06 September 2011

A Debt of Love


Romans 13:8-14
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

A Debt of Love

You may be interested to know that the current US National Debt is somewhere around 14 trillion, 671 billion, 854 million, 937 thousand, and 954 dollars. That means you and every American citizen owes a debt $47,008 each. The debt per US taxpayer is even higher at $130 thousand and 960 dollars each. (via http://www.usdebtclock.org/) No wonder whether and how to raise the debt ceiling was the big argument in Washington, DC this summer. In the end the debt ceiling was raised. In contrast to our national debt, we read these startling words in Romans 13:8, "Owe no one anything, except to love one another."
Presbyterians seem to take this admonition to heart when it comes to our church facilities. We don't like to take out loans for church improvements especially for the sanctuary. We don't feel it's right for a business to have a stake in our holy space. We are fortunate to belong to a congregation that is financially debt free. Although we are operating with a deficit budget this year as we have many past years, we have money in the bank to cover the budget deficit. Our congregation is financially debt free yet we have debt of another kind. We owe a debt of love to one another.
You may be interested to know the Bible's viewpoint that love is an action not an emotion. How you feel about another member of the church is not nearly as important as whether you show right action toward them. Without right action toward one another, a congregation will deteriorate into strife and quarreling. The Scripture equates quarreling and jealousy to binge drinking and hookups. That is an embarrassing thought. We thought we were morally superior to the drunkard or sex addict. But we don't get off the hook that easy. We all have been guilty of strife and quarreling. We love our to hold our negative energy feasts at home, at work and at school. The party gets really hot when we can focus on someone who is not there. Group criticism from afar increases the debt of love we owe. In contrast, right action, face to face frankness, pays down our debt of love.
Let's look at this more closely. The Godly kind of love described in the reading this morning is an action not an emotion. You can act right regardless of how you feel. You may smile when you feel sad and it will make you feel better. You may look up and raise your hands and smile and laugh and it will make you feel good. That's the way our body works. Our emotions respond to our actions. The debt of love we owe one another is paid by kind deeds and actions and not by good feelings and emotion. We don't even have to like someone but we must act in loving ways toward them. How we feel about others is not the primary concern of our text today. How we act toward others is the key.
A new pastor in Topeka, Kansas, USA, spent the first four days making personal visits to each of his prospective congregation inviting them to come to his inaugural services.
The following Sunday the church was all but empty. Accordingly, the pastor placed a notice in the local newspapers, stating that, because the church was dead, it was everyone's duty to give it a decent Christian burial. The funeral would be held the following Sunday afternoon.
Morbidly curious, a large crowd turned out for the 'funeral'.
In front of the pulpit they saw a closed coffin which was covered in flowers. After the priest had delivered the eulogy, he opened the coffin and invited his congregation to come forward and pay their final respects to their dead church.
Filled with curiosity as to what would represent the corpse of a 'dead church', all the people eagerly lined up to look in the coffin. Each 'mourner' peeped into the coffin then quickly turned away with a guilty, sheepish look.
In the coffin, tilted at the correct angle, was a large mirror. (Online http://www.guy-sports.com/jokes/funny_religious_stories.htm#Dead_Church_)
Lack of love will kill a church quicker than anything. This church is not dying but this church does have a debt problem. According to our text (Romans 13:1), we owe a debt of love to one another. We owe face to face communicating and dialogue. This is not a tactic we may choose or not. This is a debt we owe and we must pay our debts. Some of us contribute money but we are putting the church into spiritual debt when we use harsh words against others. Having observed the way some of our members treat other members, it is easy to see how we have a serious debt problem in the love department. This is the spiritual level Jesus always notices. He sees below the surface and hears the back room talk loud and clear. The first step toward addressing our love debt in this church is to practice self control. That means control of our tongue. That means watching what we say and how we say it. This church has a lot of work to do in that area. That is the honest truth and that is the challenge of our text today. We can always make excuses such as our age or our medication or "that's just the way she is" but those excuses are unacceptable according to the Bible. If you are serious about your Christian faith, learn to control your tongue. Otherwise, you are piling spiritual debt onto this church that will be left for future generations to pay.

