Message Seven, January 10, 2010

By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.

When he was asked whether a true person of God should pay taxes to the hated Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, Jesus replied that one should distinguish matters relating to God from those that relate to civil government – “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”. This application, often ignored by those seeking to advance a religious political agenda, indicates that for Jesus, at least, religion and politics should not mix.  Religion concerns itself with spiritual matters concerning questions of meaning, existence and ethics.  Religion, therefore, must maintain a healthy distance – a separation as Thomas Jefferson put it – between itself and the mundane aspects of governance, power and leadership.

This line drawn by Jesus, and echoed by the framers of our constitution in the first amendment, is nevertheless blurry and subject to interpretation.  Throughout history, people have sought to blend these two areas of human concern creating theocratic governments or laws where the public life of a nation is guided by religious leaders, institutions and scriptures.  As I believe we all agree, such governments are inherently undemocratic since one’s spiritual beliefs are a personal concern involving the right to think and believe as one wishes.

My concern for us, though, is where do matters of spiritual significance intersect with the laws and practices of a nation?  Are there universal principles that transcend religion and politics such that they ought to be the right of every living person?  Almost every religion holds that the right to live is foundational and that no individual or government has the right to arbitrarily kill.  Derived from that right, I believe, are related rights that enable one to exist.  For instance, how can one have the right to live if one is unable to acquire the minimum needs of nutrition?  As such, I believe access to basic nutrition is a fundamental human right derived from that which we all acknowledge is the right to live.

For my message series this month, I want to examine with you those spiritually derived rights which I contend are NOT of a political or civil origin.  They are basic divine rights that originated with the first human.  This week, I will examine the issue of healthcare.  It is certainly a political hot potato at the moment.  I believe, however, that it should not be.  Every Pastor and every church throughout the land ought to be concerned with this issue since I propose it has intrinsic spiritual implications that far surpass any political arguments.

Next Sunday, I want to examine the struggle for civil rights in the light of spirituality and religion.  Just as the fight for equal rights for African-Americans was a religious issue, I believe the same extends to the struggle for gay, lesbian and transgender rights.  I will examine that issue, in a spiritual light, in the third message of this series.

It is my firm belief, as the subject of today’s message, that all humans have a universal right to basic healthcare.  And this right, in my mind, is derived not from any person, government or religious organization.  It is a divine right, a part of the moral imagination in us all, that the resources of this universe, as they are discovered and made known, are to be shared so that every person can enjoy his or her life through access to the basics of healthcare – the fundamental, spiritual right to be made well and live.

In this sense, I believe spirituality and public civil policy intersect.  Governments exist in order to protect the people and to allow for them to realize their basic human rights given to us by our creator – whether that be God, some other Divine force or simply the mysterious forces of nature.  I submit it is in the interest of our creator, whoever or whatever that might be, that we not only live – but that we live as long as possible, in good health, within the limits of knowledge and resources.

This is a spiritual interest – one of mystery, morality and divinity.  We cannot fully explain why we are here or understand our complete purpose in existence but this we do know – we live, life is finite and the self-interest of ourselves and our species mandates that we preserve ourselves and our health as long as possible.

The god force in us all demands equal, affordable and basic healthcare for each and every person.  This is, therefore, not a civil right but a spiritual imperative and a divine right.

The Biblical creation story, as we all know, concludes with God making man and woman.  The Bible story in the book of Genesis says:

God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.” God created human beings; God created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. God created them male and female.
God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! God looked over everything he and she had made; it was so good, so very good!

For Jews and Christians, the message of this passage is clear.  The creative force of the universe – God – uniquely created only two things, man and woman, to be like the divine, to be godlike and god beautiful.

As humans, we possess the ability to know, feel and experience all of the mysterious forces at work in the universe.  We alone understand the powerful forces of birth and death and we alone have advance knowledge of our own demise.  Our bodies are vessels of the holy and of the mysteries of existence.  We control our own destinies as well as those of all other living creatures.  We are masters of all that surrounds us.  No other living or material thing comes close.  We are gods of our universe.

If this is so, then human existence has purpose and is worthy.  We have responsibilities to the world around us and to ourselves.  We were created in God’s image such that the care and maintenance of our bodies is important and holy.  Our health is, therefore, of divine importance.

As Paul wrote in his first letter to the churches in Corinth:

…Didn’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit?  Let people see God in and through your body.

