I’ve Been Here Before

There is a scene from The West Wing. You’re going to find that I bring up that show every now and again.

Leo McGarry is the White House Chief of Staff. He’s also an alcoholic.

A few years before the scene in the show, he was sober. And then he fell off the wagon. It was an important night during the president’s first campaign, and he was meeting with some donors, and they decided to have a drink. So Leo had a drink. And then another one. And then another one.

And someone in the scene asks him how he could have a drink.

And he replies, “I’m an alcoholic. I don’t have one drink… I don’t understand people who have one drink. I don’t understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table. I don’t understand people who say they’ve had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this? How can you not want to feel like this longer?”

And he says, “My brain works differently.”

And I’m bringing up this scene because I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not sure that his brain really does work that differently

We are Christians. And Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things:

In a God who you can’t see and, sometimes, who you can’t even feel.

In the idea that that God came to live as one of us, 2,000 years ago, in a backwater province of a great empire, among a dispossessed people.

That that God-become-one-of-us was executed by the powers or that empire… and that he got back up again.

That the sprit of that God is in us and around us and advocating for us and empowering us.

That someday, this world that is so messed up in so many ways, will get better.

And sometimes, we have to take those things on faith. We have to trust that they are true. Even if we can’t quite be sure.

But there is something in Christianity that is empirically verifiable. There is something in Christianity that we can know is true… for certain… without one iota of doubt: the world is messed up; we are messed up.

We all have our thing. We all have our things. We all have those feelings that we will pursue no matter what, no matter how it gets in the way of being the people we want to be, not matter how much it hurts us… or our friends… or our families… or complete strangers.

To put it in Christian terms: we all experience temptation and we all give in. I know I do.

In today’s reading, Jesus is tempted. It says so right in the Bible: the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Last week, we saw Jesus come to John the Baptizer in the river Jordan. And he asked John to baptize him. And John tried to respond the same way any of us would respond, “No. You are the Messiah, the king of kings and the lord of lords. I need to be baptized by you.”

And Jesus said, “No. We’re doing it this way.”

And John baptized Jesus. And as Jesus was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened. The Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And you would think that would be the end of the story. Jesus is baptized, his sonship is confirmed, now it’s time to go into the world and recruit some disciples and perform some miracles and get on with things.

But no… we’re doing it this way. That same Spirit grabs Jesus and takes him into the wilderness: away from John and the river and his family and his community. And he fasts for forty days and forty nights and he is famished. And here comes the tempter.

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? You’re hungry? Turn these stones into bread.”

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? Here is the pinnacle of the Temple. Throw yourself down from here and have angels rescue you.”

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? Here are all the kingdoms of the world. You can have all of them. Just worship me.”

And I have to believe that Jesus was tempted. I have to believe that he was tempted because scripture says so: the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit did not fail. And I have to believe that he was tempted because he is fully God and fully human, and temptation is part of being fully human.

Jesus resisted temptation. And part of how Jesus did that is by relying on scripture.

“You want me to turn stones into bread? ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

“You want me to throw myself off of the pinnacle of the Temple so that I can be rescued? ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

“You want me to worship you? ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

And the devil leaves… and that’s great. But the reality of temptation is that quoting scripture doesn’t always work. And the devil can quote scripture, too. And Jesus is still hungry.

The reality of temptation is that it is universal. We all have those moments when we are tempted to step away from the life that God wants us to have. For some of us, it’s the usual tempting culprits. I don’t need to name them. You know them.

For some of us, they are things that we can justify. For some of us, it’s the things that we can justify using scripture:

Homophobia: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)

Greed: “Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life, and money meets every need.” (Ecclesiastes 10:19)

Child abuse: “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (Proverbs 13:24)

Refusing to help someone who is poor: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

The devil is a master of making sin look righteous. And he can quote scripture, too.

(And, by the way, that’s the danger of taking just a verse: context matters; interpretation matters; love matters.)

