Jesus 2020: Criminal Justice

Scripture: John 8:3-11

Some people choose politics. You’ve probably known some of these people in your life – from an early age, they’re shaking hands and making deals and charming people into doing what they want. I’m not knocking that; these are gifts and skills that can be used for good! Sometimes people with a lot of money or some fame decide to go into politics as their life’s next adventure. You can probably think of some of those people too.

For some people, though, politics chooses them. These are people who never saw themselves as politicians, or wanted to be one. Instead, they meet a person or have an experience that leads them to be involved in a cause. Maybe, for example, you never so much as went to a PTA meeting until your special needs kid wasn’t having their needs met in school, and before you know it you’re running for School Board, not just for the sake of your own kid, but for every kid who deserves not to be overlooked.

This fall, in the leadup to our upcoming national election, we’re talking about times in the Gospels that Jesus gets political. This week’s story seems like a good example of a time when Jesus finds himself in the middle of a political conflict that chooses him.

Don’t get me wrong – Jesus has been having it out with the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees – for a while already at this point in the story. They don’t just randomly walk up to him one day and demand that he play judge and jury in this adulterous woman’s case. I doubt that Jesus was born in flesh just to be a thorn in the side of the religious establishment in Jerusalem, to be honest, but if that’s what loving God’s people and proclaiming God’s just, inclusive kingdom demands, then he’s not going to walk away from that fight.

It happens one morning when Jesus is teaching in the Temple. Some religious leaders come to him with a question about the Law. They haven’t come alone. They’ve brought a woman with them, and they unceremoniously push her in front of him and say, “This woman was caught in the *very act* of committing adultery.”

I imagine him looking up, surprised, taking a moment to recognize what is going on. Then he realizes, and his eyes meet theirs.

“The Law says we should stone this woman,” they say. “How about you? What do you say?”

It’s a trap. The Law does indeed say that both parties caught in adultery should be stoned. That is no longer the customary route for dealing with such things, in Jesus’ time. And they haven’t brought the required witnesses for a real trial. But if he gets into the legal minutia, he’s already lost.

He can say no, and reveal that he does not actually honor the Law. Or he can say stone her, and reveal something much worse about himself.

Jesus bends down, and begins to write.

You can almost feel the scene, which is already rife with tension, start to get awkward. What is he doing? Is he going to answer? Did he hear the question? They keep questioning him, but you can sense them getting nervous, because already he isn’t playing into their hand. He keeps writing. Finally he looks up and says, those famous words, “Let anyone among you who is without sin throw the first stone.” And he bends down to write again.

One by one, they walk away. Jesus is left alone with the woman before him and he says to her in what I hear as almost mock confusion, “What happened to everybody? Is there no one left to condemn you?”

The woman, probably still shaking, says, “No,” and Jesus says, “Neither do I.”

I was going to preach this sermon about the value of mercy – the mercy Jesus shows to this presumably sinful woman. After all, the passage ends with him telling her to go and sin no more. Mercy can be a political act. In fact, it very often is. It can be political on a very local level – you may have experienced this if you’ve ever reconciled with a family member only to feel the wrath of another. It can be political on a more cultural level – can this latest politician or celebrity be forgiven for the offensive thing they once did or said, or should they be #canceled for good? Or what about when a president issues a pardon – to a friend, or someone on death row, or someone convicted of a high-profile crime?

How about this woman? If Jesus acquits her, does he effectively say that adultery is fine? That her sin doesn’t matter, that it hasn’t hurt anyone?

And yet if he condemns her, what does that say about God’s mercy? Does the punishment, in this case, match the crime? Is there room left in her story for redemption?

I was going to preach that, but the fact is that’s not quite what this story is about, is it? This is a story about power, and who has it, and how they use it. Which is, of course, also political.

I have to wonder what this woman’s story was. We have no way of knowing if it’s true, if she was in fact caught in the very act itself; if the religious leaders are acting on the accusation of a jealous husband; if they simply grabbed an unsuspecting woman out of nowhere to play their little game with Jesus here.

It’s possible she didn’t really have a choice in the encounter. It’s possible if we knew her story, we might understand a little better.

It’s possible it was just true, of course. It’s possible this woman was as guilty as the day is long.  The details don’t really matter, because in the end, her guilt or innocence is not really the issue in this story.

