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Archive for August, 2009

Yesterday I preached the most controversial sermon I’ve ever given. Not because I refuted a basic Christian belief, or the divinity of Jesus, or the existence of God, but because I preached on health care reform. And specifically on our responsibility as Christians to care for the “widows and orphans.” My hope was that people would hear the call to be involved in the discussion and to become better informed so that they can advocate the position they believe makes the most sense for the US while still fulfilling the call to care for the widows and orphans. I expected that this kind of a sermon would be likely to provoke some uneasy responses. Still I hoped that people would be willing to listen, think, decide for themselves, and act on their own decision. Knowing that my congregation may be somewhat divided politically, I felt compelled by scripture to take the risk.

After the service most of the people who walked by me and shook my hand gave me a word of thanks and encouragement. And most of those people were elderly (over 65) and who I expect heard me taking up their cause. There were a few who I noticed didn’t come through the line, but there are always some who prefer to slip out the side door. Some didn’t say anything about the sermon at all. And there were two who clearly expressed their opposition to my sermon.

One of the opposing people has copied me on a letter that they have sent to our Regional Minister expressing displeasure with the GMP’s activities of political advocacy and the growing liberal tendencies of the denominational church. The other opposing person hasn’t contributed any further information yet.And one who didn’t say anything yesterday has since given me a letter with their thoughtfully shared position.

I know that I don’t have all of the answers to this debate, and suspect I’ve really just begun to scratch the surface of the issue. My intention in preaching was not to give answers or tell people what version of health care reform to support. Really I want people of faith to take their faith so seriously that they see the responsibility they have in caring for “widows and orphans” as a person who heeds the gospel and as a citizen of this country. I would hope that they would see that while I fully support the separation of church and state, we can not separate our responsibility to live out the gospel from our responsibility to participate in the governmental process that will affect every persons ability to live in the wholeness and health that I see Jesus leading people to.

I have surprised myself in making this kind of a public statement. I debated with myself most of the week whether I should or should not, could or could not, would or would not take this to the pulpit. And in my sermon, I acknowledged that too. Every hot button issue is going to be considered “political” regardless of the politics involved, whether it is the politics between two individuals and the company they keep, the politics of power jockeying within an organization such as a church, or the politics of how our nation is governed. Support or dissent over any issue can be viewed as political. For those reasons I choose to use limited illustrations that involve numbers or statistics and a few fact checked items, rather than personal stories involving individuals and their experiences in health care, or for that matter, my own personal health and concerns over insurance. I sought to share a compelling witness on behalf of the 47 million who, because of a lack of access to health insurance, are in the class of most vulnerable people in our society.

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Last week I preached a sermon on communion and the first 4 marks or principles of identity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This week I’ll share with you the next 2 marks.

5) We structure our community around the biblical idea of covenant, emphasizing not obedience to human authority but accountability to one another because of our shared obedience to Christ.

6) We participate in God’s mission for the world, working with partners to heal the brokenness of creation and bring justice and peace to the whole human family.

Our General Assembly, the biennial convention of Disciples, was just a month ago in Indianapolis. I had the pleasure of attending, as did several members of our congregation. The theme was “For the Healing of the Nations.” A fitting theme for a people whose identity statement is “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one Body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”

In recognition of and accordance with that statement, one of the Saturday evening activities of the assembly was a vigil and rally for health care reform. It had been planned by the Disciples Justice Action Network (DJAN) as an outdoor event at the Indiana State Capital lawn, just a few blocks away from the convention center, but rain brought it indoors. Several hundred people gathered to hear speakers from the church and community. Congregations around the country have been asked to do their part to help further reform.

Standing in the tradition of the early church, I would like to share with you a letter from the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Here is the letter.

July 24, 2009

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

You are no doubt aware of the debate on health care reform currently taking place in the United States. I recently attended a conference on health care, organized by and for religious leaders to help us understand the current discussion. We heard from health care policy experts, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Mark McClellan (who served in the Bush administration) and other political leaders. They assured us that health care reform can happen this year. But we, the faith community, must act to make it happen.

Jesus’ ministry was one of healing, bringing life to the dying, sight to the blind, wellness to the sick, and peace of mind to the troubled. Jesus’ witness was that abundant life includes physical, mental and spiritual wellness. The call upon us is to make this vision a reality for all.

Disciples have been involved in the work of healing at home and abroad for generations. The General Assembly has twice spoken out on the need of health care for all (1999, Cincinnati Resolution, 9995; 2007, Fort Worth, Resolution 0724). Congregations know what it is like to help families when they have fallen through the holes in our health care safety net.

I am writing because I believe this is the moment of a generation – when the United States can finally make decent, affordable health care accessible for all. The moral vision is there. The policy expertise is in place. It’s the political will that needs our support. Our legislators need our encouragement in the hard work of reform. I urge you – whichever of the possible options you might support – to contact your Senators and Representatives and ask them to achieve affordable, accessible, accountable, and inclusive health care this year.

In spite of media reports to the contrary, it appears legislators are close to making health care reform happen. There is growing agreement about what a renewed health care system might include: people who like their coverage would keep it, people who are uninsured or lose their coverage would have an affordable option to purchase it, no one would be excluded because of pre-existing conditions, long-term costs would be reduced by streamlining paperwork and emphasizing patient-focused, preventive and wellness care.

The big challenge is how to pay for it. Congress will figure that out, too. It’s going to take compromise, but they will get there if they keep at it. We need to urge them to keep at it.

