Text: Romans 1:8-17
Theme Verse: "I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish." (Romans 1:14)
It may be the most awkward question in the English language: “What do I owe?” We often ask after we’ve received something of value. We are uncertain of the cost but assume it might be significant – after all, what we received was certainly significant. But then, shocking words: “Nothing. You owe nothing.” Somehow, in our astonishment of such a gift, our primary feeling is not obligation but a great desire to not simply give fair-market value but give extravagantly. Perhaps such is the gift of the Gospel to us. Might we pay it forward?
reader : Doc Shannon
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
*note: Mark mentions several images from his trip. Those pictures are inserted into the 'transcript' of the sermon. Click below to read/see as you listen. We're having trouble with the embedded video links at the moment, and hope to have those corrected soon!
“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” As we’ve just heard, that’s not my line but Paul’s. However, it couldn’t be a truer reflection of my own heart this morning as I think of each of you. If you weren’t aware, I returned to Tulsa this week following a two-week journey in China with the Week of Compassion Advisory Committee. I’m honored to serve on that committee as HACC’s representative. I can truly thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world… even, if not especially, in China. We visited Week of Compassion partners in various parts of the country including seminaries, HIV/AIDS villages, tree farms, and orphanages to name a few. I can’t begin to unpack the trip in its entirety just yet but I can show you this 87-year-old woman I met at an Elder-Day Care Center we support. She was ecstatic to have the company.
I can show you this choir from a small village who was so anxious to show off their new choir robes.
It was this same village where I met a 102-year-old woman who had never seen an American in her life. She touched our faces with such intrigue and she clapped along as we sang a Gospel song to them.
I can show you the face of a boy whose village of 300 families is stricken with HIV via blood transfusions.
They can only receive treatment if they remain in this desolate place. Week of Compassion has provided goats for their families – to give them a sense of purpose, economic provision, and even companionship.
I listened to the Rev. Dr. Nancy Pittman’s message from last week – what a marvelous homiletician, right? I’m so grateful for her and my colleagues who brought such meaningful messages these past few weeks at HACC. Nancy mentioned Don’s experience with the Chinese government officials from the State Administration of Religious Affairs. Everything she said was duplicated in my experience a week ago.
The same marvelous structures. The same curiosity of non-religious officials assigned to manage religion so as to keep it in a non-competitive state with the government. Being ushered to the same lunch with said officials
and being the one invited to say a Christian prayer before our meal. I prayed in Jesus name and prayed time and time again while I was away that I might represent our faith, and our congregation, with a humility that builds bridges some 6,793 miles long.
The Great Wall is an indescribable human marvel. So many steep steps – my trip roomie and I were the only ones to crest the top. It was exhilarating.
The food was… well… not Panda Express if you know what I mean. Check out the tasty snacks at our disposal.
I must say that our final meal as a team in China was one where no morsel of food remained in any dish.
Deep dish pizza surpasses any language barrier.
Whenever you have such transformative experiences, you’re often left asking, “How can I possibly re-pay the gift of this opportunity?” “What do I owe?”
It may be the most awkward question in the English language: “What do I owe?” We often ask after we’ve received something of value. We are uncertain of the cost but assume it must be significant – after all, what we received was certainly significant. But then, shocking words: “Nothing. You owe nothing.” Somehow, in our astonishment of such a gift, our primary feeling is not obligation but a great desire to not simply give fair-market value as a token of appreciation but to give extravagantly. The Apostle Paul was one to say, “You may be on to something.”