Who are the real guilty ones in this scenario? The ones who tried to use her as a pawn.[1]

And maybe that’s the sticking point when we talk about mercy sometimes: we want to forgive and forget, to justify, without addressing any of the deeper issues of power and injustice that are part of a situation.

I recently started reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. It’s about the mass incarceration of black men in the US. One point she makes is that our definition of crime itself isn’t necessarily neutral. In fact, she says, “what gets defined as crime, and who gets surveilled and punished, generally has more to do with the politics of race and class than the harm that any particular behavior or activity causes.” For example, big banks in the leadup to the Great Recession of 2008 committed fraud, bribery, rate-rigging and all sorts of things that ended up leaving 44 million people in poverty. Some banks had to pay fines, but few of the upper-class, white-collar people involved actually went to prison.[2]  Yet a poor person who robs a liquor store is likely to be siphoned off into a system where they never fully recover their ability to work, vote, and create a life for themselves.

We can talk about mercy for the person who robbed the liquor store; that was a decision someone made, and likely not a good one; but if all we talk about is whether they can be forgiven or redeemed, we’ve already lost the game. What we should be talking about is people with power using that power to put themselves in the right and keep others in the wrong; and that’s where Jesus shines the spotlight here. Jesus is always on the side of those who don’t have power. And nothing makes Jesus madder in the Gospels than the hypocrisy of the elite who do.

“Let anyone who is without sin throw the first stone”: with this he turns the accusation around on the ones who culturally and politically have the power to define crime and sin.

Perhaps we would do well to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. Perhaps we would do well to see things this way, when the crime of resisting arrest brings the sentence of a knee to a neck, when destruction of property meets destruction of life.

So I decided not to make this a sermon about mercy. And yet it is about mercy, right? Because in the end, a woman walks free who might not have. We may not know all the details of her case, but Jesus doesn’t deny that she has made a choice; he doesn’t deny that it is sin. What he says is that her choice, if she has indeed made it, need not be the end of the story.

Maybe the bigger question, though, is this: can there be mercy for those who would have stoned her?

I think there can be. I hope there can be. Surely we see throughout the Bible that God’s mercy is big enough to be surprising and even offensive. But grace is not cheap. It can never simply be a matter of papering over the past. It can never simply be a matter of saying we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God while the powerful still bring the powerless to trial.

Jesus won’t play our games.

But he does invite us to imagine that things could be different, that the structures of power we know so well might even one day be reversed, that mercy might one day be willingly extended from the powerless to the powerful; that we might claim God’s mercy for ourselves, even as we extend it to others, equals in the eyes of God.

“Go and sin no more”: these are words of new beginning for the adulterous woman, and for her accusers, and for us, too. Go, and see this world through the eyes of Jesus.

[1] Gerard Sloyan, Interpretation: John, p. 97: “The actual issue in the story is the far greater guilt of the accusers than the woman.”

[2] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 10th Anniversary Edition, p. xli

Jesus 2020: Poverty

Scripture: Luke 4:16-21

Maybe you’ve heard that there’s an election coming up here in the US. It’s kind of a big deal. Depending on who you listen to the fate of our great nation might hang in the balance. Not all of us may be able to vote; some of us may be more directly affected by the results than others; most of us probably feel pretty aware of our political reality these days.

So I thought it would be a good time to talk about politics in church.

There’s this idea that you shouldn’t do that, talk about politics in church. To be honest, I probably expect that response less here in DC than I would elsewhere. Here we’re used to politics being a fact of everyday life. It still feels like a bit of a landmine. Start getting too political and we might quickly learn that our unity in Christ is in fact kind of tenuous. And I’m sure some of us just want one hour a week when we can focus on something else.

The Bible, however, is a book about politics.

It’s not primarily about politics. It’s about who God is and who we are and the story of God’s relationship with God’s people. But you can’t tell the story of Exodus without telling the story of the uprising of an oppressed minority against an oppressor. And you can’t tell the story of Israel without telling the story of kings and queens and the shifting of power and empire in the Ancient Near East. And you can’t talk about Jesus without talking about a guy who spoke divine truth to power and paid the ultimate price.

This series that we’re beginning today is not about US politics. This is a series about the times in the Gospels that Jesus finds himself “getting political” in his own time and context. Now, of course, our politics are about our values and our moral choices made in community, and so I hope we will find that some of those Gospel values do make a difference in the choices we make in our lives today, inside the voting booth or out.

