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Highlands has courage in its DNA

“A vapor trail and the path forward”

You may have noticed, the Word of God, read this morning by Mary Guthrie was not from the Bible but rather from the timeless words of other writers. I’ve always said we worship a God big enough that she could inspire more than one book and indeed our inspiration comes not only from the Bible but from other writers who are able to tap into our innermost being with words that resonate across centuries, words that inspire and, at times, mean the difference between being led by a spirit of fear and being animated by what Paul called “love and a sound mind.”

Highlands is an inspired church. Now and then it’s worth taking a Sunday morning to contemplate the source of that inspiration and what it means in bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

A few months ago, when we did an assessment of Highlands strengths and opportunities, a number of people said they didn’t really know all the mission work we were doing and to whom we were giving money and help.

So, a week ago Saturday, our church board, what we call the Session, gathered to reminisce, to remember. During our morning together, we brainstormed a list of events and initiatives undertaken by Highlands in the last decade. The list is long and it establishes this church as a place of inspirational courage.

It begins with the 2013 decision to sell off the property around us for a city park and our place a bet on the future when we borrowed 120,000 dollars to complete a half a million dollar refurbishing of this building when it was in dire need of a refurbishing and we learned the importance of space in worship, mission, and fellowship

When you could have hidden as many church do behind that threadbare slogan “Everyone is welcome here,” you made a decision to become a More Light church and tell the community upfront and out loud that Highlands welcomes the LGBTQ community and proclaim our commitment to advocate for their rights.

We organized the marches and vigils in support of DACA kids and involved ourselves in the politics and theology of Medicaid expansion. The ultimately successful campaign to block the construction of an immigrant prison in Evanston started here in our sanctuary when activists from across the state gathered at Highlands to develop a strategy to protect the state from creating another Heart Mountain.

Inspired by biblical admonitions to provide hospitality to immigrants and by our own sense of justice, Highlands took the extraordinarily courageous step of becoming a Sanctuary church and risked a confrontation with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security by joining with the Unitarians and providing sanctuary to a father and husband who was threatened with an unjust deportation.

We protected him from an unjust deportation for three months and ultimately secured a decision by the federal government allowing him to remain in the US with his wife, 4 sons and his elderly parents. Inspired courage.

We engage in an intentional effort to continue educating ourselves about controversial topics, studying books that would be banned in most churches, informing ourselves on even the racist history of our own church.

We have acknowledged that we are worshipping on stolen land and have moved decisively beyond the acknowledgment and are taking concrete steps toward reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters and that includes the payment of reparations

Between the 2020 onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the end of 2022, Highlands has given nearly $48,000 for Reservation causes. That includes the endowment of a $35,000 permanent fund at Central Wyoming Community College to help Indian students stay in school when financial emergencies might otherwise force them to drop out.

Highlands also provides financial support to the Riverton Peace Mission work to address anti-Indian racism in that community.

At a moment when most churches won’t even discuss reparations, Highlands took the extraordinary step of voluntarily assessing on itself a land tax or reparations payment of $500 per month to be set aside in an Indigenous Reparations Fund. Some of you have made additional personal donations. As of the end of April the four-month-old fund already has a balance of approximately $7,500.

There’s a reason we are the only Matthew 25 church in Wyoming. In today’s environment the word “woke” is an epithet. Governor DeSantis says WOKE is a belief that there are intuitional injustices at work in the world. Governor DeSantis doesn’t believe such injustices exits. The PCUSA and Highlands disagree with the Governor, which is why we committed ourselves to be a WOKE Matthew 25 church knowing that commitment carried with it a promise to engage ourselves in understanding institutional poverty and systemic racism and working to end it.

There was so much more. The work of the Hunger Action and Earth Care Teams; the book clubs (name another congregation willing to study “The 1619 Project” and the writings of John Shelby Spong), and then there’s your engagement in the book banning controversy and your embrace of Zoom which has doubled our attendance and given us friends from all over the state and country.

After that brainstorming and reminding ourselves of a decade of inspired courage, I contemplated during the drive back to Laramie, where does that kind of courage come from? It certainly isn’t a common trait across all faith communities. So, for Highlands, what is the source of the strength to take such risks? Some researchers say some people may be genetically predisposed than others to have a greater capacity for risk-taking. Do faith communities develop a DNA? I've come to believe that DNA develops over time and over the last decade, Highlands has achieved the genesis for courage.

Other experts point to psychological makeup, values, and beliefs or confidence in our own capacity to confront challenges.

The hit on religion is that it too often lacks the courage to take up Christ’s cross and actually follow him. Afterall, crosses are pretty intimidating symbols. Picking one up has ramifications. But I suggest to you there is something deeply ingrained in us as a church family that gives us the inspiration to act courageously and it has been evident for the last decade

It was 2014 when a retired Presbyterian pastor from New Hampshire came to Wyoming to study the responses of the 28 Presbyterian congregations to the social justice issue of the day. Rev. Richard Croker traveled the state and witnessed how each church was handling the most difficult issues of the times. His conclusion? Quote, “In such a storm, there is a tendency to huddle together for protection. That is certainly one strategy for survival. Another strategy, such as the one adopted by the Highlands Church, is to raise a progressive flag and say, “This is who we are.”

Our inspiration comes from Jesus’s call to be there for the least of these. It comes from the ancient Hebrew prophets who taught us that God expects us to stand with and for those who suffer injustice. Our inspiration comes from our fellowship. Courage begats courage. When we see it in others, we can see it in ourselves.

What I’ve seen here at Highlands over the years is that your openness to learn nourishes your willingness to act boldly. You studies the issue of immigration and learning what you learned, you acted boldly to become a sanctuary church. You were open to learning more about the injustices visited on Indigenous Peoples and made an extraordinarily decision that worshipping on stolen ground demanded we make reparations.

For a decade, you have made choices that cause people to see us as a faith community willing to take the risks inherent in picking up the cross and following Jesus. Every time you’ve arrived at the intersection of courage and caution, where those two roads diverged, you did your homework, looking down each road as far as you could see…to the place where it bends in the undergrowth…and even though you could not see far enough to fully understand what was ahead…you always took the road less traveled by and that has made all the difference.

Have you ever laid in the grass on a warm summer day and looked across the sky? Most often you see a trail of vapor. You may not be able to see the jet plane at the front of the vapor but you know where it’s going by tracing the line created by the vapor.

Highlands…you’ve left a trail across the sky. When the time comes to teach a new pastor who you are and where you want to go, just tell her to look at the long, certain vapor trail you’ve created. It is the path forward. AMEN

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