About a week and a half ago I dropped by the AT&T store on Fullerton near Clybourne to pick up a Bluetooth hands-free set after being warned by a police officer to stop talking on the phone while driving. I went in to purchase a small piece of equipment. An hour later I’d agreed to satellite television. I now have hundreds of channels streaming into my home. I’ve lived for years with no antenna, no cable, just DVDs and what I could catch online. Now I’m back to waking up with CNN and Saturday mornings with TLC.
In my first full week of television overconsumption the big discussion in Washington, DC has been health care reform. We remember that this was one of the issues that President Obama campaigned on, and now it appears that our country is poised to make some new decisions about the extent to which access to health care ought to be considered a right, and how best to equitably share health care resources.
With that national conversation going on all around us, it was impossible not to hear it breaking through into the texts assigned for this week. In the gospel story from Mark we witness two miraculous healings – the first being the hemorrhaging woman, a woman who was ritually unclean and had spent all she had on doctors; the second being the daughter of a prominent Temple official. Sickness and death, we are reminded, touch us all – no matter what our social or economic location is within society – and the God revealed in Christ Jesus desires healing and wholeness for the rich and for the poor.
Paired with those stories we have a piece of moral instruction from the apostle Paul to the community in Corinth. He begins by commending them for their piety saying, “now as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you – so we want you to excel in this generous undertaking.” Then Paul challenges the Corinthians to move past godly words to righteous action. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something – now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”
Paul is calling the Corinthians (and us) to a radical reorientation not only towards wealth and possessions, but towards our understanding of self and family. While conventional wisdom taught people to save up riches to protect themselves against future calamity, and to care for one’s self – leaving others to care for themselves – Paul is reminding us that in baptism we have been made family to one another in a way that reveals how God sees all of creation, as integrally interconnected. We are asked to equalize access to the earth’s good gifts, which come to all of us from God, so that each person has a fair share.
“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you,” writes Paul, “but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written ‘the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’”
I’ve listened to many of you talk about the pressing social issues of our time – war, immigration, education, health care reform – and I know that you are a community that is passionate about social justice. Many of you have found vocations that allow you to live out those commitments in the workplace, others of you have found outlets in your volunteerism. You are not complacent people. You are a community that cares about the plight of those in need, and that cares for the needs of one another. So I don’t think I need to really convince you that the life of discipleship is concerned with more than the fate of our souls, or salvation understood in some narrow, personal sense of the word.
Still, given the serendipitous alignment of these texts about healing and just distribution of social goods like health care and wealth, I want to give you some tools, some language, to help you talk with the people in your lives – friends, family, co-workers – who might not understand why people of faith feel compelled to get involved with issues of public policy. “Isn’t that what the separation of church and state was meant to protect us against,” you may hear people ask, “the church meddling in the affairs of government?”
No. In fact, that is not what the separation of church and state was meant to protect us from. Fundamentally, as I understand it (and I am very aware that there are attorneys and law students in our midst), the legal doctrine we’ve come to describe as separation of church and state combines two principles: secularity of government and freedom of religious expression. Taken together this is meant to assure Americans that our government does not take sides in religious matters, does not privilege one religious perspective over another, or religious perspectives over non-religious perspectives, in matters of policy and governance; and that citizens are free to practice the religion of their choosing or no religion at all.
This is important for Christians to remember as we wade into the public square with our values, priorities and commitments. We have absolutely every right to advocate for a society that supports those values we hold dear as people who have seen God at work in the life of Jesus: values like speaking truth to power, or the freedom of speech; values like the inherent dignity of all human life, found in the Preamble to the Constitution where we the founding framers assert our belief that all people are created equal; values like commitment to the widow, the orphan and the stranger – the weakest and most vulnerable of society – a value that can be held up against the moral documents called budgets, state and federal, to see how common goods are being used for the protection and betterment of all.
What we don’t get to do is assume that these values should be adopted wholesale by the country explicitly because they are Christian. We can bring our passion and our activism to the work of government, informed by our faith, working for the common good, alongside people of other faiths and people claiming no religious identity at all.
I know that this is how many of you already understand the role of faith in your life, and I want to assure you that this is how your church understands the role of the church in society as well. In fact, the ELCA maintains an office in Washington, DC that advocates on behalf of the church on issues like health care reform, immigration reform, and peacemaking (my god-daughter
Katie, a rising senior at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa spent last fall interning there as part of a study away program). Our denomination is an active partner in the national conversation on health care reform and, in fact, took part this last week in an interfaith week of prayer and lobbying alongside other Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, calling for national healthcare policy that protects the most vulnerable among us, and does not privilege the power of the wealthy over the needs of the poor.
We take these stands and issue these calls to action because we are a community with a story, shaped by scripture, and responsible for action in our present moment. We do not believe salvation is something that happens someday, far away, to each of us on our own. We believe that God in Christ Jesus has called us to a new life in baptism, made us family to one another, and is saving us together – here and now – through our faithful attention to the needs of our neighbors, those around the corner, across the country and around the world. We know that the freedom we find in Christ Jesus is not freedom from one another, but freedom for all of us together, and that we will find that freedom most truly realized in our midst when “the one who [has] much [does] not have too much, and the one who [has] little [does] not have too little.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.