I am inviting each one of you to get involved. Contact your Representative and Senators about health care reform by using this toll-free number: 888-797-8717. Visit the Disciples Health website (discipleshealth.org) for links to helpful information.

What we do together now can make a difference for all of us, and especially for those who do not have access to affordable health care, who stand in greatest need of our prayers, our support, and our advocacy.
Thank you for your prayerful consideration and action.

In Christ,
Sharon E. Watkins
General Minister and President

Ten days ago there was a live conference call with President Obama and prominent religious leaders. Dr. Watkins and Rev. Cynthia Hale were two of the many Disciples taking part. The call was organized by a wide collective of non-profits and religious bodies with invitations issued to clergy and other people of faith to participate in the 40 minute call. They expected they might get tens of thousands of people on the call. Boy, were they surprised! 140,000 people logged in to that call as a way of kicking off “40 days for Health Reform.” And this weekend, religious leaders across the country have been urged to bring the cause to congregations, synagogues, temples and faith communities.

You may be surprised to be hearing this message here, or even from me. And believe me, I considered long and hard whether or not I could or would bring this message to this pulpit. And finally, yesterday, I decided I had to. I have to bring you this message because it is one of the most pressing issues of our time and it is a cause that affects each of us more closely than we know. It was like James was hitting me over the head or pleading with me to say something. Worse than an elephant in the room.

Two things got me. First it was when James said “anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” We are all children of God, and as one who is called to preach and to engage others in gospel work, I could not ignore this. Every day when I look in the mirror I am expected to see myself the minister and servant of God.

And then James said, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” That did me in. Orphans and widows were considered the most vulnerable people in society at that time. We can still argue that it is true. Women who had lost their husbands were dependent on their husband’s brothers to take them in. If their husband had no brother, or for some reason could or would not take them in, they were completely destitute. It was highly unlikely they would marry again. And orphans, children with no parents, had no one who could be accountable for them and provide for their needs. Again, only extended family might take on orphaned nieces, nephews or grandchildren. And if there was no extended family, and the orphans next best hope was to become a slave or servant. Jewish law made it clear that charity was to be shown to widows and orphans first.

So listen to this. According to the online documents at the Campaign for Better Health Care, based in Illinois, 1.8 million Illinoisans are without health insurance, and 18 of them die each week due to complications over the lack of health insurance. http://www.cbhconline.org. Of those who are uninsured in our state, about 300,000 are children. And since most elderly people can get Medicare, I’ll tell you that in Illinois over 150,000 thousand of our elderly citizens are poor. So it is reasonable to say that half a million children and elders are vulnerable in the worst way. According to figures from 2007, 36% of Illinois residents are classified as poor or near-poor. That’s more than 4 million people in our state.

Stepping out a little further and speaking in terms of the United States, more than 47 million people are uninsured in this country; and as employers cut benefits and employees, that number is rising. But what is even more staggering to me than the number 47 million, is the number 100,013,021; that number is the total compensation in the year 2007 for the CEOs of the 7 largest health insurers in the United States. That means if you are the CEO of one of the big 7, you would have brought home an average of $14 million that year. (source: http://www.healthreformwatch.com/2009/05/20/health-insurance-ceos-total-compensation-in-2008/)

Can you get your head around that one?! Does that even fit on the 1040-A? The pay scale for a major health insurer CEO is something between $3.6 million and $26 million. And yet, we have 47 million people with no health insurance! There is much debate over what the actual real costs of health care are, and I encourage you to Google it when you get home. CEO compensation, malpractice insurance, prescription costs, all these contribute to the bottom line which is this: things can not continue this way!

When you read your Bible, participate in Sunday School or a small group, and come to worship, you hear the gospel message. We are all God’s children, we are brothers and sisters. We have been taught to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. When you give of your first fruits, as God has given to you, you do so because you know the greater harvest is yet to come.

What matters is that you look out for your neighbors, the widows and orphans by speaking up on the issue of health reform. Learn all you can, and listen to all sides of the issue. Don’t just go for the standard party line. Get educated on this issue from reputable sources. Then don’t forget who you saw in the mirror. If you saw someone who listens to the word, then be a doer of the word; your actions on behalf of others are evidence that you take seriously the grace which you have received.

Let us pray, God we hear your words and we believe in your abundant love and grace. But we are timid people, O God. We think we do not have the power to move mountains. Help us to move from inaction to boldness so that all may be made well and whole in you. Amen

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I’d rather be in the sanctuary, the dwelling place of my God where I can consume my love’s richness and become one in body and mind. Love of my love, breath of my breath, soul of my soul.

As a kid the sanctuary was a wild and somewhat scary place at night when the only lights were from the landscaping or streets outside; the tall 2 story clear glass windows allowing the shadows to move about in the open space. One had the feeling that if you had sinned enough God might actually strike you down right then and there; or you might just hear the voice of God like Moses did, and be thrust into God’s service. But as I grew and traveled, and experienced other churches and places of sanctuary, I grew different feelings about the sanctuary.

Most especially at church camp in the wilderness, out on the dock in the dark of night, the canopy of the heavens drawing me closer into communion, I lost my fear of the sanctuary at night and began to recognize that other worldly feeling for the sacred gift it is. I learned to draw the cloak around me and to lose myself in God’s presence, to open my mind and bare my heart and soul to my beginning and ending in God. There alone in the night I made my offering and truly learned what it meant to worship and commune with my Lord. This sacred room is a calling place, a place where things start.

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