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Our scripture this morning is a story of God meeting the needs of a family saddled with debt. It's a creative–OK, it's a miraculous–solution. The single-parent has one jar of oil and this oil fills a bowl, a pitcher, a cup, a vase and every vessel that the children could find until there were no more containers to hold it. There was more than enough. There was enough oil to sell to pay off debt. Enough to meet the daily needs of the whole family.
This Bible story is a miracle of grace for one family. It is also a very personal picture of debt relief. Now Israel's legal tradition required a radical practice of debt relief for the whole society. Leviticus 25 describes an economic levelling–a jubilee every 49 years–when debts were to be forgiven and everyone in Israel would get a fresh start, a fair shake, a second chance. But I've preached sermons on Leviticus 25 and it usually makes no difference in our daily economic lives. So let's get personal about this theme of debt relief.
Living generously requires some intentionality, so last week we heard about tithing, giving ten percent, acknowledging that 100% of what we save, spend and give belongs to God. Living generously calls for intentionality, but it also requires some freedom. Some people in our community here at CMC save, give and spend each month with a degree of freedom because we are not burdened by overwhelming debt. Others of us feel the pressures of debt acutely. Some of us experience shame, stress, fear, even a sense of bondage because of debt–from expensive education, uninsured medical expenses, bad loans, our own bad behavior of sometimes living beyond our means.
Kent and I were both in graduate school when we planned to get married. I had about $14,000 in educational debt, and he had about $2000. We paid off his debt with the money we received in lieu of of wedding gifts and our own earnings. Then we finished our degrees without accumulating more debt–it meant a slower pace–and when we finished school we paid off the remaining debt within three years of graduation because I had a salary from a Mennonite congregation and Kent was running a Community Supported Agriculture business.
Our young adult experience of debt, however, is quite different from that of the next generation. The biggest difference is that tuition for higher education is proportionately much higher and earning power for graduates is proportionately lower in 2017 than in 1997. Three years ago the average outstanding student loan balance was over $37,000. Today Kent and I still have debt because we're buying a house. Our remaining principle stands at $129,000. That's a lot of money, but this debt does not feel burdensome because our monthly payments are manageable on our income. We can save, spend and give each month with some freedom. Maybe you're situation is something like ours–debt hasn't been a major problem and you've always had enough employment. But maybe through circumstances largely beyond your control or even decision you now regret, debt is a heavy burden.
The family in II Kings was in debt and the creditors were threatening to enslave the children. Or perhaps, and this is horrifying, perhaps the mother herself had contemplated selling a child into servitude in order to save a remnant of the family. What kind of disease must exist in a society that trades in human beings in order to balance a financial leger, or make profit? Well, the disease is the greed of creditors and the indifference of the community. The disease is debt slavery and God's Jubilee law was supposed to set people free from that kind of bondage. Who knows maybe they weren't practicing Jubilee. Maybe it was not scheduled for another 20 years. We don't know. But we know this mother was crying. According to scripture she is not crying herself to sleep, though perhaps she had already done that. She is not crying out to God, though what parent does not pray facing these kinds of choices that are no choices. She is crying out to Elisha, bringing her need to God's prophet. She insists Elisha has a role to play in resolving her financial distress.
I believe we have this particular miracle literally on the books because it links Elisha's prophetic ministry to economic justice for poor women and children. It's not that there are no poor men in Israel. It's not that wealthy people in society didn't need prophetic attention, but prophets who serve the elite are a dime a dozen. Elisha's street cred as a prophet is that he cared about the poor. Just like Elijah before provided a miracle of enough food for a widowed mother in Zarephath and the grain and oil did not run out, so the Bible tells a similar story about Elisha meeting the need of a poor mother and her kids. Elijah and Elisha were the northern prophets, the prophets that centuries later Jesus and his Galilean neighbors would have regarded as their heroes of faith, living in their territory, caring about the needs of the poor–the widows, the children, the poor people who needed their debts forgiven.
