Text: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Theme Verse: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:10a)
People have worn themselves out in attempts to re-pay God for, well, everything. The spirit is noble: “I’ll pay my own way.” “No freebies.” “I won’t be a burden.” Nonetheless, the effort is futile. God cannot possibly be repaid. Now what? We become a conduit of grace.
reader : Kaye Nofziger
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
When grace walks into your life, you know it. Grace; she’s unexpected. She always is. In fact, if you were expecting her arrival, she’s much less likely to show up. Last Tuesday was election day. Did you know that? I caught myself thinking that day about our Pay it Forward series and the fun movement that you have likely experienced before. It’s an unexpected grace. It’s that experience of driving through Starbucks or somewhere and arriving at the window to pay for, and receive, your super-duper latte only to find that the stranger who drove thru in front of you paid for your drink or muffin or kale slaw or whatever. A light-hearted, unexpected grace. I read of a couple of Starbucks pay it forward streaks this week. One that broke down at customer 379. That seemed impressive until I read about a Connecticut Starbucks that had a pay it forward streak lasting three days and topping 1,000 drinks purchased for the strangers to follow. I suppose the chain breaks down when the vehicle behind you is a school bus or when somebody’s not feeling all that generous. Peter Schorsch was one such Floridian who when learning his latte had been paid for by the stranger in front of him and being aware of the pay it forward practice opted to take his free beverage and walk. He called the practice “cheesy, ridiculous, and a first world problem ritual” arguing that the donation would be better going to help the homeless. Making sure the barista knew it was a matter of principle and not stinginess, he left a $100 tip.
Mason Wartman runs a pizza shop in Philadelphia named Rosa’s.
He took the ‘do something for the homeless’ challenge seriously. In an effort to help out homeless people in his city, which is a serious issue, he hatched a plan to allow customers to spend an extra dollar to prepay for a slice of pizza, then put a Post-It note on the wall. Homeless people could then enter the shop, grab one of the Post-It notes and redeem it at the counter for a free slice of pizza.
In just four months’ time, Rosa’s gave away more than 23,000 slices of pizza and provided meals free of charge for up to 100 people on any given day. The up tick in business meant Wartman needed more employees. And true to Rosa’s pay-it-forward spirit, he began hiring through agencies that connect homeless folks with jobs. Then, they started selling official Rosa’s apparel which feature designs by homeless artists. Half of the revenue goes right back to supporting Philly’s homeless community.
All to say that on Election Day I was thinking about all of this and thought, “Of all days, with such tension in the air, why not pay it forward as I’m picking up lunch.” So, I hit the drive thru at Old School Bagel company all ready to purchase my lunch and that of a lucky stranger when a little red car pulls up behind me in the drive thru. “I’m about to make your day, pal!” Of course, I look a little harder in my review mirror and I’m like, “Wait a minute. I know that car.” Lo and behold, my pay it forward beneficiary was none other than the Right Reverend Courtney Richards. You gotta be kidding me! I laughed. She laughed. And well, I paid it forward anyway. And Courtney paid it forward too. No telling if our streak ended at two.
Hopefully you’ve been thinking about what it means to Pay God’s love forward this week. We’ve hit the mid-point of this stewardship series. I pray you’re thinking about what it means to make commitments to the ministry we share in 2017. Our pledge commitments are vitally and critically important to keep the HACC movement going forward. Beyond that, however, I hope you’ve been thinking about it as we’ve come through the most hostile political season I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime. My favorite elected official on Tuesday happened to be my son whose class voted him President in a mock election where he ran on the campaign slogan: “No Dane. No Gain.” The emotion of our nation, however, is worn so heavily on our red, white, and blue sleeves. I heard from minister colleagues who were emotionally exhausted trying to hold their own emotions together while caring for the emotions of their politically diverse congregants. You’ve got some who think America hasn’t been great for a while but will now be great again and others who feel the ontological “Yikes!” of what may come in the next administration. This would have been the case no matter the results of last Tuesday. President Obama said on Thursday, “This has been the case of our democracy for 240 years. We move forward because ultimately, we’re all on the same team.” So what do we do? Do we not remember who we are?
