Sermon by Jered Weber-Johnson - Sep 06, 2020

Owing Love

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A

Owe no one anything!

So says Paul today in his letter to the church in Rome, and so says the financial wisdom that has governed so much of my adult life. Owe no one anything!

We at Saint John’s are embarking on a project of examining our money narratives during the month of September, exploring the stories and memories, our life’s accumulated experiences around money, that shape and define how we think about personal finance. Your preachers too, this month, are endeavoring to interrogate and reflect on our money narratives in the weekly lectionary readings. Paul’s opening word struck a chord with me, so I’ll start there. Owe no one anything.

My wife Erin and I were married straight out of college, and graduated into the cooling economy of the early 2000s. Yet, we were lucky enough to find work, both of us, at law firms partnering in a large class action lawsuit. With two incomes and relatively low overhead, our primary financial focus became debt retirement. Owe no one anything. This was our mantra.

Unawares of the deep privilege that shaped the container of our lives, we were naively self-congratulatory and proud when in a short few years we accomplished our goal and found ourselves more or less debt free. The feeling was exhilarating and freeing. So, when the urge and call to pursue ministry became unavoidable, we shocked our families and threw caution to the wind, volunteering to be missionaries through the Episcopal Church’s Young Adult Service Corps. We would live and work and serve at the invitation of the Episcopal Diocese of Taiwan for one year. We sold our car, donated many of our possessions, locking the rest in a small storage container, and quit our well-paying jobs. We owed no one anything. This would be an adventure, we thought. This would be fun.

It was not. While there were many highlights and joys of our time spent on mission, it would be untrue to say that it was fun. Little prepared us for what, to our minds, felt like poverty, voluntary though it was. Our income dropped to almost nil, enough to cover our basic needs and necessities – thank God for socialized medicine in Taiwan. In a world on the go, we were now dependent on public transit. In a world where our peers back home were buying houses and settling down, we depended on the church for housing, living for a few months in someone’s guest room and then a college dormitory. Add to this our minimal grasp of the Chinese language and even less of the local dialect of Taiwanese, coupled with our vast ignorance of the local culture and custom, we went through each day feeling like little more than children, dependents, waiting for something or someone to show us where to go and what to do next.

The contrast to our previous life was stark and vivid. Where we had owed no one anything. Now we felt like we owed so much to so many. The feeling was awful. Whereas before we felt free and independent – released of our debts. Now our dependence and reliance on others felt stifling, like we were trapped. But our dependence was not so much financial as it was all encompassing. What’s more, we truly owed no one anything. All that we had, all that we needed, was given to us as a gift. There was no way to repay it. And, with lives so shaped by our narrative of debt and dependence, the experience was, putting it mildly, not fun.

Now years later, with grad school and seminary debt even larger than our undergraduate amounts, a mortgage, cars, and the obligations of saving for our own children’s future, those feelings of being dependent, trapped, and stifled are not lessened by time and wisdom. Rather, if I am being completely honest, there are moments when even with good jobs and stability, the feelings of owing someone are overwhelming. As we prepared for this season of examining our money narratives, I was challenged by how deeply ingrained this belief is, how much I hate owing someone anything at all.

I’d like to say that my belief is shaped by a well-grounded study of scripture, that my aversion to debt, financial and otherwise, is somehow religious and biblical. But, what Paul says this morning, is “Owe no one anything, except to love one another”. The idea of owing each other love raises thoughts about what it means to be dependent upon and connected through the great web of humanity and bound to one another by ligaments of relationship in communities like the church. Our gospel this morning speaks to this quite clearly in Jesus’ teaching about how to resolve conflicts and harms done within the worshipping community. He concludes that teaching with the words, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Binding and loosing is a strange way to speak about life in community. One of my favorite theologians and bloggers the Reverend Suzanne Guthrie writes of this passage,

I sometimes wonder if heaven, if there is a heaven, is created by our consciousness, our actions, our love, our self-sacrifice. …Our war-making or peace-making here determines the state of being there. Our exclusion excludes us and our inclusion includes us all. If so, our actions, cooperation, sacrifices, and love binds and loosens consequences more far-reaching and vital than imagined.

What if what Jesus says here is true, that we have power as a church to loose and to bind in ways that have a real and lasting impact, to balance the books in favor of justice, in favor of truth, to unbind those in captivity to debts and poverty and narratives that oppress and destroy? The Hebrew Bible, familiar to Jesus, talks about a concept of a regular and recurring year of Jubilee, a year when slates were wiped clean, and the land was left fallow to regain its nutrients, when the injustices inherent to any economy were meant to be righted and debts forgiven. What if we loosed such a reality into our world, that it would be on earth as it is in heaven? It is no surprise that in the verses following this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus answers a question about forgiveness with a parable about slaves and debts and the incomprehensible command that we should forgive, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. I am mindful that the early church adhered to a practice wherein all money was held in common and distributed such that none had need. I recall, uncomfortably that Jesus taught that in order to follow him, one should sell all of their possessions and give the money to the poor. Owe no one anything, except to love one another. Whatever you loose or bind here is loosed and bound in eternity. I think this morning of the dozens of churches, large and small, that are buying up and forgiving tens of millions of dollars in medical debt, literally liberating people from the bondage our medical system places on the ill and the infirm. I am conscious of the churches and institutions examining their stories of complicity in systems of racism and white supremacy, who are learning what it is they owe back to people of color, who are doing the hard work of paying reparations for the sins of slavery and genocide. I think too of the myriad countless acts, great and small, of generosity made manifest in communities like ours, where a helping hand is being given, where people of good faith are living as if all they owe one another is love. This morning you and I are being invited to examine how our narratives of giving and receiving money, help, even grace and love, are shaped by forces beyond us, to learn and live instead the narrative of God’s abundant generosity, to loose into the world in ways financial and otherwise, real forgiveness, justice, compassion, and love, to be bound to one another in a community of mutual interdependence. I confess to you, that I too, bound still by real debts and real gut-wrenching fears and shame about the same, I am wrestling to live into this new way of being. I am with you on this journey. This morning I affirm for all of us, we are called to owe no one anything, but that we should love one another. Let us be bound by this truth. Let us loose love in the world.

Let us pray.

We believe that on the first day,
God released love and creativity over a void;
and that void became mountains and rivers, sunsets and starry nights.

We believe God released
God’s people from the grips of slavery, liberating us day in and day out.

We believe God laid down with death
and was released from its grip,
knowing suffering and freeing us from this fragile life.

And we believe God invites us—
day in and day out—
to release our fears,
let go of assumptions, tear down walls,
throw open the doors, and walk closer to love.

May it be so. Amen.