Jesus Christ is not running for president. But I want to start this series off today with what I think his campaign slogan would be if he was. And to do that, I want to back up. Today’s Scripture reading comes from the beginning of Luke. Jesus has just returned from the wilderness after his baptism and he begins to travel around the region of Galilee, teaching and gaining fame, and the people love him. He’s a rising star.

And then he comes to his hometown of Nazareth, and on Saturday morning he goes to synagogue, just like all the other Saturday mornings of his life, and he volunteers to read Scripture. Someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah, and Jesus opens it carefully and reads these words:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To let the oppressed go free,

And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.


And he rolls up the scroll and hands it back, and we read that “all eyes were on him.

He looks at them and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It gives me chills.

This is the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and his first public appearance in the Gospel of Luke. If we were going to use church language I’d call this Jesus’ mission statement, but since it’s election season I’m going to call it his campaign slogan. Obama had “Change we can believe in.” Trump has “Make America Great Again (Again).” Jesus: Good news to the poor. This is the lens through which we can understand the entire rest of Jesus’ earthly ministry, at least as Luke describes it.

If you went back and read this passage in Isaiah, in chapter 61, you’d know that it’s a prophecy of restoration after exile. The prophet is speaking good news to those who have been removed from their homeland, who have seen their holy Temple burned down to its foundations, who had a hard time believing that God was with them anymore.

By Jesus’ time, however, Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, at least in its original sense. Jewish people once again live in Jerusalem. The rebuilt Temple stands in the center of the city. And so it might be tempting to try to understand Isaiah’s words metaphorically as Jesus applies them to himself. This time around, “the poor” and “the oppressed” and “the captive” must mean anyone who finds themselves separated from God by sin.

Luke, however, will not let us make this language too metaphorical. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus focuses his ministry on the actually poor and marginalized. He associates with women. He lambasts the Temple leadership for “devouring widows’ houses” and tells the story of a rich man sentenced to eternal damnation because he never acknowledged the beggar at his gate. In Matthew, Jesus preaches “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In Luke, it’s simply “Blessed are the poor.”

Luke wants to make sure we’re clear: the Gospel of Jesus is literal good news to the poor.

And that’s political.

It’s not too political if we keep some neat limits on what good news really means. It’s not too political to say that God loves rich and poor alike. It’s generally not too political to try to help people in our own personal lives. We know that’s our Christian and even human duty. It’s not political to be sad at the plight of others, or to say we wish poverty didn’t have to exist.

There was a Brazilian priest, Dom Helder Camara, who served as archbishop during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. A quote of his used to hang in my campus ministry building in college. He said, “If I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

There’s nothing wrong with feeding people. We do it here every day. Jesus feeds people, too. To be honest, if you’re hungry, not that much else matters. Here in his mission statement, though, Jesus isn’t just talking about helping people get along from day to day. He’s talking about breaking chains. To proclaim release to the captives. To let the oppressed go free.

That’s political. And it’s also good news, to any and all of us who have ever felt the weight of invisible chains.

What if we, as Jesus’ followers, had the same mission statement: to proclaim good news to the poor?

I ask this knowing that we are a diverse group, and that we may or may not understand ourselves to be part of “the poor” ourselves. I ask it knowing that we may mean different things by that phrase, that part of the problem in our national political discourse is that we can’t even agree on who the poor are or who’s really being oppressed.  I ask it realizing that a phrase like “the poor” can come across as condescending these days, as if we are trying to define a hugely varied group of people – other people, of course – by one characteristic – though I’ll stick with Jesus’ and Isaiah’s language here.

I’ll ask it anyway: how is your life proclaiming good news to the poor?

I believe that, as Christians, when any of us walks into a voting booth, when any of us fills out an absentee ballot – again, recognizing that not all of us will be doing that in the coming months – the question we should all be asking is, who is this good news for? How does this choice I’m making affect those who are most vulnerable in our society? We may not all answer that question the same way. We can all ask the same question.

But Jesus never in his life got to vote, and surely we let ourselves off easy if we think that’s all that’s asked of us in the face of the world’s injustices. I’ll ask it again: how is your life proclaiming good news to the poor? To people being held in ICE detention centers on our border? To black men incarcerated in wildly disproportionate numbers? To communities still in the grips of the opioid epidemic in Appalachia? To people right here in Arlington who can’t afford to live here, to our neighbors on the streets, or who get out of jail with nowhere to go and no idea how they’re going to start over?

