ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 17, 2017 Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Romans 13: 8 – 14; Matthew 13: 8 – 14
On his deathbed, a wealthy man requested to see his priest, his bank manager and his doctor. Saying that his last wish was to be buried with his money, he gave each of them 1 billion dollars and told them to put it in his coffin, when he died. A couple of days later the man passed away and was buried within the week. At the wake, the three men were chatting and the priest was suddenly overcome with guilt. He confessed to the other two that he had only put 3/4 of the money in the coffin, as the church was deeply in debt. The banker looked sheepish and admitted that he had thrown in only half the money as his bank was being squeezed by the Mafia to pay back what he owed. The doctor looked at them in horror and said, ‘Shame on you both. That’s terrible. I too was tempted to keep that money to pay for the Caribbean island I just bought but I kept my promise and threw in a cheque for the full amount!”
Any of us who’ve had a monetary debt – and that’s probably all of us at some time – know the emotional burden of owing money and the economic burden of watching the interest accumulate. It can be stressful. When we hear the word “debt” we usually think financially, but there are other types of debt we incur that we may not recognize as debt.. For instance – when I give someone my word, I owe them until I follow through on our agreement. When I make a commitment, I owe it to others to show up and do my share. When someone makes wedding vows they owe their spouse a lifetime of love and partnership. When we become parents, we owe our children love and care and all the things that go with raising a child. As we get older we realize we’re indebted to our parents for all they’ve done for us and as they get older we owe them our emotional and perhaps physical support. We can feel indebted to someone who has shown us a special kindness, bailed us out of a tough spot, found us a job, saved our life or mentored us in some way. When an old car or machine broke down my mother would say, “Well, it doesn’t owe us anything.” It did when it was new but over time it’s “paid” for itself. All this raises the question: do we in the Church owe anything to one another and if so, what?
I’d say, we don’t ask that question often simply because we don’t think that way. Why would we “owe” each other anything? We haven’t taken anything so how could we have “a debt”? Whenever people are in relationship with one another, certain things are owed. Being in a relationship with God, through Christ, we owe God our love, worship, faithfulness and service. Because people are social beings who are loved by God, we owe every person dignity and esteem. We owe our friends respect, honesty, boundaries and loyalty. We owe our families all those things as well as love and care. Since the Church is a relational community formed through the sacrifice of Christ, we are indebted to one another. We owe it to one another to treat each other with high regard, to show up, to participate, to use our gifts and abilities to serve. We owe one another care and a team spirit. We have a responsibility to one another to create a safe place for all people, both physically and emotionally. We are called to help one another grow in faith, to teach each other, to encourage each other and to call each other back to Christ when we lose heart or when we behave in ways that don’t honour God.
It’s human nature to try to fulfill our obligations to each other by setting up and keeping “rules”. In the Torah, the Jews were given The Law to define the ways they should interact together, with others and with God. The Law clearly laid out what each person owed to others. Even in the New Testament, Christians are repeatedly told how to treat each other – “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving…” (Ephesians 4:32). In his letters to the Corinthians Paul lays out strict boundaries in the relationships between family members. In order to create structure or when people find it difficult to get along, the Church is inclined to make rules. In the PCC, The Book of Forms gives lots of direction on how Christians are to structure ourselves, conduct meetings and relate to one another so that everything will be done “decently and in order”. We could say this is what “we owe” one another. When there is tension in congregations or people have difficulty getting along, we often put rules in place: you need to book a room to use it; you need to put a label on your stuff in the frig; you need to get permission before you buy something or you won’t be reimbursed.
It’s also human to keep track of what we think is owed. We can have a “tit for tat” mind set and we keep a score board; when we do something for someone we then think we know what they now owe us. They may not be aware we have that expectation because rather than discussing it, we assume they should “just know”; we assume everyone shares our perspective. We can also have a balance scale of what we’ve done compared to what others have done. When we agree to do something we can take the attitude that we’ll only give to this position what has been laid out. We’ll do the least required. We’ll make the minimum payment on our bill. The trouble is: Jesus encouraged us not to do the minimum but to imitate him. He asked us to serve one another, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)
In Romans, Paul suggests a simpler way to live as the Church, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another” (Romans 13:8a) What if loving others was the only debt we needed to pay? What if we owed others nothing except to be like Christ? What if we served others rather than promoting ourselves? Paul goes on, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (vs. 8b) If we love, we don’t need to worry about the rules because we’ll automatically complete it’s requirements. The Message puts it this way, “Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.” (vs. 10). When we love, we don’t need to worry that we won’t keep the 10 commandments because love is always faithful, kind, respectful, forgiving and honouring of others and if we behave in those ways we could never dream of committing murder or adultery, of stealing or coveting.
Love also gives us the ability to overlook the faults of others. Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds tells us that the good and the bad, the useful and the detrimental, need to be left to live together until the time of Christ’s return when they will be sorted out and dealt with. It’s tempting to see ourselves as that perfect and fruitful Christian – a blade of wheat if there ever was one, and others as weeds we need to put up with for a time. A better read is: while the people around me can get under my skin, I need to find ways to love them and to live in harmony with them for now. An even better interpretation is: I love the people around me because we’re in this together. To try to rid the field of either the wheat or the weeds can’t be done without one uprooting the other. In many congregations, we’ve witnessed the outcome when one person tries to deal with or change another person whom they find problematic, only to create a rift in the church, the outcome of which is discord, hurt feelings, divisions and even splits. And that brings us to the best reading of this passage: the moment I decide someone else is a problematic weed, the moment I think they need to be pulled up is the moment that I go to seed. I become a self-righteous and toxic weed. Each one of us are a combination of weeds and wheat. We’re all have fruitful and harmful personality traits. When we learn to accept this about ourselves, we see others differently. We accept them too. We’re able to love them and work along side them. Because we’re all somewhat weedy it isn’t always easy to get along. Both this parable and Paul’s letter to the Romans tell us its not our job to fix others; we don’t owe it to the Church to change people – that’s the work of the Holy Spirit. One day, Christ will return to judge; he’ll separate the weeds from the wheat and rid our souls and the souls of others of all that’s sinful and unloving. He may even uproot a few people completely and be rid of them. But in the meantime, we love each other. We owe each other that much and that’s everything.
There’s a cute bumper sticker that parodies the song of the 7 Dwarfs; it says: I owe, I owe, so off to work I go. We have a debt that we owe to one another. It can only be paid with love. So as we, the Church, go off to do the ministry and mission of Christ, as we seek to serve as Jesus served, as we strive to build up the Body of Christ by working together in harmony, as “off to work we go”, let’s see every person and every situation as an opportunity to grow in love. Let’s live debt free.