The ancient wells of wisdom, like Psalm 130, remind us that “with the Lord there is great power to redeem.” Redemption isn’t one and done. Christ still redeems. Bill Hybels, long time pastor, has said over and over again through the years, “The local congregation is the hope of the world.” If you’re elated with the election results, be kind and serve somebody. If you’re shocked by the results, be kind and serve somebody. That is always ours to do as the local, on the ground movement of Jesus Christ. Years after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and surrounding areas with destructive force, it was the support of local congregations around the country that kept their spirits up in the years that followed. The word often spoken from New Orleans was, “The church is the only group still helping us rebuild. I’m not sure where we would be without the church.” I remain convinced that the purple color of royalty draped around Jesus as he was led to be crucified is still the color represented at our table today – a blend of political colors that say, we are disciples of Christ first and foremost and we stand with one another in honor of the one who gave his all for all people. So wear a safety pin on your lapel so that any person who is afraid knows you are a safe welcoming presence. Thank a veteran. Watch videos of military service men and women surprising their families and coming home. The famed “Kid President” may have said it best as he addressed the nation this week. “People,” he says, “Pause. Breathe. Love.” We don’t fly a political flag at this church – we point to the cross for our example on how we live, love, and serve together.
Paul is all about this too. He writes the Corinth church addressing them as “Christians cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life.” The cleaning is an ongoing process, isn’t it? It is for me. We’ve always got some growing to do and the Corinthians were no different. Paul spent a year and a half with these folks, going over the Message of the good news in detail and showing them how to work out their faith and their living. The proverbially “they”, marketing folks I suppose, say you’ve got to say the same thing seven different ways in hopes of someone getting the message once. I suppose that’s an average because how many of us know it often takes more than seven times. Which is why Paul starts our specific text today with this line: “Friends, let me go over the Message with you one final time…”. Now, we could look at this as sort of Paul’s “Come to Jesus” meeting with the Corinthians. “How many times do I have to go over this!” Or we can say, “Hey, scrap the past, the bickering, the nonsense and let’s meet Jesus again, for the first time.”
Do you remember your first Jesus moment? I grew up in Jesus moments. My parents spoke the faith, lived the faith, taught the faith. I grew up as sure of Jesus as I was sure of the Kansas City Royals and Taco Tuesdays. It just was. But I’ve seen the glimmer in others – that look that told you, “OMG, I get it. I’m in.” The Christian movement in China is very passionate. 40 million protestant Christians in China – which is only 3% of their population mind you. Our recent Week of Compassion delegation met with the China Christian Council in Shanghai. They noted some 400,000 Chinese people are being baptized each year. The seminaries we visited were full of passionate young people, crowded and in need of larger facilities. Only a small percentage of students were being accepted due to the lack of capacity to teach them.
I was asked to speak an encouraging word to one class of students. I started with a Chinese greeting, “Nǐ hǎo.” Our translator and trip leader laughed along with the class at my accent and they laughed harder after Xiaoling said something more after which he leans over to me saying, “I told them I gave you a 68% on your Mandarin.” I stuck with English after that and so I’m not really sure what I said to the class being at Xiaoling’s mercy. I think I encouraged them to remember the passion that led them to seminary in the first place because there will be heavy times in their ministry when working at Costco will seem pretty tempting. I didn’t say Costco to them but that’s my American filter so you can get the sentiment. See how this translation thing works? I told them to stick it out. To keep the gleam in their eye. To hold onto Christ. They sang their faith as they started each new class and they sang with passion.
The Apostle Paul is saying to his Corinthian brothers and sisters – hang on to this death, burial, and resurrection stuff. I say again – hang onto the death, burial, and resurrection stuff. You’re gonna need it. And we have to remember, the Corinthians didn’t have 3.6 Bibles lying around their homes like Americans do. They didn’t have the four Gospels in smart-phone-app form. Paul is writing letters before those Gospels were even written so this death, burial, resurrection stuff is quite an amazing concept. What they knew was that you go up on a Roman cross alive but you come off a Roman cross dead. There was no funeral home to call upon to handle the body from there. Family and friends were the default morticians. They knew the realities of death: how it looked, how it smelled, how it treats the body. Temporary tombs were closed and fully barricaded but everyone knew what was happening in the darkness. Jesus being a former cadaver was a totally foreign concept. The people of Israel had used the word resurrection in their history but it was mostly a metaphor for the reconstitution of God’s people into a new nation. You look at Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones as a prime example. This was an eschatological idea – a someday reality – not something they expected to happen to somebody they knew, especially a carpenter from Naz-town. So Paul reinforces this as what he calls – of first and utmost importance: Jesus Christ, dead, buried, raised.