And, for some of us, the culprit is the high we get from judging someone else who is being tempted or who has succumbed to temptation.

Temptation is universal. We have all been there. We have all failed. We are all in this together.

But here’s the thing: God has been there, too. Christ faced the devil. He prevailed, but he was tempted. It says so right in the Bible: the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

There is a scene from The West Wing. Josh is the Deputy White House Chief of Staff. And he has PTSD. Leo arranges for him to see a psychiatrist. And after Josh sees the psychiatrist, he talks to Leo. And Leo tells him a story:

This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

We are Christians. And Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things. And I’ll be honest, the biggest thing it asks us to believe is that God has been there, too.

Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things. And I’ll be honest, the biggest thing it asks us to believe is that God has been there, too. Click To Tweet

The world is messed up; we are messed up. We are stuck in this hole and we don’t know how to get out. And Christ jumps in with us. And that’s crazy. It is so crazy that generations of people have criticized Christianity on the grounds that our God is too weak, and doesn’t crush his enemies under his foot, and doesn’t rule the world by force, like any real god would do.

Christ jumps in with us. And that’s crazy.

But Christ can truly say, “It’s okay. I’ve been here before. I know the way out. Follow me.”

That doesn’t mean that things will be easy. Being a Christian—taking the waters of baptism—doesn’t solve our problems all in one go.

After Jesus sends the devil away, he is still hungry. And angels show up to wait on him. And that… that doesn’t happen for us. Unless, by the grace of God, we serve each other. Unless we put aside that temptation to judge our friends and neighbors who are struggling with temptation. Unless we admit that we’ve all been there. 

Unless we jump in the hole and say, “I’ve been down here before, and together, by the grace of God, we can find the way out.”

We are messed up, but we are not alone. We have each other. And we have a God who has been there before. Thanks be to God!

Capital is the Ability to Buy Other People’s Productivity

“This is something more people need to understand: one of the powers of wealth is the ability to buy other people’s productivity.”

Roughly 1,000 news cycles ago—or at the beginning of January—Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offhandedly proposed a 70% marginal tax rate on incomes over $10 million. The pro-wealth right wing responded in exactly the way that people expected. First, they deliberately misunderstood marginal tax rates. Second, they started complaining that a tax rate that high would be taking money away from productive people.

And that really misunderstands what productivity is, who the producers are, and how capitalism works. That’s what David Kalb was getting at in his original tweet… and what I was expanding on in mine.

You see, capitalism works like this. The capitalist has money and a means of production that he can’t operate all by himself. The worker needs money, so she sells her labor to the capitalist. She will take on some of the operation of the means of production in exchange for some of the capitalist’s money. Simple.

Let’s use Jeff Bezos as an example. He has a lot of money—he’s the richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of more than $8 billion (with a b)—and he owns Amazon. But it would be ridiculous to think that he’s coding the Amazon website, stocking the products, taking orders, packaging things for deliver, and so on. In reality, he owns a ‘means of production’: a huge logistics system that is able to move products around the world. And he pays other people to do most of the work of… well, of making sure that huge logistics system works.

Now, let’s invent a fictional worker named Sally. Sally needs money in order to do things like buy food, pay rent, have care insurance, get access to health care, pay off her student loans, and do all of the other things that modern society demands. She does not have a huge logistics system or any other means of production. At least, she doesn’t have any means of production that would make a dent in all of her expenses. So she does what most of us do: she sells her labor to someone like Jeff Bezos. She helps operate his means of production in exchange for some of his money (or, maybe a little more accurately, some of the money that his means of production earns).

It’s a simple arrangement that most of us are used to in one way or another. Capitalism. Easy.

But it also leads to an important question: who here is the productive one? Is it the person who owns the means of production? Or is it the people who operate them? Or is it both? And, if it is both, how is the wealth that’s produced fairly divided between them?

