Other messages in this series:
Scriptures: Deuteronomy 15:1-11; Matthew 19:16-22
Based on the information available online, the amount of student load debt outstanding in the United States is $1.73 trillion. Mostly likely, within a year or two, that’ll be $2 trillion. These days, the average indebtedness of students graduating from college is close to $39,000. That number jumps to $71,000 of debt for graduate school. Want to go to law school? Then plan to graduate with $145,000 in school debt. Want to become a medical doctor? Then get ready to borrow on average over $200,000. bIt’s even worse if you want to become a dentist. The average indebtedness of those coming out of dental school is $292,000.
Now, here’s the thing. If I’m correct, the numbers I just gave you are statistics for government student loans. I’m pretty sure those number don’t reflect the amount that has to be paid back for private loans. And that’s because the average indebtedness for undergraduates–$39,000—only covers a portion of the cost of going to college. For example, in 2021, tuition and fees for one year at Adrian College, one of our two United Methodist-related colleges in Michigan, are about $39,000. Four years at Adrian College will cost you $155,000. If Uncle Sam will loan you $39,000, that still leaves $116,000 you’ll have to come up with. And unless you have an extra $29,000 sitting around every year, you’re probably going to have to borrow most of it from private lending institutions.
Here’s a disturbing statistic that makes all of this even worse for African Americans. According to a report of The United States Federal Reserve, today the median net worth of a white family is $188,000 compared to $24,000 for a Black family. Given that fact, Black students at Adrian College will probably incur higher indebtedness than most white students just to graduate, and statistically speaking, they will not have nearly the financial resources to pay the debt off once they graduate. It’s no wonder that many students these days have thrown their hands up and said, “I’ll be paying my school loans off for the rest of my life!” Sounds like a kind of self-imposed slavery, does it not?
We live in a culture in which we bear the tremendous, often overwhelming weight of student debt, predatory lending, and generational poverty. It often seems as though we gauge the value of human life based on a person’s productivity and one’s worth is determined by their activity and business. For many, the purpose of school is to get an education that leads to a job that pays well more than getting an education in a field for which they have a passion and can’t imagine not working in it somehow. The irony’s not lost on us, though, that in order to pay back one’s student loans, you have to get a job that pays well, and not one that just pays! This is exactly the reason there’s so much talk these days about the importance of companies paying their employees a living wage. A wage that they and, in many cases, their children, can live on. But what so often happens is that people either live in poverty or they go further and further into debt trying to get out of it. And it becomes a vicious cycle for way too many people.
Certainly, debt is not a new phenomenon. It’s been around forever. Did you know that the Bible actually has something to say about how to address the problem of financial debt? When God gave Moses the law, he included a very radical approach to dealing with peoples’ indebtedness. I’d like Bob to read a few verses from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 15 that speaks to this very issue. [Bob reads Dt. 15:1-11]
Deuteronomy 15 begins, “Every seventh year you must cancel all debts.” It’s often referred to as ‘The Sabbatical Year,’ and it’s intended to address the indebtedness incurred by Israelites. Payment of debt from non-Israelites could still be demanded in that year, but the Mosaic Law states that during this year of canceled debts, any and all debts incurred by fellow Israelites were supposed to be forgiven. Also, during this year they were supposed to let their vineyards and fields lie hallow. Nothing was to be planted; they were only supposed to harvest what grew on its own. So, just as the Law prescribed a weekly Sabbath day of rest every seven days, so it prescribed a year of Sabbath rest every seven years. The purpose was to remind them of their dependance on God and not themselves. In addition, these Sabbath rests were designed for just that—rest! Rest from their anxious and beleaguered lives. Sound familiar to anyone here?
Well, it didn’t stop there. A Sabbath day and Sabbath year were great, but God prescribed a third level of Sabbath rest for them. Leviticus 25 describes ‘The Year of Jubilee,’ which came every fifty years. The Year of Jubilee signaled a year of release from both financial indebtedness and all types of bondage. During the Jubilee year, all prisoners and captives were to be set free. All slaves were to be released. All debts we to be forgiven. And get this! All property was to be returned to its original owners! In Leviticus 25:23, God says, “The land must not be permanently sold because the land is mine. You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.” It then goes on to describe how land can be bought back by the original owners throughout the time leading up to the Jubilee year, but when Jubilee comes around, “it will return to the family property” (v. 28). As with the every-seven-year Sabbatical year, during the Year of Jubilee all labor was to cease for one whole year, and those bound by labor contracts were supposed to be released from them. The Jubilee Year was God’s way of making his people hit the “total reset” button. Every fifty years, they were supposed to get a brand new, fresh start from scratch.
In regard to the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee Year, the keyword is release. Release means “to relieve from something that confines, burdens, or oppresses.” Today, I’m suggesting that the texts behind the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee Year invite us into the practice of release. Not a release from financial debt—although that would certainly be a welcomed reality for most of us!—but rather, a release from the components of our money stories which keep us enslaved by shame, anxiety, guilt, or greed. Obviously, this is not a release that can be granted by anyone other than ouselves. Only you can release yourself from actions or attitudes or beliefs which have kept you in a state of spiritual bondage in regard to your relationship to money and God. Only you can welcome the grace and forgiveness—and ultimately, the healing of those attitudes and beliefs—which God offers us every day. And in receiving this healing, we can move forward in better alignment with God’s story.
