Sunday, December 24, 2017

Tonight's Christmas message @ Highlands

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, scripture tells us that wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

And there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” 

So, here we are 2000 years later. Back then, it was that star that led the wise men to the Christ child. What is it today that leads wise people to him? Is it still that star?

Said the night wind to the little lamb, “Do you see what I see? Way up in the sky, little lamb, do you see what I see? A star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite.”

Today, that star leads us not to a manger in Bethlehem but to those among us who are in need, the neighbors that baby become a man…called on us to love.

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king, “Do you know what I know? In your palace warm, mighty king, do you know what I know? A child, a child shivers in the cold…a child is hungry, an addict is asking for help, someone faces deportation and the loss of family and home as a result of an unjust immigration system, a teenager contemplates what to do next, to whom to turn having been rejected by her family because of who God created her to be, a family sleeps this night in a car or under a bridge, a single parent is working right now at some big box store so that others may buy the last minute Christmas gifts that her wages won’t permit her to buy for her own children, a soldier celebrates the night on a war front in some faraway nation, a lonely elderly couple struggles with the consequences of age and the shepherd boy asks each of us on the night we celebrate the birth of the Son of God, “Do you know what I know?”

What the little shepherd boy knows is that the star that once led wise men to the baby Jesus…now sets over those Jesus has called us to serve. When we see that the star has stopped there, we are asked to be overwhelmed with joy for our opportunity to serve. 

Said the king to the people everywhere, “Listen to what I say, pray for peace, people everywhere. Listen to what I have to say, the child sleeping in the night…he will bring us goodness and light, he will bring us goodness and light.”

It is the eve of Christmas, a cold winter evening in a time when the world is in great need for hope and for these few minutes here and in our homes tonight and tomorrow, we celebrate the hope of the world.

We don’t teach our children this story just so that they will know what happened 2000 years ago. We teach them this story so that they will come to know a God that lives among them and gives them a vision of peace for their lives and the life of the world.

My hope and prayer is that as we enter--yet again--into this oh-so-familiar story...the one we teach our children each year at this time…
...a story of a young mother finding out that through her womb, God would enter into the world as a baby boy...a story of an earthly father who, though confused, had the decency to believe his fiancée and stay by her side...a story of a baby born and laid in manger among sheep and cattle, whose power is seen from the beginning in vulnerability and selfless love.

The story of a baby that so threatened those in power that they sought to make sure he didn’t grow into the man they worried he would…and did.

My hope and prayer is that through that story we might discover--once again--a truth that is so real that it does not depend on our ability to prove or comprehend it. 

Indeed, a truth about God's incredible commitment to us and this world that might lead us to watch for the ways that God is still active in human our very this very bring about salvation.

In the name of the God of all who taught us how to live through the teachings of Jesus and continues to inspire us through the Spirit…may we celebrate the birth of Jesus with love in our hearts, our actions and our voices. Amen.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

I'm a "respected conservative leader. John Barrasso says so"

John Barrasso asked me to help fund his 2018 reelection. When I didn’t respond to the first letter, I received a second. It’s like trying to unsubscribe from Groupon.

John’s fundraising letters called me “a respected conservative leader.” No one else ever called me that. 

John assured me the perception that “Republicans aren’t accomplishing anything in Washington, DC” isn’t true. He cited Scott Pruitt’s helmsmanship at the Environmental Protection Agency. John and Scott are pleased ours is the only nation in the world that rejects the Paris Climate Accords. They blissfully ignore science and hand over the regulatory power of the EPA to the fossil fuel lobby.

But, as “a respected conservative leader,” I am more of a conservationist. I’d like to see a balance between the wishes of the exploiters and the needs of the planet.

John proudly noted the Justice Department is “clamping down and taking away” the federal funds from sanctuary cities, leaving out the part about how a federal court found this endeavor “unconstitutional on its face.”

As “a respected conservative leader,” I am more of a small government guy. Decisions about how local governments handle local law enforcement ought to be made by mayors and city council members and not bureaucratic zealots in Washington.

John’s solicitation trumpeted the work of James Mattis, claiming he was “gaining respect across the world.” John must not listen to anything but Fox News. Otherwise he’d know it’s like those games when the Rockies’ pitchers give up more runs than their high-powered offense could score.  Trump’s Tweets cost more respect than Mattis can ever recover.

John’s too young, but I’m old enough to recall the days when “a respected conservative leader” was wary of Russia and could never imagine an American president seeking to imitate Putin’s kleptocracy.

John’s letter didn’t mention Republican tax reform bill, you know, the one that cuts the taxes of huge corporations and the wealthy by hundreds of millions while slashing Medicare, raising taxes on many middle-income families, while ballooning the deficit. I suppose the Senator knew that like other respected conservative leaders, I wouldn’t think that was fair so he left it out. But I do get my news from places other than Fox, so I knew.

