Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service.
Acts 2:44 “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute proceeds to all, as any had need.”
A majority of House Republicans kept their campaign promise this week. They voted successfully to repeal and replace the Affordable Health Care Act. There are many debates around the details. These debates will remain heated and contested as the bill moves to the Senate. Yet the greatest concern across the political spectrum focuses on a single point—pre-existing conditions.
In healthcare parlance, a pre-existing condition is a medical condition that pre-dated a person’s health insurance coverage. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, insurers could cite pre-existing conditions to deny coverage. Some chose to cite pre-existing conditions to charge higher rates. Others might cite a pre-existing condition to cover an individual, save for any treatment associated with said physical situation. Regardless of partisan affiliation, many find this practice troubling.
Consider how the public responded to two different treatments of the topic this week. Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks went live on CNN this week to defend the new bill. He felt it unfair that healthy or younger families should pay higher premiums. Thus he understood the new legislation as allowing insurance companies to require people with higher healthcare costs to contribute more to the insurance pool. This would, in his words, “reduce the cost to those people who lived good lives and done things to keep their body healthy.”
The backlash on social media was immediate and harsh. Some noted the gospel story of the blind man—the one where some disciples naively asked Jesus, “Who sinned? The blind man or his parents?” There was another woman from Congressman Brooks’s district. When she was a small child, a drunk driver slammed into her family's car. In fact, Mo Brooks represented her family in court. Her little brother was an infant during the accident. He was sent through the windshield causing brain damage. This woman wrote to Congressman Brooks on Twitter saying, “my brother is now 36 years old, requires over $1,000 of out of pocket medicine and co-pays each month.” She then asked, "were we not living right?”
There was also Shannon Abbott. She posted a picture on Instagram that was taken in 2010, while she expecting her son Solomon. That year her husband, the Rev. Chad Abbott, lost his job at a nonprofit due to funding issues. Fortunately, Rev. Abbott soon found a new position. But the insurance company informed them that they would not cover prenatal care or Solomon’s birth because the pregnancy was a “pre-existing condition.” Thus, Shannon sent the insurance company a message. It was this photo of her beautiful and proud pregnant frame holding up a sign that said, “My baby is not a pre-existing condition.”
Yet with the same passion that many rejected Congressman Brooks, others empathized with late night host Jimmy Kimmel. Kimmel used his late night monologue to share the story of his newborn son—a baby boy that was born the previous week with a heart defect. Kimmel implored Congress to do the right thing. One should not have to be a celebrity or a multimillionaire in order to afford protection from the trials and travails of life. We know that we can do better.
That this topic captured the headlines this particular week when insuring the public good sits at the center of our political and moral discourse in this country is telling in relation to the appointed lectionary text. One would think that God selected this week’s scripture especially for us.
It comes from the book of Acts. Here we see early followers of Jesus forming a community of faith. These largely Jewish followers decided to make Jesus their choice. Some of them, like Peter, John, and James, the brother of Jesus, walked with him. They talked with him. They even witnessed his execution. There were others who heard about Jesus. They came to learn more about this healer with antibiotics in his fingertips, wisdom on his lips, and mercy in his heart. And still others appreciated how these followers treated one another. They were an ekklessia—a people called out as distinct. And they were an intentional koinonia—a fellowship of those who had experienced the love, goodness, and grace of God.
Hence, the book of Acts tells us something unique about this community. They did not live according to the social rules of the larger society. They decided to live intentionally with a view toward the common good. This is why members of the Jesus movement sold all that they had so that everyone might have according to their need.
As I considered this text in relation to our contemporary moment, let me offer a few initial thoughts. For one, I am not interested in using this text to get trapped in an ideological debate. For over a century, people have appealed to this text to promote a utopian communal vision. This is a fool’s errand in my view. History has proven that neither capitalism nor communism can offer us a perfect society. Why? Because human beings are such imperfect actors. This is why regardless of what side of the ideological spectrum you fall, we all need a dose of epistemic humility. Even the best intentioned political projects can soon devolve into George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Even the most theorized economic philosophies can soon become Gary Ross’s Hunger Games. For whether it’s the communism of Lenin’s Russian Revolution or unbridled capitalism of contemporary America, we all need a higher moral vision of human capacity. AND we all need a sober awareness of our own sinful nature.
There is something else about this Acts story. This is a perfect scripture to cite in a debate with those who profess to believe in literal interpretations of the Bible. Think of those who like to appeal to biblical ineranncy—particularly when it comes to matters of gender, science, and sexuality. You know those who believe women were made to compliment men as divine background singers—they ought to give support, but men are the God-ordained lead vocalists. These people appeal to the Bible to promote this dangerous and despicable theology of gender complimentarianism. Or those who dismiss scientific discoveries about the universe, evolution, or climate change. They use the Bible to promote the belief that Adam and Eve were riding around on dinosaurs six thousand years ago. And, of course, there are those who refute the science of innate sexual and gender orientations. They appeal to the Bible to protest same-sex marriage or equal protections under the law. We can't scoff at or dismiss these views. Nevertheless, many people who hold such beliefs are now in some of the highest positions of power.
