Third Sunday of Advent – December 16, 2018
Trinity, Worcester
Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Watch here (minute 26:10)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sometimes saying “sorry” is not enough.

If you’ve talked with one of our retired pastors recently, you may know the pain they have experienced this Fall after learning of changes to health insurance provided by Portico – the Health Benefits provider of the ELCA.

To lower premiums, Portico contracted with a new insurance provider. While that sounds like a good thing, the problem, is that UMass Medical System does not work with the new insurance provider. Apparently there were issues serious enough with the new provider, that UMass made the decision to sever any future interactions with that provider.

This means that the decision by Portico to change the insurance plan for our retired pastors, spouses, and widows, leaves them uninsured, here in Central Massachusetts, if they want to retain their doctors who do not relate to the new insurance provider.

Some of you may remember Pastor Ron Jackson. His name is etched in the wall of the chancel along with other pastors who have served this congregation.  He served with Pastor Paul Kennedy from 1988-1991.  Midway through treatment for prostate cancer, because of Portico’s decision, he realized that the doctors and specialists he had been working with would no longer be covered by the new health plan.  He would need to change doctors midway through his cancer treatment.

As he struggled with this reality, and with the lack of any reasonable options provided by him from Portico … one of Portico’s suggestions was that retirees go ahead and pay their own medical bills and then they would be reimbursed by the new provider. This would have meant a $50,000 outlay from one pastor who recently had a heart procedure. Pay that and then wait for reimbursement from the new insurance provider …

Pastor Jackson likened his experience to being thrown off a ship into shark infested waters. While retirees around the country sailed on with the new plan, he and others here in Central Massachusetts were thrown overboard, left behind in dangerous waters, struggling alone, and fending for themselves.

Now, the good news, is that when our retired pastors searched for other insurance plans, they found competitive rates. Leaving behind Portico’s Plan, they were able to find just as good, if not better, health plans at the same, if not reduced, premiums.

The Bad News, however, is that those with Portico’s Plan receive a subsidy by leaving the plan, retirees lose that subsidy. One retired pastor estimated that withdrawing from the Portico Plan would cost he and his wife $15,000 in lost subsidies over the course of the next decade.

It should be said, that these are men and women who served as pastors and pastors’ spouses in the Lutheran Church.  Many have served this congregation and continue to serve. They sacrificed for our sake, for the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of the church.  How they are treated reflects us as a community of faith. These are our pastors – our retirees.  These are decisions made by our own church – by organizations that we entrust to care for the health and well-being of those who have served the church.

How can we advocate for justice in the world, when we do not do justice to each other in the church? How can we advocate for full and complete medical coverage, when we make decisions that allow our own members to fall through the cracks? How can we advocate for those left behind by economic decisions, if we make decisions that leave some of our own members behind?

And yet, one retired pastor, after speaking directly with Jeff Theimann, the CEO of Portico, summarizes Portico’s response to this situation in this way: “I’m so sorry we messed up. But, good luck to you.”

Sorry we messed up, sorry for the pain this has caused, sorry that you’ll lose your doctors or lose money, but since it works for most retirees across the country, the decision is final, there is nothing we can do. Good luck.”

Sometimes saying “sorry” is not enough.

In today’s Gospel reading, on this Third Sunday in Advent, we hear John’s call to repentance. In his call, we hear that words are not enough.

“Do not say, we have Abraham as our ancestor …” John warned.

Words that pointed to an identity were insignificant. God could raise up ancestors from Abraham from stones. From stones, God could easily raise up a people who feel sorry.

But from John we learn, there is more to repentance than empty words that seek to avoid responsibility. In the repentance John preached: actions mattered. Actions counted. Did you notice, that when John preached the people asked,  “What shall we do?” The crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers all asked:  “What then shall we do?”

The crowds were told to share food and clothing with the hungry and naked.

The tax collectors were told to only collect the fair tax, and not to add an additional commission.

The soldiers were told to be content in their wages and not use their positionsof privilege and power to exploit the weak and vulnerable.

To Portico today, John says: Do WHATEVER IT TAKES to repair the damage this decision caused. Do NOT throw retirees and widows overboard and leave them behind.  Do what it takes to bestow upon our retirees and their spouses the respect, the care, and the love they deserve as servants of the church who have sacrificed for us and for the sake of the Gospel.”

Saying “sorry” is not enough.

John’s call to repentance is a call to action.

But now, to us … it’s easy to look at someone else and tell them what they should do. Now to the more difficult question – “What are we to do?” What fruits worthy of repentance are we called to bear?

The truth is, in confession at the font to start our liturgy, we confess that we are a people both damaged by sin and who hurt others in our sin.  Commanded to share, we hoard and perpetuate gross inequalities. Commanded to be honest, we use power to rob and steal from the vulnerable. Commanded to be content, greed leads us to use our power and privilege to extort from, and oppress, the powerless and vulnerable.

Instructed by Paul, in our second reading today, to be a people rejoicing in the Lord, we instead go our own way. Taught by Paul to be gentle with one another, instead we are aggressive and forceful. Invited to not worry, but to hand over our prayers and supplications, with thanksgivings, to God, instead we fail to pray and don’t lift our requests before God.

Yes, I call out Portico on this day, their words of sorry, aren’t enough – real and concrete actions are needed to bear fruits worthy of repentance. At the same time, in honesty, and in my duty as a servant of the Lord, I call each of us out as well, myself included.

We must move beyond mere words and move to actions of repentance. Repairing the damage we have caused in sin, we must ask … “What are we to do?” What are the concrete and real actions that restore what our sin has broken?

What are the powerful ways we are called to share all that we have – with the hungry, naked, homeless and far from home? What are the ways we are called to be honest and fair in our business dealings and decisions we make with our money? What are the ways we can use our privilege and power to repair the damage done to those individuals and groups marginalized, exploited, and excluded.

Words of sorry aren’t enough.   John’s message of repentance calls us to action.

In our Prayer of the Day, on this Third Sunday of Advent, we pray: “Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God … that we may bring forth the fruits of repentance.”

This prayer acknowledges the truth: by our own strength and efforts, we do not bear fruits worthy of repentance. The prayer proclaims the truth of our need for Christ Jesus in our lives to lead us to the actions of repentance.

The hope of God’s saving work was the hope of the ancient prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah’s prophecies were read as our First Reading this morning. To a people like us, battered and bruised by human sin, the prophet proclaimed the hope of God’s saving work:

Vs 17 … The Lord God is in our midst to renew us in love.  God does not throw people overboard and ask them to fend for themselves. God pays attention to the least among us. Recorded in verse 19 & 20 … It is God who “Saves the lame, gathers the outcast, and leads God’s people home.”

In hope and rejoicing today, we see this work fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In Christ, Zephaniah’s prophecy is fulfilled! Jesus Christ, is God’s work healing community, restoring relationships, and revitalizing connections.

While we wait for the full revelation of Christ, we rejoice that here among us today Christ is revealed. Here today, in Christ’s body broken and Christ’s blood shed, the strength and might of God is proclaimed!  Here in the meal offered freely for all – forgiveness and reconciliation is enacted!

The Good News is that as Jesus Christ lives in us, and as we live in Christ through faith, we become the body of Christ. Alive in Christ as the body of Christ, we feed the hungry, cloth the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, and visit the prisoner. Alive in Christ, we bear fruits worthy of repentance for the healing of the world.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, and alive in Christ, may Portico stop saying sorry, and start making things right for our retirees.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, and alive in Christ, may we stop saying sorry, and start bearing fruits worthy of repentance for the sake of the healing of the world.

Thanks be to God.