debate is whether those on the right are far enough to the right. In the frenzy to demonstrate who are the real Republicans, Wyoming people are willing to vote against their own self-interest with little concern about truth or social, economic or political justice.

Cindy Hill for example. With the quality of your children’s education at stake, most of you voted for someone who was simply not qualified. The legislature, 85% of which is Republican, had to go over your heads to do what’s right. That could have been avoided if lazy voters hadn’t assumed the only qualification for public office is to win the GOP primary.

Wyoming voters are readily riled by false allegations about Barack Obama’s birth certificate and religion and don’t consider what’s best for their own families. They are so fixated on opposing anything “Obamacare” that they refuse to acknowledge that healthcare reform has made life better for most American. Many of you cheered when the legislature foolishly spent millions when they could have saved millions more by providing Medicaid coverage to thousands of your uninsured neighbors. Republican party talking points proved more persuasive than any of the facts.

Don’t you have a significant interest in good government and in social, economic, and political justice. So, what’s right? Who cares just so the candidate is Republican? How is that working for you?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Gillman's Point

Eight years ago I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, or should say, nearly climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Its summit is the highest point on the African continent at 19,330 feet. I got as far as Gillman’s Point, 678 feet from the summit. Little more than the length of two football fields separated me from my goal.

My Tanzanian guide and I arrived at Gillman’s Point at sunrise on that October morning. The wind chill factor was 25 degrees below zero, winds were howling, the water in my canteen was frozen solid and altitude sickness set in. The guide said safety considerations required we stop climbing. I didn’t argue but descended heartbroken and frustrated.

It later occurred to me this was one of the few times in my life when my personal resources had not been enough. Neither my family nor my friendships, academic degrees nor credit score, not my resume or my spiritual beliefs or job record…none of it could be exchanged that day for what I wanted, at that moment, to accomplish.

I remembered that feeling of helplessness one recent sleepless night. A Cheyenne mother had just sent me a plea for help. Her young son, she explained, has been too long the victim of schoolhouse bullies. Frequently, readers send requests to write about issues that matter to them. This one was different. It was laced with the emotion only a heartbroken mother at the end of her resources could express.

“I am begging you to please write an article about bullying,” she wrote. “My son has been emotionally bullied every day for more than 7 years.” She believed this column could do something “to bring hope and change to so many kids (and their families) who wake up each morning wondering if "today will be a bad day or an okay day.”

This wasn’t the first plea received from a parent of a bullied child. Yet there was something especially striking about its rawness. This mother had reached her “Gillman’s Point.” She had done what she had been told to do. She advocated for her child with teachers and a principal. Regardless of their response, her son was still being victimized.

As much as I want to write something that will change things for her son, I can’t. I’m not going to point fingers and blame schools, teachers and principals. Neither am I going to blame parents of the bullies. Yet the experience of trying to protect your child and being left feeling helpless reasonably leads to us to ask whether a solution to this ubiquitous problem can be found without blaming someone.

Blaming is an emotional exercise. Watching your child suffer is no less emotional. But how is it that our community allows children (bullies and the bullied), parents and educators, to reach that point beyond which none of their personal resources can solve the problem? How can it be when all the caring skills of parents and teachers are combined with the resources of the community that a parent becomes so desperate that her last alternative is to reach out to a local newspaper columnist for help?

As director of the Wyoming Department of Family Services, I learned communities have a hard time seeing “those” children as their own. I grew up in Cheyenne in the 50s. It was then a place where, whether you were in school, church or the neighborhood, families looked out after one another. The next-door neighbor, a teacher or a church leader played a role in our lives. When the family reached the end of its resources, another caring adult was there.

Surveys of school children in Wyoming today show an alarming number believe they do not have a meaningful connection with even one adult other than a parent. That’s the reason parents too often reach a point where they feel they have no more resources, no one else who cares enough to help their child through the crisis. There should be no “Gillman’s Point” in a community like ours.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

New Book on Hunt to Be Released at Historic Governor’s Mansion.

HUNT 1 _CoverThe Historic Governors’ Mansion hosts author Rodger McDaniel for a lecture and book release to unveil his new book: Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt on April 2, 2013 at 7 pm at the Historic Governors’ Mansion. The event is open to the public. Copies of the book may be purchased that evening and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Historic Governor’s Mansion Foundation.

