Even after almost two decades of preaching it is still surprising to me how often the scripture lessons for a given Sunday, following a schedule set many years ago, seem to respond to what is going on in the world, and contain exactly what we need to hear.
Last Sunday was a case in point. Most mainline Christian churches heard an excerpt from a letter written by the apostle Paul to the Christian church in Corinth almost 2,000 years ago. But it could have just as easily been written to Christian churches in this country this week.
Paul is asking the members of the financially prosperous church to aid Christians in Jerusalem, who are suffering from famine and extreme poverty.
“Could you not add generosity to your virtues?” he asks. “Here is a way to prove the reality of your love.”
Paul is reminding Christians of every age that generosity and love are the true Christian virtues, the ones that most closely imitate Christ.
Now I can just imagine why the Corinthians were loathe to part with their money. They worked hard for it. Why should they give it away? How did they know it would go to people who really needed it, that it wouldn’t be wasted?
If those people in Jerusalem had been working hard they wouldn’t be in this fix, would they? God helps those who help themselves, right? That’s in the Bible, isn’t it?
Well, no, it’s not. In fact, that oft-quoted statement is antithetical to a Christian ethics and morality based on love and generosity, as Paul is quick to point out.
“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you,” he says, “but it is a question of fair balance between your present abundance and their need.
“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.’”
We are to look after one another, Paul is saying. The need of anyone becomes the concern and obligation of all. God has made us to need and depend on one another. In fact, it is, as Paul says, an honor to be able to support our brothers and sisters in need.
Sometimes we are the ones who help; sometimes we are the ones in need of help.
What more appropriate words could there be for people of faith to hear as debates over health care once again fill the news?
Most churches on Sunday also heard a story from Mark’s gospel in which Jesus provides equal access to healing to both the rich and poor – the daughter of a prominent citizen and an outcast woman considered unclean and unworthy.
In fact, the New Testament is filled with stories of Jesus providing universal health care.
“Christians need to be reminded of what Jesus did,” says Wendell Potter. “It was important to him for people to have access to healing care. That’s what he did.”
What makes those words remarkable is who is saying them. Wendell Potter was until recently a health care executive with Cigna.
One day five years ago, Potter heard about a free clinic by a group called Remote Area Medical, which flies American doctors to remote Third World villages. He decided to go see what they did.
He watched as thousands of people lined up in a field, waiting for medical care. Many had camped out overnight to be seen by a doctor in an animal stall. The scene of human suffering looked like news stories he had seen of refugee camps.
But this was no refugee camp. Nor was it a scene from a Third World village. Potter was in Virginia, an easy drive from the nation’s capitol.
“It hit me like a bolt of lightning,” Potter says on a CNN blog. “What I was doing for a living was making it necessary for people to resort to getting medical care in animal stalls.
“Until that day,” he says, “I had been able to think, talk and write about the U.S. health care system and the uninsured in the abstract, as if real-life human beings were not involved.”
Potter eventually quit his job and now lobbies for health-care reform. His target audience is churches, but he admits that many pastors will not welcome him for fear he will offend the people in the pews.
“A lot of pastors are just too afraid to step up and say this is a moral issue,” he says.
Make no mistake about it. A moral issue is exactly what this is, and the Christian response to it is clear.
Or as Paul would almost certainly say to Christians in America:
“Could you not add generosity to your virtues? Here is a way to prove the reality of your love.”