Our Debt

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | September 4, 2022

Luke 11:1-4 and Romans 13:8-14

My first encounter with debt happened when I was ten years old. I had my very own library card.  With a library card I could go to the library and check out six books. After a couple of weeks, I could take those back and get six more. And I didn’t have to check out six books; I could get two books if I wanted, or even one book.

When I checked out six books at a time it was easy to remember to take them back on time. They would be there in a stack to remind me they needed to go back. But one book – one book could get lost in the shuffle; or ignored in the mess. Oh, there it is, I need to take that back. I’ll get around to that next Saturday.

One day a card addressed to me arrived in the mail. It informed me that the one book I checked out was overdue. A week late it was and there was a fine for late returns. Two cents a day was what it was costing me. If I take it there on Saturday that’s less than twenty cents I owe. I’ll do that.

“This is your second notice,” read the next card that came in the mail. “Your book is now thirty days overdue.” Sixty cents! Now we were starting to talk about serious money. Sixty cents would take me some effort to get my hands on. I could look around the neighborhood for empty bottles. At three cents apiece I could round up enough empties to pay that library fine.

But that’s a lot of bottles and after finding half a dozen or so that were enough for a couple of candy bars, I could take that book back next week.

By the time I finally returned that library book I owed a whole dollar and two cents. That was a small fortune to me. Scraping together that kind of money was hard work. Some chores had to be completed. A piggy bank had to be emptied. On the walk to the library with my long overdue book and my soon to be gone one dollar and two cents, I thought about all the things I could have done with that money; what might have been. Stupid library; no, I knew better – stupid me.

Debt steals growth from tomorrow until there is little left to steal. There are varieties of debt and it comes in different shapes and sizes. All debt accrues interest – like a meter that runs continually ticking away and adding to the cost of debt.

On a grand scale, nationally we have a debt that will never be paid in our lifetimes. We acquired that debt rather like an overdue library book. The theory was that we could pay for the things we want today with the increased money we’ll make tomorrow. The power of a full steam ahead economy would be enough to overtake the debt at some point.

But economies run out of steam or they come to a hill they don’t have enough steam to climb or the train is too heavy, or the tracks haven’t been repaired – and it slows down and all the things not paid for sit there waiting to be paid for while the interest on their purchase continues to grow.

In times past debt was viewed as a crime. People were thrown into debtor’s prison for not paying what they owed. People were ground down by a system that made it impossible for the poor not to go into debt and when they did, they were treated like criminals. In more recent times in debtor’s prisons people were given mundane, pointless tasks to do in the belief that they would learn the error of their ways and repent.

Jesus said, “I came to preach good news to the poor and to set the prisoners free.”

What does that mean, really? If we take his word literally, then it means we look at the systems by which people are caught in a downward spiral because they lack financial resources. Like the one who has to decide between paying a parking ticket or buying groceries. Then the unpaid ticket escalates into a larger sum and an arrest warrant goes out. Then the person gets arrested, goes to jail, loses their job and by the time it’s all straightened out, throw in some medical bills they can’t pay and they find themselves homeless.

If he was speaking figuratively, then we look our own heart and soul in order to see if there is any poverty of spirit within us. We try to recognize the prison bars that prevent us from fully living the life God makes possible.

Like everything Jesus said, his teachings require his followers to live in ways that reveal the truth of his words. When we know the truth, the truth will set us free. Jesus never waved a magic wand and made it happen. He challenges his followers to make it happen. And in those times when miracles happened, he said, “Your faith has done this thing.”

St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, saying, “Owe no one anything…” With one exception; of course, there’s always an exception isn’t there? An escape clause; owe no one anything, but under certain circumstances it is acceptable to take on some debt? Is that what he’s saying?

The only exception is love – “owe no one anything except to love one another.”  On the surface this is the sort of thing that sounds about as exciting as store brand mayonnaise. It’s like much of what passes for Christianity these days. Not too threatening, demanding, or pushy. The kind of thing to which we may respond, “That’s nice, dear” and get on with our lives in the real world.

The real world where real life gets lived and where people owe us big-time. Where we say and hear said things such as:

“Never once did anyone thank me for all that I did. Not once. That’s the last time I do that!” “She owes me an apology! I’m not the one who did anything wrong. I’m the aggrieved party here. Let her be the one to make the first move!”

“Sure, I give money to charity, but only to worthy causes. If I give it all away, then I’m in the poorhouse.”

“Those people just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, like I did!”

If we were to take to heart the simple teaching to “love your neighbor as yourself” it could be revolutionary. Owe no one anything, except for one thing and that is treating everyone as if you owe them a debt of love. How would you go through life if every person you ever met was someone to whom you owed ten dollars? And no matter how times you paid it off, the next time you met them, you would owe them the same ten dollars?

There’s no way you would ever be out of debt. But imagine that a wealthy patron came to you said, “Here’s the deal, I’ve more money than I’ll ever be able to give away, so here’s your supply. You can only spend these by giving them away. I’ll always pay what you owe.”

What a relief that would be. Essentially that’s what God tells us in terms of love. “No matter how much of it you give away, I’ll give you more. You’ll never run out as long as you rely on my supply.”

If you owe someone a debt, you don’t say, “I’ll repay this, but…” But what? It’s the same with love. We’re not supposed to say, “I love you, but…” But what you have to be worthy of my love? My gratitude? My forgiveness? We’re not the love bankers – we are the love debtors.

I was listening to a podcast recently about Sister Helen Prejean. She wrote the book, “Dead Man Walking.” It’s about her experience with death-row inmate Patrick Sonnier. He was executed in 1984 for brutally murdering two teenagers.

Part of that podcast told the story of Lloyd Leblanc, the father of one of those murdered teenagers. Lloyd Leblanc was angry with sister Prejean because she was praying with the condemned prisoner, but not with the families of his victims.  So she and Lloyd sat down and prayed together. She found out that the mother of the murderer, Mrs. Sonnier, was an outcast in the town where she lived. People shunned her. They threw dead animals on her porch. They made her life miserable.

Lloyd Leblanc heard of this and he went to her house and knocked on the door. When Mrs. Sonnier opened the door, she saw him standing there with a basket of fruit. He told her that as parents we don’t always know the path our children will travel, and he wanted her to know he bore her no ill will.

He said to Sister Prejean that some people think forgiveness is weak. But an unwillingness to forgive is a heavy burden to bear and it can destroy your soul. There are times when the debts we owe are like checks that people tear into tiny pieces and throw in our face. They don’t want our love; they don’t want our gratitude; they don’t want our forgiveness. But we still have to write that check. Sometimes they do take it, and they cash it and we are debt free. Just remember, no matter how much forgiveness you owe, or how much love, kindness, goodness or generosity, God owns the bank and it is not possible for you overdraw your account. Amen.

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