“Lester Hunt is one of the foremost political figures in Wyoming history. The story of his death is tragic and should be fully told. But it’s the story of his life and his contributions to our way of life that should be remembered,” says Mr. McDaniel.

This important biography details the life and political career of the man who designed Wyoming’s “bucking horse” license plate as Secretary of State, served as Governor of Wyoming during World War II, wrote the precursor bill to early Medicaid legislation as Wyoming Senator and ultimately fell victim to McCarthy era politics.  His life brought him to Lander in 1911 as a young baseball player where he fell in love and established his roots with his wife and family as well as his dental practice before embarking on a long and interesting life in politics.  Known for his integrity and get it done attitude, Lester Hunt was one of the most popular statesmen Wyoming has ever known and a highly respected public servant.
Former US Senator Alan Simpson writes, “Rodger McDaniel has served in elective office, spent nearly 20 years as a trial lawyer, directed the state’s mental health administration and is also an ordained minister. Rodger brings to this book the fine skills he learned in all of the paths of his own journey. Beyond the rare ability to research, investigate and write a gripping story, Rodger also brings a level of empathy to Lester Hunt’s life story that he richly deserves.”

Join the author at the Historic Governors’ Mansion for a discussion of Lester Hunt’s life and his new book, available for the first time that evening.

For more information about the Historic Governors’ Mansion programs and/or exhibitions, please call 777-7878.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Yesterday's sermon at Highlands

