Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
Text: Jeremiah 18:6
Old Testament: Jeremiah 18:1-12
New Testament: Philemon 1-21
This past spring Bernie Sanders brought to light a dark problem that threatens America. It affects young and middle-aged families across our social spectrum. That problem is student debt.
There are more than 1.3 trillion dollars owed by university graduates to the Federal government. Men and women in their forties and fifties are still paying off student loans from their years in higher education. Student debt is crippling their effort to save for their high school graduates entering college.
Many are defaulting on payments. Their credit rating will be affected. This will affect their children’s ability to seek loans to fund their own education. Who will co-sign student loans when parents default on loan payments?
At the same time, college costs are rising nearly 7 percent annually. In ten years, college tuitions will double from today’s incredible fees. What’s the future for our grandchildren and great grandchildren if their vocational training is prevented by debt?
Everything we do depends on learning. A world of mounting student debt will stop many from opportunities to get a good job.
Student loan debt is only the tip of the iceberg. Our national debt is $19.4 trillion. This unimaginable number is 106% of our gross domestic product. Forty-six percent of this debt is owned by foreign countries.
We sing that we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Just how free are we when we live with such debt? Proverbs 22:7 states, “Just as the rich rule over the poor, so is the borrower slave of the lender.”
Most of our labor is devoted to repaying lenders. They have power over us. Debt obligations tear us away from parents, spouses, children, and grandchildren. We’re not really free.
We’re imprisoned by debt. It generates conflict inside families struggling to be free from its clutches. Debt generates a culture of conflict that’s burdensome.
Stories of debt in Pittsburgh’s East Hills are legendary. Coal mining families struggled to be free from their debts to a mining company that employed them. The company owned the housing and the store where miners lived. Company owners paid miners little so mining families would stay in debt and be forced to continue working for the mine. Families accused owners of intentionally creating this culture to keep them in perpetual debt. Owners fought to keep the system.
The coal-mining families wanted a better life for themselves and their children. They knew that as long as they were enslaved by debt, their children could never have a better life. Husbands and wives fought the debtor culture in which they were enslaved for their children’s future. Some drank to escape it.
Labor Day weekend remembers that struggle that divided Americans.
Company owners resented union organizers. Laborers resented coal-mine police who kept organizers out. Families living outside the mines looked down on mining families. Mining families resented the freedom they thought other people had outside the mines.
Stereotyping and dehumanization afflicted all parties. The struggle was endless to breathe free from the conflict debt generated. All of this shackled our nation whose constitution declared it was the bastion of freedom.
They were all Christians – owners, miners, families outside the mining towns. All were emotionally separated from Jesus’ labor of love to mold a community of faith, hope, and love. Their unity in Christ was in name only.
Mistrust of and opposition to the economic enemy was their culture. Wisdom to overcome their plight was scarce. Mistrust infected houses of worship where management and labor sat side-by-side in an uneasy truce. Then, outside the church’s doors, they resumed their resentment toward one another.
They not only resented one another, they resented the message of a Gospel that called them to reconciliation through Jesus Christ. All were slaves to debt. Owners had debt payments for equipment and land agreements. Managers represented the company’s interest to pay off lenders. Miners were in debt to the company store. Debt makes it easy for Christians to justify fighting one another rather than to live in community with Jesus’ teachings.
Pittsburgh’s East Hills labor conflicts during the twentieth century were simply an extension of the situation Onesimus faced in the first century. Onesimus was a slave who wasn’t trusted by his Christian owner, Philemon.
Paul knew both the slave and the owner. He interceded between them in Jesus’ name. He presented Christ’s message of community for slave and owner. God’s blessing lay in a new direction from their current relationship. Christ meant for them to have a new future that was not marked by suspicion and mistrust.
Paul encouraged Philemon and Onesimus to have a new relationship as equals – beloved brothers in Jesus Christ. Turnaround from suspicion and resentment of injustice that accompany slavery and debt. Turn to the grace of Jesus Christ that binds you together. Be a new people. Let Christ’s labor of love on the Cross give you a new relationship with one another.
Let Christ’s loving work in His Passion show you God’s love for both of you. Let Christ’s love for you inspire you to love one another. Be a new people together. Live in the blessing of Christ’s embrace and be one in Christ.
This was Paul’s message to the slave and his master. Welcome each other in Jesus’ love. Jesus’ handiwork molds a new heart. Jesus’ handiwork shapes a new relationship. Jesus’ handiwork forms a bond that overcomes conflict.
