“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8)
This summer I learned that the home we sold when we owned in Ontario prior to coming to Newport News is now worth about $900,000. That’s triple what it sold for back in 2005! My initial reaction was disappointment - I’d come so close to being a millionaire... but following that was a prevailing sentiment of pity for anyone trying to reside in southwestern Ontario. Many young people will never be able to afford homes there, and those who can will likely spend their entire working lives paying off their mortgage. Runaway housing prices perpetuates the problem of debt.
Unfortunately, Ontario doesn’t have a monopoly on this sort of debt - we’ve got our own brand of it right here in Virginia. Students come out of college carrying huge educational debts. Other folks here are weighed down by hefty medical bills from surgery and hospital care. And many others are burdened by credit card debt, and some even victims of payday loan sharks, charging 400% interest per annum! Sadly, we have created a society where debt is a way of life.
How strange the words of the Apostle Paul ring in our ears today... “Owe no one anything...” Really, Paul? Never borrow and be indebted to anyone? Not even a proverbial “cup of sugar” from a neighbor? Surely, Paul himself must have been indebted to others in his travels as a missionary. He stayed in people’s homes, ate food from their table, and likely borrowed things for his daily tasks.
So, I doubt Paul meant us to take his words too strictly but at the same time, I think he would not approve of how debt-burdened we have become in this age. He certainly would disapprove of people charging interest for loans because that was forbidden by Jewish law. So it’s safe to say that Paul was not a big fan of debt, and even cautioned against it... with one exception.
The one debt Paul encouraged everyone to take on and continue to pay forever... is the debt of love. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Paul claims that all the commandments can be summed up in the one phrase: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Do this and you fulfill the law. And by neighbor he’s not just talking about the persons in our church, or just those in our immediate neighborhood... rather he’s talking about the global community. This past week Hurricane Irma, category 5, pummeled the Caribbean and Florida. Who is my neighbor? Just those in the Tidewater area? No. How about people in Florida? What about those in need down in the Caribbean? Paul would say they’re all our neighbors and we are called to share our love with them all!
And the love that Paul refers to is agape - an extension of God’s love. So Agape love is radical, even revolutionary – it’s speaking out against injustice, subverting greed, and challenging the idolatrous powers of our day, calling them all to a higher and holier standard. So agape is not soft and cuddly, but bold and strong – rooted in the righteousness of God. And if we dare to embrace agape, the praxis of God’s love the principalities and powers will unleash their fury upon the church, thereby challenging its unity.
The Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV is a descendent of Robert E. Lee, and recent graduate of Duke Divinity School. He was recently ordained as pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ in Statesville NC. This summer he was invited by MTV to speak out at the music awards in LA in the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA. He stood before the cameras and said the following words:
"My name is Robert Lee IV, I'm a descendant of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville," he said. "We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America's original sin.
"Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God's call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on.
"We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women's March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs."
When Robert W. Lee returned home to his congregation the media attention upon the church was crushing. The church was uneasy with all this attention and a faction within the church expressed concern that their minister had mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement, the women’s march and Heather Heyer. This group pressed for a vote on the minister’s tenure. Before that could happen, Robert Lee tendered his resignation with this note:
“I regret that speaking out has caused concern and pain to my church. For this is I offer my heartfelt apology. I understand that my views could be considered to be controversial. I never sought this sort of attention. But, I do believe in God’s role in calling out for positive social change for the good of all.
“We are all called by God to speak out against hate and evil in all its many forms. There are so many good things going on with this congregation and I do not want my fight to detract from the mission. If the recent media attention causes concern with my church, I reluctantly offer my resignation.”
Lee went on to say that he also didn’t want his resignation to be a distraction from the sacred work of confronting white supremacy in all its forms and that he believed it was his calling to speak out against violence and oppression in all its forms. He ended by challenging all white Christians in America to take seriously the deadly legacy of slavery in the country and to commit to following Jesus into a time of deep reflection, repentance, and reconciliation.
Robert W. Lee’s response is an example of the strong and bold love that Paul calls the church to embrace. It is a love that understands that love of neighbor is the moral imperative that fulfils the law of God. My prayer for this church, and its leaders is that we will be so bold as to express this love of neighbor near and far.
The time is ripe for it, the world is hungry for it, and the church was made for it. How will the know we are Christians? They’ll know we are Christians by our love!