What do you owe?
September 6th, 2020
What do you owe ? You can owe stuff in several ways.
Let’s start with what comes to mind first, which is probably financial debt. You maybe have several debts. If you’re listening this morning and you are that soldier, you probably feel it – that indebtedness. You carry it around with you. You put it out of your mind but you are nudged by mail at the end of each month. Maybe there’s a big red stamp on the top of the page that says « past due ». That’s the visible evidence of your debt – those letters from the bank or from the credit agency. But it’s an invisible state of mind too – indebtedness. You’re here in church and none of us has a clue what your debts look like. You having a debt is not like you having a limp. We would notice that when you made your way into church this morning. Someone would say « Jane, you’re limping ».
Look right, look left. They don’t know. Unless the sheriff’s bailiff shows up to repossess your sofa and you live near somebody here in the church, nobody’s ever going to know you have a debt. It’s something you carry within you. Someone has their hooks into you. You feel it. And your lack of available substance is tragic. Your paypack is already spent and it’s no longer really yours any more. It belongs to the bank or to the good folks down at Friendly Finance. You say – what a waste – what a waste that my income is going to maintain my debts.
Okay, so you’re not that soldier. My affairs are in impeccable order, thank you very much Father Warren. I pay everything by the first of the month. I live frugally and spend prudently.
Even if you don’t have an undue load of financial debts you nonetheless have obligations. Civic obligations or employment obligations – projects at work which other people are helping with but which have your name on them. In the eyes of your boss it’s you who are responsible for the project happening. You are that soldier. As the completion date draws near your attention to other matters – personal matters, spiritual matters, hobbies, even family commitments begins to waver because you are no longer completely your own. A piece of you belongs to somebody else and you are not completely the master or mistress of your own resources. You say – what a waste. I wanted to write a novel, I wanted to square this or that circle in an area of effort which thrills me. I wanted to be freer than I am but no, it appears I am a company man or woman. This is my lot in life.
There’s always something.
I’ve talked about debt and the obligations your employer places upon you but we’ve all got something which ties us, obliges us. We’re tied to a body which is not well and our physical plant doesn’t do what we thought it would. What a waste, we say, that our brains are so intact but our bodies oblige us to keep close to home or beset us with so much pain in the course of the week.
We have a checkered past or there is at least something in our past which weighs upon us and the memories of what people did to us and perhaps what we have done ourselves hold us back. Anger, guilt, shame. We have neither offered forgiveness to our antagonist nor have we sought it from those we have offended and it is like a lead weight. It hobbles us still. It hobbles us for years. There is something owing. What a waste we say – that somebody as reasonable and fun and creative as we can be should be haunted by the emotional debts of the past which have made us as complex and difficult as we have become.
The eleven or twelve sharp-eyed among you this morning are saying to yourselves that Warren seems to be spending an awful lot of attention on what, in fact, constitutes the first six words of the reading from Romans and he hasn’t gotten to the meat of the matter which is love and and spiritual progress and not debt. It’s only the first bit. You might easily have asked Ambra to simply remove the first six words of this morning’s reading from Romans. Bishop David would never have found out. It would have been a tidier reading. We could have started with the words « Love one another ». It would have made for a more compact sermon which is what we want, Vicar, neater sermons. Clean lines. One point with three headings. Sermons which don’t mix up themes from one section of Paul’s letter to the Romans with another except there is a connection. Is Saint Paul here being like Polonius in Hamlet who says to his son Laertes – neither a lender nor a borrower be as almost a throw away line – a platitude? Is this line from Paul to the Romans a counsel to the Christians to clear their financial debts ?
On the surface level, I’d have to say, well, yes it is – our reading begins with verse 8 and verses 1-7 are, in fact, all about paying your taxes, giving deference to those around you to whom you owe deference. Bowing your head slightly when the person with the fancy hat or the chain of office wanders into the room if that’s what you’re supposed to do. Calling the boss Sir of Ma’am if that’s your lot in life. Verse eight simply carries through the earlier theme. I could say don’t blame me, blame Saint Paul for his clumsy segue except I don’t want to blame St Paul because he’s right. You’re being asked to love one another in the real world and in the real world a big piece of you belongs to something else. You’re being asked to be Saints of the Church in the real world and to do so in the real world will mean that you need to do so while being men and women under contingent and local authority.