God’s handiwork molds new relationships. It’s the blessing Jesus Christ’s crucified hands offer the world. Christ’s hands remold the human spirit so the debtor and lender will live together in Christ’s community of faith, hope, and love.
Jeremiah’s illustration of the potter’s hands anticipates Christ remolding people who are enslaved by misplaced indebtedness. They’ve violated their indebtedness to God by becoming indebted to something other than God.
God molded His covenant to bless His people. He inscribed His covenant’s teachings on stone for His people to remember and unite them. He gave them His holy Word to remind His people of His covenant blessings. He sent Prophets to uphold His covenant and protect His people from destruction.
God’s covenant called His people to worship Him alone with gladness. God’s covenant guaranteed He would save and protect His people. God’s covenant promised His people a land to bear fruit and multiply. God’s covenant specified His people should be obligated only to Him and nothing else.
God’s covenant blessing began with Abraham’s extended family. Each generation would be blessed by God so the world could know God’s blessing. This blessing elevated the family of His covenant to an unprecedented place in human history. Abraham’s family would be a blessing to many nations.
Parents and children were the vehicle through which God’s covenant was shared from one generation to the next. Through their blessing the rest of the world would be blessed. His people were indebted to God and Him alone. They were free from slavery as long as they followed His covenant.
This blessing to Abraham’s children was collapsing by the time of Jeremiah.
Parents were threatening the future of their children and their children’s children by turning away from God’s instructions. Their decisions were enslaving them and their children to foreign gods. They were willing to sacrifice their children to appease other gods. They had become indebted to other gods.
God speaks to Jeremiah about His covenant people in the potter’s house. The potter is God’s metaphor for Himself. He shapes and molds His people. He restores and repairs His people. He can also bring tribulation upon those who don’t return to Him. It’s not His desire. But He can and will do it.
His people need to return to Him to be saved from their disobedience.
God’s people need to turn to Him for salvation from the destruction that’s coming near. His people need to seek after Him with a yearning for His covenant despite the culture of conflict that’s generated by debt to foreign gods.
Friends, financial debt can destroy this nation we love and believe is blessed by God. Economic debt can destroy the national covenant we treasure. Debt can turn us against each other. Debt cannibalizes families. Debt turns husband against wife and children against parents. Debt cannibalizes a nation.
Debt can conflict our hearts so we no longer labor with the joy of God’s blessing. Debt can torment our minds so we lose our community in God’s blessing. Debt can and does tear apart families. It can and does tear apart nations that struggle to be free from its enslavement.
Debt does these things when people choose to be enslaved to human lenders. Servicing debt is the debtor’s first loyalty. Everything else takes second place to debt. Paying off debt becomes the debtor’s daily ritual. Debt repayment takes the place of worshipping God.
Jesus offers us a new life of hope through His teachings and example. In this hope He offers our community an opportunity for a future.
He warns us not to worship “Mammon.” We are worshipping “Mammon” when debt drives us daily to labor in its service. “Mammon” becomes our primary god when we are driven by debt to serve its payments. Mammon determines how we use our time, when we use our time, and for what we use our time.
Jesus wants our time to be for bearing abundant life with those we love. He wants us to celebrate our daily blessings with those God gives us as a blessing. Jesus wants our life to be of love and mutual gratitude for Him and each other.
Jesus wants each generation to live with appreciation for the faith legacy we received from earlier generations. Jesus wants us to live with our neighbors with gratitude for the blessing of the covenant that binds us as a people.
Jesus Christ died to make this possible. He was raised to inspire us to live in a community where each person is respected and honored with faith and love. He gave us a mission to represent this community with the faith and love we show one another from one generation to the next.
Jesus Christ has given us the wisdom to be emissaries of this community. He has given us insight how to avoid the conflicts that enslave the rest of the world. Living as free men and women helps our children and grandchildren know the benefits of laboring in gratitude for His covenant blessing.
Labor Day weekend isn’t simply to remember the struggle our ancestors had to live the dream of an abundant life in America. It’s also a weekend to celebrate how Jesus Christ has freed us to love and respect one another in a community that worships only the true source of our blessings: Almighty God.
When we live without debt’s conflicts, we show our children and grandchildren their future happiness lies in God’s blessing alone. They will know how to abase and to abound, how to face plenty and want. They will make choices that are content without being in debt.
They will be free from slavery because of the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. “For He is our peace, who has made us one, and has broken down the walls that once separated us by His blood.” May His blessing lift you and those you love this Labor Day . . . and all the days of our labor to come!