At the end of the day...
Earlier this morning, Jubilee Baptist Church paid off a credit card debt of one of our members. We did this in worship. We did it as worship. I’m really not sure what to say right now. For about seven years as I went through divinity school and then began my career in ministry, I’ve wanted to lead a church that pays off each other’s debts. Not other people’s debts, the debts of our family and friends.
After the sermon and before communion, Amy and I stood in front of the church. She’d applied for one of our Debt Liberation Grants, funds to go directly to paying off debt. She asked for help for a $4,700 credit card with 29% interest and a monthly payment of $315/month. She still has a lot more debt, but today, she’s free from one.
As many of you know, we plan on doing this once per month in worship and then also form Mutual Aid Teams for people to pay off one another’s debts. You can read more about all of it here and if you’d like to give some money to support this work you can do so here. We hope to get 200 people to give $9/month for the next six months. Every dollar will go to pay off someone’s debt.
Below is the sermon that I preached this morning.
…It’s All About Relationships
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
“At the end of the day… it’s all about relationships.” Over the years of my work in ministry and non-profits, I’ve found this phrase, cliche as it is, consistently gets the kind of response generally reserved for more insightful statements. At a conference or a workshop on ministry, a young adult pastor explains how to attract millennials to church: make sure you understand how instagram works, have a presence in the community, but at the end of the day, it’s all about relationships. It can also serve to shut down discussion. People say “it’s all about relationships” when it looks like conflict might arise. It works as a helpful diversion when you might disagree over a budget or a direction for the church or a matter of policy. Someone has to rescue the conversation, remind everyone what’s really important. “At the end of the day, it’s all about relationships.” Everyone can take a deep breath and say “Hmmm. yes. That’s a good reminder,” and move on from the potential for conflict.
I guess it’s just true that life is about relationships but it’s just so true that it doesn’t feel worth saying. It feels a bit like saying that at the end of the day water is all about wetness. It matters far less that we relate to one another than how we relate. What kinds of relationships do we have with each other? What kind of relationships, at the end of the day, do we want with one another.
Debt names one of the ways we relate. We owe one another something whether that’s respect, a payment, revenge, or a piece of property. For so many of us, our relationships we have with each other through debt rest on a particular moral axiom: good people repay their debts. When you look at the history of debt, this makes some sense. Debt didn’t emerge in human civilization as trade and barter gave way to money and people spent more than they had at the moment. As economist Michael Hudson tells it, the exact opposite happened. Debt initially named what someone owed to someone else after they’d harmed them. A farmer accidentally overstepped their bounds and fed their cattle on another’s property or their sheep destroyed what someone else owned. The one receiving the debt was a victim and the one paying it did so to right a wrong. So “good people repay their debts” carries a kind of moral holdover from this type of debt in which people owed something to someone they’d wronged.
Over time other types of debt emerged. Temples and palaces took taxes of grain and oil from citizens to ensure the kingdom could survive a drought or a famine and sometimes the common farmer couldn’t pay all their taxes so they went into debt until the next harvest. A creditor class emerged, loaning money for commercial ventures, things like the exploration of new trade routes. Eventually this creditor class made loans to normal citizens. During a famine they might loan them some grain or oil, the things essential to survival, and after a while if the debtor couldn’t pay, the creditor could come after their family and their family’s land putting the former in bondage and foreclosing on the latter.
For the king and the kingdom this represented a huge problem because they need their citizens to pay their taxes so they could keep the economy running, provide for the general welfare of the citizens. Over time, various societies and kingdoms started debt jubilees, mass debt cancellation when public debts were forgiven, lands returned to their original families, and people that had gone into bondage because of their debt set free. The kings and religious leaders didn’t do this so much out of altruism, but because they knew that when large swaths of the population had lost all they had to an oligarchy, creditor class they had fewer people to tax or conscript into the army. At the end of the day, a kingdom is about relationships. With the mass forgiveness of debts, kings reasserted their power over and against the creditor class. It’s as if the king said, “My people need this kingdom and when you put people in debt like this, you threaten that kingdom and so I’ll take your power away and bring the people back to me.”
