Paying the Tab

Heritage Presbyterian Church

7th Sunday After Epiphany
February 20, 2022

Scriptures – 1st Corinthians 15: 35-38, 42-50 and Luke 6: 27-38

We all know what it’s like to owe money, to have a bill looming over us, to buy something and know it must be paid eventually – even if it’s over time or in installments.

We all know the dreaded feeling in the pit of your stomach when you know that debt is out there, and you don’t have the resources to pay it off.  This is something I suspect we all share.

We all know a thing or two about responsibility, about making things right, about balancing the scales so that no one is owed by us.

We all know that when the celebration dinner is over and the guests are departing, someone will be bringing the tab…and you only hope it doesn’t have more digits in the total than you planned for.

In a word, owing something is a common burden that we all share.  

But every single Christian pastor I have ever known…every single believing Christian I have ever spoken with…every single student of the Bible will tell you that we each owe the Lord a debt that can never be repaid.  

When God sent Jesus to us, it was so that Jesus would sacrifice himself on our part to take away the burden, the bill, the debt, the responsibility of our own sins.  Jesus took care of that debt.  That’s the very bedrock of Christian belief.

There are two points that are made in our two readings for today.  Each of them says something to us about what we owe Jesus Christ our Lord.

First, the Apostle Paul was telling his friends, the Corinthians, that the ultimate reward for believers was the resurrection of our bodies when we someday join the Lord in Heaven.  The Corinthians were way too hung up on exactly what that would look like, what that would entail, and how exactly our bodies would look.  Paul basically told them what he thought about their questions, but he also made sure they understood that only God knew this!  

Paul wasn’t wasting his time or his energy on this problem.  For Paul, the fiercest of the early Apostles, it was the salvation – our debt that we could not repay – that was the most important thing.  If you read just a little more than the passage given for today, Paul said, “But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” [v. 57]

Nothing else mattered to Paul.  I have often wondered if that was how Paul resigned himself to accept the tab that he himself owed.  Let us all remember that Paul was an opponent of the early Christians.  He was – in his own words – “a Pharisees among Pharisees.” 

In Luke’s Gospel reading, Jesus lets his followers – that includes us too – that the tab for receiving the grace of God involves doing things that are completely opposite to usual human behavior.

Where is it normal to forgive your enemies?  Shouldn’t we be getting even instead?  Yet, Jesus tells us to “love your enemies.”   

Where is it acceptable to do good for those who hate us?  Yet, Jesus tells us to do just that.

Where on earth do we take a slap to the face – to the face!!! – and then turn and offer the other cheek to be clobbered too?  Yet again…that’s on our tab.  Jesus said so.

In other words, Christians, obeying the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – doesn’t go far enough.

Each and every one of us owes a debt to Jesus Christ that can never really be paid.  And the Lord doesn’t expect us to pay it anyway…because he already did.  But on our tabs is still and always the responsibility to at least try to make things right.  

Let me tell you a brief story of a man who at first added to his own tab…before recognizing his further sins and then trying to do something about it.

Hélder Câmara was an unlikely folk hero.  He was just short of five feet tall and weighed 90 pounds soaking wet.  He was entirely unimposing.

But what really made him an unlikely folk hero was the fact that he began his ministry as a young priest in Brazil participating in the Integralist Party, a far-right, fascist political organization.  As a member of that organization, Father Câmara spearheaded a campaign to eradicate the shanty-towns located on the hills around Rio de Janeiro and forcibly relocate their residents to new housing in the city.

Câmara’s campaign did not go quite as planned.  Yes, the Integralists managed to bulldoze down those shacks and shanties and move their inhabitants into the city. But once there, the folks they uprooted were reeling from the forced relocation and without jobs to support themselves.

Backed into this Câmara-made corner, they did what they had to in order to survive: they pulled the electric fittings and water taps out of their new abodes and sold them. Others moved their families out onto the streets and sublet their apartments so that they could have money to buy food.

Câmara’s campaign was a complete and total failure!

What this campaign DID succeed in doing was bringing Câmara face-to-face with the poorest of Brazil’s poor for the very first time. And he was forever changed by it. Out of this experience he left the Integralist Party and began to preach about “unjust structures of poverty” and how the Church needed to work not just for the people but with the people.

This is the perspective he took with him when he was appointed archbishop of Olinda and Recife, a particularly impoverished area of the country.

He gave up all the usual trappings of that office – a literal palace to live in, bright colored robes to wear, all manner gold jewelry with which to “bling himself”; instead, he chose instead to live a life of radical solidarity with the poor. He took up residence in a small house behind a church, wore only a brown cassock and a wooden cross around his neck, and ate his meals at a bar on a corner surrounded by constructions workers and alcoholics.

As it so happens, the same year that Câmara was appointed archbishop, a fascist military dictatorship took over the Brazilian government. Câmara observed that under their rule the poor began to suffer even more than before.

In response, he instituted a variety of social programs to help meet the basic material and spiritual needs of the masses living in poverty in his archdiocese. He initiated feeding programs and various housing projects. He established a consistent campaign of charity and for the needy.  He even advocated for industry to move into that area of the country to create jobs with which people could support their families.

At the same time as he worked to alleviate the suffering of the poor, Câmara also became an outspoken critic of the regime. In weekly radio broadcasts, he would speak in favor of governmental reform and against what was going on.

While he started his ministry as the enemy of the poor, Câmara was later dubbed the “bishop of the slums” for all the work he did on their behalf.  While this ministry engendered a great deal of love among the common people, among those in power it engendered a great deal of hate.

At first, Câmara was simply blacklisted. He was labeled a communist by the regime and censors forbade the media from interviewing or quoting him. Every Sunday in the pulpit though, he persisted in publicly agitating for reform. His sermons were described by those who heard them as “lyrical cries for social justice.”

Then one day, Câmara opened the door of his little house to find a man standing there – a hired killer with his gun drawn. “I have come to assassinate you,” he announced matter-of factly.

Câmara responded, “Then you will send me straight to the Lord.”

Astounded by this reply, the assassin – himself from the impoverished classes – lowered his gun and let loose his tears. “I can’t kill you,” he sobbed, “You belong to God.”

Câmara proved unflappable even at gunpoint.  By the way, Câmara did die at a later point…at the age of 90 of old age.

[From “Bishop of the Slums,” Hillside Community Church,]

It’s not often we get the opportunity to say this, but that assassin was RIGHT! Bishop Hélder Câmara belonged to God. He was a true follower of Jesus.  

He did all he could to pay his tab.  But even this godly man knew that the Lord paid Câmara’s tab for everything that had been done.

When we ponder the salvation that the Lord offers each of us, some common reactions might be:

  • To feel embarrassed;
  • To feel indifferent;
  • To feel uncomfortable;
  • To feel disbelieving and unworthy;
  • To feel love and grateful!

May each of us cling to and understand that our tab, our sins have already been paid.  And the Lord is the one who did it.