Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Why?


One day, the eighteenth-century Polish rabbi Baal Shem-Tov and his students were standing on a hill when foreign troops invaded their town. From their vantage point on the hill, they were able to see all the horror and violence of the attack. The rabbi looked up to Heaven and cried out, "Oh, if only I were God."

A student asked, "But, Master, if you were God, what would you do differently?"

The rabbi answered him, "If I were God, I would do nothing differently. If I were God, I would understand."[1]

In today’s gospel reading,[2] many in the crowd that had gathered to hear Jesus were galvanized by news of a recent tragedy: Pilate's soldiers had killed some Galilean Jews while they were offering sacrifices in the Temple. Why would God allow this? Similarly, why had the tower of Siloam collapsed and killed eighteen people? Why did God allow that to happen?

Our questions echo the crowd’s questions. Why did God allow two Boeing 737 Max 8 planes to crash, killing all aboard? Why did God allow the slaughter of fifty worshipers in two New Zealand mosques? Why an unending war in Afghanistan? Why cancer? Why any tragedy?

The day had been long and the sun hot. Moses was dusty, thirsty and tired. All day his only companions had been the bleating, cantankerous sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro. He had led the flock from the wilderness to the mountain called Horeb, that is, desert. It was an arid place, of parched ground and few shrubs. His father-in-law said that it was the mountain of God, but Moses simply hoped to find better grazing for the flock and perhaps a spring.

That was when he smelled it: the aromatic smoke of the cassia; incense like he had smelled in the temples of Egypt; incense like his father-in-law used when he prayed to the God of Horeb. Moses shook his head to clear his mind, thinking the smell a daydream. Yet the smell persisted. Slowly, he looked around. He was startled to see a thorn bush ablaze. Yet the bush itself did not actually seem to be on fire. There was fire, but the bush was not burning. Was he daydreaming?

Forgetting the sheep, intrigued and yet wary, he took a couple of cautious steps towards the fire when a voice came from the fire: "Moses, Moses!" He stopped abruptly, still not sure of what was happening.

Again, the fire spoke, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."

Moses was afraid, his body trembling. He held his head in his hands, afraid he was losing his mind, afraid that this bush really was a god speaking to him.

Again, the fire spoke: "I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt."

And Moses remembered. He remembered the oppression of the Israelites. He remembered the cruelty of the overseers. And he remembered his outrage and how he had killed an overseer who was brutally beating an Israelite slave.

Yet again the fire spoke: "I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."

And Moses remembered. He remembered how the Israelites had turned on him in anger. They did not want his leadership or his help. He remembered fleeing Egypt and finding sanctuary with Jethro. And he remembered Zipporah, his wife, and the good life they shared.

Was this some strange dream, brought on by heat and exhaustion? Who was he, a hunted man, despised and rejected by his own people, to lead them out of bondage to freedom?

"I will be with you. This will be a sign to you: bring the people to worship me here on this mountain."

That is no sign, Moses thought to himself. How am I to convince the people to follow me out here into the desert? And what is supposed to happen when and if we get back to this mountain? Anyway, bushes do not speak. Bushes burn when ablaze. This was not right. Whose voice was this?

"I am who I am. Tell the Israelites, 'I am has sent me to you.'"

That was no answer. But Moses even then knew he would go. The fire's power had reached into his spirit and burned unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Once he had tried to free the Israelites on his own and failed; now he would go to Egypt and try again, this time filled with hope and power from knowing that God went with him.[3]

Moses’ renewed commitment to improve the plight of his enslaved fellow Israelites prefigured Jesus’ parable of the fig tree. Land for Jewish peasants, as in Hawai'i today, was precious. People cut down an unproductive tree to use as building material or firewood. Granting the unproductive fig tree another year, with fertilizer and care, emphasized that God lovingly and unfailingly offers persons opportunity after opportunity to become productive, i.e., to grow in love for God and neighbor.

This Lent, remember, and re-live in your imagination, your failed attempts to love your neighbor and God. Assured of God’s love and forgiveness, let go of those failures. Dare to move the seemingly meaningless suffering and tragedy in life, to pause in those moments when you think God might be speaking. Dare to try one more time to love God and neighbor. May God use our remembering to cultivate within us a new awareness of God's abiding presence, that we might not be barren but that Christ's love and strength might help us to truly love our neighbor all of our days. AMEN.

