Commentary

What do we tell the people?

I want to tell you about a member of my congregation. Rhonda is a hard worker. She manages a convenience store and works the late night shift. She has been doing this job for most of the 35 years she has been working. She knows “the regulars” and jokes with them. They have been telling some of the same jokes for years. She knows who is just passing through and helps them with directions. Rhonda doesn’t just practice hospitality at church, she brings it to work. She is also about to retire.

Most people would be looking forward to retirement. It is not only a reward for years of hard work, it is in line with what we believe about the need for sabbath. But Rhonda isn’t thinking about sabbath. She is not even thinking about the extra time she will get with her grandkids. Rhonda is just worried. Like others in our congregation, her house, after 20 years of payments, is underwater and will likely be foreclosed on.

Grant Stevensen

It is a bad idea when people who work behind desks decide how long people who work with their bodies can work.

Other folks her age in our congregation are losing their homes or their savings to health care costs. The health care costs for Rhonda and her husband have more than tripled in the last 10 years. There are probably people in this same situation in your congregation, too, though they might be too proud to say so.

A social covenant

On top of all of this, President Barack Obama and congressional leaders just cut a deal that could make Rhonda and millions of others even more uneasy. To address the nation’s budget deficit, these powerful leaders agreed to appoint a bipartisan Joint Commission on Deficit Reduction. That committee is going to go over the budget with a fine-tooth comb and try to reach some agreement about where to make cuts.

It is hard to say what might happen, but there is talk of raising the retirement age. There is talk of raising the age at which elders can receive Medicare. And there is talk of reducing the amount of money people receive through Social Security (even though Social Security is fully funded for the next 27 years). If the “supercongress” — which is what some people are calling the Joint Commission — decides to make these cuts, and if Congress agrees, what do we tell Rhonda and millions of others in our congregations? As a pastor, I suppose I can imagine working until I am 70, but what about the fire fighters, the construction workers, and the day laborers? It is a bad idea when people who work behind desks decide how long people who work with their bodies can work.

Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid constitute a covenant that we keep with one another in this society. That covenant says that we will use our resources in common to ensure that we collectively take responsibility for ensuring a certain quality of life below which no person can slide, no matter how old they are or how sick they get. We first agreed to this covenant almost 70 years ago when we realized that growing old meant growing poor in this country. We expanded the covenant to include the widow, the orphan, and the sick, precisely those Jesus calls us to serve in our day-to-day lives.

How does a covenant like this, an agreement that politicians of every political persuasion supported and one that everyone benefits from directly or indirectly, start to weaken?

It happens when we forget who we are. It happens when we forget who we belong to. It happens when we forget why we were created in the first place.

Churches have a powerful and important role to play here. Our conviction is that we are created in the image of God. We belong to God and to each other. And we were created to unfold God’s love in the world and to protect all of God’s children.

As our nation is debating our most fundamental social covenants, our church — the people of the covenant — must remember who we are and what we proclaim … and then proclaim it!

I know that the people of my congregation will depend on our remembering and our proclaiming. This fall I will let my my concerns for our members, my prayers for our country, and my phone calls to Congress reflect one single message: The covenant we made with each other is a bond that binds us to a common destiny, it secures the wellbeing of everyone and it is in keeping with the deepest values of the faith we confess. Preserve Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. If we speak with one voice on this, we will be heard. In my community sometimes we say, “Pray with your feet.” Let’s also pray with our phone calls to Congress.

Grant Stevensen is pastor of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church and Spirit of Truth (ELCA), in St. Paul. He is also the president of the ISAIAH clergy caucus.

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