(sermon 2/25/18 – Second Sunday in Lent)
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment;for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
When I first saw this week’s theme, debt, I cringed a little, because the first thing it made me think of was the kind of sermons popular in some settings that run something like “Six Steps to a Happier, Wealthier You;” or “Four Biblical Rules to Health and Prosperity;” or something similar. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think that Jesus wants us to be miserable, or unhealthy, or whatever; it’s just that I don’t think g that kind of self-help pseudo-therapy is quite what preaching is really meant to do. So that isn’t what’s going to happen this morning.
Still, debt is an important thing for us to consider as God’s people. The scriptures do, in fact, have quite a bit to say about it, both from the standpoint of being a borrower and a lender, and most of the time, what the Bible says about debt doesn’t exactly square with the way our culture tends to understand it or use it.
I admit that I didn’t look this statistic up, and I’m not sure where I’d go to find it anyway, but I’d be willing to bet that in this country, the single largest profit generator in our economy isn’t actually the making of any product, or the provision of a service, but rather, it’s the interest charged on loans to purchase those goods and services. They end up being just a means to the goal of financing the purchases, which is far more lucrative than just selling those goods or services outright. If I’m wrong, I apologize, but I’ll bet I’m not too far off the mark.
Debt itself isn’t inherently a bad thing. When we search the scriptures, we find advice to live modestly and within our means – or to use the terminology of this Lenten series, to “tread lightly” in the way we live, not ostentatiously, or wastefully, or exploitatively. That means that we should only use debt for certain types of things, and as little as we possibly can. I think we all recognize that incurring debt responsibly can be a positive thing. We take on deb for education, to improve ourselves and to learn skills that help us to make a better living. We take out a mortgage to own a home and build up wealth through home equity. These are good.
But there’s a dark side to debt, too. We can use debt to live beyond our means, or to just buy stupid things that we don’t need, and that only feed into our consumer-driven economy – and the idea that we should never be satisfied with what we have; we always need something newer, fancier, better looking, more, more, more. Taking on debt to do that can get us into all kinds of trouble.
This week, as we think about how we can personally tread as lightly and responsibly as possible, our of respect for our stewardship of creation, and of the financial resources God has entrusted to us, we can all examine how we’re using debt unnecessarily in our own lives. I don’t mean to be a complete buzzkill here, and frankly, I don’t think God wants to, either – we can all use debt occasionally to splurge on something special, as an exception; it’s just that we can’t allow the exception to be the rule.
As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we do have to look at how we use debt in those ways. A lot of conversations revolve around that kind of debt, and often people in the middle of extreme debt are all assumed to have just racked up debt foolishly, so there isn’t much compassion for them. But I think we also need to look at other kinds of debt, and to consider what our faith, what the scriptures say about it. I’m talking about what I’ll call “desperation debt.” The kind of debt that you have to accept just in order to survive. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, and maybe not even that, and you have to pay for some unexpected emergency expense – and you get sucked into the only kind of debt available to you – resorting to so-called “Payday lenders,” who lend money, legally, at an APR ranging anywhere from 500 to 4,000 percent. Or you face overwhelming medical bills to keep yourself or a loved one alive, and even assuming you have health insurance, the remaining balance you have to pay out of pocket is staggering, and you wipe out your savings and max out your credit cards, not because you want to, but because you have to. And under that burden, you struggle to not become another terrible statistic: even by the most conservative metrics, a full 25% of bankruptcies, 250,000 people, every year, are filed because of insurmountable medical debt – and that number may actually be as high as 60% of all bankruptcies, or 600,000 people per year. Christ calls us to be healers, but in our current system, we end up healing a body but destroying a life. Too often, in the end, on balance we haven’t healed anything; we’ve just shifted the kind and cause of death.
The scriptures do have advice regarding being a borrower. But the vast majority of scriptural references to debt have to do with being a lender. Requiring things like not charging interest on any loans. And beyond that, forgiving all debts every seventh year. And to not use manipulation and loopholes to get around the intent of these requirements. Don’t you wish your mortgage lender would practice that kind of “Biblical Christianity”? Can you imagine what that would do to our economy?
Well, I obviously don’t believe that as Christians, we have to call for the overthrow of the whole American economic system. But I do think that as Christians, there are some things that we are called to do, in order to achieve at least some of the goals of those kinds of biblical teaching on being a lender. Things like working to ban payday lender from legally charging interest rates that would make a Mafia loan shark blush. Or finding a way to put an end to people being bankrupted by medical bills, for even relatively common diseases and illnesses. I’m convinced that’s not what God would want from either our medical or economic systems. And I want to stress; this isn’t a political issue. I think we can all agree that the end goal of ending that “desperation debt” is a noble one, and one that our faith calls us to. We know we need to get from point A to point B. The specifics of how we get to point B is political, but agreeing that point B is the end goal isn’t. So however you might think the solution to that problem is best accomplished – whether it’s best done entirely through the private sector, or entirely through the public sector, or some combination of the two, I think we can all agree that this “desperation debt” situation is not what God wants. I think we can all agree that God doesn’t want someone to be forced into financial ruin just because someone got sick, and that as a part of our faithful living as followers of Jesus, God would want us to work together to put that social brokenness – that social sin – to an end.
I believe that we need to do that, as part of our comprehensive, faith-based, scripture-based approach to debt, because we do know one thing: that debt is really just a softer, gentler form of slavery, and God’s will is that there would no longer be slave and free, only free. And that the only permanent debt that God wants us to have is a debt of gratitude, that comes from knowing that we have indeed been set free; that we are fully loved and fully accepted by God. And that out of that gratitude, we would work to help others, in the name of the one who first loved and helped us, to know that freedom, in every sense of the word, too.
Thanks be to God.