“Faith Formation Amidst Covid 19: A Good Debt (4 of 4)
Romans 13:8-14 ~ Rev. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ September 6, 2020
We don’t like debt, do we? Debts are things we delight in when they are paid off. We are so happy when we finally complete all our car payments and the debt is paid. We are pleased when we pay off our credit card bills and nothing is owing. We are elated when we make our last mortgage payment and proceed to have a mortgage burning party. Indeed, we don’t like debt and we are happy when they are repaid. We breathe a little easier; we feel a comfort not owing anything to anyone; we feel free. I know that, for some of our families who are having financial difficulty during the current pandemic, mounting debt is a real worry in their minds. Debt….and the stress it brings. As the parody of the Snow White and Seven Dwarves song goes: “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go!”
Paul, throughout his letters to the early church, speaks a lot about debt. And in this morning’s text it forms the opening consideration for living the Christian life. Last week, we explored the first half of the 13th chapter of Romans where Paul develops the civic debts we all have: we are to live under the civic laws of the land, to pay taxes, and to live peacefully. In this morning’s text, we learn that the debt continues. The debt is still not fully paid after we have paid taxes and been law abiding citizens. There is still one more debt we carry…the one debt we carry is an indebtedness to love neighbour. This should come as no surprise to the reader of Paul’s letters. Paul writes it throughout all his letters: in Romans, in Galatians, and (of course) in his well known letter to the Corinthians, that we hear recited at many a summer wedding.
So, what is the debt of love which Paul refers? The love he refers to is not that of an emotional or romantic nature, which would be an “eros” love. The Greek language had multiple forms of love and the love he refers to here is “agape” or communal love. It is an attitude we have towards our larger community. This love guides the behaviours and norms that ultimately inform our actions. This love forms the lenses we wear through which we see the world and which guide our action towards caring towards the person next door, the nameless person down the street, the unknown person begging for spare change on the street corner, or the person across the globe that we will never meet. Agape is the love shown for neighbour…no matter where they are. And Paul argues that we have an ongoing debt towards loving them. A debt that never ends.
It is an interesting dilemma to consider how one could be commanded to love. Earlier in the chapter, Paul has gone right through summarizing many of the commandments as found in Torah law and he now moves to focus on one more debt that we carry. His placement of love after the commandments, I think, is no accident. Can loving be commanded? Can loving become a rule to be enforced? Can love be a rule? Well, as we broaden our understanding of love, as we just did to this understanding of communal love, the commandment of love begins to make much more sense. This love is not an emotional state we feel towards another, which of course cannot be commanded. You cannot be commanded to romantically love someone. Love, as we know, never makes sense. This love is about action, not emotion. This love is about actively behaving in ways that promote another person’s good; it is about actively loving in ways that do not harm; it is about actively serving, actively caring, actively offering life in all its abundance to another.
And you have already received this kind of love. You know it very well! This is the kind of love that God has first revealed to each of us. This love centres on what God has done, and continues to do, for us. God’s love has offered us life, Creation, and freedom. God’s love has offered us a Messiah in Jesus, whom we name as Christ, who taught, and loved, and even laid down his life that a new life would be revealed. This is the love-debt we carry. This is the debt that we continue to live out in our own ways of living agape love. This is the one debt that we will continue to carry. Paul begins this section “owe no one anything except to love one another”. And, while none of us generally like being in debt, this is one debt that is a good one to carry.
Why is it good? It is good because as you read through to the end of this section, we are reminded that we will inevitably be indebted to something. Paul contrasts being indebted to the desires of the flesh or to the commandment to love. He concludes writing: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”. The baptismal imagery in the early church began with that of ‘putting on Christ’. It was a ritual where we symbolically died to the ways of the world and came alive by taking on our faith as the key focus in how we would live. It is this kind of sentiment by which people choose to wear a cross today, or have a cross tattooed upon their body. Putting on Christ is the enduring call to love others as Christ loves us. It is a reminder of the way we are called and commended to live. It is a compass that will guides us through the storms of life and the dark periods of the journey. It is a debt we need, lest our actions become misguided on the way of life.
So how do we live with this debt? How do the monthly payments look? A friend had a traumatic event occur in her townhouse complex. It began with a foul odour that was detected. The smell seemed to be coming from the unit next door and this person became increasingly displeased with their neighbour. They didn’t know the person very well. They kept to themselves and, when they did run into each other at the mailbox, there was always a pleasant exchange. But there was no relationship between neighbours. The person eventually mustered up the courage to walk next door and knock on the door…no answer. They inquired with the strata council…no results. Weeks went by and the odour worsened and worsened. After one month a police car came by, and then a coroner’s vehicle. To everyone’s horror, the person had quietly died in their townhome…alone. No one to care for them…no one to love them….no one to call for help…they died quietly alone. And as their body lay alone…decomposing…the odour was what summoned for help. In the aftermath of this tragedy, it seems that communal life has changed. People seem to be a little more caring, a little bit more loving, a little bit more aware of their neighbour. Making that little extra effort to say hi, offer help, and perhaps become a community where love, not separation, is the bouquet that wofts among neighbours.
This brings me to a new initiative that I am working with some of the leadership team at Northwood. There is a very real concern of the growing separation that people are experiencing. Northwood, as with many places for communal gathering provides the place where we come together. This ability to ‘come together’ has been challenged since March and many are reporting how alone and disconnected they are feeling. While we are not yet ready to reconvene for worship on Sundays, we are wanting to create community and connection in other creative ways. One way, is the building upon our small group ministries that form the core of Northwood. In the coming weeks a number of our small groups will commence: Bible study on Thursday mornings, mindfulness meditation on Tuesday nights, even Book Club are considering in-person gatherings in the fall. We are wondering what other small groups would be helpful for us to develop? They could meet in-person, or they could meet in a virtual way by zoom video conferencing. They could include a group for men, or women, or couples. The possibilities are only limited by our imagination! The important thing would be for us to find new ways to create community and be the church as we love neighbour. Our telephone tree has begun call outs inquiring of your interest in this area, so you may have already heard about this. If you are interested, I would love to talk to you and find out what would work in your specific context. So, don’t be shy…don’t be locked away in your home…give me a call. I would love to hear from you!
As we have been considering the possibilities for faith formation, for resiliency, for growth amidst Covid 19 during these 4 weeks, I wonder if this truly an opportunity for us to practice this indebtedness we all carry to love neighbour? To be sure, these are ‘hard times’. And they will continue to be in the immediate future in the loving measures we take to ‘flatten the curve’ and into the coming years as we think of the sacrifices we will need to make to get our country’s finances in order. I wonder if Paul’s words are an apt reminder of this wonderful possibility for faith growth that comes alongside the servicing of our spiritual debt. As Paul laid out the course ahead, we can live in one of two ways: we can live being indebted to the selfish ways of the flesh or being indebted to living out Christ’s love in our lives.
The sacrifices we make now and into the future are truly spiritual practices that allow for a beautiful dimension of faith growth, the likes of which we can only imagine. How will you be called to pay your debt as you love neighbour? How will you be called to live love in the ways you are enabled?
Every little bit counts….and every bit adds up…as the Kingdom of God continues to unfold amidst social distancing, mask wearing, hand sanitizing…Thy Kingdom come.