As we launch into a three-week series on the stewardship of our lives, we’re looking specifically at that concept; the idea that we are blessed to be a blessing. Our stewardship team has coined it simply “Pay it Forward.” The artwork for the series which you can begin to see on this slide is a gift paid forward by Hannah Lollman, one of our own who is an amazingly talented artist and children’s book illustrator. Her entire series of art will be revealed as we go. When you see her, please thank her for her gift shared. Pay it Forward. You’re probably familiar with the phrase as it’s been around for a while. Benjamin Franklin once loaned a man in need some money and he said, “I do not pretend to give such a deed. I only lend it to you. When you meet with another honest man in similar distress as you, you must pay me by lending this sum to him.” Pay it forward. The three-word phrase itself is first attributed to Lili Hardy Hammond who coined the idea in her book that was published in 1916 entitled, The Garden of Delight. A movie bearing the same title came out in 2000. Did you see it? It starred Haley Joel Osmond who was still a kid actor at the time. This wasn’t the movie where he saw dead people. It was a powerful dramatic story that also starred Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. The lead line of the movie was this: “When someone does you a good deed, don’t pay it back, pay it forward.” There is a Pay It Forward foundation and even a Pay It Forward day, April 30. The concept is not new. The sentiment is simple but apparently not all that easy. Why? With the joy that comes in offering a gift to another with zero strings attached, why isn’t the idea second nature? Perhaps we fear not having enough. Perhaps we get lost in our own needs and miss seeing the opportunities to give all around us. But… what if? What if we made Pay it Forward our daily practice? As people of faith, what if we paid God’s love forward? Could we change the world? There may be only one way to find out. That is the focus of our series.
Today, we ride shotgun with Paul as he corresponds with the Roman Christians – a movement he hasn’t started in the flesh but values from a distance. He wants to go to them. He wants to see what’s happening in the church there but so far, he’s been prevented from getting to Rome. Even so, he believes in them. You can’t begin to save anyone, encourage anyone, transform anyone if you don’t first believe in them. There is a sleeping hero in everyone that just needs to be awakened. Has someone ever been that encouragement for you? Have you ever been that encouragement for someone else? Paul wants to awaken the spiritual heroes in the Roman church to pay their gift of salvation forward. The question is always – will they do it? Will they pay it forward?
Sometimes this realization comes in times of adversity. The winter before my family moved to Tulsa, this city experienced a crippling ice storm. Many trees down. Roads closed. Power outages everywhere and legitimate concern of what to do without heat and light and food. I remember moving here and seeing pictures many of you shared with me of cranes reaching over your homes to remove massive fallen trees and even some joyous images of multiple generations of your family camping out in the one room in your home that had a wood burning fireplace. Funny how the tough circumstances can also be the times where the greatest memories are formed. Our staff team was remembering this particular occasion as a great example of paying it forward. So many people rallied to share what they had. Everyone just wanted power so when they got it, they were eager to share it with family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers.
This seems to be Paul’s concept of paying it forward. It is a sense that we are debtors to all people. Paul says it this way in Romans 1:14: “I am a debtor both to Greeks and Barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” Paul’s reference to the Greeks was not a call to natives of Greece. Alexander the Great had taken the Greek language and thought all over the world. To be Greek, in Paul’s use of the word, was to be a person of refined mind, spirit and culture. Barbarian referred to a person who speaks bar bar – essentially a less refined and simple speech. In other words, Paul’s attempting to cover the entire spectrum of people on this planet. I am a debtor to everybody. “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (verse 15). God has entrusted Paul with this spectacular treasure of the gospel. The gospel is for everyone and I have it. Therefore, I can’t hold onto it but must pay it forward so that all might benefit.
This is Pastor Chin. I met him on a Sunday afternoon and he said he had preached almost three hours that morning – you think I’m long winded. With only 3% of China’s population professing protestant Christianity, the exposure and influence of the faith is not as prevalent as it is here in the States. Nonetheless, Pastor Chin at the age of 20 was introduced to Jesus and ultimately gave his life to the movement. It was a couple of years later before his wife followed suit. Almost a decade passed before his mother also professed faith in Christ. They raised their daughter in the faith. But his dad, a Kung Fu master, held out. The faith was nonsense to him. But as I sat over a mostly unidentifiable meal with Pastor Chin he smiled like he is in this picture and said, “Guess what I did last month. I baptized my 88-year-old father.” His smile must have also been Paul’s when he writes to Rome, “The Good News is news I’m proudest to proclaim. It is the power of salvation.” Do you know the Good News? That’s why we’re here, right? Do you know that smile that comes in the sharing of it with others? Nothing beats it.