To be honest, I’ve been thinking lately that I may need to get a little more political in my own answers to this question. Feeding people is good. Maybe I need to be asking more about why people are poor.

Luke tells us that when Jesus is finished, everyone is amazed and everyone speaks well of him. Which is surprising, maybe, that he hasn’t been controversial at all. But then again, all he did is read from Isaiah, right? Well, spoiler alert: we’re not even to the end of chapter 4 before these hometown neighbors are trying to shove Jesus off a cliff. Talk about poverty and power is never really neutral.

But it is the stuff of God’s kingdom, where the mighty are brought down and the lowly lifted up. And it is the stuff of good news, ultimately, to all of us, loved fiercely by a God who breaks our chains so we can live as God’s children together.  

The Courage to Rebuild

Scripture: Haggai 1:1-8

Most of you know that in our Sunday Bible Study we’ve been reading through the Bible in a year: we’re doing the abridged form, with about a chapter of assigned reading a day. Today we’re going to be finishing up the Hebrew Bible, talking about the last three of the so-called Minor Prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, and I thought I’d bring you all along for the ride here in worship too.

Not all of the Minor Prophets are easy to preach on – join us later on to hear more! – but as I was reading the prophet Haggai this week I did think that Haggai might have a good word for us today. He is not one of the more well-known prophets – even I didn’t remember much about Haggai before putting this week’s study together – so let me start by telling you telling you a little bit about him.

Haggai was a prophet around the year 520 BCE. Years earlier, in 587 BCE, the Babylonian army had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem, broken through the walls, and destroyed the Temple along with the entire city.  The religious and economic elites of Jerusalem, the ones who get to write the books, are led away in chains and scattered across the Babylonian empire, while the poor are left to farm the land. It’s not a stretch to call this the defining event of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible becomes the Bible in light of this event. Even much earlier stories and scriptures are edited and compiled in light of the destruction of Jerusalem and what becomes known as the Babylonian exile.

The Temple was where God resided on earth. When the Temple is destroyed, then what? Well, either God is absent, or your theology has to change.

But that was all before Haggai came on the scene.

By the time Haggai is part of the picture, Babylon itself has fallen. Persia is now in charge in the Ancient Near East. In 539 BCE, King Cyrus tells the exiles to go home, and he sends them with resources to start rebuilding. For this, Cyrus is called no less than God’s anointed, in Hebrew mashiach, Messiah. Back in Jerusalem, reconstructing the Temple is the first order of business. That way, God can dwell with God’s people in Jerusalem once again. The returned exiles get down to work on this holy project that God has called them to – work God has given them both the opportunity and the responsibility to undertake.

You can imagine it’s probably not as easy as all that. The small surrounding nations and some questionable newcomers to the city itself see the Temple beginning to be rebuilt, and they start to feel threatened. What happens to them if Jerusalem starts to gain power again? So they actively work to subvert the process.

And the people get discouraged. They start to believe their neighbors. And the project comes to a halt. It’s not necessarily a grinding halt, as far as I can tell. It just kind of…peters out. And maybe sometimes the people will walk past that half-rebuilt Temple and feel a kind of pang, you know, but mostly they try to push it out of their mind – the Temple was before. And hopefully someday it will be again. Just not right now.  

Maybe there’s some connection here to the way I imagine a lot of us feel right now, discouraged and despairing that life will ever be the same. I’m not saying it’s the same as being forcibly exiled from your home (there are those in our country, out in the West, who are experiencing a version of that too) but I think it’s fair to say that many of us are experiencing a sense of exile from life as we knew it right now. Once in a while there are some signs of hope, some promise of a return to something normal, and discouragement as we realize it’s just not that easy and it’s just not the same.

I’ve experienced this as my kids have returned to preschool, only to have our new rhythm interrupted by the need to quarantine. Young adults are starting college only to be told to return home. Some of you have been through Plans A, B, and C for major life events this year. Or you’ve found new jobs and lost them. Trying to find “life” in all of this just isn’t that easy, and maybe trying to find God in all of it isn’t so easy either.

And so the people say, we’ll build the Temple later. Later, when it’s easier. Later, when resources are more abundant. Let’s just regain our footing, here, and then we’ll get back to God’s work.