Let’s say that Amazon employs about 500,000 people, including Jeff and Sally (it actually employs tens-of-thousands more). And let’s also say that Amazon generates $200 billion in revenue each year (it actually generates a bit less). Let’s also suppose that a lot of that—half of it—has to go to just keeping Amazon running. If we divided everything equally, that would be $100 billion shared equally among 500,000 people, or $200,000 per person each year. Simple.

Of course, it’s probably not the case that everyone is equally productive. Maybe one person is ten times more productive than someone else. And maybe it would be fair to pay that person ten times as much. So maybe some people only make $50,000 a year and some other people make $500,000 a year. Okay. Still simple.

But here’s the thing. The lowest paid worker at Amazon makes $15 an hour. Assuming a 40 hour workweek, that’s $29,120 a year. Bezos has a salary of about $81,000 a year; a pretty modest salary for the CEO of a major corporation. But he also owns about 80 million shares of Amazon stock, and he makes money every time the stock price increases. That means that he makes the salary of one of those $15-an-hour employees every 11.5 seconds.

I’m not going to do the math. But that means that if we really believe that wealth is a result of productivity, then we have to also believe that Bezos is tens of thousands times more productive than one of his new employees. And that’s just ridiculous. What makes him rich is that he is in the position to buy the productivity of his employees and, therefore, to enjoy the fruits of that productivity. As the owner of the means of production, he doesn’t have to justify his wealth. He doesn’t have to demonstrate that he produces enough to justify the money he receives; he just gets to claim that money because he owns the means of production.

Now, let’s make it worse. Let’s imagine another person who did not create and grow a company like Amazon. Let’s imagine someone who inherited a profitable company and an enormous fortune. Then, let’s imagine that person paid other people to manage that company and invest that fortune. And let’s imagine that those other people were successful and, thanks to their work, that capitalist—that person who has money and a means of production—makes the annual salary of his lowest-paid worker every 12 seconds or so. Is that capitalist productive? No. But he still benefits from the fact that he can pay other people for their productivity and claim the fruits of that productivity.

And that means that he still benefits from the argument that taxing his extravagant wealth is that same thing as taking the rewards of productivity from people who actually are productive. One of the things that capitalism tries to trick us into believing—and it has been remarkably successful at pulling it off—is that wealth is the same as virtue; that a person being rich is evidence enough that the person is smart and productive and whatever else we would like. And while that might be true in some cases, it is obviously not true in others. Wealth has nothing to do with virtue (and, in classical Christian thought, is utterly opposed to it).

One of the things that capitalism tries to trick us into believing is that wealth is the same as virtue Click To Tweet

As I just wrote, it is possible that some wealthy people are also particularly productive. It is possible that there is someone who is so productive that they should receive, say, a million dollars. It is possible.

But two things are definitely true. First, that many wealthy people cannot justify their wealth by pointing to their personal productivity. The only way that they can claim to justify their wealth is by pointing to the fact that they can buy other people’s productivity. And, in the end, that is justifying wealth by pointing to the fact that they were already wealthy. Second, that many people who are productive do not enjoy the fruits of that productivity. They are stuck in a system where they need to sell their productivity for less than it is worth… or, even if they can sell it for what it is worth, they can’t sell it for enough to enjoy a life anything like the capitalists who are in a position to buy it (and who are worried about the top marginal tax rates).

To put it simply, no one is productive enough to justify having the kind of wealth that someone who is worried about the marginal tax rates on incomes over $10 million has. It is possible that wealth is justified by something else, but it cannot be justified through an appeal to productivity. And that is why the argument that high marginal tax rates are not about taking money from people who are productive is garbage.

Baptism

Way back in June, we had a baptism. James and Brianne stood at the front of the church, and I held a kind of squirmy Kaelyn, and I baptized her in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And it was a wonderful day. We welcomed Kaelyn into our family… our little corner of the Kingdom of God.

