May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O God.
I remember it was back in the 2nd grade when I began getting headaches. The headaches would sometimes be so bad that the only way I would feel better would be to throw up, I know, not pleasant, then I’d fall asleep, and wake up hours later feeling groggy but a little bit better. During these headaches that continued for a few years my eyes would ache, lights would be too bright for me to see, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the pain. In the 5th grade my parents took me to an opthamologist, an eye doctor, who after running a few tests told my parents that I was diagnosed with childhood glaucoma. It’s where fluid build in your eyes and causes pressure and pain and sometimes if it’s left untreated, blindness.
Primary congenital glaucoma occurs in about every 2 children for every 100,000 births. So it’s fairly uncommon. In elementary school I had eye surgery on both of my eyes, and those headaches, thank God, went away. I still get maybe a headache a year, but it’s manageable. It’s okay. I take eyedrops each morning and evening and that’s manageable, too. My life isn’t consumed by headaches or worrying about what might happen to my vision because I have had the help and resources available to me that have made things better. I am blessed to be able to see, but I am aware of many who continue to struggle with untreated glaucoma or any number of illnesses or diseases or diagnoses because they do not have access to the resources I was privileged to receive.
This morning we gather together with the whole United Church of Christ in observing Health and Human Service Sunday. We bear witness to the faithful heritage the UCC has in creating spaces and services for lives of wholeness with communities across the country and around the world. Did you know that for generations, the UCC and its predecessor denominations courageously founded schools, hospitals, and orphanages at times when such services were scarce?
Now, there are more than 400 UCC affiliated health care centers, hospitals, affordable housing and retirement communities; transitional housing for those experiencing homelessness or domestic violence, service centers for children, youth, families, and those with developmental disabilities.* In St. Louis just this past week, the Missouri Mid-South Conference relieved 13 million dollars of medical debt for those unable to pay their bills. Wow. Today is a day to celebrate that the service, action, and fellowship of the church is alive and well beyond our church walls and our own ministries. This is one reason that I am so keen to talk to us about our relationship to the wider United Church of Christ. We are involved in some amazing things, aren’t we?
But, as we all know, there are many needs still present in the world. So many opportunities for health and healing. In our own state, we are in conversation with our legislators to bring Medicaid Expansion to Kansas. 35 states and the district of Columbia have already expanded Medicaid, and last year there was a push for it to happen here, but we weren’t successful. Now I just want to say that I’m not standing up here trying to convince us of a political need, at least not politics in the way we usually understand them. I’m here on this Health and Human Service Sunday to share with you that expanding resources means, at least in my opinion, expanding the reach of the gospel.
We all know these words from Matthew 25. They begin with a king, the Son of Man, sitting on his throne, and he says to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
Those who are near him say to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
And Jesus replies, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
We live in a deeply divided world. A world whose priorities are too often focused on power and privilege instead of wholeness and healing. We are focused on an “almighty dollar,” the cost of things, in fact insurance companies have even placed a value on your own life. This might sound crass to those of us sitting in the pews of our church, where we hear from preachers like me that the value of a human life is priceless, but about a decade ago that number was set at about $129,000.≤ I’m sure that number is higher now. But really there is no dollar amount that we can place on a human life, on a human being.
All of us are created equally in the eyes of our creator, as our scriptures tell us. all of us are endowed with certain rights, as the founding documents of our country remind us. All of us deserve fair and equal treatment by our government, no matter the perceived cost. This is why I support expanding Medicaid in the state of Kansas and I believe there is a scriptural basis for us to do so: we are called to care for the least of these. And in Kansas, that is the 150,000 Kansans who fall into what is called a health coverage gap. Those who earn too much to qualify for the Kansas Medicaid program, or too little to be eligible for financial help to buy private insurance.
Expanding KanCare helps the least of these. We know that those who have access to medical assistance have better quality of care, they live longer, they show improved infant mortality, there is more survival among those with illness such as end-stage renal disease. Access to prescription drug benefits helps us to live longer. Residents of states where expansion has already happened report reductions in psychological distress and days of poor mental health, and they show an increase in general health.± These are not merely good talking points or helpful statistics, they are a reality for those living in a Matthew 25 world. A world that cares for those who need care the most.
In our epistle reading this morning in 1st Corinthians, Paul highlights how many divisions seem to exist within the Christian community at Corinth. He appeals to them in the name of Jesus to be in agreement with one another, to be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. He asks that quarrels cease, that we not be divided, because Christ is not divided. Can we say the same for ourselves? Can we say that we live in a world that is undivided? That shares a common purpose? I think if we’re honest with ourselves that answer to that question is no, whether you’re talking about churches, or school bonds, or the government.
We are not united, not even in our own United Church of Christ. But Jesus calls us to unity. Jesus calls us to do what is right. Jesus calls us to follow him. And he says to us, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” You know, we live in a world that has the potential to be so much more, don’t we? We live in a world that has the potential to care for everyone, no matter where they are born, or where they come from, or the mistakes they have made in the past. God opens the doors of heaven and asks us to turn, to repent, to change our ways, to bring a little bit of heaven to earth. Because we all deserve that, no matter what.
We are called to love one another. We are called to live humbly. To do what is right. To do what is good. But how can our neighbors who are struggling focus on what is good when they are focused on trying to pay their skyrocketing medical bills? How can our neighbors come to church on Sunday morning and join with us in community when our own communities push them down and blame them for their life’s circumstances? That is not the gospel. That is not what I would call “a Christian message.” To follow Jesus means, like James and his brother John, to make a choice. To get up and out of the boat that was headed in one direction and follow this Jesus who is taking us in another. It means to follow Jesus as he goes throughout Galilee, as he proclaims the good news of the kingdom and cures every disease and sickness among the people. I’d like to imagine that Jesus is walking the halls of the Capitol Building in Topeka, as well, inviting us to care for the most vulnerable among us.
The physical body of Jesus is no longer here but his spirit of justice remains. His invitation to repent and to help the least of these, remains. And so it is our turn to walk through our towns, to visit our Capitol Building, to say to those in need, to those who can’t afford their doctors visits or prescriptions, to say to them, “I am with you. I am on your side.” For we know that when we do this for the least of these, we are responding to God’s longing for the health, healing, and wholeness of this world. May this new world come soon, for you, for me, and for all of us. Amen.
* For this section on the work of the UCC, , I used the Opening Prayer found at: https://www.chhsm.org/about/health-and-human-service-sunday/
± For this section on the effects of Medicaid expansion, I relied on statistics found at: http://www.expandkancare.com/resources/
≤ See “The Value of a Human Life: $129,000” at http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1808049,00.html