Sermon for August 23, 2020

“Paying It Forward” –Romans 12:1-8

“Why can’t people be kinder to each other?  Why can’t people just help each other?”  Patricia Creighton heard the man with great distress cry out.  She was just standing there filling up her car with gas and he was just walking along the streets, homeless. 

He had not seen her, but she called out, “What’s wrong?”

He called back, “I can’t find a place to sleep or find any work, I’m desperate!” as he kept walking. 

Patricia writes “I’ve often given small amounts of money to homeless people or given them food, but something about this young man really struck a chord in me.  I got some cash, drove up the street, found him and gave him some money.  His reaction?  Intense gratitude.  His eyes teared up and he put his hand to his heart several times, saying thank you! again and again.

            As I was driving home, two thoughts came to mind;  the movie “Pay it Forward” and that phrase “why give a person a fish when you can teach them how to fish?”  So, I turned my car around and drove around for about an hour looking for him. 

When I found him, I asked him to get in the car and tell me his story. I took him to a restaurant for a meal;  he could only eat about 1/4 of a bowl of soup because he’s not used to eating very much at all, and he was shaking and sometimes close to tears;  he told me that nothing like this had ever happened to him.”  His name was Kevin.

We talked about many things as I was assessing his character. He seemed honest and forthright with me.  I asked him if he actually really wanted to get off the streets — yes, he said. He told me that the birth of his daughter had completely changed his perspective and that he just had to turn his life around so that he wouldn’t jeopardize being a part of her life in the future. He also told me he wants to give her a real father. 

As Patricia came to know more about Kevin she started a campaign and raise $5,000 to get Kevin off the streets.  She writes, “I’m also hoping that the success of this campaign will change his life for the better, giving him the opportunity for a new start and renewed hope.  If we help one person at a time, there is a huge ripple effect and it can open the heart up to how truly fragile life really is.”  (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/pay-it-forward-to-homeless-in-halifax)

            This concept of helping others as someone has helped you is found within our society in the idea of paying it forward.  If someone is kind to you, you can pay them back, but sometimes it is even better to remember their kindness and when you see someone in need do as has been done to you.

            There are a lot of stories like this in the world.  The concepts of generosity, kindness, and charity are not new to life.  The idea that we can give where we have not received and that we can help without expecting a return has been with us for a long time.  In fact, these ideas are most Christian.   The Apostle Paul was appealing to the people of his day to live life in a particular way.  He wrote, (Romans 12:1), “1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  Now at one level that is a confusing expression, “A living sacrifice.”  This is a biblical oxymoron if ever there was one.  When I read the Old Testament, sacrifices are usually killed, burned, poured out, scattered, or sprinkled.  To be sacrificed usually infers that the thing sacrificed is terminated and used up in some way.  To be living seems to reflect the opposite, so how can Paul call us to be a living sacrifice?   What does that mean?  

            Well I think one way of looking at that expression is to say it is like using your life to pay it forward.  In this, the idea is to repay a kindness or gift not to the one giving you the gift but to others.   The gift we have received is the gift of life through the very real death and sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross.  The payment we give is the life we live that is influenced and controlled by the effect of that gift upon our lives.  This payment is ultimately received by those around us, and ultimately, our lives are not the same as they would have been had we never known Christ, because we then are living not for what we are due, but for what we have received from God by the grace given in Christ. 

            I remember that when I was in high school, I was reading an article in the Sunday paper.  It was about different occupations and the salaries.   One of those occupations was that of a geophysicist who made an annual salary of $120,000 per year.  If a person started their own consultant firm in this field the yearly income could triple.  My grandmother said, “Rusty, that is what you should do.”  Well I did excel at math and science, and I was interested in geology, and so I did study Geology for my undergraduate degree.  I even took a couple of graduate level classes in Geophysics.  I got high grades in those classes.  The only problem was that after I graduated, I just felt there was just something missing.  I wasn’t satisfied with the direction because I lived persuaded that the things of ultimate concern and value were not in the things that I could see or the money that I could make but in the things that I cannot see.  When the earth and everything in it is burned up in a cosmic blaze, cast into the coldness of absolute zero, and the very molecules of the universe are scattered and lose their energy; spinning down into nothing more than a radioactive haze, God’s kingdom eternal in the heavens will be as new as the day it was created.  You can count to 100 billion years in the future and years neither faze God nor put a dent in God’s plans.  So, I asked myself, should I pursue work in geology, or pursue that which I believe is of eternal significance and has the ability to affect the eternal outcome of those around me.  In prayerful consideration I chose to follow where I felt the Spirit was leading me.  My grandmother wasn’t wrong, but there was just something more important, because of Christ.  There was something of ultimate importance that I had to follow and follow after. 

            So, I started serving as the pastor of a church in 1984 as I was preparing to go to seminary.   I chose a different path –to pay forward to as many as might be led accordingly to believe in something more.   My life is not the same because of the decisions I made based upon the faith that I hold.   There is a part of me that I laid aside due to the surpassing worth of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. 

            The Apostle Paul put his life this way.  Philippians 3:4-11 (NRSV)
“4  even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:
5  circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;
6  as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7  Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.
8  More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9

            Paul gave up a part of himself to share with others the hope he was living out.  He lived to pay forward the blessing and hope of eternal life found in Christ.             A living sacrifice –what we sacrifice is life, so that Christ may live in and through us, until our lives reflect God’s reality.

            Let me ask you this if Paul had remained as a Pharisee who persecuted the Christian church, what would his story had been.  We can guess.  He would have lived an easier and richer life as he became more popular and highly thought of within the temple and among other Pharisees.  He could have lived longer and without being imprisoned –until maybe 70 AD.  At which time if he had been in Jerusalem (likely) he would have found himself fighting against Rome who sacked Jerusalem and burned the temple.  How many Pharisees to you think died that day and were burned up in the fire, never to be named, or even given a grave?   Perhaps Paul traded one life for another. 

            What about you?  Will you pay life forward according to the kindness and life God has given you Christ?   Will you be a living sacrifice, or will you simply choose to live out your own life your own way?  One may wonder what the outcome of life will be for you. 

            There is more to be said about this passage.  As I read the rest of the passage, Paul continues on to offer specific advice on how to live life.  Romans 12:2-8 (NRSV)
2  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3  For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
4  For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,
5  so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
6  We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;
7  ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching;  8  the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.   

            Now my thought about this is that Paul is defining for us something of what the sacrificed life looks like.   What does it mean to be a living sacrifice?  What does life look like to be paying it forward on the account of what God has done for you?  After you leave here today I want you to get out your Bible and read through the verses following Paul’s call to be a living sacrifice, and see if you can answer the question of what this sacrificial life looks like.  What should your life look like?

            Take time to pay it forward according to the grace God has given you.  Be the substance that changes people’s lives for the eternal good and allow God to change your life according to the glory that is heavens.  This is to be a living sacrifice.   Amen.

Published by Rev. Russell

Pastor at the Lake City United Methodist Church in Lake City, Michigan.

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