That’s where Haggai comes in with a word from the Lord.

At first his words sound angry, or at least disappointed. “These people say, the time hasn’t come, the time to rebuild the Lord’s house….Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?”

Think about it, God says, “You’ve sown much, but it has brought little. You eat, but there’s not enough to satisfy. There’s clothing, but not enough to keep warm.” And what it sounds like to me is that the people think they just don’t have enough to really invest in anything right now. They’re just trying to survive, here, to get through, and someday, when things are better and easier and more abundant, then we’ll build the Temple.

No, God says, go to the highlands and get some wood. You all are waiting for things to get better, but actually what would make things better is for me to dwell among you in that Temple again.

We call the Bible the Living Word of God because, even though it was written in and about specific circumstances in specific times in history, it still has the power to speak to us today, and this week, Haggai did to me. Because how many times during this whole pandemic have I said I’m just trying to survive here, I’ll worry about the rest later?

On the other hand, that’s not all wrong, is it? Sometimes just trying to get through a rough period is all you have, and I have to believe God understands that. I think there’s been something good, even, about having to pare things down to the minimum this year, and having to face that question of what really matters and what’s just been keeping us busy. God has never cared if you used this year to write your novel. God has never cared if your house is clean.  God does need us to care for ourselves. God does want us to be well and whole and not just overwhelmed all the time.

So I wondered if this was, in fact, the right word for today. Maybe it’s really not time to talk about rebuilding yet. Maybe the time to bring out Haggai is after there’s a vaccine, after all of this is over, but it’s still hard and we’re still figuring it out.

Maybe I’ll preach this sermon again then. But I still think Haggai has a word for us today.

Building the Temple is doing God’s work, and that’s what the people are stalling on, saying they just can’t focus on it now, they don’t have enough to invest in it now, and it’s to all of those excuses that God says no, it’s time.

I’m not talking about the pressure to accomplish all the things you wanted to accomplish this year; what I’m talking about is doing God’s work, whatever that looks like for you: the work of being part of a community, the work of caring for our neighbors, the work of pursuing justice, the work of prayer; the work I have so often gotten away from in the past six months as it has been so easy to turn in on myself and my own stress and my own fears and my own scarcity. At various times in these past six months I’ve heard God telling me, no, it’s not going to be better later, you’re not going to have more time to help out a neighbor or support a cause for justice later, you can do that now, and your life will be better for it.

What is God asking of you now? Not someday when things are better and you have more time and more money and it all seems generally safer, but now?

Life is different now, but it’s not on hold. That’s what God needs God’s people to know. The time for rebuilding is now.

I am with you, God says to God’s people, and they start to get to work.

The next words of Haggai are words of encouragement. Be strong, Zerubabel, says the Lord. Be strong, Jeshua, says the Lord. Be strong, all you people of the land. Work, for I am with you. Do not fear. When you’re done here, it’s going to be even better than it was before. Not the same! Not the same. But even better.

So who here needs to hear a word from Haggai today?

A Debt of Love

Scripture: Romans 13:8-10

Let’s talk a little bit about debt.

(Are you uncomfortable yet?)

If so I don’t blame you. Money is a hard thing to talk about in general, and the lack of money maybe even harder. No one wants to be in debt. And yet, for many if not most of us, debt is a part of our lives. We have student loans, car payments, mortgages, possibly medical debt if we haven’t been lucky, or we’re behind on our bills, we’ve run up our credit cards. Sometimes debt is about personal responsibility. A lot of the time it’s about social justice. Have you ever been in the position of having to turn over your car title for a 300% interest loan just to pay your rent for the month? I hope I never am.

By the way, it’s not stewardship season yet. In fact, this sermon isn’t really even about money.

In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is writing to the church in Rome, and he has something to say to them about debt. “Owe no one anything,” is how he puts it in the (NRSV) translation we read; the CEB says “Don’t be in debt to anyone.” This is a church that is dealing with its own internal conflict between its Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian members, and Paul is writing to them that both kinds of Christian have a place in God’s story, that all are called to live lives that are transformed by God’s grace. Living lives transformed by grace means living well in community with each other and also living well in relationship to the outside world. Show respect to your governing authorities, Paul says. Pay your taxes. Settle your debts.