And Jesus declares his purpose, as described in the book of Matthew, when he preached in a synagogue that:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.

And later, also in Matthew’s gospel, it is written about Jesus,

A lot of people followed him, and he healed them all. He also cautioned them to keep it quiet, following guidelines set down by Isaiah: Look well at my handpicked servant; I love him so much, take delight in him. I’ve placed my Spirit on him; he’ll decree justice to the nations.

Clearly, the writers of the gospels saw Jesus as a healer, as one who brought compassion and care for the afflictions and sufferings of others.  Added to that concern, was the connection between healing and bringing justice to the nations.  Jesus was a unique and inspiring person, I believe, precisely because he was focused on issues of social justice.  God’s heart and God’s love is concerned with matters like poverty, human suffering and fairness.  If God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to teach and heal us in matters of social justice, then it stands to reason that our health is important to God.  Thus, it is not universal healthcare or socialized medicine or Obamacare that Congress is attempting to enact, it is – forgive me for coining a silly word – “Jesuscare.”

This is made evident when Jesus sends out his disciples to spread the gospel – the good news of his teachings – he specifically asks them to not only preach the news of what God is really like, but to offer healing services to the people they encounter.  Preaching of the gospel is linked to the physical well-being and health of others.

Jesus spent much of his time urging the rich and powerful to have concern for the sick.  And, as a living example, he physically healed scores of people – the blind, the lame, the deaf, the lepers, and the infirm.  Bodily health and putting an end to physical suffering were hallmarks of Jesus’ efforts.  It is not hyperbole that people throughout history have called Jesus the “Great Physician”.

Jesus also urged us to create heaven on earth.  His vision of this heaven is described in the concluding book in the Bible – the book of Revelation – which says:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

When Jesus declared at the outset of his ministry that “the Kingdom of God is here”, he made clear that heaven is to be built here and now.  We are not to sit and wait and pray for heaven.  We are to build it and create it.  If it is to, indeed, be heaven, it must be a place where tears and pain and unnecessary illnesses or deaths are unknown.

There can be no doubt then, that codified strongly within the Jewish and Christian traditions is a respect for the human body and its health.  If men and women were created in God’s image, then it stands to reason that as Paul wrote, we should see God in each other and in our bodies.

And, what do we know of other sources of divine truth in this world – the beliefs of other religions regarding the holiness of our bodies and our health?

Hindus have great respect for the human body.  Their call is for us to have mercy and compassion on all created things.  The expression of the soul and the ability to live in harmony with oneself and with others is vitally dependent on good health and good nutrition for Hindus.  Wisdom and knowledge are realized only by having a fully functioning body and good health.

For the Buddhist, the body is a vessel to be used to attain nirvana and to end the endless cycle of birth and death.  While Buddhists seek to disengage themselves from bodily needs and desires, such cannot be accomplished without the ability to meditate on such matters.  A healthy body is necessary for effective meditation.  For Buddhists, people have individual responsibilities to control their self-centered impulses but society and governments have equal responsibilities to provide healthcare and a living environment that is safe and healthy.

Muslims also see humanity as unique and as god created.  The preservation of life and bodily health, despite the actions of fundamentalists, is a command and obligation of all.  Rumi, the Islamic Sufi mystic, once wrote: “You’re more precious than both the heavens and the earth.  What more can I say?  You don’t even know what you’re worth and the cost paid to create you.” In this regard, Muslim views of human value and health are immense.  Our physical well-being is vital.

Native Americans and Eskimos believe in the sacredness of healing powers.  To be a healer is a high calling and worthy of great respect.  For native-Americans, good health and spirituality are one and the same.  People who are healthy live in balance and respect the sacred aspects of all creatures and all people.  The high honor given to shamans and healers correlates with the high value placed on human health by Native Americans.

In the ancient story of Cain and Abel, who were Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain becomes envious of Abel’s success and his prowess at farming and raising cattle.  It seemed, in Cain’s eyes, that Abel was God’s favorite.  And so Cain kills his brother Abel in a jealous rage.  When God asks of Cain, “Where is Abel?”, Cain sarcastically turns the table on God and asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer by God, of course, was an emphatic “yes!”  Cain was to endure a lifetime living with the mark of God’s anger upon him.  The mark of Cain was an ancient scarlet letter for it was a reminder that indeed we are our brother’s and our sister’s keepers and it is to our shame when we fall short.