Sermon preached in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019



[1] Robert H. Schuller, Turning Hurts into Halos (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), pp. 218-219.
[2] Luke 13:1-9.
[3] Exodus 3:1-15.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Medicare for all


David Brooks in his column, “‘Medicare for All’: The Impossible Dream,” (New York Times, March 4, 2019) argues that regardless of the appeal of adopting Medicare for all, the U.S. transitioning to Medicare for all is impossible.

Brooks is partially correct. Transitioning from the current mélange of health care insurance programs to Medicare for all will be exceedingly difficult. However, the difficulty in transitioning is an insufficient reason for not moving forward.

First, health care is a basic human right, a basic corollary of the right to life. The right to life is corroded by selfishness and greed every time somebody’s life is cut short or somebody’s quality of life is substantially diminished by a preventable or treatable condition for which the person could not obtain the required health care. Studies consistently show that people in the U.S. have shorter life expectancies and live lives impaired by more preventable or treatable conditions than do residents of other developed countries. In other words, Americans enjoy the right to life less than do people in other developed countries in spite of spending more on health care per capita than do people in any other country. Refusing the challenge of transitioning to Medicare for all permanently condemns Americans to enjoying an unnecessarily limited right to life.

Second, a huge number of people associated with health care currently produce little of real value: everyone connected with the health insurance industry (those who work directly for the health insurance company, those involved in billing health insurance, those involved in tracking per patient costs, almost all Medicare employees, all those whose work is tied to administering Medicaid, etc.). Nobody would need to determine an individual’s eligibility for care as everyone would be eligible. Medicare for all is estimated to reduce health care costs by 25% or more simply by cutting administrative costs. In implementing Medicare for all, the government should compassionately assist those harmed economically by the transition: displaced health care administrative personnel, health care workers, not just doctors, saddled with outsized student loans, etc.

Third, health care costs would fall. People would get less care, because preventive care is less costly than treatment and people who have free access tend to seek preventive care. Emergency room usage would sharply decline, as people substituted lower cost options for emergency room care, which is the highest cost source of care. Personal costs, often less tangible but nonetheless real, would diminish because people would not need to track health care costs, make copayments, etc. If Medicare for all paid for outcomes, not procedures, wasteful tests and procedures would go away.

Fourth, federal funding for health care could rely on a simple formula of $xx/person served with a higher rate of reimbursement in rural and other areas in which it is hard to get providers to locate. By pushing the funding down to states, and then allowing states to fund municipalities, the federal government could rely on local expertise and knowledge rather than attempting to decide how to allocate funding among local provider, i.e., rely upon our federal system to allocate health care funding recognizing that allocations may vary substantially from one part of the country to the next. Federal health care administrative costs would be reduced to fifty (or fifty-five, if one includes the District of Columbia and U.S. territories) monthly electronic transfers using the modified per capita formula outlined above. States might choose to utilize current state health department personnel involved in Medicaid funding to allocate the monthly check from the federal government, keeping costs to a minimum and allowing municipalities (city, town, or county) maximum leeway in spending the money or might adopt a more centralized form of control. That would be a state, not a federal decision. Federal enforcement of constitutional guarantees of equal rights would still apply, as it does in other fields, without needing a large, special bureaucracy.

Fifth, as implementation progresses, the federal government could also give the VA medical system to the state in which the VA facility is located, allowing the state the option of operating the facility, giving the facility to a municipality, or closing the facility. Veterans would no longer require special access to care because all Americans would have equal access to care.

The very simplicity of this proposal has two major strikes against it. First, special interests – insurance lobbies, groups focused on a special disease, health care companies – would inevitably strive at every opportunity to establish preferential treatment for themselves (just think of the U.S. tax code!).

Second, the U.S. has sadly become less of a federal system and increasingly centralized. Changing laws or rules at the federal level is easier than making those same changes in each state and territory. This negates one huge benefit of a federal system: the opportunity for states to adopt different approaches, policies, and programs, as a testing mechanism to find what works best. When one approach, policy, or program is widely perceived as the best, other states are generally quick to adopt it. People dissatisfied with the approach to health care delivery in one municipality or state could relocate, just as they currently do with respect to schools, employment opportunities, etc.

Even if you reject this proposal, not moving ahead with health care for all because of the difficulty in transitioning from the current mélange than harms so many and works well for only the privileged few is illogical and immoral. Health care for all is a fundamental corollary of the right to life.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Restoring God’s Earth




The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it; the world and all who dwell therein. 

