“Owe no one anything; except to love one another….” (Rom. 13:8)

All summer long we have been watching people dump buckets of ice water over their heads.  The phenomenon of the Ice Bucket Challenge has brought a boon of $109 million in contributions to the ALS Association that works to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease, and to bring relief to those living with it, and those who care for them.  ALS and its variants are cruel diseases that allow a person to witness his or her own degeneration from the inside, while becoming less and less able to do anything at all on the outside.  If you’ve ever known anyone who has suffered, and eventually died, from the disease, you may know something about the depth of sadness that goes with it.  But there’s no sadness involved in the Ice Bucket Challenge – it’s been a happy, chilly diversion during the warm summer months.

The Internet being what it is, before long, people began to question the Ice Bucket Challenge.  Was anybody actually giving money to the ALSA, or were we just wasting water?  Where was the money going, anyway?  And how efficiently is the ALS Association run?  Etc., etc.  Then there were the celebrity Ice Bucket Challenges that delighted us so- like James Franco, and George Bush.  And then the creative Ice Bucket challenges, like the Anglo-catholic parish whose cassock-garbed clergy had ice dumped on their heads.  Eventually, Ice Bucket Challenge-fatigue set in as the novelty wore off, and many of us became too cool for school, as it were, and the challenges and the videos slowed down.  And soon the Ice Bucket challenge will be a memory, a passing moment (literally, not much more than a moment) that most will forget.

Except that some few people will have learned a thing or two about this terrible disease, and about the people who live with it and die with it.  And we can hope and expect that some real good will be done with the $109 million that has been raised – which, is, after all, not really that much money in the world of medical research these days, but it’s a nice drop in the bucket.

I hear Saint Paul writing to the church in Rome: “Owe no one anything; except to love one another….”  This is a strange thing to say.  He might have said, “owe no one anything, except a long-term mortgage payment, a short-term car loan, and a manageable amount of credit card debt.”  He might have said, “owe no one anything except what you know you can pay back with reasonable interest.”  He might have said, “owe no one anything, except, of course, student loans are OK.”

You might think that Paul was not talking specifically about money – maybe this was just a figure of speech, and he meant to say that you should be an independent spirit, reliant on no one but yourself.  But the context of his writing suggests that he was very clearly writing about money.  In the previous paragraph he was writing about paying taxes, which, just like Jesus, he counseled you should do.

But in the 8th verse of the 13th chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, Paul stops making sense.  He stops making a coherent argument about what to do with your money.  And starts talking about something else altogether: “owe no one anything; except to love one another.  I’m going to call this the original Freakonomics.

With apologies to those who more recently coined the term, let’s define Freakonomics as the set of conditions that result in a person or persons making decisions based on some set of factors other than how much money it will cost you.

Because all day long we make decisions based on cost.  Where do you get your coffee in the morning?  How do you get to work?  What are you wearing today?  What will you have for lunch?  Where are the kids going to school?  What will they do after school?  What’s for dinner?  What happens after dinner?  The root question of all these matters is a widely variable denominator: what does it cost?  This is one of the inescapable daily questions of life, a fundamental of micro-economics: what does it cost?

But this morning we are asked to consider what I’m calling Freakonomics: what do you do when your first worry isn’t how much money it will cost you?

St. Paul had a simple way of putting this as an instruction, rather than a question: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Of course this was not an original thought.  But Paul, like Jesus, knew that we need continually to be reminded of this basic rule of life, otherwise we get mired in the nickel and diming of every-day micro-economics.

Freakonomics, on the other hand, finds its roots in the ancient Jewish scriptures, cited by Jesus as a component part of the greatest commandment, and now by Paul as the fulfillment of the law: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

How, we might ask ourselves, does this work?  What does it mean?

By way of answering those questions, maybe you have heard about the Rooster Soup Company.  This is a partnership between the awesome Federal Donuts and the awesome Broad Street Ministries, currently seeking funding on Kickstarter.  They are planning to make chicken stock from left over chicken bones at Federal Donuts (where they also sell fried chicken), then make soup with the stock that they’ll sell in a restaurant, and then take the profits from the restaurant to fund Broad Street Ministries’ meal program that feeds 1200 people a week.   I call that Freakonomics: nobody is getting rich, but a lot of people are going to be fed.