Bridge of Hope
Last week I heard Stephanie Resto speak. She's staff of Bridge of Hope, a ministry with a housing first model for single mothers and their children. CMC supports Bridge of Hope financially and with a neighboring group for one family. We support Bridge of Hope because we care, because we are part of the Biblical prophetic tradition that stands with people who are struggling. We can't work miracles, but miracles happen when people of God respond to the individual needs and the systemic injustices of our community with the resources we have–resources of friendship, faith, good counsel, spiritual, emotional and financial support. Although Bridge of Hope is a Christian ministry and each neighboring group that surrounds a particular family comes from a local church, Bridge of Hope clients are not necessarily from our local congregations. There doing the Elijah ministry. He went out of his way to help a woman in Zarephath–an outsider.
Now the Elisha ministry was a little different. The single-mother who approaches Elisha for help is from his community. The Bible says her husband was with the company of prophets. Why is her family so burdened by debt? We don't know for sure. Payday loans? Student loans? Credit card debt? She says to Elisha–your servant, my husband is dead and you know that your servant honored YHWH. So her husband served God among the company of prophets. There is a plausible Biblical "back story" here. We read a snippet from I Kings about a temple prophet, Obadiah, who provided bread and water, for 100 prophets of God who were being hunted and killed off by Queen Jezebel. Perhaps this Obadiah was the very husband and father who used his family's resources to help others. Obadiah served God by saving other prophets, giving them shelter–OK it was a couple of caves–and providing for their needs–OK, it was just bread and water. But he risked a violent death at the hands of Jezebel to provide for 100 people. That affects a household economy, especially on those prophet wages. Obadiah gave sacrificially, placing the needs of others before his own. His generosity reminds us of Israel's God–who also provided bread and water in the wilderness to people who had narrowly escaped death. We don't know the specifics of why the widow in II Kings is in debt up to her ears, maybe her husband gave until it hurt and when he died there was nothing to fall back on. In any case, God's response to her was grace.
Last month I invited some CMCers to share stories of generosity they had received or given. Esther Stenson responded with a poem.
I am not generous
Like Nin᷉a Olivia, who never turned this lonely foreigner away from her table
Without a bowl of black beans and fresh tortillas she taught me
to slap out and place on her enormous black comal to sell for pennies
to neighbors so she could feed some of her own tribe of adult children with their children
–a never-ending stream of comers and goers, dogs, chickens, and other animals
stepping over the wooden threshold into a dimly lit sod floor room where her aged husband
needed waiting on as well.
I am not generous
like Berta Sandoval, young and courageous evangelist
To superstitious villagers who tried to stone her
one day, she said, as we walked along a remote wooded path
till she told me to stop lest we meet one of those "stoners"
–and for my simple interest in her stories, she walked miles one
day in wilting heat to deliver one of her own prized chickens to my door in town.
I am not generous
like the seminary student in Nanjing who invited this lost foreigner
on a cold night for a steaming bowl of noodles with quail eggs,
the next day providing a bicycle and yellow poncho to ride to church
with me in the rain, then invited me to have birthday dinner with her
and her husband till I got connected with others in my group.
I am not generous
like Amalia Fares, the first woman doctor in Port Said,
who on her return from her father's funeral in Canada
brought me a lovely bunch of my favorite green asparagus,
not available in local markets.
"When you return from a foreign country," she said,
"you should bring gifts, even if it's a stone."
Even when I try to be generous by keeping
a young Bosnian, survivor of a wrenching war,
she nearly evokes tears with her heartfelt gratitude
expressed in well-chosen words and in constant
acts of helpfulness—like chopping vegetables,
washing up after this messy cook and
cleaning wherever and whenever she sees need.
I cannot ever return all these human acts of generosity,
Much less the generosity of forgiveness that I must ask
my heavenly Father for, from time to time.