A back and forth emerged between a creditor class seeking to put as many people in debt as they could and a priestly religious class that recognized that when this many individuals go into debt to such a small group the power of their kingdom withered away.
It feels quite banal at this point to repeat the statistics about debt in our own country. Over a trillion dollars in student loans. $80 billion in medical debt. We deal with not just stagnant and unequal wages, but infrequent ones at jobs that do last minute scheduling or put employees on call. All of this adds up to the point where “The percentage of families with more debt than savings is higher now than at any point since 1962, while the median American family’s net worth is lower than it’s been in nearly a quarter-century.”
And this doesn’t even get at the experience of it. In a deeply moving essay at The Baffler, writer M.H. Miller describes his own experience of indebtedness. He, like me, graduated college and entered the workforce just as the recession took hold. He’d grown up middle class and thought he had taken the right, upwardly mobile path. His parents co-signed his loans, but they couldn’t anticipate the job loss, the cancer, the just getting by for a decade. At one point, he asks his dad, “
Theoretically, if I were to, say, kill myself, what would happen to the debt?”
“‘I would have to pay it myself,’ my father said, in the same tone he would use a few minutes later to order eggs. He paused and then offered me a melancholy smile, which I sensed had caused him great strain. ‘Listen, it’s just debt,’ he said. ‘No one is dying from this.’”
Rome very uniquely in human history allowed their creditor class to run rampant. Many of their subjects lived their lives as debtors, taking out loans necessary to survive from the creditor class and the politicians they employed. Think about this struggle between creditors and kings and the announcement of the kingdom of God. Forgiveness of debt stood at the heart of that announcement because it meant God’s rule had arrived and discredited the bankers. Remember, the king showed their authority over the creditors by forgiving the debts of the common people, by releasing them from their power so they could live in a different kingdom.
Jesus directs this story to his disciples. He tells them about a middle manager, someone who worked for the creditors as a steward over their debts. Often times, businesses, creditors, and bosses justify themselves by telling us that they want a relationship with their workers. I’m sure you’ve sat in that meeting where they tell you that the workplace really ought to function more like a team or a family “Don’t think of me as your boss. I’m really your friend. It’s all about relationships.” Maybe this manager’s boss said the same thing. It’s all about relationships. Until the manager stopped improving the bottom line.
I remember the young couple at a church I worked at before Jubilee. Shortly after I arrived they learned that one of them would lose their job. The company let them know that they’d decided to eliminate their department in a few months. The couple had just celebrated the birth of their second child. When I look at the website of the company they worked for, under the “careers” tab, where people apply for jobs, they invite potential employees “to be a part of an organization that's committed to making our communities better places to be.” The company informs people wanting to apply that “our culture is driven by our values.” Listed on another page, they say they value character, judgement, success, and happiness. Fine enough words, but they don’t mean much when the severance runs out and the bills keep coming.
As my dad is fond of saying: money can’t buy happiness. But happiness can’t groceries.
Faced with this situation, the manager says he has two options: dig or beg. He can’t do the former and feels too ashamed to do the latter. This sounds a good bit like our situation today. Get that extra gig, start driving for Uber, take up a side hustle or two or ask someone for help.
If you’re here today and feel ashamed because of your debt or because of your financial situation, let me tell you right now: it’s okay. A few months ago, I sat with a church member to talk about how we want to become a church that pays off one another’s debts. I asked if he might want to be a part of that and have a debt paid off. He got a bit sheepish. “Well I don’t know if I have it as bad as everyone else.” But no one showed up to church today to play the Olympics of Struggle. Sure, maybe you don’t have it as bad as everyone else, but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t care. And we have to start somewhere. Who knows when that job loss will hit or that trip to the emergency room or that car repair.