I believe just one modern day mark of Cain on us all is the story of a seriously hurt woman who lacks health insurance.  As many of you may recall, this past August 5th a deranged man, with a hatred for women, walked into a Pittsburgh gym, shot and killed four women and critically injured five others.  One of the injured women, 22 year old Heather Sherba, was seriously shot in the back and leg.  She faces years of further surgery and rehabilitation.  Beyond surviving the tragedy of being shot, Heather must now also survive the tragedy of life without health insurance, of possible bankruptcy due to unpaid medical bills and of substandard care because she does not have access to the best hospitals and physicians.  In a sad and lamentable irony, her friends have held a series of benefit car washes!! – Yes car washes – to try and raise money to help defray the hundreds of thousands of dollars she faces in health care bills.

Please forgive me for sounding righteous or indignant, but this is but one story among millions that, for want of a better word, is a disgrace.  If we speak of a collective moral imagination, of a collective desire to work for the betterment of each individual so that we are all better off, are we not Heather Sherba’s keeper?  Is this sister of ours not worthy of the human dignity to be cured of her injuries in a manner that is affordable and fair?  Do we ask for car wash charity for the Heather’s of this world now or do we insist on the holy right of all humans to affordable healthcare?

I rejoice with many of you because passage of some form of heath reform appears to be near.  Despite a possible bill’s many flaws, for the first time in our nation’s history, if a compromise can be passed by congress, we will approach near universal health insurance.

My purpose here today is not to, as I discussed at the outset, push for a political agenda.  It is to advocate for a spiritual and divine right.  It is to advance what I previously called “Jesuscare” or, perhaps, “Buddhacare”, “Mohammedcare” or even “Great Spiritcare”.  The point is that I am advancing a spiritual imperative for being our brother’s and sister’s keepers when it comes to healthcare.  We should not accept that any person ever go without access to, or the ability to afford, basic and lifesaving healthcare.

Here are some facts for our consideration that might help persuade us of the need for being collective keepers of each others’ health:

  • In the United States, we spend twice as much per capita on healthcare as than in any other industrialized nation in the world;
  • For that massive expenditure, we rank 37th in the world for overall health care quality;
  • We are last in the industrialized world in the ranking of infant mortality;  for every one-hundred thousand live births in this nation, six infants will die;
  • We rank 23rd for life expectancy;
  • 47 million Americans are uninsured for healthcare – almost one-seventh of our population;
  • Nearly 40% of those who are uninsured have annual household incomes above $50,000;
  • Of those who are insured, 25 million people pay more than 10% of their income on health insurance for themselves alone;
  • 60% of all bankruptcy filings in the US are due to medical bills that cannot be paid;
  • Over the past year, 14 thousand people PER DAY lost their health insurance;
  • Between 2007 and 2010, nearly 90 million Americans were without health insurance coverage at some point;
  • 31 cents out of every dollar spent in this nation on health care goes to administrative and bureaucratic expenses by the government or insurance companies.   A 31% overhead cost is highly wasteful.
  • General Motors – driven to bankruptcy this past summer – spends more money per car on providing health insurance to its employees then it does on the steel used to make each car.  From a business and global competitiveness standpoint, our healthcare system is simply too expensive.
  • Analysts estimate that at least 18,000 Americans die each year because they lack health insurance.  The unnecessary loss of 18,000 human souls is a national tragedy.  As I said earlier, virtually all world religions have a basic prohibition against arbitrary killing and murder.  Has our failure to provide basic and affordable healthcare to all people in this nation been one not of politics but one of, quite frankly, ignoring our spiritual ethic of “Thou shall not murder”?

As with any right that we possess, it also stands to reason that we have a responsibility to exercise that right.  We cannot, for instance, simply sit back and expect that others will always provide for our basic needs.  In this instance, while I believe humans have a right to affordable, basic healthcare, we also have the divine obligation to preserve and respect our own personal health.  This might include maintaining a proper diet, getting sufficient exercise, time for meditation, regular medical check-ups and adequate sleep.  We all know the things we should do to be healthy.  Thus, as much as we are called to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers in terms of healthcare, we are also to be a keeper of our own health.

