February 17, 2010
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Let us pray. In this, the church’s holy spring, we ask you, O God, to renew us. With a gentle breath, blow from our lives the dust of sin, and make us your people again. Lift us from guilt, and shame, and regret, to repair all that we have broken, and give us the gift of repentance. With the lengthening days, stretch our hearts, too, to be ready for your risen life; through Christ our Lord. Amen. (Susan Bock, “Liturgy for the Whole Church.)
“Buy it now, pay for it later” seems to be the American way of doing business. For our spiritual debts, the time of payoff is now.
It has been said that Christmas is the season when you buy this year’s gifts with next year’s money. If that’s the case, many of your coming to church on this Ash Wednesday might be feeling a bit penitent, even remorseful, about the debt that you ran up at the close of 2009 as those credit card bills came due.
Buying things on credit, enjoying it now and paying for it later, seems to be the American way of doing business; or at least it was until the recent economic downturn. Statistics show that the average American carries four different credit cards in his or her wallet on which is owed a median of $2,200. In fact, the average American consumer has 13 current credit obligations listed on his or her official credit report, owing money on everything from cars to furniture to whatever. Even if you don’t have a credit card (and believe it or not, approximately 25 percent of Americans don’t), it is still possible to have, what I shall call, instant gratification with delayed remuneration. A new concept called “Bill Me Later” has been popping up on e-commerce sites. It allows consumers to purchase items and then receive an old-fashioned bill in the mail a few weeks later.
The problem with this “bill-me-later” mentality is that it puts the consumer in a serious bind. As credit bills mount, consumers find themselves locked deeper and deeper in the crushing grip of debt. The actual cost of that $8 movie you went to and charged with plastic six months ago, for example, can now cost exponentially more than that amount as interest rates ratchet up the financial pressure. Faced with mounting debts and no ability to pay them, many folks are forced to file for bankruptcy. It’s no wonder that Ambrose Bierce once defined debt as “an ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave driver.” As long as you’re in debt, somebody else owns your assets. Rack up enough debt and you can reach a point where it hardly seems worth it to try and dig yourself out.
Fortunately, many people are waking up to the fact that debt is something to be avoided. Consumers who have taken the radical step of performing “plastic surgery” by cutting up their credit cards and living below their means are finding a new sense of freedom. Sometimes it takes a time of crisis to force us to act responsibly and view our needs and wants differently than before. Release from debt opens up new opportunities and a new way of life.
While release from financial debt is something we all desire, but release from spiritual debt is even more liberating. Spiritual debt is incurred by sin, by self-indulgent living, by conforming to the hyper-consumptive lifestyle of the world. It’s the kind of debt that’s even more insidious than a credit card bill because we don’t often realize we are racking it up until we come to a crisis point – whether it be a serious illness, a significant loss, or a change in life circumstances. When we choose to live outside of regular obedience to God, that is, seeing everything we are and everything we have as belonging to God, we can suddenly and tragically realize that we have sold ourselves into slavery to sin. Given that reality, “bill me later” isn’t good financial strategy, nor is it good spiritual practice. You just never know when God is going to collect!
That is the dilemma that Paul seems to be addressing with the Corinthians in our epistle lesson for today. The truth is that we are all in debt to God because of our sinfulness. It is a debt so deep that we cannot possibly pay it off through our good deeds or righteous living. Knowing that, it would be easy for us to simply throw up our hands and stop trying. When you are enslaved to the debt of sin, you might think it easier to just keep running up the tab. When you don’t believe that you are worth anything, that you have nothing and are nothing, why should you even bother to try to change?
Sin puts us in a tough spot but Paul, acting like an enthusiastic first-century debt counselor, offers some good news to spiritual debtors. Imagine, if you will, that someone paid off all your financial debts in full – that your credit report went from 500 to 850 in an instant. That is essentially what Paul says has happened to our spiritual debts. With the coming of Christ and through his death on the cross on our behalf, there is a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The old life of sin and death has “passed away” and the debt has been paid off through Christ. In Jesus, God was reconciling us to God’s self, erasing the ledger of sin against us and instead offering us a clean slate.
The debt-relieving work that God had done in Christ, though, was work that needed to be implemented. Notice had to be given to all the debtors that the work had been done. That is where Paul and his companions come in. They had been sent by God not to be judgmental bill collectors, but to be “ambassadors” who spread the good news (v. 18-20a). God had entrusted Paul and his friends with the “ministry of reconciliation” (v. 18). Something brand new had happened in Christ, thus something new must happen in response. In much of the ancient world, people were driven by the fear of angering the gods. Then along came Paul with quite a different message: that the one true Creator God is renewing God’s good creation and wants to be in direct relationship with human beings. The separation between God and humanity had been bridged in the incarnation of Christ. God had in fact come among us to do for us what we could not do for ourselves, seeking reconciliation before judgment. It is no small wonder that the Corinthians thought that Paul was just a little bit strange. He was proclaiming an entirely new world very different from the one that they were used to!
God’s reconciling act in Christ does require a response. God offers us a free gift, a release from our spiritual debts, a new life. God made Jesus “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 21). It is a gift that we must accept, however. God has reconciled us to God’s self, now we must “be reconciled to God” (v. 20b). Accepting that gift isn’t just an exercise in belief or an excuse to start running up more debt. That would mean the gift was “in vain” (6:1). Rather, Paul urges the Corinthians, as well as us, to pay off our end of the deal now, not waiting until sometime later. “Now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2). The sooner we accept the gift of grace that God is offering, the sooner we can begin to live the life of the “new creation.”
Paul and his companions had carried this message of debt-free living to the world at great cost to themselves (6:4-9), yet the change that their message wrought on a debt-laden world was dramatic. Paul’s missionary team may have been “poor” themselves in terms of money, but their message was designed to make many “rich” in God’s grace, proving that it was possible to have “nothing” according to the world’s standards, yet “possessing everything” in a relationship with a generous and self-sacrificing God (6:10).
On this day of Ash Wednesday, we recognize that when it comes to the world’s standards we, too, really have nothing. The ashes on our foreheads remind us that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” All of the stuff that we have collected in our lives will eventually go to someone else. We come into the world with nothing and we will leave this world with nothing. The ashes also remind us of the debt of sin that we owe and that at death the bill comes due. While that can be a depressing load, facing the reality of sin and mortality can bring us to a decision point, a creative crisis. The more we recognize the depth of our spiritual indebtedness, the more we begin to realize the incredible gift God has given us in Christ, who releases us from it through his sacrifice on our behalf. Our debt has been stamped “Paid in Full” in his own blood. When we sign off on that with our own signature of acceptance, we can begin to see the “new creation” breaking in all around us.In some churches, there is an Ash Wednesday tradition for people to write down something for which they need to repent or be forgiven and leave it at the foot of the cross. This year, as you come forward to receive the cross of ashes on your forehead, leave those things that have separated you from God and one another during this last year at the foot of the altar. Accept in your heart the knowledge that your debt of sin has been stamped “Paid in Full”. We love it when we finally pay off a financial debt, like a last car payment, and there’s a finality to seeing that stamp on the loan document. That kind of finality can be helpful for our sins, too. Christ has paid them in full. That is truly something to celebrate! Amen.
Bill Me Later Web Site: billmelater.com.
Woolsey, Ben and Matt Schulz. “Credit card industry facts, debt statistics 2006-2008.” CreditCards.com Web Site, creditcards.com/credit-card-news/credit-card-industry-facts-personal-debt-statistics-1276.php.