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.