Neither did the letter include the old “repeal and replace” mantra. John deserves much credit for congress’s failure to “repeal and replace.” But I re-read the letter and found nothing about it. After all, John spent so many hours in one of those Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities, SCIFs, they have in Washington. 

There, he and other Republicans, safe from bipartisan input, wrote the bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. You’ll recall it had about 17% public support. John’s not worried that most Americans are opposed. He hopes to stuff it down our throats just like he and his GOP colleagues hope to do with the tax bill.

John’s letter warned, “Already potential candidates are being recruited to run against me…” John left out the part about how it’s other Republicans who are busily recruiting his replacement.

Then came the denouement. Dramatically, the loose ends came together. John’s asking me for campaign contributions because, “the fundamental causes of liberty and prosperity” are at stake.

He cautioned that “massive amounts of liberal money” are headed our way to “fuel a massive level of venomous attacks.” Now, when a politician uses the word “massive” twice in one sentence, you know something massive is about to happen.

However, that massive spending won’t come from Democratic senate candidate Gary Trauner who has disavowed corporate PAC money. John Barrasso and Steve Bannon’s alt-right candidate will spend massive amounts and, yes, their attacks will be venomous.

John Barrasso has already raised a whopping $3 million. Only 2% came from Wyoming. I didn’t send a check. It seems a senator who represented his state rather than national corporate interests would get more help from the home folks. But then, I’m just a respected conservative leader. What do I know?

Monday, December 18, 2017

Joseph & how to read the Bible

This is the 3rd Sunday of Advent and as we near Bethlehem, all we have to do is wait, which is the hardest part.

It’s hard to wait. No one waits very well. So, I suggest this morning, in order to occupy ourselves until the birth, that we do what Matthew did. Matthew went outside and took a stroll through Jesus’s family graveyard. He starts his gospel with a genealogy. Some people say, “What a horrible way to start a book. It’s just a list of names you can’t pronounce.”

Dwight Eisenhower said that in his family, they had to read the bible through completely every so often but that he was given permission to skip the genealogies. Well, we’re not going to skip the genealogy; we’re going to join Matthew for a walk, through Jesus’s family graveyard.

Some people think going to a cemetery is morbid, but it doesn’t seem that way to me. One summer not long ago, our family visited Arlington National Cemetery. Far from being morbid, it was inspiring to be there. Once when I was in New Haven, Connecticut, and my host was showing me around town, we toured the town’s historic cemetery, and suddenly I found myself standing in front of the grave of Nathan Hale, the man who said, “I regret that I have only one life to give for my country.” It was an awesome moment, an inspiring moment. Some of you have been to such places. You just cannot believe the feelings that churn.

Sometimes, though, it can be embarrassing to visit a cemetery, because you come across graves of folks you wish you weren’t kin to. I remember that my sister was once in pursuit of information about an ancestor named Ruby Craddock. The other Craddocks had come to this country from Wales, but not Ruby, so my sister who was heavily into genealogies was pursuing Ruby.

Eventually she reported, “I found Ruby.” “Good,” I said, “What did you find out about Ruby?”

She said, “You don’t want to know.” It seems that Ruby, instead of coming to America with the rest of the Craddocks, went to London instead and opened a brothel. I assured my sister that this was another branch of the family and not to worry about it.

Going to cemeteries can be a strange, mysterious thing. Last week, Fred Dickey wanted to take me up to Hogback Mountain to see the Dickey family graveyard. The Dickey’s have become particularly famous through one of their members; James Dickey, who wrote “Deliverance.” Mrs. Dickey was a member of President Zachary Taylor’s family. So, I told Fred that I’d like to see that graveyard.

We went early on a Saturday morning and found the cemetery. It was about 40 feet square with a concrete wall, now broken in places. At the end of the cemetery stood two stones marked “George Dickey” and “Hanna Dickey.” Twenty-seven other markers were there but with no names on them; just field stones stuck in the ground. The 27 were for the slaves. The slave owners buried with their slaves. The slave-owners names were preserved for eternity but not the names of the slaves. Cemeteries can be strange places. 

So, off we go with Matthew to the cemetery that holds the remains of the family of Jesus, and there at the entrance is the patriarch of them all, Abraham. A simple marker stands for Abraham for he was a simple man. He was a man of faith and on his tombstone it said in small print, “He was a pilgrim on the earth, seeking a city with foundations whose builder is God.” There he is buried with his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob.

There is no marker for Sarah, his wife; no marker for Rebekah nor for Rachel. I regret that very much but you know how they felt about women back in those days. You know what the Bible says about the crowd Jesus fed, that there were 5000 men present “not counting the women and children.”

But there are women in this cemetery of Jesus’s family. There is Tamar. She wasn’t really a savory character, but she was clever. Then there is Rahab. Having Rahab in Jesus’s family is like me having Ruby in mine. Also, there’s Ruth, the Moabite woman known for how much she loved her mother-in-law. And there is Bathsheba. She is not named but simply called “Uriah’s wife.”

