For my blog this time I've decided to copy-paste the sermon I preached last week, based on the Common Lectionary. I was guest preacher at historic Hawfields Presbyterian Church in Mebane, NC.
Welfare and Healthcare AD 1
Jesus can surprise us at times, as often as we read these stories and think we understand the deeper meanings to them. A time comes when our own experience plays into the story and his takes a new turn in our understanding of discipleship. In today’s readings, we find two accounts of his healing powers: one involves a pagan woman, an outsider to the faith, and the other an outcast within the faith, because of his infirmities.
Jesus and his friends have stepped into the outer edges of Jewish territory where there are Greeks, in the eyes of the faithful they are seen as pagans. He’s looking for respite away from the crowds, yet here comes a Syrophoenician woman who has discovered where he is, and pleads for her daughter’s healing from mental illness. Jesus stalls, claiming that his work is among his own people, but the woman steps across the boundaries of propriety and defends her right to his ministry. Women in that society were not to be so forward in the company of men, who held the superior role. But a mother’s concern overrode such conformities. Jesus tries to dismiss her by noting that his own people take priority and others must not take what belongs to the Jews – outsiders are considered to be like the small pet dogs, he claims. Her brave riposte, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” trumps his stand, and he accedes to her plea, healing her daughter long distance. Unlike other healings when he says to the patient “your faith has made you whole,” she has won her case by her argument. To the surprise of many, Jesus in that act makes an inclusive gesture that broadens his sphere of concern, reaching out to the ones beyond the limits of his own faith. The game plan has changed from exclusive to inclusive. Health care for all is the agenda for this Jesus the Jew, despite the prejudices and restrictions on dealings with pagans.
Then he moves back into home territory where a man is brought to him who cannot hear nor speak clearly. The belief of that time was that to be disabled, in this case by a speech impediment and deafness, indicated something seriously wrong about a person – some sin had caused this handicap. Yet Jesus, in his unorthodox manner, including spitting on his fingers before touching the man’s tongue, again brings about a healing, much to the amazement of those who watch. In fact, despite his command that no one tell of this action, the witnesses go out exclaiming to all they meet that he has made the deaf hear and the mute speak. The good that he does cannot go unannounced.
In that day, Jesus was providing health care without concern for anyone’s eligibility. Even non-believers and outcasts received healing just as effectively as did the insiders, the people of Israel. It did take behavior by that woman which offended propriety, and flaunting ritual laws on Jesus’ part, with the deaf man, but he overrode the limits to health care provisions. In a way it was a single-payer system, where Jesus paid the cost for the patient.
We know that health care for all has been one of the prominent issues before the public today. The death of Senator Ted Kennedy heightened attention to it, as eulogizers spoke of his life-long career of working for better ways to provide good medical care for the nation. It was, as he stated, his life’s work, his passion, his determined goal. He didn’t live to see that accomplished, but his death focused our attention even more upon the need to improve the quality and the scope of health care coverage for all. We don’t know yet how or when this goal will be reached. But we have precedents for care of the nation’s health dating back before Jesus’ day, and practiced by him in his brief career among us. Granted, there were theological purposes behind his healing in that he was focusing on the widening circle of God’s love and power. He was proclaiming the Kingdom. Yet his method of doing so included compassion for the people who came to him in throngs seeking his touch, seeking healing of mind and body, seeking food for their sustenance and food for their spirits.
We note that these crowds were not composed of the rich and powerful but rather predominantly consisted of the poor, the outcasts of society, the least among them. Perhaps as Jesus ministered to them he remembered the teachings from the book of Proverbs. Teachings about the poor, for example: “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate . . . Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” As far back as we have written records, there were the poor in every age and every civilization. People of faith, of different world faiths, were taught to have compassion for them. In fact, in ancient societies it was the obligation of the ruler to care for the poor – to see that they had the necessities of life. It was a telling mark of a nation or society how well the least were cared for. That principle has been recognized throughout the ages. Recognized but seldom adhered to fully.
When our own nation has 47 million without health insurance living among us, we wonder how we are judged in such a situation. When the numbers of the poor, the homeless and hungry increase in such economic times as we have now, what are we saying about ourselves as a society in terms of our faith?
Tomorrow is our national holiday celebrating the ones who labor, the workers, the industrious ones who are recognized for their efforts by a day off – or many of them will have a day off. Many however, who have lost their jobs, their positions, their incomes, have had too many days off this year that they didn’t count on. And the snowball effect has increased foreclosures on homes when the owners can no longer meet the payments, or purchase household items, or buy groceries, which in turn affect the manufacturers and merchants . . . and so it goes. It may be difficult for such as these to celebrate a Labor Day that no longer includes them as part of the nation’s workforce.
