September 2008


This post is the final one in a series based on my recent sermon “The Debt of Love,” preached at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Northport, Alabama.

“The commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9).

The Book of Leviticus says that correcting or rebuking someone about their behavior is an expression of love (Leviticus 19:17). The Gospel of Matthew (18:15-20) gives an example of such loving admonishment in the community of faith. Someone has wronged another member of the church. What is to be done? There are several options. The one wronged could stew about the grievance and hold a grudge. He or she could spread rumors about the offending brother or sister. Or the hurt one could do the unthinkable: go to the person who committed the offense and talk. Love wants a relationship to be made whole again. Love that does no harm knows that a sister or a brother is harmed by being alienated from another, whether he or she knows it or not. The one who was hurt is harmed, too, because he or she doesn’t have a proper relationship with the other member. Wholeness is found in community. The purpose of the conversation, as difficult and painful as it may be, is to regain a positive relationship. Love leads us to seek out those who have done us wrong and talk seriously about what happened.

None of us likes to talk about things that are unpleasant. Sometimes we’d rather sweep problems under the rug. We seem to believe that if we ignore them long enough, they’ll go away, like a stray dog who comes around wanting food and a scratch behind the ears. And ignoring a problem works. For awhile. But if that’s our standard method of conflict management, we’re in for a rude surprise. One day, like a volcano, it will all erupt—all the pain, all the anger, all the frustration, and for the slightest of reasons. Except that what we see as a triviality is really a trigger.

My first time in seminary, I shared a house with three other guys named Jim, Ernie, and John. I barely knew John and Ernie; they seemed to be gone most of the time. But Jim and I got to be good friends. Some of the things I did rubbed him the wrong way and vice-versa. But I was brought up to be nice; you simply didn’t say things to people. Talk about them behind their backs, yes, but not to their face!

But one day I had had it. For some reason, the way Jim answered the phone pushed some button. All my anger and frustration and irritation focused on the silly way Jim pronounced “hello.” I confronted him, and we had it out about all the issues that I had had and he had had since we met. Our friendship was actually stronger after that. I had gained a brother.

Paying the debt of love isn’t easy. But Paul is convinced that trying to fulfill every detail of the law would be harder still. He should know. He tried and failed, as did his peers. Better to have one focus, one ultimate calling, one principle that guides us in every situation. People in debt try to consolidate all their payments into one monthly amount to one company. Rather like that, we follow this one summary statement that fulfills all the requirements of God: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We can’t live such a life in our own strength. And we don’t have to. The good news is always that we are not alone and that we don’t need to be afraid. Whether we’re gathered in a little group of two or three, in a megachurch filled with thousands, or anywhere in between, Jesus has promised to be among us. Prayer holds us up, as do our sisters and brothers. Faith in God’s purpose gives us hope. And so we can go out to love.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

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“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…. Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Romans 13:8a, 10a, based on NRSV).

In last week’s post, I explored how Paul talks about actual debt and money in the text from Romans. How we spend our funds and the amount of debt we have are moral and ethical issues.

But even if none of us had any mortgages and paid for everything we got with cash and barter, there would still be a debt crisis in our land. Because every one of us owes, or ought to owe, a debt of love to our neighbors. No collectors call if we don’t pay. Our credit rating with the credit bureaus stays in the high numbers. But there are other, more dire consequences. Ironically, if we don’t pay this debt, our lives will be impoverished. We’ll be ruined at the deepest level of our being. We could have millions of dollars in the bank, but you and I would be morally and spiritually bankrupt.

We’re called on to pay this debt frequently. In fact, it comes due not just once a month or on Sundays, but every minute, every hour. The bill varies. Sometimes it’s really big, and we wince at the cost. Other times we can pay it with the smallest of coins.

But it’s an urgent responsibility. See, love is in danger of extinction worse than the polar bears or some other creature we hear about. We live in a malicious and mean-spirited society. Everywhere, including in the churches, I see prejudice and hatred, lying and backstabbing, the desire to get revenge and promote fear. Paul calls on us to stand against the culture and make the decision to love.

Let’s be very, very clear. Love is not a warm fuzzy, though who doesn’t like a soft kitten or cuddly puppy? He’s not talking about romantic attraction, though that is one of the greatest powers in the world. Love doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry, if you remember the old movie line. In fact, probably just the opposite. No. Love is a verb. And we all remember our grammar. A verb is an action word.

Paul sums up what he has in mind with one sentence: “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” Just seven words in English and in the original Greek. But unpacking that brief sentence is complicated.

A key question, of course, is “Who is my neighbor?” The Bible’s definition is quite broad, and the Greek word also means “fellow human being.” Certainly we think of those of the church and our immediate community. But is not anyone and everyone on this planet in some sense our neighbor, especially those in need?