Strange words, maybe, for a guy who offended the governing authorities enough to get himself thrown in prison a number of times. There’s a lot of conversation around that that can be had, but that’s a sermon for another day: in the end, Paul may not believe the church should conform to the world (12:2) but he does believe in living peaceably and respectfully within it as much as possible (12:18).

“Owe no one anything,” Paul says, “except – except – to love one another.”

Like I said, this sermon isn’t really about money.

Which is great, right? I’d rather owe someone love than money. I think.

Actually, when you get right down to it, this talk of love being something that is owed makes me uncomfortable, too.

Talking about love is all well and good. The Bible talks a lot about love. We as Christians talk a lot about love. We all know it’s a thing God wants us to do and we’re generally OK with that at least in concept. Love is a nice, uncontroversial thing to preach about – as long as no one gets too specific.

But it makes me uncomfortable because, again, I don’t like being in debt. I’d rather give and show love out of my own abundance, freely and joyfully, and not because I owe anyone anything.  In fact, that sounds almost antithetical to the Gospel, where we are freed from sin in order to love fully, where our debts are forgiven and there are no ledgers anymore.

And Paul, of course, believes that too, that Christ’s death frees us for love. You could call this talk of owing love just a rhetorical move on his part. He goes from living as good neighbors and settling debts to the real crux of a life transformed by grace, which is loving one another.

But I also find this uncomfortable question to be a meaningful one: what does it mean to owe someone love? To be obligated to them in some way for the sheer fact that they are another person God has created?

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean that I’m supposed to be a doormat for anyone or endure their abuse or give them anything they want. Nothing like that. This question has come up for me, though, when someone comes to me in need. What does it mean to owe this person love? How much am I obligated to? I’m just one person, after all, and I have other stuff going on, and there are other needs in the world than the one right in front of me, and of course, I suspect that this debt of love I owe is not one I’m going to be able to easily pay off.

A few weeks ago one of my neighbors posted in our community Facebook group. Her next-door neighbor, Sharla, was living alone while Sharla’s husband was in the hospital with heart issues for an indefinite amount of time. Sharla suffered from muscular dystrophy and had lost the use of her legs. She had no way to take care of herself. So, the first neighbor and her husband had been taking Sharla three meals a day, checking in on her, feeding her cat and changing the litter.

We need help, this first neighbor said. We can’t do this alone.

My first thought was, what good neighbors this couple was. A need arose and they met it, even though it was more than they could realistically take on. My second thought was, I have too much going on to get sucked into this very open-ended situation. My third thought was, what do I owe a neighbor in need – to both neighbors in this situation?

Not just what would it be nice to do if I felt like it. What do I owe?

I told the neighbor who wrote the Facebook post that I could bring Sharla lunch the next day. And I did. Jon cooked, and I brought it over, and I chatted with her a bit and made sure she had what she needed, and I left. I said maybe I would be back at some point, but I didn’t make a commitment. And as I drove the few blocks home I thought, “What now?” Because I knew this debt I had was not paid up, and I also despaired of how much more might be expected of me – not just by my neighbors, but by God.

But then, over the next few days, I watched neighbors jump into action. One made an online sign-up form. Other people signed up for meals, until Sharla’s husband eventually came home from the hospital. And I thought, this is what happens when we share that debt and pay it off together.

And you see, in that way, that debt we bear is actually a gift, because it’s what connects us to each other in community: our duty and responsibility to each other, which we call love. And it points us back to the one who first loved us, who loves each of us to an extent we can never repay.

What do we owe each other? It’s a question that goes beyond bringing lunch to a neighbor. What do we owe each other, even the people we know with the most offensive political views we can imagine in the leadup to a national election? What do we owe each other, the most vulnerable members of our society – the poor, the sick, the historically oppressed? Not just what can do we if we feel like it or for extra credit. What do we owe to someone, simply because they are here and alive and created in the image of God?

Nothing, says Paul. Owe no one anything. Except – Except – for this debt of love, which is kind of everything.

Which maybe makes you wish sometimes you could just write a check.

But that’s not how things work in God’s economy, where grace is free but never cheap, and where we have already received more love than we could ever give away.

So I’ll end today with what is probably some questionable financial advice for you: go ahead and rack up some debt. You’re never going to pay it off anyway. You’ve been given too much already. But you might as well live your life paying it forward.

You know it’s not really about money.

It is about love, and grace, and the abundant life we share together.