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Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, September 7, 2008. I hope you have a wonderful day at your church.

A New Debt For A New Day

Romans 13:8-14

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

11 And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

A World in Debt

Sometime today, according to the Washington Post and other media organizations, the federal government will take over the two organizations chartered to underwrite the mortgages of millions of homes in the United States. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which sound like an eccentric aunt and uncle from the country, have fallen victim to the subprime mortgage mess. So, the federal government will take them over, fire their CEOs, and guarantee their loans. Both Barack Obama and John McCain agree this is a necessary step to shore up the sagging confidence in the US financial markets.

Our society operates on debt, and the action of the government indicates that confidence in the soundness of that debt is critical to our economic survival. For a long time, our nation was one of the few that had a successful debt economy. If you wanted a home or a car or a washing machine in most other countries, you had to pay cash. But, with our American ingenuity, we created the “debt society” telling each other and the world we no longer had to delay our grandest wishes, we could have them now, and pay for them later.

And other nations began to copy us. I read recently of the rise of automobile sales in China. Just a few years ago when I made regular trips to China, there were few dealerships, no financing, and only the very wealthy could afford an private automobile. Today all that has changed and increasingly affluent Chinese are buying their own cars on credit.

On one visit to the Mexican town of Juarez, across the border from El Paso, I stood in front of the maquilladora factory of a large electronics manufacturer. A large truck, like a U-Haul, was parked in front of the factory entrance. The rear door of the truck was rolled up, and inside there was a washer, a refrigerator, a stove, some TVs, and other household appliances. I noticed men and women walking up to the truck, reaching into their pockets, to hand the man standing in the back of the truck a handful of money. I asked the sales rep with me to explain the scene. I thought these workers were buying new appliances. “No,” he said, “the appliances on this truck are models. These workers can buy appliances like these on credit, but they have to pay some each week.” And I realized that we had successfully exported not only our low skill jobs, but the American practice of buy now, pay later.

Paul’s Encouragement to the Church in Rome

Those examples bring us to our text today. Romans 13:8-14 begins, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” I have actually heard this text interpreted to mean “stay out of debt.” Which might be a very good idea, but Paul uses the idea of debt here to teach us another lesson.

Paul is saying, “Don’t owe anybody anything except the debt of love.” Now, it would really be much easier for us to talk about getting out of debt today. Dave Ramsey has a wonderful course he teaches under his Financial Peace University, that teaches folks how to become debt-free. Ramsey started on the radio in Nashville, where he lives and his financial counseling business is located, because he lost everything when the real estate market collapsed during the last financial scandal. But, that’s not Paul’s main point.

Paul is reminding the Christians in Rome that the debt they owe, and the only one they can never pay, is the debt of love. Rome was the Washington DC, Paris, London, Shanghai, and Riyadh of its day, all rolled into one. It was the home of the emperor, the seat of power, the stuff of legend. And Christians in Rome were in the insignificant minority. And yet, Paul says they owe a debt — the debt of love.

Paul reminds the Roman followers of Christ that love doesn’t take another person’s wife or husband, doesn’t take their possessions, doesn’t kill them, doesn’t even want what they have. Love is the fulfillment of the law, and Paul quotes both the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus when he reminds them to love their neighbors as they love themselves.

But who were their neighbors? They were the Roman authorities, the ruling classes, the pagan temple goers, the adulterous men, the sexually promiscuous Romans. Roman culture exuded a sexual flavor unlike many before it. The Roman theater was reserved for men only because the plays presented were so bawdy. The well-to-do Roman citizen kept not only a wife, but also one or more lovers at his disposal. Respectable women were required to stay at home, but respectable men could do anything they wished. It was a culture saturated with sex, power, and possessions.

Sound familiar? Well, we are not that far from Rome ourselves, as countless speechwriters, commentators, and preachers have pointed out over the years. But, Paul reminds Christians that in the midst of this pagan, licentious society, they are to live lives of love. But more than that — they owe a debt of love to those around them.

A Debt That Cannot Be Repaid, But That Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Try

Love, Paul implies, is a debt we owe that can never be repaid in full. When we moved from Atlanta to Fort Worth for me to attend seminary, we were pretty poor. The church I left paid me about $12,000 a year, and even in 1976 that wasn’t big money. So, when we moved, we took all the cash we thought we had out of our checking account, leaving just enough to close out the account and pay the service charges.

As you can imagine, we cut it too close. So, in a few weeks, we got a notice from the bank that we owed an overdraft charge. I dutifully wrote out the check, mailed it to the bank, and thought that was that. All taken care of. Well, apparently, the bank received my check just after the deadline for avoiding another service charge. So, a few weeks later, another notice arrived, for the same amount I had just paid. I sent another check, realizing what must have happened. And guess what? That’s right, the same thing happened again. I finally called the bank to explain my predicament. I explained that I kept sending in money, and they kept charging me, and would this ever end? The bank representative was very kind, waived the fee, and applied my last payment, closing out the account.