The death part is important. It’s what instigates new life. And we shield ourselves from much talk or viewing of death. But death is everywhere and not just of the human-biological-heart-stopping variety. Ideas die. Dreams die. Innocence passes. Relationships. Elections. Churches. All loss comes with some emotion but death cannot be ignored. Some of our HACC men are praying about rites of passage experiences for the youth under our care. What does it mean to transition into adulthood? Father Richard Rohr tackles the importance of these matters in his work, “Adam’s Return.” In it he says this: “If anyone tells you that you can be born again, enlightened, or saved, and going to heaven, and does not first speak to you very honestly about dying, do not believe that person. There is no renewal in all of nature without a proceeding loss. Even the sun is dying every moment. You cannot be born again if you do not die first.” Every loss is hard but Paul says elsewhere, “I count loss gain.” Why? Because death emboldens resurrection. And Paul says to the Corinth church – you’ve got to understand this. He says it to us all the same.
And once rigor mortis is replaced with resurrection, you’ve got to respond. Paul did. And he sort of gets all #humblebrag on us: “Haven’t I worked hard trying to do more than any of the others? Even then,” he says, “my work didn’t amount to all that much. It was God giving me the work to do, God giving me the energy to do it.” By God’s grace I am who I am. Paul goes back through the elevator story of his life – untimely born (his wish to have been in the thick of the journey with Jesus but coming generationally after), great persecutor of the Christian movement turned greatest advocate. What a ride. And by God’s grace, he’s made it all count for something. Essentially his pay it forward moment comes in that last verse. Whether because of me or in spite of me, you’ve come to believe. Nothing is owed. No pay back is necessary. Just pay that faith forward.
And isn’t that ours to do as well? What we do here is create family. Generations shift but the faith presses on and it does so until a time comes when we say (in our actions or in our presence or in our giving) that the faith stops here. The Pay-God’s-love-forward at Harvard Avenue Christian Church stops at disciple number 8,732… or whatever number comes after you and me. But is that time now? It can’t be. I know you too well. I believe in us. Every year, when it comes to stewardship time, you have your pledge card and you’re thinking about how you will support what we do, who we are, at HACC for the next year. Carrie and I pray with our kids over our own pledge card about the commitment we will make. The card is a tool for our prayers because we usually submit our pledge online. But I think the same thing every year and verbalize it to Carrie in a prayer that somehow tends to come out like this: “God – I can’t believe the ways you moved through our community this past year. I can’t believe the ways you allowed us to be a part of this movement. I can’t believe the people that have stood faithfully in this body of Harvard Avenue Christian Church for years giving of their time and money and abilities even when the vision seemed bleak. I can’t believe the new people you have introduced to us that have jumped right in and seem like they’ve always been a part of who we are. And, God, I can’t believe the ways you take the pledge we have made and multiply it over and over again to do good, and help others, and bring kids to faith and bring the saints to your eternal home… but thank you, thank you. Thank you for the honor to journey here, to give here, and see your Way impact the lives of others.” And we risk a number that we know will stretch us… and we click send. And I’ll be darned if year after year, what happens here with our gifts and your gifts accomplish more than my human heart could dream. I often think, “Surely not again, God. Surely not this next year.” I’ve been saying that for seven years. What will next year bring? How much will we trust God to take what we offer and turn it into stories of life and grace and love and generosity? We’ll found out. This is the week. Will you commit with me? Make a pledge. Let’s help grace walk into more lives than we can count. Let’s keep the pay-it-forward streak going and growing.
 Offered by President Obama in several speeches following the election.