And, later, someone asked me how I felt about what was obviously my first baptism. And I laughed it off.

But the truth is, that wasn’t my first baptism. It was just my first baptism that wasn’t in a hospital… and my first baptism where the clock wasn’t ticking, or where the clock hadn’t already struck.

You see, baptism is one of our sacraments. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace.

In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, there are seven of these sacraments: baptism, confession, communion, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick. For our Lenten program later this year, we’ll be reading a memoir by Rachel Held Evans organized around those seven sacraments.

In the United Church of Christ—and in most Protestant churches—there are two sacraments. We push confession, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick aside. They’re important, but they’re not sacraments. We stick with baptism and communion. 

And we stick with those two because, we say, they were instituted by Christ himself. 

Communion on the night he was betrayed, when he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it with his friends, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” And likewise, after supper, when he took the cup and blessed it and shared it, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you. As often as you drink of it, do this in remembrance of me.”

And baptism when… well…

A few weeks ago, during Advent, we met Zechariah and Elizabeth. 

They had a son, named John, and they were told that he would be great in the sight of the Lord. He would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. The spirit and power of the prophet Elijah would go before him. He would make ready a people prepared for the Lord. And I can only imagine how proud they must have been when they imagined the great man that their son would be.

And in today’s reading, we see John… all grown up.

He lives in the wilderness. He wears camel hair clothes and a leather belt. He lives on locusts and wild honey. And the locusts might be a misunderstanding of a word for pancake, or they might be the pods from the carob tree, or they might be insects. He baptizes people in the water of the river Jordan for repentance. He calls Pharisees and Sadducees—Pharisees and Sadducees(!)—a brood of vipers.

He talks about the one who will come after him: the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

And then the one who will come after him… shows up.

It has to be a strange moment. Here is Jesus, the Messiah, king of kings and lord of lords, standing before John in the Jordan, asking to be baptized.

And John responds the same way anyone would respond, “Why are you asking me to baptize you? You’re the Messiah, the king of kinds and lord of lords. I’m not fit to tie your shoes. I need to be baptized by you.”

And Jesus says, “No. We’re doing it this way.”

And John baptizes him, and the heavens open, and the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Baptism is a sacrament. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. And it’s hard to get a more outward and visible sign of God’s grace than the heavens opening and the Spirit descending, and a voice saying, “I am well pleased with you.”

But understand this, because this is so important. Baptism is not a sacrament because Christ performed the first baptism. Baptism isn’t even a sacrament because Christ was the first person to be baptized. 

Baptism is a sacrament simply because Christ joined us in being baptized; and simply because we can join him in that baptism. Whether it’s through a few drops on our heads or being dunked in a river.

And even more: through baptism we join in each other in this family, in the this little corner of the Kingdom of God, and in the whole great big Kingdom of God. Whether we are being baptized in a church on a bright sunny summer morning or in a hospital at the last possible minute or anywhere or anywhen else.

It is no secret that we live in deeply divided times. One of the beautiful things about the United Church of Christ in general—and about First Congregational United Church of Christ in particular—is our diversity. I don’t want to overstate things, we could be a lot more diverse. But one of the joys of serving this church and this denomination is that I get to work with all sorts of people.

And that isn’t always easy. We don’t always get along. We argue.

Sometimes, we argue over important things. Sometimes, we argue over petty things. Sometimes, we argue in a spirit of love. Sometimes, we argue in a spirit of anger. Sometimes, that happens in church. Sometimes, that happens in families. Sometimes, that happens in politics. It happens everywhere. We live in deeply divided times.

Even as a pastor, it can be easy to be pessimistic and fall into the same patterns that we see everywhere else. As a church and as a nation, we face serious challenges; and we live in deeply divided times… and I have this chance to stand in front of you on Sunday morning— behind the authority of the pulpit—and speak to you.