(Psalm 24:1)



The people of ZeroWasteChurch.Org write:

When we think about the planet, the solar system, the world as we know it, and as we learn more, and learn how much we don’t know, it is easy to feel incredibly small. When we hear of our world changing, climate changing, biosystems changing, animal species being destroyed, it hard to imagine how one person’s action, one person’s act of faith could possibly make a difference.

Mother Theresa said once, “There are no great things; only small things with great love.” She also said of herself, “I’m but a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.”

What if there was something individuals could do? What if there were a series of small acts of faith, small practices, new habits persons could start that did make a difference in care and concern for God’s creation? Would you do it?

ZeroWasteChurch.org has prepared an e-book of themes that collect small actions and habits that a person can take to incorporate the theme into her/his life. These themes have been shown, and they are optimistic, that these practices will indeed make a change to the ways we treat creation and the effects of human behavior on creation. 

ZeroWasteChurch.org call this process “Restoring God’s Earth: A Year of Personal Action.” Each month their free e-book of the same title will introduce a new theme, and each week it will offer several practical suggestions for you to try out. The free e-book is also available by clicking the link embedded in the photo of the book’s cover in the column to right.

They and I invite you to be God’s pencil in the world. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; its these little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Some thoughts on Ash Wednesday


Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the Christian season of preparation for the annual celebration of Jesus’ passion and resurrection.

In some Christian traditions (including mine, the Anglican), churches hold special services at which attendees have ashes imposed on the forehead as a mark of sorrow and repentance for their sins and as a visible sign of the start of a Lenten journey. Lenten journeys are frequently characterized by an individual adopting a special spiritual discipline, giving up something (caffeine, TV, etc.) or taking on something (praying one of the daily offices, volunteering more time in helping others, etc.). In either case, the spiritual discipline is generally intended to help the individual focus more attention on God and on walking more closely in Jesus’ footsteps. These Lenten spiritual disciplines, though tailored to and chosen by the individual, function analogously to the practices of observant Jews.

Recently, some congregations and clergy have engaged in what they call “Ashes to Go.” The intent is to take ashes to people, whether on street corners or elsewhere in response to diminished attendance at Ash Wednesday services and a good faith effort to accommodate faithful but over-scheduled people. At least one priest, who is part of the “Ashes to Go” movement, tries to engage a person who wishes to receive ashes in a brief conversation about the person’s spirituality and then offers a brief prayer along with the imposition of the ashes.

Imposition of ashes outside of the Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday liturgy (or an equivalent service in another tradition) raises questions about the meaningfulness of imposing ashes. Is wearing ashes for the remainder of the day simply a method of drawing attention to the wearer’s piety, real or imagined? If so, a prima facie reading (and probably a careful exegesis as well) of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, the gospel text widely read on Ash Wednesday, condemns the practice. Is wearing ashes for the wearer’s benefit, rather than trying to send a message to anyone else? If so, ashes may help to remind the wearer, conscious of the mark on his/her forehead, of his/her dependence on God’s grace. Of course, similar questions apply to persons who receive ashes in a traditional Ash Wednesday service.

Awareness of personal sin is less pervasive today than in some previous generations. Furthermore, belief in hell has also decreased as has belief in a wrathful, unforgiving God. Many Christians and Christian clergy today believe in a God whose perfection is neither marred nor diminished by embracing imperfection in anyone or anything. Jesus’ death on the cross is increasingly regarded as a demonstration of God’s unbreakable, infinite love for us. This interpretation rejects expiatory, propitiatory, and substitutionary explanations of the crucifixion. Theses latter theories all have the unintended and often unvoiced consequence of conceptualizing God as either a child-abuser or masochist.

Nevertheless, evil and sin are pervasive. The prayer of confession in Enriching Our Worship elegantly expresses the pervasiveness of evil and sin: “God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you, opposing your will in our lives. We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” Admitting one’s sin, turning towards God more fully, and seeking to make reparation for one’s sin are steps away from evil and toward more abundant living.

If the imposition of ashes, whether in a traditional Ash Wednesday service or from someone offering Ashes to Go, assists one in that spiritual journey, then receiving ashes is worthwhile and commendable. Otherwise, the imposition of ashes seems to replicate practices Jesus rebuked: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)