So the manager does his own little Jubilee. He calls people in and slashes their debt. These people didn’t work as commercial investors taking out loans to start new businesses. They borrowed grain and oil, the basics. They went into debt just to survive. He doesn’t completely cancel their debts because his master might notice and could then hold him responsible for it. But he does give the debtors some breathing room and hopes that they might invite him into it. He finds a new way of relating to people. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.
Like I said, Jesus tells this story to his disciples. Jesus expects them to live this way in the world. Remember, the Jubilee had several functions. The king used it to reassert his rule over and against the creditors. But debt cancellation also brought people back to that old truism: life’s all about relationships. It matters how we relate to one another, and we can’t relate to one another in love so long as some of us have massive debts and others use our indebtedness to get what they want from us. God wants us to love one another, to care for one another when we come up against it.
Jesus says that his disciples ought to be faithful with “dishonest wealth” so they can find the rewards of true riches. But what does “dishonest wealth” even mean? I think it means this. The way we do stuff in America goes by the word “capitalism.” Capitalism isn’t an economic system so much as a way of relating. It’s all about relationships. And so within capitalism you have a variety of different relationships. Some people own things: factories, supplies, land. Others don’t own much of anything and all they can do is work for the people that do own things. And for pretty much all of us, we have to go to work for those people that own things or we have to take out debt for medical care, education, a car, just the basic stuff we need, grain and oil type things. And so we end up relating to one of each other as a matter of struggle. Working people struggle to get by and to get a little bit more from the owners. The owners struggle to keep more of the profits from what they own.
Do you ever leave work pissed off? Overwhelmed at the number of emails or that you don’t feel valued for the work you do? Do you feel ripped off? Do you hate that unknown number calling because you know at the other end of the line, there’s someone that wants a relationship with you but it’s definitely not the one you want. As many good friends as I made from my time at Duke Divinity school, I have 100% certainty that the longest lasting relationship I will carry with me from my time there is with Great Lakes Student Services.
The manager doesn’t resort to extra work or to shame. He discredits his boss. Literally. Debt destroys our relationships, but their cancellation, their forgiveness might bring them back to life, open up new possibilities with and for one another. Jesus announces the ultimate forgiveness of debt and in doing so he says that there’s a powerful Kingdom that’s arrived. It’s more powerful than Wells Fargo or Chase or the U.S. Government. It’s so powerful, in fact, that you and I can find ways to relate to one another not determined by capitalism, by struggle and antagonism. We can take care of each other right now.
Miller, the one who contemplated suicide to get out of his debt, ends his story talking about consolidating his loans with SoFi, a company that pitches themselves as a kind of loan financer and social network. Imagine Facebook but instead of your racist friend from high school it was someone else that took out a credit debt when they lost their job. SoFi holds various meetups for people with debt and Miller went to one of these at the rented out back room at a Mexican restaurant. He said the conversation resembled an AA meeting. No one’s had an exceptional story. They were just all bad. At one point, a software engineer he talked with said,
“When there’s a break in the conversation, someone can just say, ‘So, debt, huh?’ and things will get going again.” He then said, “If we walked outside of this room,” gesturing to the suits by the bar, “everyone out there would have debt, too. It’s just a little more out in the open for us.’”
Friends, if we walked outside this church, everyone out there would have debt too. It’s just going to be a little more out in the open for us. Life isn’t just all about relationships, it’s about love and a King. It’s about a Kingdom that bring in love in spite of the piles of dishonest wealth that our system produces. Over the next few months, we’ll pay off a debt regularly in worship. We’ll organize teams where you can pay off one another’s debts faster together than you could have separately. We’ll do this not because we, as a church, want to help people with debt. We’ll do it because we, as a church, are mostly people in debt and we have to help each other. We’ll do it because God’s Kingdom is here and God discredits every relationship of exploitation. We’ll do it because what else are we going to do? We already work too much and already feel too much shame. We’ll do it because we serve a king whose way and very life is love.
So. Debt, huh?
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