There’s a familiar story in the New Testament that might help us in this endeavor to align our money stories with God’s. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘The Story of the Rich Young Man,’ and I’d like to have Bob read it aloud for us. [Bob reads Matthew 19:16-22]
What do we know about the underlying economic system of first century Palestine which gave rise to this man’s financial wealth? Most likely, it was the same economic system underlying our lives in the 21st century. It’s the economic system which encourages faith and trust in the holding of possessions, the acquiring of things. Admit it, even the most faithful and God-trusting among us rely considerably on the things we possess. How many of us with jobs which require us to drive to work would get rid of our vehicle and rely solely on public transportation or a co-worker willing to drive us to work every day? How many of us are either currently living on or, upon retirement someday, plan to live on some sort of financial package specifically set up for retirement? How many of us would be willing to forgo those retirement funds? These days, how many of us would permanently give up our mobile phones, or the internet, or our homes, or our family photos, or any of the other things in life we possess in one way or another?
The fact is, the culture in which we live strongly encourages us to put our faith and trust in the stuff we have, and as persons of faith, we have to consciously and constantly work at trying not to completely order our lives as such. And that’s because we have our feet firmly planted in two opposing economic systems. The first is the system of the world and the second is the kingdom of God. We’ve got one foot in the world and another in the kingdom of God. And because this is so, we have to consciously work at finding the balance between living in both economic systems. Or, to be more blunt, we have to work at not living more fully in the world’s system of trusting our stuff. And it can be a real struggle, right? Because living by the world’s standards is our human default. Well, this was the economic system in which the man in the story lived, and he was able to utilize that system to his financial benefit.
One day, for reasons we’ll never know, he approached Jesus with a question about what he had to do to attain eternal life. Jesus’ response? “If you want to enter eternal life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17), specifically mentioning five of the Ten Commandments and the command from Leviticus 19:18, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Immediately upon hearing that, the man responded that he’d kept them all, and then asked, “What am I still missing?”
What am I still missing? Why do you suppose he asked Jesus that question? My guess is that he already knew the answer to his original question, “What good thing must I do to have eternal life?” He probably knew Jesus would tell him to keep the commandments and he already knew that he’d been keeping them. But something was missing, something that prompted him to inquire about it in the first place. And when he got the answer he was expecting, he got to the real reason he was there. Jesus, something’s missing in my life. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do, but it’s not enough. What am I missing?
Let me ask you, is there a part of you that’s been wondering the same thing? Maybe there’s voice deep in your soul that’s been quietly whispering into your ear, What am I missing? Why am I not fully satisfied with where things are at in life? I know have everything I need, but a part of me is still not satisfied. A part of me still wants more…of something. Like the man in the story, we can do everything we think we’re supposed to do but still have that deep sense that it’s not enough.
So, what was Jesus’ response to the fact that he’d been keeping all the commandments? He told him, “If you want to be complete (spiritually and emotionally whole), go, sell what you own, and give them money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven” (v. 21). In essence, release…and share. The rich man had done everything the law required, but it wasn’t enough because commandment-keeping wasn’t his dilemma. His dilemma was that he had to cease his faith and trust in possessions to save him. And we’re told that when Jesus pointed this out, he walked away sad because he possessed a lot.
That’s difficult to do, isn’t it? It’s hard to release the things that we think will save us. Or keep us secure. Or make us happy. Or bring us safety. If possessions don’t save us—and I think we’d agree in principle that that’s the case—then the real work before each of us is to figure out a way to release the expectations that come with the false belief that the void we may feel deep in our souls can be filled with more and more stuff. If possessions won’t save us, what will? If a part of us is convinced that there’s something missing, what will satisfy that longing? Well, one thing’s for sure: it won’t be satisfied by acquiring more of the stuff we already have!
You might recall that last week I mentioned that each of the four weeks of this stewardship sermon series we’d address one of four steps towards rewriting our money stories. This means that we’re not going to get to that place in one sermon. Last week, we began by simply introducing the idea that each of us has a money story, and that the first step of rewriting our money story is remembering God’s story. Specifically, that God’s story is always about giving us more than enough, even when we don’t deserve it or haven’t earned it.
Today, we’re taking the next step, which is acknowledging the fact that before we can rewrite parts of our money story, we have to release those parts that are corrupted, or broken, or sinful, or out of step with the truth of God’s kingdom. And one of the most common broken parts of most of our stories is the belief that we need all our stuff in order to be complete and whole. In fact, let’s just call that what it is. It’s a lie. Today I’m encouraging all of us to release the lie that possessions alone will save or protect us. I’m encouraging us to release the false narratives which relentlessly pushes deeper and deeper into debt for the sake of trying to attain happiness and satisfaction.
We release now so that we can begin to imagine a new money story, which is what I’ll talk about next week. Let’s pray.
Come, Lord Jesus, you who came into our world in order to set us free—truly free from all that binds us and makes us captive to the ways of this world. Release us from all of our fears—fear of the unknown, fear of the future, fear of life’s challenges, fear of change, fear of letting go, fear of not having enough. By your Holy Spirit, release us from our unnecessary busy-ness in our incessant pursue of gaining more of what we already have enough of. You really are our only hope. We know that to be true even though we sometimes…no, we often act otherwise. We confess that our words and our behaviors don’t always line up. But we’re saying it again today, that our hope lies in you. We trust you above all else in this world. Once again, then, we profess our faith and trust in you, Jesus, as our source of joy and our only means of salvation. So, we praise you for this, and for who you are!
God, what a beautiful canvas of color you’ve been painting for us outside. Thank you! Yeah, we know it comes every year; in that regard, we expect it to happen. Nevertheless, we’re always grateful for the beauty of this season. You truly are a God who never lets us down!
Lord, we thank you for your healing presence in the lives of those who are hurting and suffering. Once again, even in this very moment, reach down and gently lay your hand upon any and all who need it. Be for them a source of calm and a means of assurance in the midst of their confusion. And so, for just a moment, in the silence of our hearts we lift up the names of those for whom we specifically pray….
Father, why should we be discouraged? We know we have you. Thank you for walking with us and loving us through all of the ups and downs of life. All of this we pray in Jesus name. Amen.