And in the midst of the brokenness of this world, when I preach on controversial things anyway, it can be tempting to speak like John did to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It can be tempting to preach his little sermon:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

And I’m not going to promise that you will never hear that sermon. I’m not going to promise that I will never preach it.

But today—on this Baptism of Christ Sunday—I am hopeful. Because in spite of all of the divisions in the church and in the world, we in this sanctuary, and in churches around the world, are united by the bonds of our baptism.

In spite of all of our differences and disagreements… Maybe even because of them, we are one body, guided by one spirit, called to one hope under the rule of one Lord, sharing one faith, cleansed by the waters of one baptism, worship one God the mother of all.

That is a truth… and that is an opportunity.

You may have noticed that there is something new in the order of worship today. Already this year, I’ve moved some things around… and today, after the sermon, is a time for silent reflection. We’re going to try this for a little while and see how it works; we’re going to take a moment to think about what we heard in the scripture and what we heard in the sermon and what we’ve encountered in our worship and how we can apply it in our lives.

And I’m not going to end every sermon like this.

But today, I want you to think about that person—or, maybe, those people—who you don’t get along with. And I want you to think about the water that touched Christ… and the water that touched you… and the water that touched them. I want you to think about water and the spirit and the promise that binds us together. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

And the next time that person—or, maybe, those people—are getting you riled up or getting on your last nerve… the next time you feel the bile of anger and hatred rise up in you… think about that water… and the way that it connects you… as beloved children of God.

Baptism is a sacrament. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. 

But it isn’t a sacrament because Christ performed the first baptism. And it isn’t a sacrament because Christ was the first person to be baptized. It is a sacrament because Christ—whose shoes we are not fit to tie, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, who carries the winnowing fork, and who will one day clear the threshing floor—joined us in being baptized and bound us inextricably together as one people.

Hallelujah. Amen.

Refugees

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

In today’s reading from Matthew, we hear this line from the prophet Jeremiah about Rachel, in the city of Ramah, weeping for her children.

You see, a long time ago, there was a man named Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. And Jacob fell in love with Rachel. He was so in love with her that he agreed to work for her father for seven years in order to win her hand in marriage. And, after seven years, he was tricked into marrying Rachel’s sister Leah, instead. And Rachel’s father explained that Leah was the older sister, and that it was only right that she marry first.

So Jacob worked another seven years in order to win Rachel’s hand. And she bore him two children: Joseph and Benjamin. And, through them, she was the ancestor of three of the tribes of Israel: Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin.

And, much later, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in Jerusalem… and they assembled the people in Ramah… and they sent them into exile in Babylon, cut off from the land that God had promised them.

And Jeremiah writes about this, the destruction of the people, the exile in Babylon:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Last week, I heard this story.

A woman from Honduras left that country to escape an abusive relationship. She left her home and her friends, and she hitchhiked and rode buses and walked thousands of miles to Tijuana, Mexico. And she carried her five-month-old daughter the whole way.

When she got to Tijuana, she put her name on a list to be allowed to ask for asylum in the United States. She did not ask for asylum; she put her name on a list that would eventually allowher to ask for asylum. But… the list had a four month wait. So she hopped a fence. And she was caught. And she was taken into custody.

Now, her daughter was sick. And she had been treating her with antibiotics. But Customs and Border Protection took the antibiotics away. And when she asked for a doctor, she was called an invader and told that she wasn’t in a position to ask for anything. And she and her daughter were kept in a freezing cell; what other migrants call una hielera, an icebox.

Later, they were released. And they got to some family and they went to the hospital. Her daughter’s health deteriorated, she stopped breathing, and the woman was told to… to prepare for her daughter to die. She had pneumonia. What could they do?

The story has a happy-ish ending. The baby lived. Others haven’t been so lucky. A couple of migrant children have died. A few adults have died. Others have come close.

And I know that there are people in this sanctuary who disagree with what that mother did. I know that there are people who will say that she shouldn’t have travelled all those miles and that she shouldn’t have jumped that fence.

