Phew! A bit late getting this one done and posted. I'll come back when I'm less bleary-eyed and add the footnotes.
What We Owe
17th Sunday After Pentecost
7 September 2008
Who do you owe? And what do you owe them? We think of owing someone in terms of financial debt, but there are kinds of owing that have nothing to do with money. We owe someone an explanation. We owe someone an apology. We owe somebody a phone call or a visit. We owe somebody a thank you note or an invitation. Some of us keep us with all these obligations as if we were keeping a tally – constantly totting up to make sure we are in no one’s debt (or to see who owes us what). Others of us are certain we can never catch up with all our obligations, and so we resign ourselves to live with the constant sense that we are never doing enough.
Paul begins his counsel this morning from his letter to the Romans with words about our obligation. “Owe no one anything,” he begins. I kind of wish he had tweaked it just a bit. How about something like: “You don’t owe anyone a thing.” There now, that’s better, right? He could go from there. “You don’t owe anyone a thing. Just be true to yourself. Be true to what you want. Be true to what you need, what you believe. In Christ you have been set free, you no longer owe a thing.” Oh, I would love to read that in my Bible this morning.
And why doesn’t it say that? In Christ we have been set free! Christ has paid our debts – how is that we owe anything? Why should I feel obligated to do anything, when Christ has done it all?
And it is true – Christ did come for freedom, Christ pay our debts and set us free. We do not live under compulsion, we are no longer under obligation to the law. What this means is that Christ has set us free from ever having to do anything to be made right. Christ has set us free from having to do anything to justify ourselves or our worth. We do not need to do more or do better in order to be loved, or in order to be saved, or in order to be good. We have been set free from all that. We are loved already. We are loved entirely. We have been set right.
This does not mean we no longer have any obligations. It means that how we handle our obligations does not determine our worth. It means that neither our successes nor our failures have the last word on who we ultimately are. It means that we do not need to live under the hissing judgment of should and ought as if such words could save us or damn us. It means we rise to obligations out of our freedom, and with a sense of purpose and grace.
Paul says, “Owe no one anything, but love.” It is love that saved us, it is love that has been given to us, so freely. And so it is love that we now have, in abundance, to share. We owe it not because we are trying to get something, or trying to make up for something. We owe it because we have been given it.
Knowing all of this does not make it all that much easier to do, however. Love is never easy. There are some people in our lives who are certainly easier for us to love. But in the end, love – real love – always demands something of us.
Catholic ethicist Paul Wadell writes, “Love doesn’t sound dangerous until you’ve tried it.” What makes love dangerous? It is dangerous because it is costly. Love, the kind of love Paul writes of, is not about mere affection, or attraction, or compatibility, or mutual enjoyment. It is, ultimately, about self-giving, which means the sacrifice of self-interest. The New Testament defines love in relation to the cross. What is involved when we give ourselves to the obligations of love, then, is something like a death. A death to self.
That’s why it can be so hard. How many times a day can we stand to let ourselves die, and die again, to what we want? Some of the little deaths may be easier to accept – the daily sacrifices a parent makes for a young child are set in the context of the parents’ deep love and commitment. Still, they are sacrifices, and still they can be difficult to accept. Parents are meant to love their children, children are meant to love their parents, spouses are meant to love each other – and yet all of know how fraught with complexity and conflict all of these relationships can be. In her book What We Were Made For: Christian Reflections on Love, Christian ethicist Sondra Wheeler acknowledges, “… loving those near to us well is hard enough, … no wonder a human love that extends to strangers and enemies is hard even to imagine.” And yet that is what we are called to – a love that extends. Such a love pulls us beyond where we’re comfortable. Sometimes it feels like it will break us – to try to love people who aren’t like us, to try to love people who make us anxious or angry, to try to love people we don’t like. It is hard enough to be faithful in loving the people we actually like.
Human beings were created with a powerful need for companionship and community. We were meant for love, we were meant for relationship. And yet it is exactly this deep need that can make love so difficult. Out of our sense of own neediness and vulnerability, distorted patterns of relating arise, patterns that focus not at all on self-giving, but on finding ways to somehow get what we need. So we become manipulative and controlling. Or jealous. Or dependent. We become fearful, self-protective, distrustful. We cling to illusions about ourselves, and about others – illusions that cannot survive the honesty and growth required by real relationship. In so many ways, we are so broken. Love has been poured out for us, over our lives and into our hearts. But it sometimes seems that all the cracks in us make it impossible to hold all that love, let alone start giving it away.
Love is the only commandment, but sometimes it seems impossible to keep. How on earth can we get any better?
For starters, we come here. St. Benedict called Christian community a “school for souls.” Here is where we learn. In community with other people who are both broken and blessed – people who were neither our family nor our friends, but who can now become both, if we allow it. We are here to know and to be known, to learn to love and to learn to be loved. This is our school for souls. It is here that we encounter hope and healing for all the distortions that make loving relationship so hard.
If we have any hope of putting self-interest to death, this is where we start – in community, and in a community that chooses together to point ourselves toward God. To worship at all is to acknowledge and to celebrate that the world is governed by someone other than us. To worship is to say Self is not on the throne, and to say that self-interest will not be in charge. To worship together is to acknowledge how hard it is to do all this alone. Outside these walls, we encounter people at work, people on the street, people in our families that we find difficult to love. Outside these walls, we come up again and again against the supreme difficulty of self-sacrifice. Gathered in this room together, we are reminded that we do not actually have to do any of that alone. We come here to find our shared identity in God, an identity and a security that can begin to release us from fear and distrust. We come here to get honest about ourselves, and our failures, and our need. We come here to pray and to learn to pray, so that we find our first and best relationship with the Source of all other relationship.
And we come here to be fed. We gather at this table, to open ourselves to a God who nourishes and nurtures, a God who wants to fill us up, to satisfy us with good things. We come as we are to this table. Needy, broken, selfish, troubled, bowed-down, puffed-up, disbelieving, or hopeful. We come as we are, to find what we need, together. And what we find is this: we have been given so much. The love of God, the life of Jesus, has been poured out for us. And God wants it to be poured out through us. We find freedom at this table, too. Not just freedom from the things that would push us down, but freedom for – freedom for dying to our old selves, freedom for rising to our new purpose, freedom for getting up and going out, together, to love, and to love, and to love again, and to owe no on anything but love.