These are desperate times for our neighbors. . . and ourselves. How do we measure ourselves against the biblical norms of justice, healing of body and mind for all fairly; distributive, equal standards of living that leave no one out, no children behind, no elderly and infirm outside the doors of our health care system?
A recent study on the state of children’s health care around the world indicates that although our country spends more money per child on their health, it is aimed primarily at those between 12 and 17, rather than care for younger children. Where would the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter fit into this picture? These figures show the US to be far behind other countries for children 6 and younger – key ages for development into a healthy adulthood. We rank 4th from the bottom in infant mortality, after Mexico, Turkey, and Slovakia, and only Mexico ranks above us in teenagers giving birth. One writer, speaking of our poor record in health care compared to other countries notes that America's troubles stem from a flawed mix of government spending and not enough help for the working poor. The inadequate programs for undergirding for the poor show that there is less money spent to keep the incomes of the poor up. Thus, the poor have less money for their health care.
(Timothy Smeeding, author of "Poor Kids in a Rich Country: America's Children in Comparative Perspective – the article is by Greg Keller in an Associated Press article on Truthout)
These studies do not reflect a promising picture for the future of the nation’s underprivileged, but where does the church stand in this issue? After all, we are people of faith, followers of Jesus Christ. How do we reflect Jesus’ example of care for the poor in their search for a sustainable life? We do provide homeless shelters and soup kitchens in our cities, which are often part of an urban ministry program. It is a beginning, and where these ministries exist they have a noticeable effect upon the population. We act in the name of that Jesus who walked the countryside, hounded by the needs of the people, fatigued by the demands that the institutional religious establishment and the Roman government had ignored.
How do the poor see the ministry of the church? Two stories from a collection by a Benedictine Sister in Erie, PA give us an idea. Mary Lou Kownacki is active with a Soup Kitchen and an inner city Children’s Art House run by the Erie Benedictines. “What do I do here?” she asks. “I listen. I get to know my neighbors, really know them. I listen to their hopes and dreams for decent jobs, decent homes, a safe place to raise their children. They are worried about their children, especially their teenagers, who can see no future except minimum-paying jobs, lockup, or dropping out to the streets” (A Monk . . . p.6) She writes a poem: “Poor people on my street/rummaging through city trash/for stained mattresses, torn chairs/a chipped vase/to hold a stolen daffodil.”
And the poor respond, some in unusual ways. Sister Mary Lou describes how angels at times appear among them, such as Alfred A. “He appeared at our soup kitchen one day in the image of a Native American – tall, dark skin, high cheekbones, jet-black hair pulled back in a ponytail. After eating a meal, he walked up to the serving counter and asked for a table napkin. Then he took a pencil from his vest pocket, stood at the counter, and began to scribble on the napkin. . . . [he wrote:] ‘I feel the presence of God here.’ On the napkin was a sketch of the face of Jesus. Then he walked out the door, and we haven’t seen him since. . . . [she goes on] I think Alfred A. reminded us that to serve the stranger, the poor, is an act of worship. Whenever we treat the stranger with respect, with kindness, with unconditional love, we worship God” (11). Another guest at their soup kitchen was Joe. He called the place a church. When asked why, his answer was simple: “Because this is where I find God. . . This is where God’s work is done” (127).
Is that how we might describe our own churches? As a place where God’s work is done? And would those places include a health clinic for the indigent, a soup kitchen, a shelter for the night? At Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Greensboro where my husband and I worship, we are part of a program known as the Interfaith Hospitality Network. Every quarter we house families in the network in our church building for a week, providing meals and a place to sleep. They are away during the day at school or perhaps their jobs, and arrive in time for dinner. No doubt Hawfields is involved in many ways as well to make life easier for those with little means of their own. It is when we do this that we worship God – it begins when we gather in the sanctuaries of our towns and cities to sing praises and hear the Word, and offer our own prayers of need. The time we are fed there includes that moment at the Table where Christ is our Host, healing us in his bountiful forgiving love, so that we might then go out and share what we have received. We are the Church, the Body of Christ. The woman waits for us to heal her daughter. The outcast waits to speak and hear. We are able and ready, for we have witnessed the Christ in our own lives. We labor on to answer his charge and do his work.