Preached at Christ Church Cathedral September 6, 2009 by The Rev. John M. Good,
Almost two thousand years ago the Letter of James warned us about showing favoritism to the rich. As Eugene Peterson translates a portion of today’s second lesson in The Message, James wrote,"If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, ‘Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!’ and either ignore the street person or say, ‘Better sit here in the back row,’ haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?…Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges…And here you are abusing these same citizens! Isn’t it the high and mighty who exploit you?"
The answers to James’ questions are "Yes," Yes," and "Yes."
Yes, while the members of this Cathedral show greater respect for the very poor and less deference to the rich, like every church we are impressed with wealth and anxious about the poor.
Yes, every chapter of all four gospels describe how Jesus operated differently by ministering to the "down and out" as worthy citizens of his kingdom.
And yes, "the high and mighty" still exploit us who are not as powerful as they are.
Thom Hartmann reveals how the very wealthy have recently increased their exploitation of working people in a book that reminds us of our recent history. Begining with the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, he writes, "In his first term, [Roosevelt]…sent to Congress the National Industrial Recovery Act, which set standards for wages and working hours and established the right of laborers to organize. This set the stage for labor groups to bargain for wages and conditions. Thanks in large part to FDR’s work on behalf of labor, in the twenty-five years after World War II the real incomes of the middle class doubled." But things have changed, he says, "Today America is regressing. Middle-class income has stopped growing. The net worth of those who earn less than $150,000 per year (which includes everybody from the working poor to the highest end of the most well-off of the middle class) is down by 0.6 percent…The real income of people whose net worth exceeds $100 million is doubling. What’s happening is simple: the rich are getting richer and the entire spectrum of the middle class is disappearing." 1
The way we pay for health care is one way the rich and powerful exploit the middle class. Those who are not covered by medicare or eligible for medicaid and federal insurance for children get their health insurance from for-profit companies. These companies must always consider their bottom line when they make a decision to pay for legitimate medical needs. Those companies who do well on the bottom line gratefully compensate their chief executive officers for keeping the dividends coming. Aetna pays its CEO 24 million dollars a year. Cigna pays 12.2 million, WellPoint 9.8 million, Coventry 9 million and our own local Centene pays Michael Niedorf 8.7 million.2 Those of us who pay for this insurance pay not only the doctors, nurses, and technicians for their care, but also the CEOs and other well paid executives of the corporations that insure us.
Are the words of James, written so long ago, relevant to the way our health insurance system helps the powerful exploit the powerless? Hear what the late Ted Kennedy saith. When a reporter asked him why he cared so much for the poor, he replied, "My God, man, have you never read the New Testament?" You would think Christians who have read the New Testament ought to be clamoring for a new health insurance system that does not enrich the already rich and delivers quality health care to all people, regardless of income.
That seems logical. But the other day my son-in-law asked me, "If Jesus calls us individually to love our neighbors by helping them when they have needs, should we then ask the government to force rich people to care for their poorer neighbors? That’s a very good question. When the government forces us to love our neighbor it really isn’t love.
But my son-in-law, like so many Christians, thinks that Jesus came only to transform the lives of individuals. They are not aware of the scholarship of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossen who have demonstrated that Jesus was also a prophet who came to expose and oppose the evils of domination systems. In his time, the Jewish toadies of the Roman Rulers had become a privileged elite who dominated a vast peasantry. They emphasized keeping the laws of purity to oppress and economically exploit the powerless people of Israel. Jesus challenged this elite by violating Sabbath laws and adopting a cavalier attitude toward "the purity tradition of the elders," which we heard about in last week’s gospel. Those were the acts that aroused the ire of the Jewish political and religious establishment. That’s why they crucified him. They did not murder him because he advocated loving your neighbor.
Jesus calls us to work at changing those political, economic, and social systems that make it possible for a privileged elite to oppress and exploit the powerless. We hear that call when we are baptised. We agree to "renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God." That means renouncing systems— systems that use race, gender, age, and sexual orientation as excuses to oppress people. It means renouncing a health insurance system that exploits the middle class to enrich the elite. To make good on this renunciation, we promise to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being" to keep our part of our Baptismal Covenant with God. Justice requires access to health care for all people as a way to respect the dignity of every human being. On this Labor Day it is more than appropriate to focus on how we might keep that promise by seeking a just health insurance system for all Americans.