And how can I know if I’m doing no harm? We would not think of striking and injuring someone. But are my spending and consumption hurting someone across the globe because the products I buy are made in a sweatshop and my neighbor in another country is thus working under miserable conditions so I can have a product? If I drive carelessly or when I’m angry, could I not very well harm my neighbor who is also driving his or her car or simply crossing the street? What if my off-hand, insensitive remark deeply wounds someone else?

Tough stuff. Enough to drive you crazy. Or to the cross.

Next week: Some help in answering the questions.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

Note: This post and the two that follow are adapted from a well-received sermon preached at Bethel Presbyterian Church, Northport, AL on September 7. An elder encouraged me to share it with a wider audience.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…” (Romans 13:8a)

You can’t turn on the TV these days without seeing a commercial from some debt and credit counseling service bemoaning how many credit cards Americans have or how much we owe, then promising to help us get out of debt. You’d think that all of us were in deep trouble financially and would be better off cutting up our cards and using cash.

The picture is not as bleak as we hear on the commercials, but the statistics are still disturbing. Consider:

  • today’s average consumer has nine credit cards;
  • total U.S. consumer debt, not including mortgage debt, reached $2.55 trillion at the end of 2007;
  • the average American with a credit file is responsible for $16,635 in debt, again excluding mortgages;
  • the average credit card-indebted young adult household now spends nearly 24 percent of its income on debt payments, with about 13% of young adults spending over 40 percent of their income servicing debt, including mortgages and student loans.

I can’t help but wonder what Paul would think about the situation I’ve just outlined. After all, he insists that we “owe no one anything.”

Our first response might be to say “So what? Who cares what some musty old dead preacher in another country said 2000 years ago?” After all, Paul lived in a day when the banking system as we know it didn’t exist. Certainly, people bought and sold things. Debts were owed and paid, sometimes cancelled. Taxes were levied and grudgingly paid. And we can identify with all that.

But we think of back then as a much simpler time. Life didn’t move quite so fast. There wasn’t as much to have or want. So of course Paul could admonish his readers not to owe anybody anything. And, we have to admit, that sounds great: no car payments, no mortgage, no credit card bills. But who can do that in today’s economy? How would we buy anything off the Internet without a credit card? And it’s so easy to whip out the card instead of carrying cash, especially for large purchases, like a major appliance or your last tank of gas.

We can get around Paul by spiritualizing his advice. But that would be a mistake. Sometimes credit card and other debt is a moral issue, both for individuals and for organizations, like churches. Suppose you and I make good money, but consistently spend more than we make. And what if much of that spending is on impulse purchases and “must-haves”? What if we’re addicted to such habits so much that we don’t keep enough funds available to pay our monthly bills on time or give to the church or some charity?

Or how about the church like the one where I started out as an Associate Pastor? They had a huge mortgage payment, which came right off the top before anything else. Giving never quite measured up, so my youth budget got slashed over and over in favor of the bank note.

What if sleep won’t come night after night because you’re worried about that big balance you’re carrying on each of your cards, and with minimum payments, you’ll never be free of debt? So day after day you’re irritable and distracted at work and with your family.

Suppose what we spend our money on is an index of our true values? “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also,” said Jesus. And I think the reverse is true: “where your heart is, there is where you will invest your treasure.” You and I can always find the money in organizations and personally for what we really think is important, even if to the outside observer it looks trivial. Think of just these two statistics: Americans spend over $100 billion annually on fast food and $97 billion a year on beer. What if only a portion of that were spent on relieving hunger or providing clean water?

Sometimes our debts of money keep us from paying our debt of love.

Next week: Love does no harm.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5)

We’ve heard from Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin now, and both camps promise big changes.

Forgive me for being skeptical. Objects at rest, like Washington, the Church or any other institution, tend to become calcified, existing to ensure their own survival in their current form. They are open only to the wishes of an elite few, whether lobbyists pushing the agendas of pharmaceutical or oil companies; greedy investors who care nothing for the consequences of their avarice for those who struggle to buy a tank of gas or pay for medicine; or frightened leaders who cannot imagine that someone other than the usual suspects could actually have something important and valuable to contribute to the common good.

Real change is not within human ability. It only comes as the gift of the Spirit of God. The Bible calls it repentance, metanoia, a complete turnaround of mind and heart that restructures the very essence of our beings.

One reason we are so reluctant to repent and unable to do so is our refusal to deal with our own faults. Like the unnamed people addressed in the text I shared above, we would rather point fingers and discuss the finer points of the foibles of others than confront our own behavior. The supposition in the first century was that those slain by the Roman soldiers or killed in a construction accident did something to deserve their fate. They were “worse sinners” than other people. Jesus nailed the fallacy in such thinking, in essence saying that we don’t need to wonder about what others do or did wrong. Instead, we have to ask about our own need to repent and our own chances for survival if we don’t change.

Inertia is a powerful force. But the Spirit that could order chaos and bring conception in a virgin’s womb isn’t stymied by the “laws” of physics. Or the recalcitrance of the human heart.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham