July 19, 2020 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11A
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 23:55.)
How much do you owe? How much debt do you have? A mortgage? A car payment? Student loans? Medical debt? A home equity line? Do you keep a balance on your credit cards? Does the amount you owe bother you? Does it keep you up at night? Is it manageable? Has it been around so long that you hardly notice the payments you make each month?
What would happen if you stopped paying your car payments or your mortgage payments? Eventually someone could come and take your car or take your house. That’s what happens when we owe a debt that we will not or cannot pay. Then, our credit score takes a big hit. It’s harder to buy that next car or that next house, which is to say that, if we can convince a bank to lend us the money, it will cost us more because of the higher interest rates.
But what about those people or institutions that you owe more than money? The parents, teachers, and mentors who raised you. The friends who have helped you along the way. The people on whose shoulders you stand. The backs on which your freedom and your prosperity are built. What happens if those debts are called in? What happens if someone insists that you pay back what you could never pay back?
Do you remember the film Saving Private Ryan? Do you remember how it ends? The title character, years after eight soldiers had collaborated to save his life, stands in the American cemetery at Normandy, overlooking Omaha Beach, where part of the D-Day invasion took place. Surrounded by row after row of white-cross headstones, the now-old Private Ryan looks at his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life…Tell me I’m a good man.” He seems to be responding to something that Tom Hanks’ character had said to him years earlier, right before he died. On the bridge in Ramelle that they had fought to hold, as Captain Miller took his dying breaths, he pulled Private Ryan in close and said, “Earn this.” What haunting words! What damning words! Can you imagine living out the rest of your days, wondering whether you had lived a life that was worth the lives of the eight people who had died trying to save yours?
We may not face a debt as dramatic or as easily countable as that, but we all carry unpayable debts. Every aspect of our lives is built upon the sacrifice of others. Sometimes, those sacrifices are given to us as a gift that we are never expected to repay. A parent who loves us without asking anything in return. A teacher who gives us the special attention we need to flourish without expecting to get anything back. But other times those sacrifices are handed to us with strings attached. A parent who always makes us feel like more of a burden than a gift. A friend who always reminds us of the kindness that we will never be able to repay. All of us owe more than we can afford to pay. But some of us owe those debts to spiritual and emotional loan sharks in whose accounting we are nothing more than a figure in red.
Paul writes, “Siblings in Christ, we are debtors.” But Paul wants us to know that we are debtors, not to the flesh, but to something else. Unfortunately, at this point in his letter to the Romans, Paul is on quite a roll, and he starts his point without ever making the second half of it: “Siblings in Christ, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for, if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The implication, however, is clear. In this part of his letter, Paul wants us to see what it means to belong to the Spirit instead of the flesh. Last week, he encouraged us to set our minds—to set our diaphragms—on the things of the Spirit instead of the things of the flesh because being a Christian means giving our whole selves—our rational minds and our emotional passions—to the Spirit that dwells within us. And, this week, he’s once again building out that framework for the Christian life, but this time he’s using the image of debt to get his point across. We are debtors, yes, but we owe that debt not to the flesh but to the Spirit. And that changes everything.
We all owe more than we could ever pay, but, because we are children of a gracious and loving God, we have been set free from the otherwise insatiable fear of wondering whether we’ve earned it—of worrying whether we’ve led a good life or whether we are good people. As Christians, who believe in the unconditional love of God in Christ Jesus, our debt is owed to the Spirit by which we are adopted. That spirit, Paul writes, has made us God’s children, God’s heirs. As heirs, what God has in store for us is not a reward for good behavior or a payment for a job well done. It is an inheritance that comes to us because of who we are—because God has adopted us as God’s own children. The debt we owe is still far more than we could ever pay, but, because we owe it to God—because we are debtors to the Spirit—we experience that debt not as a burden but as a gift. Like a parent’s generous and forgiving love that fills a child with gratitude, we respond not as if to repay that debt but in thankfulness that such a gift would ever be given.
So why, then, do we keep trying to earn what has already been given to us? Why do we insist on trying to prove to God that we are worthy of that which we could never repay? Why do we, as Paul writes, keep falling back into fear as if we had received a spirit of slavery instead of a spirit of adoption? Because, even though we belong to the Spirit, we still live in the realm of the flesh. And, even though Christ has set us free, we still struggle to understand what it means to belong to God while living in a world that doesn’t.
Are we children of the Spirit or children of the flesh? The Spirit says that we are loved no matter what. The flesh says that we’ve got to earn it. The Spirit reminds us that we have already been adopted by God. The flesh whispers that we still have something to prove. The Spirit proclaims that God’s love is something that none of us deserves. The flesh protests because surely we deserve it more than some people do.
Some of us have a hard time accepting God’s love because we have hard time believing that we could be given such a wonderful gift with no strings attached. We’re used to asking, “What’s the catch?” We’ve built our lives around the belief that there is no such thing as a free lunch. A gift like that—a debt with no need for repayment—is too good to be true. Others of us have a hard time accepting God’s love because it means accepting that we are no better and no worse than everyone else. We’ve gotten far in this world because we have been willing to use our gifts and talents with a lot of hard work and some prudent risk taking in order to distinguish ourselves from the pack. To believe in a God who says that none of that counts for anything is to believe that we don’t count for anything. But either way, whether we’re excluding ourselves or excluding others from God’s generosity, what we’re really saying is that we don’t know how to believe in a God who loves the world while expecting nothing in return. What we’re saying is that we’re so used to being debtors to the flesh that we don’t know what it means to be indebted to the Spirit.
It isn’t easy to belong fully to God while living in a world that doesn’t. Paul knew it. The Romans knew it. And we all know it, too. That’s why hope is such an important thing. We hope not for things that we already see—for realities that are already clear to us—but for those truths on which we hang our very lives even when those truths are not visible to us. Hope that is seen is not hope at all, but hope in what is not yet seen is a powerful force. It is a force that draws us into a reality—a way of being and belonging—that is not fully manifest yet already governs our whole lives. To be indebted to the Spirit is to owe our everything to the one who loves us freely and fully without asking anything in return. That love is something that cannot be understood in this world—that can never make sense according to the flesh—yet it is as real and as strong as any force or any truth we know.