Pentecost 12 C: College Debt Relief and the Smell Test

The readings for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Jeremiah 2:4–13

Psalm                     Psalm 81:1, 10–16

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Sirach 10:12–18 or Proverbs 25:6–7

Psalm                     Psalm 112

New Testament     Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16

Gospel                   Luke 14:1, 7–14

I woke up this morning and I couldn’t smell anything.

The symptoms of Covid, I’m learning on a very personal basis these days, are odd, and infinitely varied; and the complete mix of them is unique to each of the infected. In the past couple of weeks I have mixed and overlapped my own mix from sinus congestion to chills to diarrhea to  trouble urinating to sleeplessness to deepening cough. And this morning, to loss of smell.

They say this loss of smell is associated with depression and neurological problems. Oh great! But the Mayo clinic shared some good news: Smelling things can come back if we re-train our noses by taking time to intently breathe in certain key aromas like clove, eucalyptus, and rose.

And, from what I understand, the depression, stems from the mountain of other symptoms, and  especially fatigue and brain fog; but most notable is that smell is linked to taste and delight, and excitement. It is at the heart of the way we sort the good from the bad. So, to my way of thinking, all these are down to discernment.

There is a reason we say, “That doesn’t pass the smell test.” Smell is perhaps the most powerful of all our senses. It is primal. It is sexy and romantic. It is all about the difference between pure marvelous and pure yuck. When you smell gas, get out of your house, it might blow in any second! When you smell rot, don’t eat it!

My loss of smell this morning was so acute that I pondered if I would go down the road of depression. But I just as quickly realized that we all possess other systems of discernment than the olfactory. God gives us many ways to discern.

This brings us to our Option II lessons for this week. All of them concern our spiritual and ethical senses of discernment. And all of them, happily and coincidentally, have the power to help us asses the controversial move this week by President Biden to ease the burden of student debt in our nation.

On the surface of things, Proverbs 25, is simply about getting ahead in life by strategic behavior at parties. “Avoid embarrassment by seeming to be modest, and so allowing your host to notice you and invite you up the pecking order.” But, when Jesus, in Luke 14,  reinterprets this piece of wisdom, he invites us deep into our discernment of the way our entire world—social, economic, and spiritual, is shaped. He advises us, when we are hosts, to fill our banquet tables with people who have no power at all to boost us up the social ladder. Jesus is saying “Your true status is shaped not by money or prestige, but by the love of God. So, in God’s economy, you will be blessed when you reach out to those who can’t repay. Train your spiritual senses to favor not those who you think you need, but those God has favored. God loves the vulnerable, and God knows we all need them—even when we think we don’t.”

Psalm 112 should go a long way toward re-training our inner sense of moral discernment. It says, “Happy are those who fear the Lord enough to obey God’s commands and thus deal fearlessly and generously with the poor. They don’t think, “I’ve earned it, I deserve it, it’s mine, and I’ll keep it.” But they think, “I live and thrive only in community, and so I’ll distribute what’s mine to others who don’t have all the advantages I have.”

The Psalmist says that those people who train their senses to see the world this way, and therefore to act this way, develop steady and fearless hearts. They may not always receive the fake honor that the world doles out, but they get their genuine honor from the compassionate God. But, just as with the more literal odors and fragrances, if we don’t discern the signals correctly, the results will be dramatic. If we don’t train our organs of morality and spirituality correctly, we will fall among those who, whenever they see mercy and generosity, grow angry, gnash their teeth, and live futile lives.

Let us see who falls into which column as President Biden’s actions about student debt are challenged. The super pacs and law suits are primed and ready to slow and destroy this initiative.  People claim it’s all wrong to forgive anything, and that it’s all a matter of fairness. “If I tightened my belt and borrowed less, then it is unfair if someone with more debt gets helped.” Others will have the sense that allows them to see that getting through college has become outrageously expensive. They will see that if 45 million people now owe $1.6 trillion—all adding up to more than they collectively own for all their car loans or consumer debt—that it has eaten at the health of our entire society. Will we rejoice when burden is lifted, or gnash our teeth?

And finally, there is Hebrews 13. The book of Hebrews is like one large sermon, or perhaps a piecing together of two or three. The author calls on Christians to celebrate the real thing. God has given people, through the ages, countless witnesses to God’s love and examples of the trust in those promises that has carried them through difficult times. But in Jesus Christ all of that has come to completion. All of God’s promises of justice and mercy find full focus—infinitely beyond high definition, 4K and every next new thing.

But what should we now do? How does any of this change the health of our organs of discernment, or of our lives?

Hebrews 13 gives us a provocative list of the health and life outcomes that flow from trust in God’s promises. But to my way of thinking, we can understand it all all in terms of  training of our spiritual senses and applying the spiritual smell test. If you can train your senses by constantly smelling to grace of God—by seeing your world the way the author of Psalm 118:6 saw it, rejoicing that if God is by your side you have nothing to fear—then you will smell all things the way they should be smelled. Then you will have the character to use as you should  pour out not only your wealth of stuff, but the wealth of compassion the Lord has woven into your body. You will be able to go so far as to Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

Today I can’t smell the Metholatum by my bedside. I can’t smell my food, or the little collection of essential oils that came with my humidifier. Perhaps I’ll have to retrain my sense of smell soon. But I must also make full use of my soul’s system of spiritual discernment. Christ died and was raised again for me. In my baptismal life Christ reclaimed my body as his body. I’m dead to seeing all things selfishly, and  I rise every day to the full life of living selflessly.

I remember my college and seminary tuition as being little more than $1,000 or $2,000 a year. In any event, I could pay it off quickly and easily with almost little help from my parents. The money I earned working no more than 20 hours a week and summer jobs handled most of the costs. But today my children are 42 and 47 years old, with families of their own, and still painfully and slowly paying off their college debt. They must fret over their own children’s education while they continue to pay down their own.

Something’s wrong here. So I thank President Biden for thinking not only of me, or himself, but of our entire community. We need to help the people who can’t repay. We need these 45 million neighbors, just as they need us to care—to trust in God, and apply the spiritual smell test, so that we can care.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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