But I find it interesting that when it comes to science and sexuality, they take the position, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” When it comes to social relations and how the Bible says the early Christian communities treated each other, however, these same people get to stuttering and bumbling and trying to provide nuanced meaning of context.
Similarly, the same Christians who champion so-called biblical values seem to be the same ones who ignore what we owe one another when it comes to public policy. When it comes to who one falls in love with it is biblical fundamentalism—“the Bible says.” But when it comes to the common good—public education, social safety nets, and the environment—it seems biblical fundamentalism gets trumped by free-market fundamentalism.
The same Christians who say that we must protect unborn children in the womb at all costs, are often the same Christians who seem not to care at all about the most vulnerable children when they are born. You can't be pro-life, but not care about the quality of life.
This is why I will confess that I am sick and tired of people using their faith to justify their callousness. Must we all agree with one another? Absolutely not. Do I believe in theological and political diversity? Absolutely. Deliberating diverse viewpoints is the lubricant of a healthy democracy. But there has to be some fundamental values to which we can appeal. We cannot talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as citizens of this nation unless all of us are willing to make sacrifices of the self toward the good of the whole.
We must have the will to demand that profits of corporations should not take precedent over the well-being of the American people. Nor should we privilege the well-being of politicians and plutocrats over the plight of the majority of the population—a majority of the population who are a layoff or single illness away from financial ruin.
I have the faith to believe that we have more than enough to guarantee everyone healthcare for their bodies, education for their minds, and labor for their dignity. In a resource rich nation like ours, we have to stop pitting one need against another. The top one percent should not make out like bandits while crying over social spending.
This is the moral ideal set forth in today’s story. So without decontextualizing this text or proposing a broad based economic philosophy, we can still take seriously the question it poses to us? What does God require of us in regards to the common good?
Now I realize that we live in a culture that champions personal responsibility. I get that we live in a country that valorizes individual accomplishment. Whether its Immanuel Kant’s autonomous moral subject, Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, or today’s Gospel of Prosperity that professes material wealth and physical health are the just deserts of those who live moral lives—the direct causation between goodness and blessings over against sin and suffering has contaminated the cultural air we breathe.
This is why some of us fall prey to this logic. Some of us have achieved a modicum of success, and hence it is easy to embrace the narrative. We are self-made men and women. If others just work hard and play by the rules then they, too, can achieve anything their heart desires.
Thus we beat our chest while reciting William Ernest Henley’s famous poem Invictus—“I am the captain of my fate. I am the master of my soul.” And before you know it, we have obscured a fundamental truth about each and every one of us—All that we have and all that we are is a result of somebody else’s labor and sacrifice. This is why my father consistently reminded me growing up—just because you woke up on third base, does not mean that you hit a triple.
Consider our existence at a place like Harvard. We are the beneficiaries of great sacrifice—some noble, and some tragic and terrible. There was the noble sacrifice of those whose names are on that wall. There are those who gave of their wealth and knowledge to build a lasting institution. Just as there is the land that Harvard gained from the Indians, the promises we broke, and even the human bodies that were trafficked and sold that continue to benefit our endowment.
But no matter how you slice and dice this history, it informs our current existence. None of us are self-made Harvard men and women.
In fact, this is true from our first breath. There is never a moment when we are not interdependent beings. From the moment we are born we are held by others, cared for, and caressed by the affection of others. Studies on baby brain development underscore the importance of even this natural act.
Just a few decades ago it was discovered that newborn babies in a Romanian orphanage were being chained to beds. They had little human touch. There were not enough helping hands to hold. Nor did it seem there was enough compassion to care. Later studies revealed that a disproportionate number of these infants experienced mental deficiencies. A number experienced developmental delays. Tragically, many did not survive at all.
This should remind us that there is no existence apart from a network of concern and care.
And I want to suggest that this is the pre-existing condition that the followers of Jesus shared. They were each aware of their own susceptibility. They were each aware of their own vulnerability. They were each aware of their own social and physician fragility. They could look at one another and say, “it might be you today, but it very well might be me tomorrow.” But what we all share in common is that we have all been beneficiaries of God’s grace. We have all been beneficiaries of God’s care and compassion. And it's because of that pre-existing condition—recipients of God’s love—it is our moral responsibility to extend that care and concern to one another.
This is that I would like us to take away from this text. You are here because somewhere along the line you experienced God’s mercy in your life. That is a pre-existing condition that we share. Might we use that to consider our obligation to one another. This way we can sing the words of the great gospel songwriter:
I need you
You need me
We are all a part of God’s body.
It is God’s will that every need be supplied
You are important to me, I need you to survive.