The Only Debt That Matters

On this Labor Day weekend, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered Paul’s admonition to count LOVE as the only debt we owe.  We tried to think a little about HOW to treat each other in times of crisis and disagreement.  Our scriptures included Nehemiah 5:1-13 and Romans 13:8-10

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I know that the way that I say things can elicit a response that may or may not be related to the words I use.  I could say (brightly) “That’s fantastic!”, or I could say (gloomily) “That’s fantastic”, and even though the words are identical, the message you receive is different, right?

So here are five words spoken as plainly as I know how.  I wonder how you respond to these words, and how you hear them in your head?

President offers student debt forgiveness.

How do you hear that? Is it great news, or maybe even life-changing for you?  Or does it irritate you – making you think of another politician coddling undeserving people just to try to get votes? Or do you say, “meh – it doesn’t do much for me one way or another”?

I’m not going to argue about that today, but I have a hunch that the way that you hear those five words might affect the way you hear the rest of this sermon.  I have an opinion on this, and I’m happy to discuss it, but that’s not why we’re here today.  We gather, many of us having the luxury of a three-day Labor Day weekend, and I’m thinking about faithfulness in jobs, education, housing, spending, and debt – and how they might be related.

This morning I’d like to invite you to think broadly and theologically about the idea, particularly, of indebtedness.  My belief is that all of us know something about debt at one point or another in our lives.  Here are some numbers for you to chew on as we begin.

As we entered 2022, the average consumer debt in the USA, which includes mortgage, auto loans, credit cards, and student loans, is $92,727.  If you are one of the folks who identifies as a Gen Xer – born between 1965 – 1980, that figure is $143,643. The average household started 2022 carrying $155,038 in outstanding debt.[1]

Is that a good thing?  Well… I know people who have borrowed money to buy a house, and they are thinking of that home as an investment.  They got a good deal, they say, and they are making payments, and they believe that when they’re finished living in it, they’ll get more than they paid to purchase it.  “Why pay a landlord? I’m going to build my own equity”.  That kind of thinking makes a lot of sense to some people.  Other people talk about leveraging their debt load – they are borrowing money now with the intention of using it soon to make even more money.  Debt is a part of their income strategy.

And of course not all debt is created equal.  On the one hand, there is some good news to report: that wearisome credit card debt that many of us carry actually decreased by 10.7% between 2017 and 2021.  The average American owes $5,589 on credit cards.  That’s moving in the right direction.[2]

On the other hand, since 2010 the amount that we’re carrying in student loans and auto loans has more than doubled. The typical American household is sitting on top of $58,000 in student loans and $30,000 in auto loans. A lot of us owe a lot of money.[3]

OK, those are some facts – some of which may or may not be applicable in your own circumstance.

Here’s another fact – in fact, I would say that this is an eternal truth: as we read through the epic of creation and the entire narrative from Genesis to Revelation, the Biblical affirmation is clear: we are the recipients of, and created to live in, a world of abundance.  The story of God reminds us that there is always enough – more than enough.

And yet that same narrative, and indeed our life experience, is that all of that abundance, all of that enough, is not always in the right places.  We have both inherited and created a network of broken relationships; the pathology of human nature (which the Bible calls Sin) has resulted in greed, acquisitiveness, and envy, all of which has led and continues to lead to an inequality of resources around the neighborhood and throughout the world. You know this, and have seen this.

Another truth is that in many, many cases, the burden of debt is enslaving.  You heard this in our reading from Nehemiah – a passage that describes the world 2500 years ago.  Nehemiah was a man of means and authority who had been tasked by God with leading a group of people from their exile in Babylon back to their ancestral home in Israel.  By and large, these displaced persons were poor, or of the working class, perhaps.  They left Babylon, where they’d lived for a generation, in the hopes of returning to a home they never knew to build or re-build a dream.  The effort started well, but as work on the communal projects like walls and roads went on, there was only limited opportunity for private construction and farming.  There was also some opposition from the people who had moved into the area that the exile had left vacant.  Then, to make a difficult situation worse, a famine arose.

Many of these poor workers and farmers found themselves borrowing from their richer countrymen; as the difficulties were prolonged, people started selling themselves or their children into slavery simply to survive.

This group finally approaches Nehemiah and says, “Look, we’re at the end of our rope here!  How – and why – can we go on living like this?”

And to his credit, Nehemiah reads the riot act to the wealthy people, and reminds them of the fact that God considers the charging of interest – or usury – to be a sin.  Nehemiah lays out the situation, and then he orders a redistribution of the resources and the forgiveness of debts.  In doing so, he saved his city and his nation.

Similarly, the reality of too many of our fellow-citizens today is that loans and interest that they’ve accrued have outpaced their ability to even think about paying them back.  Most of us expect that when we make payments on a loan, the amount that we owe will decrease.  If you lend me a hundred bucks, and I pay you back ten dollars a week, I’d expect to be clear of that debt within three months.  It just makes sense, right?

