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"Free to Stay" by John Thornton




Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”


The preacher Will Campbell once told the story of a poor family of farmers from Oklahoma during the Great Depression. The Oklahoma family moved wearily along a country road in the springtime and stopped at a wealthy farmer’s house. They’d walked from Oklahoma through Louisiana and arrived at this man's house in Mississippi with no food, no money, and only the clothes they were wearing and the few things they could carry.


The Oklahoma family told the Mississippi farmer, "We know how to work the land, but we have no land to work. We lost all that we owned.”

“Well I'll let you use a share of my land,” the Mississippi farmer replied.

“But we have no shelter," they said

“See that creek? If you follow it to the back side of the clearing you will find a small house you can live in.” he told them.

“We'll need furniture.”

“There are beds there. A table and chairs and a few other pieces. Use them as if they were your own.”

“We have no team. No tools to plow and cultivate the fields. No fertilizer. Not even seeds for planting.”

“All that'll be provided,” the Mississippi farmer told them. “I'll even buy you clothes and shoes and straw hats to shield you from the sun. And food enough to get you through the season.”


Throughout the summer, their needs were met and when autumn came and it was time for the land to rest the harvest was bountiful. There was cotton to sell, corn for bread, dried fruits and beans for winter. They came again to the farmer's house. “We’re gonna move on,” they said. “But before we go we’ve come to ask if we owe you anything.”


“You owe me everything,” the farmer said. “The land, seeds, food, teams and tools. I owned it all. You brought nothing with you and you lived well at my expense. Everything you have you now owe to me.”


The dispirited sharecroppers turned to walk away. “But wait,” the owner called. “You were strangers from a distant land and I took you in. I love you now. All of you. All that you have is yours to keep. I forgive the debt. You are free to go if you like. But you are also free to stay.”

Joel says that only after the rain waters the ground, the harvest overflows, then, you’ll see something new. The point is that our freedom requires grounding. We need to be free to go, but also free to stay. 


For many of us, we know the unfreedom of scarcity. You can’t live a free life when you don’t sleep because you worry about that bill hitting tomorrow and your paycheck won’t arrive until Friday. You can’t live a free life worried about eviction or a trip to the hospital. Having these things doesn’t mean you are free, just that you can’t live a free life without them, and as productivity has gone up and more and more goes to the top, we find ourselves just barely scraping by. It’s why one writer in a widely shared piece dubbed millennials “the burnout generation.”

If someone asked what we do here at Jubilee Baptist, as Jubilee Baptist, I might tell them we try to provide the grounds of freedom for each other. We do that not because we’re good people or particularly altruistic. We do so because God has provided the ground of freedom for us. We are free because of God.


And so at Jubilee our life together means maintaining this building and paying light bills. It means providing meals for each other. It means using the grounds that God has given us to work towards our collective freedom and liberation. We use our budget and our building and our lives together to provide what we need to live free lives. Not because of us, but because of God. 


As Will Campbell tells it, the Oklahoma family prospered under the Mississippi farmer. Each year their land yielded good harvest and each year it was theirs to keep. One winter they brought their own plot of land across the river. It was rich bottomland with teams of strong, young mules and many cattle. They eventually hired illiterate workers to plant, cultivate, and harvest the fields, and tend the herds. They charged them exorbitant interest on the provisions they supplied, placed secret weights on the scales to deceive them, and The Oklahoma family left their workers further in debt at year's end than they were at the beginning.


The story of the Pharisee’s a familiar one. Of course it’s the overly religious hypocrites that look down on everyone. Maybe you have experienced that in church before. It feels hard to avoid.


Why do we expect people to act like this? Why does the story of the Oklahoma family sound so familiar? Don’t they realize the gifts they’d received and now they turn around exploit fellow workers like that?


I talk a lot about capitalism, and I do that because it’s a real problem. It’s definitely a problem of efficiency: tons of food thrown away every week while some people go hungry. Right now developers build million condos while people sleep on the streets. As we talked about and Karl Marx helped us see in our financial literacy class on Wednesday: this is a part of a system that places a higher importance on exchange value, what something sells for, over its use value. Developers build million dollar condos instead of housing for the homeless because they both want to and have to. That’s how the system works.