A visitor once attended a Presbyterian Church in Houston. He came because his girl friend was a member of the church and he wanted to impress her family. The main thing the young man noticed was the different way the Presbyterians had of praying the Lord's prayer. In the Methodist Church he had attended as a child in the Lord's prayer they asked God to forgive them their trespasses and those who trespassed against them. When he got home his mother asked him how was the Presbyterian Church? He thought back to the Lord's Prayer and how they said "forgive us our debts" rather than "forgive us our trespasses" and said "Presbyterians don't seem to care a bit about any trespasses but they expect their debts to be forgiven!" We Presbyterians pay our financial obligations. Let's pay our spiritual obligations. Let's pay down the debt of love. The only way to pay it down is with right action. Frankly, let me just come out and say I am not interested in serving a church that systematically gossips, spreads rumors, or undermines people in leadership positions. I am no more interested in pastoring a church that does those things than I am in pastoring a church that owes $85 million dollars on their new sanctuary. Both of those churches are in deep debt. Spiritual debt, the love debt, is just as damaging to the spirit and mission of a church as monetary debt.

You may know the hymn "Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound" was written by a slave trader who repented and turned his life over to Christ. The price of human beings have come way down in value in the past 400 years. At the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, back in the mid 1800′s, the average cost of a slave in the U.S. was the equivalent of 40 to 50 thousand dollars in today's money. Today, the average cost of a human being is a mere 90 dollars. There are more slaves today than ever before in history—an estimated 27 million. Explosive population growth, impoverished communities rocked by conflict, natural disasters, disease epidemics, unprotected by strong rule of law are all factors that push people into slavery. We have a much larger pool of potentially enslavable people in the world today. In the basic notions of supply and demand that has caused a collapse in the price of a human being." (Kevin Bales online: http://ftsblog.net/2011/03/09/average-cost-to-buy-a-person-today-90/) As you may know, Houston has a flourishing slave trade in this city. Their are captives suffering under bondage in our city and we ignore them to focus on petty questions and nit picking. That is wrong of us to do that. We need to repent of that. Repenting would mean changing our direction from navel gazing and finger pointing. Let's turn our eyes upon Jesus. When we do, we will notice his gaze slowly look beyond us and his head tilt slightly backward as if to say, "Hey, we're okay. Now what about them?" What about them? What about those outside the walls of this church? That is where our focus should be if we want to follow Jesus. Jesus is out in the world with the captive day laborer and the woman of the night who captured from her Latin American village and forced to give her body over to the international sex trade. We may not want to see her or think about her but Jesus does.

Friends, we are in debt today. We owe one another a debt of love. We owe one another face to face clear communication. We do not have to agree on every issue. We never will. We do have to listen to one another and really hear the pain and the joy that people feel. You have permission to speak to me. You may speak to me face to face whenever you have a better idea, issue or misunderstanding. This is an open invitation. Presbyterians are direct people. We have the courage of our convictions. We are not afraid to speak our mind face to face. We conduct our business the full light of day. We support one another when a decision has been made. We help one another when we are in need. We do this because the Bible tells us to do this and we are people of the book. To attend worship every Sunday is one thing. To act with kindness and integrity in our dealings with one another is something else. Jesus was all about taking the right actions. That was more important to him than any cultural or religious rules.

Our love debt toward one another is similar to the US budget deficit. How much do we owe? US National Debt Is our love debt as high as the US National Debt? On the spiritual level do we owe one another 14 trillion, 671 billion, 854 million, 937 thousand, and 954 dollars? I hope it's not that big. But the point is that each love debt that an individual member incurs must eventually be paid back by the entire congregation. Our love debt has grown large over time. We have ignored it for long enough. It is time to deal with our church love deficit. It is time to start paying down our debt of love. The place to be begin is face to face communication with one another. This church will move forward as we begin to pay down our debt of love.

As the Apostle Paul says in our text this morning: "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." Thank God this church is paying down the debt of love we owe to one another. We pay down our debt of love by face to face communication. If we do not pay down our love debt amongst ourselves then we won't have any love to share in a world filled with 27 million slaves. The stakes are huge here. It's time for this church to start paying down our love debt to one another. It is by far the biggest debt we owe. It's not in the trillions of dollars yet like the US government's debt but until we repent our debt of love is growing by the day. Let's get our love debt under control before it's too late. This is a matter of life and death for St. John's Presbyterian Church.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on September 4, 2011 (23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time) | sjpresby.blogspot.com

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