Or, maybe you were out on Kelly Drive yesterday morning where about 180 people gathered to run in the second St. James School 5k run and where we raised about $14,000 for the school.  I call that Freakonomics.

St. James School itself is an exercise in Freakonomics, since, now in its fourth year of operation, we will raise $1.5 million in order to fight poverty with education in the lives of 63 wonderful students from families in need.

Here at Saint Mark’s we operate every week on the principles of Freakonomics – we make decisions all the time based on factors other than what it will cost us.

We don’t actually know what it costs us to run the Saturday Soup Bowl that feeds as many as 200 people every Saturday morning.  So much is simply given to us – soup, bread, milk, volunteers’ time – that we could never afford to pay for it if we had to.

This year we begin the second year of our Boys & Girls Choir, which we started by adding a part-time salary and a few thousand dollars to the budget.  But over the summer we had more than 40 kids involved in Choir Camps, and the growing Boys & Girls Choir is transforming worship at the Family Mass, as well as the lives of the children singing in it.  How much does it cost?  We’ll have a better idea by the end of the year, but I assure you it costs much more than we’re paying for it.

I could go on, since we accomplish a great deal more here every week than we pay for, thanks to countless volunteers, contributors, and faithful souls at prayer.

“Owe no one anything; except to love one another.”  Saint Paul has not disowned the old economy – he still thinks you need to pay your taxes – but he is writing about a new economy of love.  He talks about it in terms of the law; since the Jewish law was the dominant paradigm of decision-making in the communities he is writing to.

But economics – both micro and macro – is the dominant paradigm of decision-making in the world you and I live in.  The right and careful use of debt is taken for granted in our society, for instance.  The reckless incursion of debt, on the other hand, has made some people rich and others very poor in recent years.  So it’s helpful to hear Saint Paul change the conversation for us: don’t owe anyone anything; except to love one another.  Here’s what I think Saint Paul is saying to us: this isn’t about money; it’s about love.  There is an economy of love to be built, and you and I are just the people to build it!

I suppose that’s why, despite all the criticisms you can find about the Ice Bucket Challenge, in the end, I’m a fan.  For those participating in it don’t have anything really to gain, except a cold, wet head of hair and a soggy set of clothes.  But for a minute or two, the Ice Bucket Challenge changed the rules of the conversation, and shifted us into the land of Freakonomics where the most pressing question isn’t about what it will cost us. 

The most pressing question of the Ice Bucket Challenge seems to have been what it might mean for your neighbor – whether your neighbor is the person you nominate to follow you and dump ice water on his or her own head, or the person who’s just been diagnosed with ALS, or the person working in the lab to fight the disease, or the person who is watching a loved one disappear as the disease takes over.  You could go into a lot of debt to try to help all those neighbors.  Or, you could decide to owe no one anything, except love.  And people seem to have done this to the tune of about $109 million, (and in marked contrast to the guy who has raised $55,000 on Kickstarter to make potato salad).

All summer long I have managed to avoid getting involved in the Ice Bucket Challenge myself, even though I have known people afflicted with ALS, I have seen people die after years of decline, and I know of families struggling with the disease even now.  But no one nominated me, and I was not eager to dump icy water on my own head.  I suppose I had not figured out what it would cost me, and I had not figured out that I had anything to give.  This is so often the way of life.

And I suppose that the best possible way I could end this sermon is with a bucket of ice that I could produce from behind the pulpit to be deployed appropriately.  But instead, I decided while I was preparing these words, to take out my wallet, rather than the ice bucket, and make a contribution to the ALS Association, which I did last night. 

And since I am relatively debt-free, with only a few more car payments to make, I feel ready to try to live more and more by the principles of Saint Paul’s Freakonomics, owing no one anything; except to love one another.  May God help us all to live this way!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

7 September 2014

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on September 7, 2014 .