My call for a national moral imagination on this issue is not to say that there are not abundant examples of many who work for justice in the healthcare field.  There are physician groups around the world who travel on mission trips to medically tend to the poor.  I have participated and helped organize several such trips to Haiti and to Belize at my previous churches.  Indeed, as much we need a national healthcare system in this country, in some nations there is simply no medical infrastructure.  In Haiti, for instance, people regularly die because they contract skin infections that could have been treated with simple antibiotics or prevented by the use of soap.  Children are sick, malnourished and often die because their bodies are full of intestinal worms and parasites – all for the lack of an inexpensive de-worming pill.

Recently, in Los Angeles, the Remote Area Medical Charity group decided to offer a free medical clinic near the downtown.  The response was overwhelming.  Over 1500 people per day were seen in the clinic and over 500 people per day had to be turned away.  These numbers were a clear example that even in the United States, access to affordable care is often similar to that in the third-world.  But, there are compassionate and caring and morally imaginative doctors, nurses and others who reach out daily to try and offer some hope.

A few weeks ago I shared a story about my father which may have painted him in an unflattering light.  My father is a complex man who is at turns homophobic, loud and arrogant.  He is also a generous, compassionate and occasionally, surprisingly open-minded.  He practiced for nearly forty years as a plastic surgeon performing all of the various cosmetic procedures like facelifts, liposuction and breast augmentations.  But his most rewarding surgeries, as he reports, were those where he used his skills to restore the face of someone severely injured in a car accident, or to correct the congenital birth defect of cleft lips and palates or to perform extensive skin grafts on those who are horribly burned.  During his years in practice, he took care of a gentleman who lived in rural Clermont County and who worked on his small farm.  Mr. Koester was diabetic and, of course, had no health insurance since he worked for himself.  As you know, diabetics have circulation problems and often develop open sores and skin ulcers on their legs and feet.  Mr. Koester had several and faced amputation of his legs.  Sadly, many insurance companies would have determined that amputation was the most cost-effective treatment for him but he would not have been able to maintain his farm.

Twice a week, for over ten years, Mr. Koester came into my dad’s office where his leg and feet skin ulcers were treated, properly bandaged and often surgically treated with skin grafts.  He could not afford to pay for these services and he had no insurance as he was too young for Medicare and, since he owned his farm, could not qualify for Medicaid.  My dad faithfully and happily treated him at no charge.  It often struck my family and others as humorous and poignant to see Mr. Koester, dressed in his stained farm overalls, sitting in the waiting room alongside various high-fashion women from Indian Hill or other areas waiting for their facelift check-ups.

Mr. Koester would bring bushels of tomatoes or other produce to my father as thanks for his treatment and he was always immensely appreciative of his care.  After ten years, he finally reached age 65 when he qualified for Medicare and my dad could begin receiving pay for his services.

In this year of 2010, people in the wealthiest nation in the world should not have to depend on the charity of others to simply be healthy.  It is written in the Bible that when Jesus heard about the death of his good friend Lazurus, he cried.  It is the shortest verse in the Bible.  It reads simply, “Jesus wept.”

I believe that the Jesus who inspires us and who calls us to our better selves weeps at the Heather Sherbas of this world who must rely on car washes to pay for healthcare – or for the Mr. Koester’s who work hard all of their lives and yet must pay their doctor with tomatoes or, worse, have their legs amputated because they cannot afford medical treatment.

I often speak to you of what I believe is the real God at work in this world – it is the human moral imagination which sees collective unity, cooperation and compassion as the solution to our common well-being.  It calls us to be angels to one another, to live in each others’ skins, to be present with other people and other creatures so that we might have insight into the thinking of those beyond ourselves.  This collective empathy is, oddly, a driving force in human history and, I believe, it is our destiny.  We succumb to our base and evil instincts from time to time.  We hate, we fight, we kill and we deny the dignity of others.  But our moral imaginations beckon us to be different.  To be transformed.  To be living Jesus’, living Mohammads, living Buddhas and living Krishnas.  Let us be gods to each other.  Let us cry out and demand that basic healthcare is not a privilege reserved for just a few.  It is God-given, God-spoken and God-desired.  While we can all hope Congress and President Obama soon pass health reform legislation, that is not the point of this message or of our thoughts today.  We come here every week because we aspire to a higher Truth about ourselves and our world.  Let us aspire to the Truth that your health and my health are precious, valuable and worthy of our collective care.  As we are holy, so is our health.