But our debt of love isn’t so easily resolved. It never goes away. There is never a moment at which we catch up, get a credit on the books, and can skip the next payment. Frustrating? Not really, and here’s why:

Paul says something wonderful is happening — the night is ending, the day is dawning, a new day is coming. Salvation is closer than when we believed! All the more reason to love with wild abandon.

A New Definition of Love

But, Paul redefines love for them and us. He reminds them that what Roman society calls love — wild parties, sexual immorality, the deeds of darkness — is not love at all. Paul challenges them to put on Christ — like you’d put on a new coat. Clothe yourself with Jesus, not the stuff that masquerades in the culture as love.

We may not have the Roman definition of love, but our society also has an inadequate understanding of love. We have glamorized love in all its romantic (which comes from the root word Rome) glory. Or, we have turned love into a sappy kind of sentimentality that is like a gigantic warm fuzzy. But, that’s not the love Paul is speaking of either.

The love Paul talks about is the love Jesus has for this world, and we are to have to others. It may have its sentimental moments, but mostly it’s about hard work, sweat, and inconvenience. It’s about putting others first, about giving of ourselves, about caring for others, about opening our eyes to what God has done for us, and living that before the world.

Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “We can do no great things, just small things with great love. It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.” Okay, that’s great for Mother Teresa, after all she was a saint, or will be pretty soon. But, let me tell you a story about Mother Teresa herself.

I finished reading Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irrestible Revolution, this week. It’s about Shane’s journey to find his way as a lover of Jesus. On his journey, one of the things Shane did was to write Mother Teresa, asking if he could come to India to help with the work she was doing. He wrote and waited and waited. No reply. Finally, he contacted a nun here in the US, and asked for Mother Teresa’s telephone number. Amazingly, she gave it to him, and he called it. Shane said he expected someone to answer in a very professional manner, but instead, after the phone had rung several times, a woman with a raspy voice said “Hello.”

Shane explained he was calling for Mother Teresa. The raspy voice said, “This is Mother Teresa.” Being a smart-alec, Shane started to say, “Yeah and I’m the Pope.” But he restrained himself, only to realize he was really talking to Mother Teresa. He explained that he wanted to come to India for the summer. She said, “That’s a long time.” So, Shane said he could come for a month, or a couple of weeks or a couple of days. “No,” Momma T (as he calls her), said, “come.” And, so he did.

He arrived in India, tells wonderful stories of the experiences he had helping with the work of caring for the dying. But he noticed as they knelt to pray each morning, that Mother Teresa had terribly misshapen feet. He didn’t want to ask, but in talking with a nun one day, the subject came up. The nun asked if he had noticed Mother Teresa’s feet. Shane said he had, but didn’t want to ask what had happened to her. So the nun explained.

The Missionaries of Charity received lots of donations, she said. Often the donations were the cast-offs and included clothing, and occasionally shoes. She explained that Mother Teresa would search through the shipment of shoes, looking for the worst pair, which she took as her own. Years of wearing ill-fitting worn-out shoes had left her feet misshapen and painful. That’s the kind of love Paul is talking about.

Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic worker movement, said, “Love is a harsh and dreadful thing to ask of us, but it is the only answer.”

St. Vincent de Paul said that when he gave bread to the beggars, he got on his knees to ask forgiveness from them. In the early Christian church, one of the signs of Pentecost was that there was no unmet need among them. Paul, writing to another church, the church in Corinth, talks about spiritual gifts. But he says —

1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

If as many books had been written about Christian love as have been written about spiritual gifts, the church would behave differently, and the world would be a better place.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Love Is No Easy Road

Have you ever used one of those blood pressure machines at the drug store? When I go to a drugstore that has one, I usually try it out. You know how this works — you sit in the seat, put your arm into the stationary cuff, and punch the button. In a few minutes — if you didn’t move — the machine will display your blood pressure. Mine is usually good, so I’m usually pretty proud of myself.

But this week, I had the opportunity to check my “love pressure” and I didn’t come out so well. I can’t tell you the details, but I was trying to help someone here in our area. The situation didn’t work out, and I explained that to this individual. I expected a big “thank you for trying” email. Instead, I got a really good chewing out. Well, I was livid. I wanted that person to get straightened out, to see the light, to treat me better, to appreciate my efforts. And, I spent far more time on seeing that that happened than I should have. And it got me absolutely no where.

As I was rolling around in my anger and hurt, I thought about this sermon. I really hate it when that happens. And I realized that’s what Paul meant — Owe no one anything, except the continuing debt of love. It doesn’t matter how I was treated — I’m supposed to love. It doesn’t matter if I’m not appreciated — I’m supposed to love. It doesn’t matter if my best efforts are misunderstood — I’m supposed to love.

What amazed me was the anger and resentment, and even retribution, that burst into full bloom before I had any idea of what was really happening. So, this business of “the love debt” is no easy road.

In front of us today, on this communion table, is the graphic, tangible evidence of love — unconditional, unearned, unappreciated. Jesus loves us that way. So, this memorial is not just about death and blood and broken bodies. It’s about love. This scant meal of bread and wine is a reminder — a memorial — of love. That’s why we take it. To remind ourselves of the debt of love we owe, that we can never pay. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. “Owe no one anything, but love.”