But if I’m being honest, I hate capitalism because of the ways it forces us to treat one another. It causes all of us to look at each other and say “Thank God, I’m not like these other people!” It takes the contingency of God’s blessings, that we have each other and the rain and food, and turns them into the basis for self-righteousness and once you get that going, once you start thinking that you’re not like other people then exploitation’s right around the corner. 


A little over a year ago, I spent the night in a homeless shelter as a volunteer. I went with a few members of my previous church as part of our missions emphasis week. We served a crappy meal and got a crappy night’s sleep taking turns occupying the front desk overnight. Most of the church members I went with had lived lives as successful businessmen. I’m not sure what any of them had actually done for their careers. You know those people? You know they have money and that they worked, but if you had to guess at what they’d done you just say “success.” 


We joined the shelter guests for their evening devotion before going to bed. As it ended and they went to their rooms and we ours, one of the church members pulled me aside and said, “It really makes see how truly blessed we are, huh?”


I didn’t feel blessed in that moment. I felt ashamed. I knew that I was putting on a front for these church members in no small part because of how much money they gave. I wanted to tell them that, that I was just there to make them happy because I’d heard their complaints about me, but I didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t. I think part of what it means for us to work for the freedom of others is to work towards the day they can tell us they don’t want us or what we have to offer. You aren’t really free from someone unless you can tell them to go to hell without fear of them ruining your life. An experience shared not just by homeless men in a shelter or anxious ministers, but pretty much every working person in America. 


Once you think, “Thank God, I’m not like them” exploitation is sure to follow.


We hope you find what we do as a church compelling. I hope you know that we do it because of God, and I hope you’ll want to one day join our church and that may just be because you’re in debt, and we can help liberate you from that. There are far worse reasons to go to church. But I also hope you know you’re free to leave. You’re free to just go and we won’t try to ruin your life. We want to pay off our debts together and would love for you to do that with us, but we can’t force you to.


This passage gets at the basis of solidarity, at the kind of people do we need to become and the posture we need to have if we’re to experience the Kingdom of God. One way of forming solidarity is based in the belief that every person’s made in the image of God, that everyone shares some of the divine goodness of creation. That’s true and names an important part of our common life together. But it can also lend itself to seeing some as morebeautiful than others.


This story reminds us of an important truth: we’re all fragile, frail, likely to compromise with the powers of this world in ways that damage our very precious souls. The tax collector exploited the people, cheating them out of what little they had, but he’s done with it, done with the whole thing. He needs God. 


Solidarity starts when we recognize all of us could fall on hard times and it grows to build the kind of world that makes those hard times just a little less hard. When I tell people I’m a socialist, it’s not because I’m a Christian but because I find it hard enough to love as it is without a system that forces us to look at each other with suspicion, to ignore the human frailty we all share. I do it because I want to see blessing in the sun and the rain, and late nights on my friend’s porches, not the fact that I have a place to sleep and others don’t.


A study on how people perceive debt by Pew Research found that, “When asked about their attitudes toward non-mortgage debt, nearly 7 in 10 Americans (69 percent) indicated that it was a necessity in their lives but that they preferred not to have it. A similar percentage (68 percent) said that loans and credit cards have expanded their opportunities by allowing them to make purchases or investments that their income and savings alone could not support.” What’s funny is that of the same group they found, “although most Americans consider debt a necessity in their own lives, they view it as a negative force in the lives of others. The vast majority indicated that other people use debt irresponsibly (79 percent) and mainly to live beyond their means (85 percent).”


It’s as if they all say “Thank God, I’m not like those other people that use debt to live beyond their means.”


As I’ve told people about our church and our plan to pay off each other’s debts, I’ve encountered a common response: “well what if someone comes in, gets their debts paid off, and then leaves” or something like “I bet you’ll have a lot of people coming to the church just to get their debt paid off. I find it funny because so far, only nine weeks in, I have had the exact opposite experience. I’ve had to have on on one conversations with everyone whose debt we’ve paid off together and assure them it’s okay to ask for help. Almost everyone has said the same thing, “I’m sure there’s someone else out there that needs it more than I do.” It’s probably true, but that’s not really the point. I hate our economic system when it forces us into this really soft self-righteousness by telling us, “You’ve got insurmountable debt, but you should be grateful you don’t have it worse.” 