I am surprised there are women’s names in Jesus’s family cemetery. Maybe including women is prophetic; promising that someday, under the good gracious eye of Jesus Christ, those distinctions will not be made-certainly not in churches. Maybe someday.

What strikes me about those women is that none of them were Jews. Did you think about that? Tamar was an Arab. Bathsheba a Palestinian, Ruth? Well, today we’d say she was a Jordanian. None were Jews. Maybe this is prophetic as well, announcing that the one who comes at the end of the genealogy will bring it to pass that the blessings of God will be showered on all people, making no distinction.

Maybe the markers out there in that cemetery are actually important. Over there is Judah, a very important man who gave his name to the Judeans, or the Jews. He gave his name to the land-Judah and his name to a religion-Judaism.

And over there, of course, is David. The central marker in that graveyard-the tallest of all…is David’s. The first part of Matthew’s genealogy leads up to David, the rest flows away from David. David is the centerpiece of the graveyard-a shepherd, a musician, a poet, a soldier, a king…a man of remarkable ambivalence, a man of powerful contradictions. He had an immense capacity to weep over his own sin. “Oh Lord, my sin is always before me…create in me a clean heart.” But then David could be hard and cold.

“Who are you woman?” David asks Bathsheba. “I’m the wife of Uriah, he is out fighting with your army.” So, David had Uriah killed and took his poor widow to be his wife. He could be as cold as the edge of steel.

And yet, every night as David sat down for supper, there was a crippled, sickly, club-footed young man named Mephibosheth, who David now lovingly provided for. He’s the grandson of Saul, the man David helped destroy.

Following David comes a line of Kings. Uzziah became king at age 16 and died a leper. Manasseh ruled longer than any of the others though he was no good and stayed in power by compromise and total lack of conviction. He had no spine, this Manasseh. And there was Josiah, who should have been a preacher not a king. He was so in love with scripture. He wanted to make the scripture the center of the life of the people.

The last name in the graveyard is Joseph. Was Joseph the father of Jesus? Well, no…yes…no. It’s complicated. This is the way it worked. Joseph was engaged to a woman named Mary. Back then engagement was a big thing. You did not simply get engaged at the drive-in some Friday night. It was a big deal that could be broken only by a court. In effect, it was the same as marriage.

Joseph is engaged to Mary when Mary discovers she is pregnant. Now, what is he going to do? Joseph is a good man who wants to do what is right. What is the right thing to do? Here is a carpenter in the community engaged to a woman and it is evident to all that she is pregnant.

There are two options available to Joseph. He could ask the opinion of the people in town. Somerset Maughman said one time that the most fundamental disposition of the human spirit is to get the approval of those around you. Go to the coffee shop and ask, “What do you think I ought to do?” Get on the phone, attend the sewing circles, talk about it everywhere. “Did you hear about Mary? What do you think I should do?”

But Joseph will not go that way. He will not expose Mary to disgrace. He has some friends, fresh from the synagogue who say, “Just do what the bible says. You can’t go wrong if you do what the bible says.” What about that for an answer? I’ve heard that all my life. “Just do what the bible says.” Well, I’ll tell you what the bible says. From Deuteronomy 22, “She is to be taken out and stoned to death in front of the people. That is what the bible says.

I get sick and tired of people always thumping the bible as though you can just open it up and turn to a passage that clears everything up. You can quote the bible before killing a person and justify the killing. I get so tired of people who carry around a 43-pound bible and say, “Just do what the Good Book says.”

Joseph is a good man and he rises to a point that was absolutely remarkable for a person of his times. He loves his bible but he reads it through a certain lens, the lens of a God who is loving and kind. Therefore, he says, “I will not harm her, shame her, ridicule her or demean her value, dignity or worth. I will protect her.”

I am absolutely amazed that Joseph is the first person in the New Testament who learned how to read the bible. Like Joseph, we are to read it through the spectacles of grace and the goodness of God. If in the bible you find justification for abusing, humiliating, disgracing, harming or hurting, you are absolutely wrong.

As my friend on the other side of the mountain in Tennessee used to say, “Well Craddock, I know one thing. God is just as good a Christian as you and me.”

You know, I’m feeling good about Christmas. The baby is not born yet. Mary hasn’t even gone into labor. But, it is Christmas because of Joseph. Christmas, for me, started because I know that when Jesus is born, the man who will teach him, raise him, care for him, and show him how to be a carpenter, take him to the synagogue, teach him his Bible…that man is a good man.

When you have somebody like that, it is already Christmas and Christmas will last as long as God can find one person who says, “I will do what is right.”

I don’t know about you but I’m glad we took that stroll through Jesus’s family’s graveyard. AMEN