“It’s not about the poor” 
Highlands Presbyterian church - March 17, 2013 
The Gospel story opens this morning six days before the Passover. Jesus has a week to live. He who is about to be killed and rise from the dead goes to pay a visit to the formerly dead…a visit with the one he has raised from the dead. Lazarus had spent four days dead in the tomb. Perhaps Jesus was curious and wanted to ask Lazarus what that was like…what was it like to be dead? What was it like to lay in the tomb? What was it like to have your life restored after so long dead?
The Gospel of John teaches that it was this act…the raising of Lazarus from the dead…that signed Jesus’ death warrant. In the chapter just before today’s reading…chapter 11…
…beginning at verse 45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “Do you not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
Those who had been most troubled by Jesus’ ministry had witnessed Lazarus walk from the tomb alive. This would be the last straw for the Romans…they killed a lot of people in order to maintain the empire and when they killed someone, they wanted that person to stay dead…none of this coming back to life stuff.
By the end of chapter 11, they are looking for someone to tell them where Jesus was so that they could arrest him…and here he is…in Bethany…just outside of Jerusalem…hiding in plain sight. He couldn’t have gone anywhere else where there would have been more people gawking than to the house of a once dead man. The paparazzi had to have the place surrounded. Jesus could not have been more conspicuous.
The scripture says there was a large crowd there. They wanted to see Jesus but most of all they wanted to see the formerly dead Lazarus. They were there when Lazarus died. They were there when he rose from the dead. They couldn’t get enough of watching the dead man live.
Think about the characters in this story. Of course there are Jesus and Lazarus. Then there is Mary. Just a few short verses earlier Mary was grappling with the whole idea of Jesus. When Jesus arrived after her brother had died, she said to him, “If only you had been here, he would have lived.”
Now…a few days later…it is Mary and only Mary who seems to understand that it is Jesus who will soon die and like Lazarus, spend days in the tomb. She prepares his living body for death.
Nard is one of the main characters…nard is the oil she uses…nard is just not any oil. It’s an aromatic perennial herb grown in the Himalaya Mountains, having rose-purple flowers. It was obtained as a luxury in ancient Egypt. And a luxury it was. In those days, the average worker was paid one denarius for a 12-hour workday. The nard Mary uses was worth, a Judas points out, 300 denarii…almost a month’s wages.
Nard was used to perfume dead bodies. There was no embalming then and to reduce the stench of death, this oil was used by those who could afford it. There was another use for nard in those days. It was used to anoint the heads of Kings. Mary uses it to anoint the feet of Jesus. He is not a king.
And then there is Judas. We all know Judas. We know his role in the arrest and crucifixion. Jesus knew before we did, maybe before Judas knew. There is a telling dialogue between Jesus and Judas. Judas is not happy to see all that expensive nard going to waste on the feet of Jesus. Jesus who claimed to be the champion of the poor should have ordered Mary to sell that oil and give the money to the poor.
Isn’t it surprising when Jesus rebukes Judas? Leave her alone he says. She is the only one here who understands what’s going on. Besides, Judas isn’t all that concerned about the poor.
The Gospel writer challenges Judas’ sincerity. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii,” Judas demands to know, “and the money given to the poor?” John then adds, “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.”
Do you know who Judas reminds me of in this story? He reminds me of those people who say things like, “With all the poor and homeless people in America why are we sending so much money to other countries to help their poor people.” They say that as though they would actually support the use of that money to actually help the poor here.
I do not, as Paul said to the early church, I do not want you to be uninformed brothers and sisters. The next time someone says that to you, tell them the truth. As a percentage of our income, the United States spends much less on helping the poor of the world than any other developed nation, other than poor, nearly bankrupted Italy. We spend about a billion dollars a year or 25 cents per day per person. That is far less than the widow’s mite and but only a fraction of the five loaves and two fishes with which Jesus set the example for how to feed the multitudes.
A few loaves and a couple of fishes are enough to feed the world if we are generous. If we are less than generous givers, it leaves far too many starving. If we who have so much are unwilling to help those in Africa and Asia and South and Central America who are hungry, it is little wonder that there are, among us, people of our own nation who do not have enough to eat.
But Judas aside…what is going on here? Judas is, after all, correct. All that nard was worth a lot of money, money that could have fed a lot of hungry people. This week, the grandeur of the Catholic Church has been on display. The Vatican, St. Peter’s Square, the Swiss Guards, the Sistine Chapel, the vestments of the new Pope.
I am certain there were many who watched it all and repeated the words of Judas. “Why was this not all sold for the billions it must be worth and the money given to the poor?” Certainly…the Vatican and all of its grandeur is an affront to the senses of austere Presbyterians…look at these blank walls. If the Vatican is one extreme, are we not the other?
The one from whom we learn the most in this story of the anointing of Jesus is the one who says nothing. While Jesus and Judas debate the use of money it is Mary who teaches us that it is not money that is at the center of our ability to help the poor. It is instead the inspiration of knowing why we seek to do so.
I watched the Highlands team last Wednesday night serving dinner at Connections Corner. Connections Corner is one of the many ministries Highlands supports. It is a ministry to those who live in generational poverty. It is a ministry that brings middle class mentors together with people in poverty so that we can learn from one another. They meet every Wednesday night and they begin every meeting by sharing a meal…a meal donated by churches and others. Highlands takes its turn and thanks to Laura and Mary Ann and Vic and Abita…everyone enjoyed a wonderful taco dinner last Wednesday.
But it is so much more than a dinner. I know for a fact that for the children who filled their plates that night…this is the one night a week that most of them are able to do that. For us it was a delicious meal…for them…Wednesday night is the one night a week they don’t go to bed hungry.
So…where does the inspiration come from? What is it that inspires some to do the hard work of social justice…to feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the sick and the captives? It’s not the money…it’s the inspiration…the inspiration that comes form anointing Jesus…at times with expensive oils…it’s the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it’s the magnificent cathedrals and the ornate sculpture, the stained glass…the visual images of art and architecture that lift our hearts to levels our minds cannot always comprehend.
As the votes of the cardinals were being counted, Claudio Hummes of Brazil, comforted his friend Cardinal Bergolio "as the situation became dangerous".
After the voting reached the two-thirds majority that elected him, Hummes told him "Don't forget the poor.” While the formal voting continued, the pope said "I thought of wars .... and Francis (of Assisi) is the man of peace, and that is how the name entered my heart, Francis of Assisi, for me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects others."
On the night he was elected amid all the grandeur that is the Vatican…the new pope shunned the papal limousine and travelled on a bus with other cardinals. He went to the Church-run hotel where he had been staying before the conclave and insisted on paying the bill.
Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, also urged Argentines not to make costly trips to Rome to see him but to give the money to the poor instead. And then he reminded his followers that it is not about the pope but about Jesus.
I would add…it’s not even about the poor…it’s about Jesus!
The work of God’s justice will, as Jesus said, always be with us. It is hard, demanding work that requires a renewal of the senses…the lifting of our spirits that comes from using expensive oils to anoint the feet of Jesus as the means of reminding us that the inspiration will not always be with us, that it must be renewed, that worship is an integral part of mission.
Worship is the inspiration and whether we find it on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the beauty of the wide-open sky, it is what creates for us the sense that it all matters, that it all arises from an understanding that neither are we alone in the work or larger than the cause. AMEN