It is an age-old question: why is there evil in the world? In the parable of the wheat and the weeds Jesus suggests that both grow together until the harvest. With Paul, we long for the day that all creation will be set free from bondage and suffering. Having both weeds and wheat within us, we humbly place our hope in the promises of God, and from the Lord’s table we go forth to bear the fruit of justice and mercy.
Prayer of the Day
Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 44:6-8 There is no other God than the Lord
Romans 8:12-25 The revealing of the children of God
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 The parable of the weeds
Title: Our Holy Indebtedness
Who are you in debt to? Debt. A most anxiety-inducing word to bring into such a peaceful space like this. But Paul brings it into his wonderful letter to the church in Rome – whose 8th chapter we are looking at over three weeks – so we can’t just say it and run away. And perhaps you have learned as I have, the more uncomfortable the feelings are around a word or an idea, the more important it is to sit with it, to explore it, to think on it. Debt. As if the heat wasn’t making us uncomfortable enough. So getting right to it…
Who are you in debt to? Perhaps that question brings to mind a bank that holds your mortgage, or your car loan, or, in my case, my student loans. The debt demands that we pay monthly payments as we whittle away and the borrowed money, with interest, of course. Oh that joy when you finally make that last payment, when you can burn the mortgage, when the car is fully and totally yours. When you can use those monthly payments for something else, for something a little more fun.
Are you in debt to a person? Someone who was a mentor to you at the beginning of your journey into career or special interest. Perhaps they opened up understanding and possibilities that you would not have discovered on your own and so you owe them. Or perhaps there is a person who came to you at a time that you needed help. They were there for you in a way that no one else was or could be.
Or perhaps it is a group of people, a community, that you are indebted to. I was with a group that I am indebted to this past week. We call ourselves Proclaim – it is a network of LGBTQ pastors and seminarians in the Lutheran church who serve openly and publicly seeking to change the church, and change hearts and minds through the ministry that we do. I was introduced to this group at a critical time in the early days of ordained ministry. And I am happy to say that St. John’s supports the parent organization (Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries) with an annual gift. Our annual retreat was in Chicago this past week and it once again affirmed how important this organization was to me at that time and how important it continues to be as my colleagues support, challenge, and teach me. It was well worth the trip and the time.
So do you have your list? Now, how do you pay on these debts? As I mentioned, for the banks there are the pesky monthly payments. But once that last payment is made, you owe them nothing. You may never have dealings with them again. In time you might even forget you ever knew them. You are happy to move on with your one-less-debt life.
But what about that person who you indebted to? You don’t owe money. You can’t come to their aide the way they came to yours, teach them the way they taught you. They may not need anything from you. One of the best ways of paying that debt is by being there for someone else in the same way your mentor was there for you.
As for the group you might owe a debt to, one could give a monetary gift to help the group continue to exist and be there for others in the future. Or perhaps one could be of service to the organization as it seeks to live out the mission that you found so valuable.
But in all of these, we are debts of the flesh, of our physical world. There is a means of, in some way at least, paying debts off, paying them back.
But Paul writes that we are debtors not to the flesh. It’s not the worldly, resolvable debts that he is drawing our attention to. Rather it is our debt to God that he is setting before us. Last week we heard that opening line of Chapter 8, this culmination of the first half of Romans. Such the culmination that it even includes the word Therefore. Since that whole first seven chapters is what it is…therefore. And the therefore is followed by some pretty great news. St. Paul writes: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
And while last week Vicar John took us to the hospital for a Spirit transplant – a procedure that is accomplished at the font when we were baptized – today I am inviting us to the bank to examine our accounts.
And right away I see my metaphor is wrought with danger. Because thinking in our fleshy, earthly terms, we will want to turn this debt we owe to Jesus for the freedom from condemnation that he brings into one of those other types of debts that I described before. There is a long history of people doing this. As we mark Reformation 500, we have to think on the practice of the medieval church that was grounded in a teaching that the church was the caretaker of some glorious piggy bank that got filled by the good works of holy people – aka saints – and that common sinners like us could get a share of those riches that will get you into heaven by paying the church some cold, fleshy cash – aka indulgences.
And even today, the misunderstandings around our indebtedness continue. I heard televangelist Crefflo Dollar (you couldn’t make up that perfect name), he told his congregation that tithing (giving 10%, and I’m guessing giving it to his ministry) gets you Divine Insurance. Suddenly if we give enough, God is indebted to us, and must give us the blessings we think our money has bought? Meanwhile, others in less holy settings, want to believe that we can just pardon ourselves.
Yes, in our hands debt brings on anxiety. However in God’s hands – even our indebtedness is a blessing. For when we confess of our sin-filled debt, when we embrace the enormity of our indebtedness to the God who then turns around and saves us by grace alone through Christ Jesus so that there is no condemnation, when we finally admit that there is no way for us to pay off, or work off, or serve off, or sacrifice off this debt we owe the God who loves us eternally, we will begin to see just how deep the grace, mercy and love of God are. It is so deep, that God doesn’t just save us through Christ, God goes on to adopt as God’s own children through the power and gift of the Holy Spirit in the waters of baptism.
Using Jesus’ garden imagery from today’s gospel, when we take a close and honest look at the gardens of our lives – saints and sinners that we are – we will see what the weeds are, but we will also see the rich wheat that God has planted, that which is growing through the gift of faith that is ours by the work of the Holy Spirit.
So let’s leave the bank behind with its illusions and misconceptions that we can pay this debt. Leave the anxiety behind that we can somehow, work hard enough, believe enough, do enough to make good on this divine debt.
And come to the font, crying out “Abba, Father,” and know that we are heard through God’s mercy.
Come to the font, being born again through God’s grace, making us first fruits of the new creation through the risen Christ.
Come to the font, and find hope, not in what we see, but in what God has promised us – a priceless promise that brings eternal joy and peace to our profound, and do I dare say, holy indebtedness.
For the depth of our debt reveals the far greater depth, the eternal depth, of God’s grace, mercy, and love.
The Rev. Mark Erson,