This past week the New York Times Magazine ran an extensive article on the health care agenda that will soon be taking center stage in Washington. Its focus was on how this administration is positioned politically to try and carry out the major reform that it is hoping for – comparing it to past attempts, especially that of President Clinton’s first term. The article highlighted key players who will be leading the debate. It spoke some about the influence of the health care industry in shaping the outcome. It also mentioned, briefly, some of those staggering statistics that reveal the sorry state of health care in our country. Health care spending has doubled since the mid-90’s, now the highest percentage of GDP that it has ever been, over 16%. 46 million people without health insurance in the US. This is a debate that we’ll soon be hearing much more about.
Two years ago Mennonite Church USA delegates gathering in San Jose were asked to look closely at health care issues. It was acknowledged that we need national health care reform, but it was also proposed that we as a denomination can do something about one small part of this puzzle. We can come up with a health care plan that would guarantee health care coverage for all of the pastors of our congregations. At the time it was estimated 80-100 US Mennonite pastors were without health insurance. In San Jose delegates voted for such a plan to be researched and organized, and since that time a plan has been proposed, called the Corinthian Plan, that will be voted on in our meetings in Columbus one month from now. If 80% or more of MC USA congregations vote to participate in the plan, it will take effect January 1, 2010.
The message today will be focused on the values and some of the details of this health care plan. And the messenger is going to look something like a three headed monster, although we’re pretty sure it will be a nonviolent Mennonite monster, nothing to be feared. Myself, Ed Diller, and Steve Hitt will each share about some aspect of this plan. Ed will go more in depth with the denominational process in creating this health care plan and speak to some of the vision behind it. Steve will talk about what this may mean for us as a congregation, look at how we may think about it in terms on our financial reality and how that connects with some of our ideas about stewardship and mission. And in the remaining time that I have I’m going to be leading some Bible study.
One of the key practices behind such a health care plan is the concept of mutual aid. Mennonites and Amish and other Anabaptist groups have a rich history of practicing mutual aid, which basically means that when one member is in trouble or has a loss, that the resources of the community are made available for coming to the aid of that person. Historically, this is community as insurance. An iconic image of this would be the barn raising event. If someone’s barn burns down or is damaged through a storm, the entire community comes and rebuilds the barn for the family. This is made more complex in our modern world of larger assets, more privatized and less communal living, and extremely high health care costs, but that value of mutual aid remains a part of who we are.
One of the passages of scripture that speaks of the practice of mutual aid is 2 Corinthians 8. And this is the Bible study part. If you could please open your Bibles to 2 Corinthians 8, we’re going to walk through this briefly to get a small window into some of what was going on with the communities that the Apostle Paul was forming in the first century Roman world. This 2 Corinthian passage is why this health care plan has been called The Corinthian Plan.
So Paul is writing this letter to these Jesus followers in the city of Corinth, which is a little southwest of Athens, and he begins this part of the letter by saying “we want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia.” This area of Macedonia would have been their neighbors to the north, two of the cities, Philippi, and Thesalonica, you may recognize because these were also cities to which Paul has written letters which we have in our New Testament – Philippians, 1,2 Thesalonians. In verses three and four Paul is sort of bragging about them, or holding them up as an example saying, “For as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.” And then he goes on in verse seven to name some things that are a part of their life of faith – “Now as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you (or some manuscripts read “your love for us”) – so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” This ‘voluntary giving, according to their means,’ was something Paul was asking that they see as a part of their life as a community along with these other things.”
Now it should be noted that what Paul refers to as “sharing in this ministry to the saints,” is a specific designation. The ministry to the saints refers to the poor believers in Jerusalem. There are other parts of his letters where that designation is spelled out more clearly, but what Paul was asking of those churches in Macedonia, who gave generously, and what he was asking of the Corinthian church, was to give some of their wealth to go back to the poor who were associating with the mother church, the place where it all started, the Jewish believers in Jerusalem.
Paul’s mission is ambitious, to say the least. Imagine all of these different ethnic groups, each with their own religious history and gods and myths, spread out over the Roman Empire, all in the mix together in these cosmopolitan urban centers, and then imagine Paul and other apostles coming through and teaching to whoever would care to listen that in Christ all of these groups can be reconciled to each other – Jew and Gentile, and Gentile to other Gentile. It would be one thing for these little communities to form within these urban centers with people of all types and start worshiping and learning together, but then it would be another thing to be told that your little eclectic community here in Philippi, or Corinth, or whatever, was connected to all of these other communities popping up around the Roman world. You are all “In Christ.” The well-being of one community should effect the well-being of all communities. At one point Paul describes this by saying, You who were not a people, have now become a people. At another point in his writing to the Corinthians Paul tries to give an image to this in developing what might be called body theology. You are all a part of the same body, different parts, different locations, all working as one whole. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:26)
Part of what this looks like, Paul is now writing to the Corinthians, is the practice of mutual aid. If there are poor Christ followers in Jerusalem, then well-off, or even not so well-off Christ followers in Macedonia and Corinth should feel the sting. Paul clarifies what he means in verses 13 and 15 of 2 Corinthians 8. “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 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,’” a reference to the manna in the desert – enough for everyone.
That’s a very quick glimpse of where some of this Corinthian Plan is coming from.
One of the main questions and critiques behind this plan has been not that this is a bad idea, but that it’s not enough. If we value mutual aid so much, why are we creating a plan that only covers pastors and not making it available for others in the congregation to buy into? It’s a fair question and one that has been addressed in some writing in our publications. Being a pastor, I don’t feel like I personally want to try and justify why this is just for pastors, so perhaps this is something that Ed can speak to a little more.
I’ll end my part by simply adding a personal note and saying that this is a year when our family is especially thankful for having health insurance. This plan feels like a small way of seeing that more people are covered, in the spirit of mutual aid. Along with this, it is our hope that our country can address this head on in a way that gives everyone access to quality affordable health care.