In a different way we see this pay-it-forward concept in Second Kings, Chapter seven. The Syrians have surrounded Jerusalem. The imposed embargo has all of the city starving. Nobody can get any food and the perilous impact is imminent. The Syrians get spooked and are chased away from the city. Four people suffering from leprosy are standing at the gates of the city and decide, “Look, we are going to die anyway. Let’s go ask for mercy from the Syrians.” They go out to the Syrian camp and find that nobody is there but the camp is filled with food. And what do they do? They chow down. They are starving! They pounce on it like our delegation pounced on pizza our final night in China. But it’s not long before they stop and say to each other, “This isn’t right. This is a day of good news. We can’t be silent until morning. Let us go and tell the king’s household.” And what happens? Within a day everybody’s need was met in Jerusalem.
This sort of awareness creates the opportunity for exponential living. You have an abundance of food, you call for a banquet and feast with friends or the hungry. You have an abundance of resource; you give in ways that bring life-abundance to others. You have the gospel in you; you give it away and the blessing expands in ways you couldn’t possibly anticipate. This is what it means to pay God’s love forward. Friends – as a church, we stand on the most critical year in our history. I’m convinced of this. And actually, I always believe this. The year I tell you that the next year is not our most critical year yet will be my last among you. Every year should be the most critical. God deserves that. You deserve that. Our children and grandchildren deserve that. This city deserves that. We’ve got a vision. We’ve got a message. And we’ve got the joy to pull it off. That’s why we do these campaigns like the one we launch today in support of the coming year. This Pay it Forward campaign supports our operational expenses for 2017. Your pledge determines our reach. It’s not about paying the bills. It’s about funding the vision. It’s about making real what it means to be love to all, grow in our belief and discipleship of Christ, and become the best version of ourselves by making our lives a tool of God’s pay-it-forward grace in the world. If you’ve never made a pledge before, consider making one this year. If you can grow your pledge this year and help fuel ahead the incredible ways our facility is facilitating ministry, please do so. More kids than ever are influenced by our programs. More youth. More young adults. Even more seniors. The breadth and depth of our community is inspiring – paying it forward with our pledges enriches lives we may not even know at this point.
Paul may say it best when he says, “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – or rather (he determines more appropriately), so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Mutual encouragement takes all of us. One sided encouragement is like working out only one side of your body – there’s no balance or steady foundation upon which to build. But when we are all equally committed – not necessarily equal funds but equal sacrifice – the growth to the realm of God is immeasurable.
Which brings us, of course, to baseball.
After 108 years, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I actually flew out over Wrigley Field as the first pitch was being thrown in Game 5. It was the last leg of my trip home from China. So many of my friends are Cubs fans. I was pulling for them. The series with the Cleveland Indians didn’t disappoint. It was so good, a single game ticket for Game 7 was easily going for more than $27,000. Game 7 went down to the wire, extra innings even. The go ahead run scored by the Cubs in the 10th inning was a run knocked in by Ben Zobrist who would soon be named the MVP of the series. He was on the Royals championship team a year ago. Leave it to a Royal to win you the Series. I’m sure there was some praying going on in Chicago during that game.
In fact, one church was banking on it. They posted this sign the day after the Cubbies took home the series. It says, “FYI, if you made any promises during the bottom of the 9th, service starts at 10:45 Sunday morning.”
Now – I’m not so sure that God is a Cubs fan. Cleveland fans surely offered a prayer or two as well. Even so, life is built on promises. God has promised us much and been faithful in those promises. What are we made of if not the promises and pledges we make in our own lives? What promise will you make to pay God’s love forward? Paul ends the portion of his letter we consider today with these words: “The person in right standing before God by trusting him really lives.” What do I owe for all God has promised to me? Not a thing. No amount of money or anything else is pay-back worthy. Instead, true living comes in paying God’s love forward. That’s victory. That’s your opportunity and mine. We will seize it? If we can, life will never be the same; yours, mine, and those touched by the reach of the ministry we share. Start today. See what happens when you pay God’s love forward…
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 Exegetical info comes from William Barclay’s commentary on the book of Romans. The Westminster Press. Philadelphia. 1975.