For all of this, I can only bow my heart in humble thanks.
Ancient Israel responded to God's generous and faithful care with thanksgiving marked by offerings, tithes, and sacrificial gifts to devoted to God, shared among the community, and distributed to those with need, especially widows, orphans, immigrants and Levites. Israel's law also had that re-set button, called Jubilee, intended to free people and given them a chance for a sustainable future of living generously, rather than being enslaved by perpetual debt. We don't know how much they practiced this grace, but Jesus said it was time.
CMC Jubilee Debt Relief
Council has decided that it's time for CMC to experiment with Jubilee debt relief. There is an imbalance in the community when some are burdened by debt and others are not. So we're following the spirit of the Jubilee law. We're following the example of Obadiah's generosity. We're following the example of the woman who shared her need. And we're believing Jesus that forgiveness of debts is a sign of the kingdom of God among us. Both Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio and Shalom Mennonite Congregation here in Harrisonburg have provided some measure of debt relief in their congregations–among their own people. And we're planning to do the same.
After a Sunday morning sermon introducing the idea and a carefully conducted confidential process Columbus Mennonite raised $23,035, plus some matching funds, for a total of $25,085 for debt relief among its congregation. After the collection, Columbus Mennonite divided the gifts equally among 28 individuals who expressed a need for debt relief. Each received $903.03. Now Shalom Mennonite hoped to raise maybe $10,000. But they stretched the giving period over a couple of months and raised over $14,000.00 distributing it equally to 10 households. What could CMC do?
Council had a significant conversation about this plan. We know that sometimes debt accrues because of poor choices. Certainly some needs among us are greater than others. This is a matter for personal reflection and prayer. Ask yourself–am I someone burdened by debt? Maybe you have a plan for paying off debt that does not feel burdensome. That's the way I feel about our mortgage. We owe $129,000. We can make our monthly payments. But maybe your mortgage situation is different. Pastor Brian of Shalom received a thank you from someone who saved exponentially more on their mortgage interest because they were able to refinance with this little bump, this little miracle of grace. In one congregation a senior citizen was elated to be paying off one burdensome loan in order to be able to refinance another and save exponentially more money in interest. Pastor Joel from Columbus shared that he and his wife Abbie paid off their last student loans a couple years before their congregation did this, so they went back to look at those bills. One of the payments was $60 per month and one was $90, so they decided to give one month–$150 to their Jubilee fund.
I wonder what would happen if some of us who feel able to offer a gift of jubilee grace would make that contribution. Maybe the brother or sister beside us would would not cry themselves to sleep. Maybe those able to give could become part of God's work of grace is another's life.
So take one of the slips of paper under the chair on the center aisle. Let's not ask for help or promise to give today. Let's think about it and pray about. Now that you have your paper, write your name and write debt or write jubilee. You're probably in one of those categories and this will be a reminder to pray about your situation and whether you want to participate in the CMC Jubilee Debt Relief by receiving or giving. Bring your card up with the offering.
Maybe for some who write Jubilee as you think and pray you want to give to Bridge of Hope, or pay down some of our collective debt by contributing to CMC's Everyone Welcome fund. We still have to pay down our loan. Trust God with this decision. If as you think and pray you are ready to receive from CMC, give your name and address to Heidi Derstine, Larry Miller or Dave Cockley. Nobody can speak for you, so you might have to ask God for the courage of that woman who went to Elisha. Heidi, Larry and Dave will keep it confidential. Let's trust each other. We'd like to receive gifts for CMC Jubilee Debt Relief during May and June, so that we can send checks in early July. The intention of the CMC Jubilee Debt relief is to share one another's burdens, to build trust, and to free one another for living generously. Preaching the kingdom of God Jesus told stories of debt relief. Jesus is alive today. I wonder what stories the Lord might tell through our congregation about debts, generosity and jubilee. Let's trust that there will be enough to be a sign of the kingdom.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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