Just three weeks ago, Emmanuel announced that we had purchased past due medical debts throughout Central and Southern Illinois in order to forgive them. We worked, as you will have heard, with a charity called RIP Medical Debt to do this. It was founded by two former collection agency executives who had a change of heart, and decided to use their skills to abolish people’s financial burdens rather than add to them. RIP buys “portfolios” of medical debt from health care providers and from the secondary debt market, which allows them to write off thousands of people’s debts at once for pennies on the dollar.
With medical debt being one of the main causes of bankruptcies in America, we wanted to make in impact in this area. So in January our vestry decided to use part of the surplus from our Centennial wishlist campaign to work with RIP on forgiving medical debts locally, just to show a whole bunch of strangers unconditional forgiveness of the kind God has given us. Now, we had no idea how much we could do. RIP said, how about a countywide initiative? So we asked them to look at Champaign County for us. We thought the $15000 we had to work with might actually be enough to wipe out all the available past due medical bills here in our own county.
Well, RIP came back to us in a few weeks and said: There’s money left over. We can guarantee you that you’re going to abolish over a million dollars of debt with this project. Give us more people. Give us more debt to forgive. Give us more need. So I sat down with a map of Illinois and made a list of the immediately surrounding counties – places we have parishioners commuting from, places that are adjacent. And we sent that in, thinking that it was probably too big, but we could at least make a dent.
In a few more weeks, RIP came back to us again. They’d started negotiating, with all the expertise they had from their high-level experience in collections, and they said: it’s going really, really well. There’s still money left over. Tell us where else we can help. Give us more people. Give us more debt to forgive. Give us more need. We were amazed. And so I emailed the diocesan office, and asked if they had a list of all the counties in the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield. Sue Spring, our wonderful diocesan administrator, sent me a spreadsheet, and I forwarded it to RIP, and they went back to the negotiating table. By then it was late February.
On March 12, they gave us the final figures. We’d thought we might be able to offer the experience of unconditional forgiveness through Champaign County, and their insistence on making as big a difference as possible – give us more people! Give us more debt to forgive! Give us more need! – had resulted, as we all now know, in four million dollars of medical bills being paid off. No strings attached, no tax consequences, notifications sent to people’s credit bureaus, all free. Totally free. From a plan to help one county, we ended up helping 47. From a plan to forgive the debts of probably a few hundred people, we forgave the debts of 3617. From a plan to pay off about a million dollars, we paid off 4 million. Give us more people, they said. Give us more debt to forgive. Give us more need.
We are here this Easter morning because a couple of millennia ago, God raised Jesus Christ bodily from the dead, and we think that’s worth celebrating in a big way. As we’ve heard and lived through together over the days of this past Holy Week, though he was innocent and without fault, Jesus was brutally beaten and tortured, publicly humiliated and shamed, and executed as a common criminal, bearing in his body the sins of the whole world. But as the Scripture had foretold, on the third day he left his tomb, risen from the dead as the first example of an entirely new kind of life. We are here right now because of that.
And we are also here to celebrate the truth that this resurrection life that Jesus embodied – and still does embody because he is alive now – is a life that will ultimately fill not just him, but everything. God’s plan is ultimately for that same kind of life that began in Jesus’ resurrection to ultimately transform this old world with its pains and losses into what we Christians call the new heavens and new earth. This process isn’t complete yet, but it began when Jesus destroyed the power of sin and death on the Cross and rose to new life on the first Easter morning. He is, if you will, the prototype of what God wants to do in every person and every thing.
Listen again to the beautiful description we heard just now from the prophet Isaiah of what God plans to do with that resurrection life that began in Jesus on Easter day. God through Isaiah tells us: I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating… no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord -- and their descendants as well.
If we compare this passage to what we see in the world around us, we can easily see that this plan has not been completely fulfilled. In this world, we can easily hear the sound of weeping – from personal losses, from job losses, from people being shamed and abused. In the world around us, there are cries of distress in towns that have been forgotten and cities that forget their residents. In the world around us, some countries get to enjoy low infant mortality and high life expectancy, while others see infants that live but a few days and old people who do not live out a lifetime because they have no access to decent health care. In the world around us, people labor in vain, working full time and not being able to afford a house, or seeing themselves bankrupted because Grandma got cancer and nobody had health insurance to cover the bills.
It’s easy to notice all the pain and the need that God plans to address via the power he unleashed in the resurrection. But if we learn how to look, we can also notice places in this world where that resurrection power is already at work. Here and there, we can see the grey hues of death and loss being overtaken by the glow of new creation. We can glimpse the new heavens and the new earth happening, by the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. Now sometimes God makes it happen on his own, solo, almost miraculously. But you know how it most usually happens? You know how people most frequently get infected with resurrection? It happens when the Christian community is contagious enough to spread it. It happens through God first filling us with resurrection life and then giving us the commission to pass it along, to give more people access.
The risen Jesus, who wants to heal and renew everyone and everything, and who has this priceless new kind of life to share for free, is looking at the world in all its pain, and looking at us his church, his sometimes unreliable and halfhearted and distracted church, and saying: Give me more debt to forgive. Give me more people. Give me more need.
You and I, of course, have to get in that line as debtors and needy ones before we can claim to be able to make much of a difference for others in pain. We can’t heal anybody till we have let Christ start to heal us. So in Christianity we always begin by confessing and facing our own debt, our own need. We honestly give that to Jesus, opening to him the places where we suffer, where we have lied and gossiped and taken what’s not ours, where we are stuck in shame and fear. Whatever it is, we give it to him and let his resurrection life go to work, in our selves and our relationships. His forgiveness wipes out our debt. His healing dissolves our self-absorption. His love rewires our hearts. And then the process continues, if we are willing. Easter spreads, as Jesus keeps saying to us his church, Give me more debt to forgive. Give me more people. Give me more need.
Friends, Jesus is alive, and what he can do for his people and his world is bottomless. Four million dollars is only the smallest symbol, the tiniest beginning. Through the Cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has plans to wipe out the debt and the need of the whole universe. And mine. And yours. Happy Easter.