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In 1997, I was seventeen years old and a senior in high school. I made about ten thousand dollars working part time at a local grocery store and after putting gas in my car and paying to insure it, I spent the vast majority of the remaining eight thousand dollars eating out with friends at our favorite twenty-four hour greasy spoon, Eat-N-Park. Life was nice in those days. Money came in, I ate butter covered sweet rolls and drank decaf coffee, and the money went out. In 1998, I was eighteen years old and walking across campus at the University of Pittsburgh when I saw a kiosk offering free “Go Pitt!” T-shirts. I like T-shirts and I like free, so they had me, and before I knew it, I was holding a shiny, new, University of Pittsburgh Visa Platinum Card with a five thousand dollar credit limit. Don't ask me how I got platinum status at 18 years of age with no discernible income, all I know is that on that day in 1998, life got complicated. No longer was it so simple as money in, eat junk food, money out. Now money could go out before it ever came in.
In 1999, I was nineteen years old and a student at Millersville University when a Visa bill for four thousand some odd dollars arrived in my mailbox. Seems the guy who got my old mailbox at Pitt had activated a replacement card and gone on a shopping spree. I got the mix up taken care of, thanks be to God I had actually gone to class and shown up at work and could prove I was in Lancaster and not Pittsburgh when the purchases took place, but I didn't learn my lesson about the dangers of credit. By the time 2007 rolled around and I graduated from seminary and moved to Foley, I was the proud owner of a Wachovia Credit Card, a Capitol One Credit Card, a Whitehall Jewelers Card, a Banana Republic Card, a Lenscrafters Card with 0% interest for six months, a Wolf Furniture Card with 0% interest for twelve months, a sixty dollar a month student loan payment, a three hundred dollar a month car note, and a nine hundred dollar a month mortgage. And then it took Cassie nine months and almost ten thousand dollars to get licensed to work in Alabama.
Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that [my sheep] may have life and have it abundantly.” Isn't that why we are all here? We are desperately searching for a life of abundance. “The chance to not simply persist, but to thrive, to not simply exist, but flourish. To have a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment; to know and be known...”1 If it isn't the reason we are all here, it is certainly the reason why people like Joel Osteen are surrounded by throngs of followers all wanting their “best life now.” It is what the American Dream has come to be, “a life of personal happiness and material comfort.”2 It is the playground of Madison Avenue, Wall Street, Capitol Hill, and too often, the Church, and it is all based on a lie; the lie of scarcity. Madison Avenue spends most of their rather significant effort and brain power convincing us that what we want, that thing that will make us the happiest, won't be available for ever; it is a limited time offer, and so we'd better buy it now, before its too late.
But wait, there's more. Not only are we fully convinced that there won't be enough snuggies, Disney movies, sixty inch lcd three-d TVs, and quality built brick homes to go around, we are also subtly tricked into believing that if we are one of the lucky ones who actually gets these things, we will in some way be happier, better off, or, to steal a turn of phrase from Jesus, “we might have life and have it abundantly.” I say all of this not to disparage advertisers in any way, they are doing exactly what they are paid to do, through “emotional branding” they are filling holes that were once filled by the things that sat at the center of town: the school and the church. In 2004, PBS's Frontline did an episode called “The Persuaders” that looked at this new form of advertising. The money quote, pardon the pun, comes from Naomi Klein, author of the book No Logo, who says, “When you listen to brand managers talk, you can get quite carried away in this idea that they are fulfilling this need we have for community, and narrative, and transcendence, but in the end it is a laptop and a pair of running shoes. And they may be great, but they aren't going to fulfill these needs. Which serves them very well, because then you have to go shopping again.” And so we do, often with credit card in hand, in the vain hope that someday we will make that singular perfect purchase that will for ever make us happy, that will help us understand the meaning of life, and that will make us members of a community of other enlightened, fulfilled people.
All the while, we have given up our freedom for slavery. As the ancient Hebrew Proverb says, “Just as the rich rule the poor, so the borrower is servant to the lender.” I'm convinced that debt is the only way an otherwise rational person would ever sell themselves into slavery, and unfortunately the slavery of debt isn't isolated to the individual. This morning, this community gathered is a slave to the debt of the education building. The eighteen hundred dollar a month payment is, for all intents and purposes, the reason for our cash flow deficit each and every month. And we are not an isolated case, parishes, institutions, dioceses are all barely keeping their heads above water because of the debt service they carry on new buildings and property, built when growth seemed never ending and interest rates were so low the banks were practically giving money away. For the four years since I arrived here, Cassie and I have been enslaved to monthly payments on credit cards with short-term, low interest rate deals. We've robbed Peter to pay Paul only to turn around and borrow the money back from Paul to repay our debt to Peter. How many churches are slaves to the debt service built when cotton was high and he boll weevil was nowhere to be seen? How many families are torn apart by the over-availability of easy credit cards? How many of our recent ails as a parish, a community, and a nation are the result of debt?
And it is all based on that lie of scarcity. There isn't enough to go around, so you better get it now, even if you can't afford it, otherwise you'll never be happy. Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that [my sheep] may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus shines a light on the falsehood of scarcity and calls us to a lifestyle of abundance. The truth he speaks says to us “there is more than enough for everyone and everything in this world to flourish, so we should take what we need, when we need it, and share our excess with one another.”
Two weeks ago, Cassie and I officially paid off the last of our credit card debt. We celebrated by buying the ceiling fan that we've wanted to put up on the back porch for four years. We paid... in cash! The breeze feels so much cooler knowing that we waited and saved and the fan is ours, no strings attached. I tell you this not to pat myself on the back, but to tell you that it is possible. With wise spending habits, and Jesus, even Steve Pankey, Visa cardholder since 1998, can get out of credit card debt.
Back in 1997, when money came in, I ate butter covered sweet rolls and drank decaf coffee, and the money went out, I was living the dream: I had a job, I was getting an education, I had a community of good friends, and I was doing my best to follow Jesus. It was as close to transcendence as I'll ever get, not because of the sweet rolls and coffee, but because of the relationships they helped foster. No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to buy transcendence. There is no price tag on the meaning of life. You can't barter your way into authentic community. By trying to buy stuff to make us feel good, we, as a society, have enslaved ourselves to creditors, banks, and foreign nations; none of which has our best interests in mind. The abundant life we so desperately seek can not be bought, it is only offered as a free gift, given to us by the only being outside of ourselves who seeks our best interests, the God of all Creation. He bought us out of slavery to sin in the life, death, and resurrection of his only Son, and begs us not to sell ourselves back by way of debt. He offers us lasting joy, rather than fleeting happiness. He offers us access into the perfect community of the Trinity. He offers us abundant life, rather than a life constantly in search of more. Have you unwittingly welcomed the thief into your life? Jesus calls on us to trust in him, to follow him, to give of ourselves to him, all in thanksgiving for the gift of freedom he has so graciously given us. Jesus invites to you be set free, to loose the bonds of slavery, and to live abundantly. Authentic life as a people of the resurrection begins when we say “no” to the thief, when we reject the lie of scarcity, and rest our hope in God's abundance. God, the good shepherd, offers you a cup that is overflowing beside still waters. He longs to restore your soul. All for the low-low price of grace. No debt, just freedom. Now that is the good life. Amen.