But the complex and often predatory nature of the student loan industry as it has evolved in the past 40 years is such that in 2021, almost two out of three borrowers who made voluntary payments during the Covid-19 pause finished the year owing more than they did at its start.[4]

And because of statistics like this, you either are or know people who feel enslaved to student debt.  And no less than in Nehemiah’s day, such enslavement leads to cynicism, disenfranchisement, despair, and hopelessness.  You are, or you know people who could be, making the same speech as Nehemiah’s neighbors.

And yet the scripture contains a profound narrative.  In addition to declaring this to be a world of abundance, the story of God’s people in scripture is that the Divine perspective is always to shift from enslavement to freedom.  We understand that from the narrative in Exodus where God states emphatically that God’s people are not created for slavery.  Yet even after the people were released from that bondage, some of them still thought that owning and enslaving other people was a good idea.  The prophets, like Nehemiah, spoke against it.  Jesus arrives and proclaims a gospel of liberty and freedom.  In fact, Jesus talked about economic justice and money more than just about anything else. As he led his disciples to engage with the people on the fringes, it was no surprise that the early church contained many enslaved people.  I would argue that the trajectory of the New Testament is abolitionist – against slavery – and instead is centered on the notion that God’s freedom is for everyone.

So, to review, I’m trying to say that we were fashioned for a world of abundance, and yet the intrusion of Sin into this world has led to the creation of structures that are systemically unjust and oppressive.  Indebtedness is one aspect of our shared life that drives us more deeply into captivity, which is the opposite of that for which we were created.  What are we supposed to do about this?

Right now, I could launch into an exploration of President Biden’s plan to forgive thousands of dollars in student debt.  Perhaps we could talk about the way that the the experience of higher education in the USA has evolved, and how young people and their parents seem to expect more and more amenities with the money that they’re borrowing.  Or we could look back even further, at decisions made in the 1980’s when the Government of the United States began to systematically de-fund higher education and sought to privatize the student loan industry.  And I’d really like, at some point, to ask who is getting rich from the misery of those of us and our neighbors who are enslaved to indebtedness.

But that’s not my job – at least, not for today.  Instead, I’ll encourage you to do some research and ask those questions.  If you do, I expect that there will be a lot of different opinions – I think we might hear the same words differently, if you will.  We always do.  And the good news is that we can disagree on a fiscal policy.  We will.  We have different ideas, and we try them out.

Let me be as clear as I can: I am not, for the moment, trying to tell you how to think about solving the debt crisis, particularly the student debt crisis, that has afflicted the USA. As I’ve tried to make clear, there are a lot of causes for this and there are many, many ideas to explore in terms of finding a solution.

Here is what I am trying to do – today, and for the last three decades: I am trying to remind you how we are called to think about, and behave toward, those who struggle under a burden that is unthinkable to some of us and well-known to too many..

So in the time that remains for us this morning, beloved, I want to have a word with you, the Body of Christ, reminding you that the way of Jesus is, as Paul emphatically reminded his friends in Rome, the way of Love.

We owe each other love.  All of us.  Each of us.

So here is what I am begging you today, dear ones, as we come to, or continue, these conversations about debt and work and worth and freedom.

Start with love.  Let your down payment be love.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of comments to the effect of, “BUT IT’S MY MONEY!  I GET TO DECIDE WHAT HAPPENS TO IT! BACK OFF, YOU FREELOADER.  IF YOU CAN’T PAY IT BACK, THEN WHY DID YOU BORROW IT, YOU LOSER?”

Listen: if that’s the posture with which we begin in conversation – or take at any point, in fact, then how do we possibly pray the Lord’s prayer with any credibility?

More than 500 years ago, Martin Luther explained the lifestyle of the person of faith in this way: He said,  “we are all mere beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.”  Each of us comes to Jesus in humility and with an awareness of the brokenness in our own spirits and in our world.

Pride, arrogance, self-sufficiency, and vanity feed our own egos yet they starve the body Christ.  We could talk all morning and we might not get any closer to a perfect political solution to the debt crisis.  But beloved, I am begging you: do not let your hearts become hardened against those who are struggling.  A follower of Jesus cannot speak scornfully or dismissively about those whose struggles and challenges are not known or understood.

None of us are free agents.  We are all connected.  Let us remember that, and act that way.  We lead with grace.  We work in hope.  The only thing that we owe one another is love.  So let us pay up, beloved.  Let us pay up daily.  Thanks be to God, Amen!

[1] https://mycreditsummit.com/american-consumer-debt-statistics/

[2] https://www.experian.com/blogs/ask-experian/how-credit-card-debt-has-changed-over-last-5-years/

[3] https://mycreditsummit.com/american-consumer-debt-statistics/

[4] https://www.gobankingrates.com/loans/student/why-student-loan-borrowers-owe-more-now-than-when-they-started-paying/

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