Your real world may not be optimal. How do you feel being so obliged? Helpless? Beholden? At risk? Needing saved by a magical benefactor? On the hunt for extra work and not letting employer number one know that there is an employer number two? Could it be better? Do you not fly because of it ? Do you not sing, or give, or pray? Have you avoided engaging with your generation because you have a tough row to hoe or feel like you are on a forced march? Have you been robbed of your natural ecstasy because you are implanted in a world which requires too much of you?
First things first, then. As much as it is in your power, you gotta fix that.
And on a surface level it would seem that verses 1-8a which include the first six words of this morning’s reading are exactly what Saint Paul says that the Roman Christians in the first century and the men and women of All Saints’ Church in Rome in the 21st century must go out and fix - now - those things you can – which rob you of your autonomy, which constitute self destructive and uncreative habits on your part – you should work very hard to manage and honour your civic covenants, to pay your debts – to fulfill your promises as citizens, residents, employees. Paul is no anarchist. St Paul is clear that we should arrange our lives so that our creditors – financial or otherwise – receive their due - that our employers get devotion and a full days work from us, and that our citizenship should not be lacking or scandalous. That we subject ourselves no longer to destructive patterns of imprudence or injudicious choices
Interns and other young folk have occasionally been quite critical of my library for being so dated and I distantly remember being critical myself of my forebears’ libraries. One of the books in my library – written by the New Testament Scholar and Theologian Ernst Kasemann has a very dated title one which positively exudes 1969. It’s a book entitled « Jesus Means Freedom »
And he does. He takes burdens from those who have been marginalized by others – he removes the stigma of leprosy from those afflicted by it. He restores despised individuals to their communities. He is all about freedom. The question needs to be asked though and to do it I will repeat words I asked earlier in this sermon. How do you feel being so obliged? Do you not fly because of it ? Do you not sing, or give, or pray? Have you been robbed of your natural ecstasy because you are implanted in a world which requires too much of you?
So now I need to ask you all a slightly awkward question : Would it all go away with the sudden application of a few thousand quid? You’d be freed up to move forward but would you? Would you move forward ? Would you become charitable and loving ? Would you engage wholeheartedly with the tasks of your world? Would you become an oak of your generation? Will this happen when your dreadful children graduate from University or when you and your spouse retire finally on a liveable pension? Were you this morning to feel encountered, cajoled and corrected by St Paul to put your house in order and bit by bit give yourself a little breathing space, a postage stamp sized bit to start, moving up to the size of a playing card and thence to the size of a piece of A4, what difference would that, by itself, make ? Would you sing again ? Pray again ? Engage again ? Would you put on the armour of light, as Paul says, or is something other than simply space and the lightening of your load required?
It's like this, you see: You may already suspect – with good reason – that there are people out there much less equipped than you, with fewer resources than you have and much less safety - who live in places where they cannot depend on the benevolence of their neighbours, and their governments, who have endured tragedies and loss in ways that you cannot imagine but who are nonetheless a lot happier and plugged in than you are. And this should give us pause. What are our motivations? Where does our loyalty lie?
In the context of our second reading the freedom to love is the freedom to move into new ground. It's freedom for something other than simple ease. If verses 1-8a are about forging for yourself a little space then verses 8b and following are what you might do with that space. What will you do with it? How would such freedom be used? Paul presupposes a yearning on the part of the Roman Christian in the first century and the Roman Christian in the 21st century for the free exercise of vocation - the church's vocation and that of the individual. It presupposes desire on the part of the Christian to be useful for God's purposes, to be equipped with the armour of righteousness and to have just enough free space - mental space, spiritual space, vocational space to take his or or her place in the work of the Kingdom. The space itself is not enough.
It is not only Freedom from. It is also and most importantly Freedom for? Are you anybody's soldier at all?