But no matter how we feel about what she did, I cannot imagine how it must feel for someone to be so frightened that she picks up her daughter and travels thousands of risky miles for nothing more than the hope that her family could start a new life in a distant country. And I cannot image how it must feel for her to do all of that… and then be called an invader… and have medicine taken away… and watch her daughter almost die.

But Jeremiah gives me the words:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

And Mary might know how it feels.

In today’s reading from Matthew, we hear this line from the prophet Jeremiah about Rachel, in the city of Ramah, weeping for her children… and we meet these wise men.

You see, there are these wise men from the east. And they see a star rising in the west, over the country of Judea, a backwater province in a great empire. They are the kind of wise men who know what stars mean, and they say, “That star means that a child has been born; the king of the Jews.”

So they go to Judea. They go to Herod, who is already king of the Jews. They go to Herod, who was made king of the Jews by Mark Antony and the Roman Senate. They go to Herod, who was made king of the Jews according to the will of Rome.

And they say to him, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

And when Herod hears this, he is afraid.

Herod is powerful. And he likes his power. And he knows who he owes his power to.

This is the king of the Jews who built the Temple Mount, and then installed a golden eagle—a symbol of Rome—at its gate. He built fortresses to protect himself during an insurrection. He taxed his people relentlessly, used secret police to monitor the people, tried to suppress protests, and had opponents removed by force. He is a despot and a tyrant.

He has to be thinking, “No child has been born in my house… But there is a Messiah to come, who will overturn the order that made me king and gave the throne of Judea to my house. And that Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.”

So he sends the wise men to Bethlehem. And he tells them, “When you have found the child, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

The wise men follow the star to Bethlehem and find Jesus and his family. And they pay him homage and give him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. On the one hand, these are practical gifts. Money and—in a time before daily bathing—perfumes. On the other hand, these are symbolic gifts. Gold for a king, frankincense for the worship of a God, myrrh as a perfume used in burial.

And then, in a dream, a warning comes: “Do not return to Herod. He isn’t planning on paying homage.” So they go home by a different route.

And then, in a dream, a warning comes to Joseph: “Herod knows. He will search for the child and he will kill him. Take the child and his mother. Flee to Egypt and start there until I tell you. Now! Run!”

And Herod sends his troops to Bethlehem. He knows when that star rose, so he knows when the child was born. And his troops kill every child in and around Bethlehem who is two years old or younger.

And if you listen closely, you can hear it: a voice in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

Jesus was Lord at his birth. And then he was a refugee.

And I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Mary to be so frightened that she picked up her son—Jesus Christ, our lord and our savior, king of kings and lord of lords, our wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace—and walked hundreds of miles to start a new life in a distant land.

And I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Mary to think about her friends and family in Bethlehem, who did not receive a warning, who did not make it out, and who wailed and wept because their children were no more.

But I do know this: we have a choice.

We can stand with Herod, secure in our power and our comfort, building monuments and fortresses… but knowing that if we do that, we can only do that because of the violence being done in our name: because someone, somewhere, is taking medicine away from a five-month-old.

Or we can stand beside Mary. 

Mary, who is pregnant and scared and far from home, looking for a place to stay, and being told that there is no room left at the inn.

Mary, who is fleeing the slaughter of the innocents. 

Mary, who is sitting at the border in una hielera, scared to death because her child is sick and she has no medicine.

And that doesn’t mean that, as a country, we have to let everyone who shows up at our borders in.

But it does mean that, as a church, as Christians, as a little consulate of the Kingdom of God, we do have to take responsibility for everyone who is so afraid that they will pick of their child and walk God-only-knows-how-far in the hope of starting a new life in a new land.

And we have to do that because when we welcome that child—when we take responsibility for that refugee—we are welcoming Jesus Christ, our lord and our savior, king of kings and lord of lords, our wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace. 

And by welcoming him into our home, we step into his kingdom.