One afternoon I sat with Josh, whose debt we’re going to pay off together this morning, and I told him I thought he should apply for our Debt Liberation Grant. Knowing he’d just graduated college and hadn’t found a job yet, I assumed he had some and so I asked how much he had. He got a little sheepish about it, understandably, so I just blurted out, “It’s okay, dude. I’ve got $47,000 in student loans, about $8,000 in credit cards from when I moved, and I screwed up my taxes and still owe the IRS about $2,500. Now you go.” It’s not easy or comfortable but we’ve just got to do it.


At Jubilee Baptist we’re paying off each other’s debts because we want to live free with and for one another. Free from the shame and embarrassment that makes us avoid talking about how just barely get by. 


In Joel, God promises that once the people experience the freedom of abundance and security, once they’re free to stay, God will pour God’s spirit on them, on everyone, and they’ll have a vision of the future, they’ll see how things could and will be different.


About a year ago, around the time that I spent that night in the homeless shelter, I received a grant from our denomination, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for $10,000 to pay off debt. A stipulation of that grant said that me and the other pastors receiving it had to go to Decatur, Georgia to CBF’s headquarters for two days of a kind of crash course in financial literacy, and not the Karl Marx kind like we do here at Jubilee. We talked about our struggles with money and just trying to stay ahead and how alienated many of us felt ministering to wealthier congregants that didn’t have to worry about money the way we did. At one point, near the end of the second day we did an exercise in which we took a few minutes and imagined our personal financial future in twenty years.


As we shared what we wrote, people talked about staying ahead on bills, paying off their credit cards and mortgages. Some mentioned going on a vacation or saving for retirement because they’d gotten better at budgeting. Here’s what I wrote:


In 2038, I envision living a financially peaceful life.
I no longer carry the student debt I accrued from Duke Divinity school because it has been cancelled along with the $1.4 trillion dollars in student debt that was carried by millions of Americans before the universities were publicly funded. Thankfully I no longer have a car payment as our green energy initiative led to the construction of millions of miles of efficient train lines across the country and public transportation gets me around the cities. America’s Sovereign Wealth Fund distributes a living wage to every American. Doing so has virtually eliminated poverty.

At this point, people started to chuckle as they saw what I was getting at. 


Social Security’s expansion to include a child allowance has eradicated child poverty. The Sovereign Wealth Fund also pays for universal childcare, paid paternity and maternity leave, and for unemployment benefits that ensures that if I lose my job I'll still be okay. Medicare for All keeps me comfortable knowing that I no longer have to fear bankruptcy due to a medical event or emergency. I don’t have to worry about the financial lives of parents as they reach old age as we have expanded our benefits for the elderly. Doing so has taken out much of the complications and conflicts that generally take place between the young and old as they age.

Of course the instructor immediately called this unrealistic and utopian and he asked what I planned to do individually to start bringing it about. I told him I was canvassing for Medicare for All with the Democratic Socialists of America the next weekend, an answer I don’t think he anticipated.


But if he asked me now what I do to bring this about I’d answer that I pastor a church that’s decided to live together differently, that doesn’t have to look at others and say “thank God we’re not like them.” I live with my friends and congregants here in a way that capitalism doesn’t have on offer. We do all of this not to smooth over capitalism, but to expose it, to show the truth that God grants us a freedom that extends beyond the marketplace and self-righteous competition. God gives us the freedom to stay with one another, to see a vision of a different world.


There’ll come a day when all this comes to an end, when we don’t live lives of exploitation and alienation. It’ll mean things get very, very different. It might feel like the sun being blacked out and the moon turning to blood. I don’t know when that’ll happen or what it’ll look like. I just know that we’ll only go through it together when we’ve recognized that our common, scraped and tattered humanity binds us together in ways only made possible by the love of God.


Every year, the Oklahoma family saved a part of their earnings out of fear for the day when the Mississippi farmer would come and demand that they repay him their debts. When they were finally convinced that he would never do so they gave the money to the cheated workers, divided up the land and cattle with them, forgave them all of their debts and became their neighbors.

Amen.

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