Sermon: Sunday, March 15, 2009: Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Exodus 20:1-17  ;  Psalm 19  ;  1 Corinthians 1:18-25  ;  John 2:13-22


How many of you have seen the movie Sicko? It’s the documentary by Michael Moore that came out in 2007, and there’s a scene from that movie that I’m thinking of where a man named Rick tells the story of losing the tips of his two middle fingers while working with a table saw. He’s ripping a piece of wood and he accidentally cuts off the tops of his ring and his middle finger and his first thought is, “I don’t have insurance. How much is this going cost?”

Rick goes to the hospital and is told that for $60,000 they can attach his middle finger, and for $12,000 they can attach his ring finger. The craftsman makes a couple of light jokes about missing his fingers, while his wife brings home the point of the scene. She says, “it’s an awful feeling to try and put a value on your body.”

It is an awful feeling to try and put a value on your body, as any of us who have chosen to forego health care because of the costs associated know. Maybe you’ve never been in the position of deciding how much you’d be willing to pay to have a body part reattached, but I’m betting that almost all of us at one time or another have been forced to choose between our health and our wealth. Let’s take a quick poll:

  • If you’ve ever decided not to go to the doctor when you were sick, because you didn’t have insurance, or couldn’t afford the co-pay, raise your hand.
  • If you’ve ever skipped your annual physical or missed preventive screenings for cancer, glaucoma or other preventable or manageable diseases because you were uninsured or underinsured, raise your hand.
  • If you’ve ever chosen not to fill a prescription, or had to choose between filling a prescription and providing some other basic need – like food or rent – raise your hand.
  • If you’ve ever avoided a trip to urgent care or the emergency room because you didn’t know how you would pay for it, raise your hand.

We in the United States are living in a country whose health care delivery system distributes services unjustly, rations care inequitably, and offers compassion only to those who can afford it. As evidence of that accusation consider that over a third of families living below the poverty line are uninsured; that just over 1 in 10 White Americans is uninsured, while 2 in 10 African-Americans are uninsured, and over 3 in 10 Hispanic Americans are uninsured. Eighteen people die each week in the state of Illinois for lack of health insurance, and eighteen thousand people die each year in the United States for lack of health insurance. With these facts just skimming the surface of the collapsing health care system, the charge that our nation’s health care system is unjust, inequitable and favors those with wealth is not irresponsible speculation – it’s a statement of fact.

It’s an awful feeling to try and put a value on your body. We recoil from the exercise instinctively, because we know it’s wrong. How much would you take for your kidney? You’ve got two. How about one of your eyes, or lungs? You have two of those as well, why not? How much would you take for the health of one of your children? Or one of your aging parents? How much are they worth to you?

The commodification of our bodies, of our lives, is an affront against our humanity – and against the God who gave us our lives in the first place. We come into the world with life given to us as a gift. The biblical witness is clear on this point. In the first creation story in Genesis God fills the earth with life and commands both the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the human beings who walk the ground to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:22,28). After the great flood, God commands Noah and his family to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 8:17, 9:1). The prophets Jeremiah (23:3) and Ezekiel (36:11) envision freedom from the Babylonian captivity and foretell of a time when God will once again make the people’s life fruitful and abundant. Jesus speaks in the gospel of John, saying, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). To take this gift of abundant life that God gives, and turn it into a commodity that can be bought or sold at the discretion of those in power, those with access to resources and regulation, is an affront against the creator.

Throughout the season of Lent we have been talking about the covenants God has made with God’s people; beginning first with Noah and the flood, then last week with Abraham and Sarah. This week we hear the story of God giving the law, what we call the Ten Commandments, to Moses at Mount Sinai. The law was one more covenant, one more sign that God was binding God’s self to God’s people. A set of instructions, terms of a covenant, almost like a contract.

But as we’ve been discussing during our midweek Lenten worship services, we are not so good at keeping the law. Not in a good way, not in a civil-disobedience-breaking-unjust-laws kind of way, but in the worst sense. We are like Paul, who says in Romans, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15).

