On being a Presbyterian
Highlands Presbyterian church
September 11, 2016
Once when I was the Director of the Department of Family Services, I gave a speech. Governor Freudenthal who had been my roommate during our first year in Law School, introduced me. “Some of our old classmates,” he said, are surprised that I became Governor all of them are surprised that Rodger became a minister. I had the same reaction recently when I attended my 50th high school class reunion. There were many of my old classmates who were more than a little surprised that I had become, what one called, a man of the cloth. That’s not how they remembered me from our old high school days. They asked me about how that happened but the other question I was asked most often was “What does it mean to be a Presbyterian.”
I imagine some of you get that question from time to time. I used to give a very utilitarian, bureaucratic answer, launching into an explanation of how we govern ourselves but I found that didn’t mean much and it made it sound as though if there were differences between us and others, those differences didn’t amount to what my mother called “a hill of beans.”
It’s something I get asked often enough that I was determined to find a better answer, one that said something meaningful about who we are, why we worship, and our relationship with Jesus.
So let me tell you what my answer is now. There are three points that define who we are. One…we take the Bible seriously but not literally. Two, we believe the Gospel is fundamentally about social justice. Third, we believe God has no voice but ours and so we will not be silenced.
There’s a story Jesus told in the 15th chapter of Luke that makes my point. It all began when the fundamentalists of his day started grumbling abut Jesus spending too much time with sinners, having dinner with the worst of them. Jesus said, let me ask you a question.
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.
Now there are two types of people in the world. There are those who hear those stories and wonder why any good shepherd would spend his time looking that hard for one sheep. And then there are those who would join in the search. Those are the Presbyterians.
Advocacy and social justice are cornerstones of the work of the Presbyterian Church USA and of Highlands. We speak often of our mission work in this community and I want you to know also of what our national church does.
The PCUSA advocates for social justice through the Office of Public Witness, the public policy information and advocacy office of the Church. It participates in direct advocacy with members congress and the administration through in person meetings, letters and phone calls. And, they encourage Presbyterians everywhere to call for action on matters of conscience and faith, and to be advocates.
The PCUSA works for environmental justice, healthcare, and feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. We work for fair trade and against the scourge of human trafficking. There is even a Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations representing the PCUSA at the United Nations providing witness for justice and peace.
Let me tell you what all that means in concrete actions. In the last several weeks the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota have been protesting, trying to stop a large energy company from constructing an oil pipeline beneath the waters of the Missouri River. They have a well-substantiated fear that, as with many such pipelines, there will be a leak, one that could destroy the tribe’s main source of water.
Hundreds of local protestors have been joined by thousands of representatives from Native American tribes across North America in “prayer camps” as a part of their protest. Two weeks ago state officials removed the camps’ water supply. There are Presbyterian congregations sending water and other resources to help the Tribe continue its protest despite the best efforts of the energy company and its governmental advocates to shut it down.
The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson III, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Rev. Irvin Porter, of the Presbyterian Office of Native American Intercultural Congregational Support, issued a statement supporting the Standing Rock Sioux.
The official PCUSA statement said, “The 2016 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), meeting passed these two overtures to Native Americans
One, an apology to Native American’s for the church’s administration of boarding schools during the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose purpose was the “civilization” of Native American children. Two, a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, which derives its authority from 16th and 17th century decrees of Pope’s and kings authorizing “explorers” to seize lands and convert “non-Christians.” The PCUSA denouncement of this old doctrine is important because the doctrine remains today the basis for Supreme Court decisions against Tribes.
Rev. Nelson said, “The PCUSA is becoming more aware of the struggles that Native American Presbyterians and all Native Americans have faced in the past and are dealing with today. It is my hope that in discussing these issues across the church an impact can be made that not only raises awareness within the church of these issues, but also generates action by Presbyterians.”
Then the PCUSA involved itself in criminal justice reform. The church has a long history of speaking out for reforms leading to restoration and restitution rather than punishment alone. In 2003, the General Assembly called for the “abolition” of for-profit private prisons based on evidence of abuses. While agreeing that offenders should be “dealt with firmly and justly for their own good and the protection of society,” the PCUSA also believes convicts should not be rendered outcasts from society.
The resolution invoked statements from the 1910 and 1915 General Assemblies that the “ultimate goal of the criminal justice system should be restorative justice,” addressing the hurts and needs of the victim, offender and the community.
In significant part, it was the advocacy of the PCUSA and like-minded faith leaders that resulted in the recent decision of the Obama administration to end its relationship with private for-profit corporations in the housing and handling of prisoners will bring to an end a practice that our General Assemblies have condemned as inappropriate and demeaning.”
And earlier this month the PCUSA joined 100 other faith organizations acknowledged there are 21 million men, women and children21 million being forced to flee their home country. The PCUSA asked the President to admit 200,000 refugees this year and to fund the resettlement costs accordingly so that refugees are ensured access to the service and support they need to integrate quickly and successfully into American communities.
It all makes me proud to be among Presbyterians. It inspires us to join the fight, to say what needs to be said to those who need to hear it. Highlands should say what needs to be said to Governor Matt Mead and ask him to end the embarrassment of having Wyoming be the only state in the Union refusing to enter into a refugee settlement agreement with federal government.
Becoming Christian advocates for social justice is why Highlands is leading the effort to establish a RESULTS chapter in Cheyenne. Many of you have come to the table to get that done and on October 22nd HPC will host a day-long training to move that initiative to the next level.
My fellow Jesus followers, if indeed we take the Bible seriously even though not literally, if we see the Gospel as fundamentally about social justice, we cannot help but walk the walk. It’s what Robin Meyer called the underground church. But this view of Christian discipleship is not new. While some of my clergy colleagues think it unseemly for faith leaders to involve themselves in political matters and debates, that didn’t start with us. It started with Jesus of Nazareth and has continued over the centuries wherever the Gospel finds faithful followers.
In the early 1900s Walter Rauschbusch wrote In a book titled Christianity and the Social Crisis that "Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus.
Let us give witness to our understanding of Jesus and be known in this community as his advocates for justice. AMEN