And when we do that… when we do that, Rachel will cease her weeping and be consoled, because she will know that her children are safe.

Entitlment (Noun): Something to Which a Person Has a Right

Let’s talk about entitlements.

Americans don’t really like the idea of entitlements. We tend to think of entitlement as something that a person wants, but that they don’t deserve. At the best, politicians argue that we simply can’t afford entitlement programs. At the worst, charity skeptics lament the sense of entitlement that some people—especially people living in poverty—might develop. 

And, of course, we resist the idea that we receive entitlements. We tend to believe that the only way to deserve something is to earn it. Other people might benefit from entitlements (that is, they might get something that they don’t deserve). We have always earned what we have (that is, we deserve what we have).

Our attitude towards entitlements means that any time ‘entitlement reform’ comes up, I start seeing people argue that programs like Social Security are not entitlements. 

“You see,” say the people making that argument, “I paid into Social Security while I was working; and now that I’m retired, I am simply receiving a benefit that I earned. That is an earned benefit, not a loathsome entitlement.”

And the problem with that argument—the problem with our whole American attitude towards entitlement—is that it misunderstands what an entitlement is.1When it’s applied to Social Security, it also misunderstands how that program works. But that’s a subject for a different post. Whether something is an entitlement has nothing to do with whether a person earned it. An entitlement is simply something—anything—to which a person has a right.

Sometimes, we are entitled to something because we earned it: if I work a job, I am entitled to a paycheck. Sometimes, we are entitled to something because we as a society have decided that it’s something people should have: if I am charged with a crime, I am entitled to due process. I am entitled to both. Only one is conditional.

And that distinction is important. We can tell a lot about a society by what it believes people are entitled to (and who it believes is entitled to what).

The founders of the United States were very concerned with the legal system. They guaranteed things like a right to face your accusers, a right to call witnesses on your own behalf, a right to be tried by a jury, and a right to legal counsel. But it would be generations before we decided that everyone was entitled to those things.

In 1935, we decided that (some) people are entitled to cash payments from the rest of the country, so that they can live even if they can’t work. It began with (some) retired workers. And, over the decades, we’ve expanded it to include other workers, their spouses and minor children, people who are disabled, and others. We even decided to help (again, some) people who are just having trouble making ends meet. Social Security, Medicare, Disability Insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program are all part of one entitlement package: The Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance Program.

And someday, maybe, we’ll decide that people are entitled to quality medical care, a good education, meaningful work, food that is nutritious and tasty, a comfortable place to live, and so on.

And there are three problems with arguing that things like Social Security aren’t entitlements.

First, it focuses on the wrong problem. The problem isn’t that people are calling things entitlements, it’s that they’re trying to take those entitlements away. And the people who are trying to take them away will try to do that even if we all agree to call them earned-benefit programs. They don’t hate these programs because they’re called entitlements. They hate them because they help people who need help.

Second, it makes us think in terms of transactions. It makes it look like we only deserve these benefits because we’ve earned them. And that makes it seem like there might be people out there who haven’t earned them, who don’t deserve them, and who should be left on their own. And that means that, even if we could all agree that the people who earned them benefits should get them, the argument only shifts to who has really earned them. Or to put it another way, when we start arguing that programs aren’t really entitlements, we start arguing on the terms that have been set by the people who want to ‘reform’ them.

Third, it limits our imaginations. This is related to my second point, but we need to make our ideas about what people are entitled to broader, not narrower.  We will only move forward if we can begin to imagine what I wrote above—that people are entitled to quality medical care, a good education, meaningful work, and so on—and begin working on ways to make that dream a reality. Arguing that the few programs we have aren’t really entitlements only makes that farther.

An entitlement is merely something to which someone has a right. If we remember that, then we can avoid arguing on terms set by the very people who want to eliminate the few entitlements we have… and we can start working to make sure that everyone can enjoy the life to which they have a right.

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