We have been given the law as a way to order and structure our life together, to tend the distribution of God’s good gifts among all of God’s people, and yet we deform the law and twist it to suit our own needs and ends without regard for the other. God tells Moses to tell the people, “you shall not murder” and “you shall not steal.” Luther, commenting on the fifth commandment (you shall not murder) in his Small Catechism writes, “what does this mean? [that] we should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” And, of the seventh commandment (you shall not steal) he writes, “we should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”

And yet, we have created and sustained a system for administering God’s gift of life violates both commandments in that it does not help and support our neighbors in their physical needs, nor does it help and improve their possessions and income – as we know that half of all bankruptcies are caused by medical bills, and three quarters of those are filed by people who actually have health insurance!

The situation is completely outrageous – reminding me of the bumper sticker that reads, “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” The only thing that prevents us from acknowledging our anger and the injustice of the situation is the fact that we have become so accustomed to it. But not Jesus.

When Jesus goes up to Jerusalem in the gospel reading from John we hear this morning, he enters the temple – the place where the people have been commanded to go to receive the blessings of God’s covenant of love – and sees that between the entry to the temple and the foot of the altar a marketplace has sprung up. Merchants in the temple, acting with the knowledge and consent of the religious establishment, are taking the wealth of the people and converting it into “acceptable” gift for offering in the temple. Jesus is enraged – the temple should be a place where God’s people see and taste and experience God’s free and unconditional love, and yet even that gift has become commodified. And so Jesus drives the money-changers, the profiteers, out of God’s house saying, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

I asked members of the social justice working group who are focused right now on ways of getting our congregation more involved in health care advocacy to read this lesson with the theme of health care in mind and to share their reflections with me. Their insights were spectacular. One working group member provided the a perfect summary of the distinction between law and gospel, writing

Isn't it interesting that both the temple and health care start out with the best of intentions and yet we manage to mess it up? Once again Jesus refocuses our attention on higher priorities ("…stop making my Father's house a marketplace!").

Another wrote,

I notice that when Jesus commands the sellers to stop making God's house a marketplace, he doesn't just tell them to stop selling the animals for sacrifice; he drives out the animals and the sellers together. It's like he's revamping the entire system, clearing the way for a new kind of worship, a new kind of body, a new system of healing. He doesn't believe that mass death–represented both by the money and by the sacrificial animals–is the way to wholeness with God anymore. When they ask, "Well then, what's next?", he answers in one of his wonderful riddles: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Obviously, the Jews are puzzled. How can he rebuild an entire system in such a short time, a system that is the very essence of this peoples healing? I think this is the same question we are asking ourselves right now, as the government contemplates shifting our health care system to include more people and involve more access to the people who are already under its wing. Obviously, no one man is the answer. But, as the mystery of Christ and Christ's healing lies in his resurrection, perhaps as we seek a new system of community-based healing for our neighborhood, we can take comfort that this mystery can, and will, lead to a radical new system far better than anything the moneychangers and the bloody sacrifices have provided.

Amazing insights drawn not only from reading scripture, but letting scripture read us!

Sisters and brothers, you are the beloved people of God – along with everyone else. Your lives are sacred and holy, they are a gift from God – and so are everybody else’s.
It’s not just the needs of our fellow Americans that we are called to address, but today we are challenged to look at the systems of power and privilege that we are a part of and that we have the power to change. We are challenged to do this regardless of whether we consider ourselves liberals or conservatives, whether we vote Democrat or Republican, whether we voted for the current President or not. We are called to do this because we are a part of the nation that stood at the base of Mount Sinai when God made an eternal covenant with us that requires us to care for the life and livelihood of our neighbors. We are joined with Christ in baptism, and called to take up his ministry of clearing away anything in church or society that stands between the doorway where we sing “all are welcome” and the altar where we say “the gifts of God for the people of God.” This is one more meaning of the cross we take up when we choose to follow Christ Jesus our Lord.


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