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Worship and Sermons
September 10, 2017


“Debtors’ Joy” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, September 10, 2017, Year A / Pentecost 13 – Ezekiel 33:7-11  •  Psalm 149  •  Romans 13:8-14  •  Matthew 18:15-20

THEME:  Love others as we love ourselves, because God loved us first and we owe love to all, even those who are different, difficult or distant.


         Is anybody out there a fan of the movie “Rocky”?

         You’ll remember that it’s the rags to riches story of a one-time debt-collector, Rocky Balboa, who is transformed into a champion boxer.

         We all know the plot.  But what you may not know is the story of how the movie got made or, maybe I should say, almost didn’t get made.

         Sylvester Stallone was a newcomer to Hollywood when he pitched his script to producers in the mid-'70s. Fortunately, producers liked it.  But there was one catch.

         Stallone wanted to cast himself in the starring role – but nobody else wanted him for the part.

         He reminisced about that a couple years ago on the Today Show.  "They wanted every celebrated actor at the time," he said "And big-name directors, when they found out I wanted to be involved, they scattered, ran for the hills."


         Can you imagine Burt Reynolds, James Caan, or Ryan O'Neal as Rocky?  Those were the ones the producers wanted – but Stallone held his ground.

         At one point, he turned down a $300,000 offer — that would be $1 million today — because he was determined to be the star in his own movie.  At the time, Stallone was 30 years old and pretty much unknown as an actor.  He had exactly $106 in his bank account and he had debts to pay.

         "It was really insane at the time 'cause I was pretty broke," he said.  In fact, the week before he sold the script, he had to sell his dog for $50 to pay his rent.

         I think most of us can relate to that feeling of desperation, can’t we?  Living with financial uncertainty and knowing that we owe more than we can repay is incredibly stressful. 

         Doctors would agree with that.  Not too many years ago a British medical organization published a study called the Life Events Index.  It ranked the top 100 major life events by how much stress they produce. 

         There were some obvious ones at the top of the list – death of a loved one, divorce, moving, losing a job, etc. but then there was a real surprise: getting into significant debt ranked No. 5 on the list.

         That explains why paying off our debts not only improves our financial wellbeing, but it also improves our health and overall happiness.  

         Certainly, that’s how Sylvester Stallone felt when he finally sold his script to a pair of producers willing to let him be the star.  Not only could he pay off his debts, but he was even able to buy his dog back.  Talk about happiness!

         I think the apostle Paul envisioned this same sort of joy for the Christians in Rome to whom he writes today’s epistle text.

         Those folks in the Roman Church are hardly joyous.  Their congregation has been split by conflict.  There’s a sharp division between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. 

         Paul wants to help them heal that rift.  So he starts his letter by reminding them – both Jew and Gentile alike — that God has given them all the most profound gift of new life in Jesus Christ.  As Paul puts it, “God proves his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And, so, by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ they – and we – are saved.

         God’s gift puts us in debt, a debt that requires a lifetime to repay by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

         In other words, Paul says, the only way we can repay God for his gracious self-sacrificing love, is by paying it forward.  We owe it to one another to love each other as God has loved us. 

         The truly challenging part is that there is no restriction or limitation on who we’re supposed to love – it’s for every body:  Greek and Barbarian, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free.  Those we like – and those we don’t.  

         It’s as if Paul is saying to the Christians in Rome “I’ve heard how you quarrel and fuss with each other, but every single one of you owes your new life in Christ to God’s grace.  Are you working to pay off your debt?  Because if you are, then you’ll be outdoing one another in showing love for others:  even those who are different, distant and difficult.”

         Paul is asking that same question of you and me, too. 

         So let me ask, how are you and I doing? Are we working to pay off our debt to God?  Are we busy loving our neighbor, whoever and wherever they may be?

         And that begs another question, “How, exactly, are we meant to do that?”

         Paul gives us good guidance here.  The way to start loving others, he says, is first to avoid injuring them.  It’s the same promise doctors make when they take the Hippocratic oath – first, do no harm. 

         Don’t take anything that belongs to someone else – whether life, people or property.  In fact, don’t even daydream about having what they have.

         But this universal program of divine debt repayment goes well beyond that.  It means “putting on Christ.”  That’s Paul’s jargon for denying our wants in order to meet others’ needs. 

         And Paul knows as well as you and I do that this is not an easy assignment.  Self-denial doesn’t come naturally.  In fact, it runs completely counter to the self-serving urges and base desires that are the norm for humanity, both then and now.

         If you ask me, Sylvester Stallone’s own life gives us a pretty good example of what paying God’s love forward looks like.

         This past summer new parts of his life story came out for the first time.  His mother, Jackie, told a writer in Los Angeles that Sylvester was born in a Charity Ward in Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s west side.  Back in 1946, that was a rough neighborhood.  Think West Side Story.

         Jackie said “When he was born, there were about 20 ladies (giving birth there), all black, and they all chipped in to buy new baby clothes so I could take him home.”  Jackie and her husband were poor, so poor they weren’t able to pay the $35 bill the hospital sent her.

         But neither she nor her son ever forgot.  Twenty-seven years later when he made “Rocky,” Sylvester went back to that hospital to pay the bill.

         Jackie also wanted to repay the kindness of those African American women who showed her such unexpected kindness when her baby boy didn’t even have an outfit to go home in.  

         For over 50 years she’s been looking for them, without success.  Which is why she agreed to tell this story in the first place, hoping that someone would find them.

         That urge to repay the unexpected and gracious kindness she received from complete strangers has been passed on to her son.

         Today, Sylvester Stallone is known for his quiet and substantial support of a number of organizations like UNICEF that improve the lives of children and the poor.  Just last year, he received the “Heart of Hollywood” award for his charitable work. 

         Now, probably few of us have the means at our disposal that Stallone does.  But we do have the same call to respond to God’s love by paying it forward.

         So, what does this divine debt repayment plan look like in your life? 

         For those of us who are married, maybe it begins by finding new and creative ways to love our spouse better.  More patience and appreciation, less judgment and criticism. More unexpected gestures of care, affection and kindness.

         Same thing goes for our children and parents, and our extended family.

         Frankly, some of the most difficult people to love are the ones we know best.  And, whether or not that includes members of your family, we all have difficult people in our lives.  It may be someone at work.  Instead of competing with them or being passively aggressive in opposing them, how about trying to be an ally? 

         And then there are those further afield who also need God’s love.   Sharing God’s love with them could mean volunteering as a member of the ROAR team that’s headed down to West Virginia to repair homes in a few weeks.

         Or maybe God’s calling you to share his love with the poor, the homeless and hungry in Harrisburg through programs like Downtown Daily Bread, or volunteering to be a classroom assistant at the preschool over at Memorial Mitchell Church in Camp Curtin, or spending a night as a host at the downtown homeless shelter run by Christian Churches United.  

         The folks we will serve there may look different from us on the surface, but we owe them God’s love every bit as much as those who are closer to us.

         Whatever this divine debt repayment looks like for you, we can expect two things.  First, it will take effort.  Jesus never promised that loving others would be easy. 

         Second, we can expect joy – the joy that comes from knowing we’re paying down our divine debt, one act of kindness at a time. 

         May it be so. 


Last Published: September 12, 2017 11:50 AM
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