This is a two-part sermon based on today's gospel and Epistle readings. It's almost twice as long as my usual sermons because this is the first Sunday in ages when I've taken two services in different churches that are both preaching services rather than communion services.
Introduction – Pay It Forward
I wonder how many people have seen the film from the year 2000 entitled Pay it Forward?
This is a film about a 12 year old boy, Trevor, who lives with his alcoholic single mother in a deprived neighbourhood in Las Vegas. One day the school's Social Sciences teacher gives the children an assignment: think of an idea for world change, and put it into action. And Trevor comes up with the idea of 'Paying it Forward'.
It's a simple idea and it's easily done and it does have the potential to change the world. Trevor explains it this way: 'You see, I do something real good for three people. And then when they ask how they can pay it back, I say they have to Pay It Forward. To three more people. Each. So nine people get helped. Then those people have to do twenty-seven.'
And so, in the film, a chain of good deeds is begun as Trevor helps three people who, in turn, help three other people. The movement spreads from city to city, initially unbeknownst to anyone until a total stranger gives a Journalist his brand-new Jaguar car. The stranger tells the journalist only that he is ‘paying it forward’ and the journalist begins to investigate this phenomenon.
As the journalist investigates what has happened, the audience learns of a series of good deeds that have resulted in things like…
…a woman being talked out of committing suicide…
…a woman homeless through alcohol and despair finding the strength to try to stop drinking and repair her life…
…and a girl being saved from possibly dying of an asthma attack.
It seems that Trevor did actually come up with an idea that could change the world.
And the idea of ‘paying it forward’ was so compelling that it has sprouted a Real Life imitator: The Pay It Forward Movement and the Pay It Forward Foundation. The Foundation has as its aim “to educate and inspire students to realize that they can change the world, and provide them with opportunities to do so.”
From Little Seeds
This morning we heard the very familiar parable of the seeds and the plants, as told by the Evangelist Mark. And I think that you can probably see the connection here with the idea of ‘Paying it Forward’.
Our good deeds can have an effect on other people far beyond their own ‘size’. In the film, for instance, 12-year-old Trevor tries to help a homeless alcoholic man by giving him shelter in the garage and by giving him food, but the man – Jerry - goes back to his drink. However, it is actually Jerry whose own kindness in ‘paying it forward’ helps the alcoholic woman stop drinking and to turn her life around. Trevor thought that his kindness to Jerry had failed when, in fact, that kindness rippled forward into the future and helped someone else.
And, I think that this lesson is something that we all know: that our own acts of kindness and generosity can often have ripples far into the future in ways that we don’t even know. But it can take a certain level of maturity and patience to actually believe these things. It’s only human nature that we really like to see the rewarding effects of our own good deeds in as direct a way as possible. In fact, I reckon that our natural tendency to respond to reward stimulus would encourage all of us to do good deeds constantly if there was a direct and immediate reward for doing good.
All about God
But this parable is not just a morality tale. It’s not just trying to teach us a lesson about how to be good disciples – although I reckon it’s doing that too. Today’s parable, as presented to us by the Evangelist Mark, is also trying to tell us something about what the Kingdom of God is like and about what God himself is like.
And I want to pick up on an idea that I found on a blog this week. The person who wrote it is a Lutheran lay preacher in Michigan and she was talking about her version of the Kingdom. Her version of God’s Kingdom is: “a place where people speak and act like people who've been invited into a conspiracy of hope and healing.”
I love that idea of the Kingdom of God as ‘a conspiracy of hope and healing’.
Because I believe that God is all about producing ‘a conspiracy of hope and healing’ And God’s Kingdom is a reality that is organized around people forming a ‘conspiracy of hope and healing’. If the message of Christ is meant to be a message of Good News, I don’t think that you could ask for more good news that that.
Imagine this fantasy world where people are whispering behind people’s backs saying things like: “How are we going to let him know how much we appreciate him? What can we do?” “How can we help her out?” Or even “How can we pay that good deed forward”?
And, how different does it seem from our own world where often people ask questions more like: “How can we plot to get him out of office? And which political faction will I align myself with next?” “How quickly can we foreclose on her mortgage?” Or even “How can I pay him back for the things he did to me? How can I make him suffer the way that I suffered?”
Sometimes the world of conspiracy and tragedy and pain can be so pressing and so real that we lose sight of the fact that there is any other kind of reality. We lose sight of God’s reality and of God’s Kingdom. And we begin to think that God is like our world: mean, petty, destructive, vindictive.
But the good news in this morning’s/evening’s Gospel reading is that God’s Kingdom is not about destruction; rather God’s Kingdom is about growth. And it may not appear to us at first glance that the seeds of God’s good news are going to bear any fruit. But just like Trevor’s apparently failed good deed in trying to help the homeless man, the seeds of God’s goodness will in fact yield a rich harvest in the end.
So I hope that we can not simply sowers of these seeds of hope, But that we will also have the faith to trust that growth will occur and to trust that God’s Kingdom is ‘a conspiracy of hope and healing.’
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
In the reading that you just heard from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, the Church in Corinth is longing for the Kingdom of God. They are longing for a reality that reflects a ‘conspiracy of hope and healing’. And they are wondering why this Kingdom hasn’t yet come.
And Paul’s answer is ‘We walk by faith, not by sight’.
It’s so easy for these words to sound trite, bland or naïve – especially when we are going through difficult times. If you hear the call to faith and hope incorrectly, they can sound like a counsel to constant passivity. But Paul isn’t counseling constant passivity. He says in the last verse of today’s Epistle reading that if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. And we, those of us who believe, are called to be agents of that new creation.
But sometimes things happen that we can’t do anything about: accidents, illness, unexpected redundancy….dare I say: crop failures.
Although there are many events in our lives that we do not have control over, we still have a choice as to how we respond to events. We can choose to believe that the universe is conspiring against us. Or we can choose to believe that it is conspiring on our behalf: that, as scripture says ‘All things work together for good.’
The Way of Fear vs The Kingdom of God
The way of what Paul is calling ‘the world’ and ‘the flesh’ counsel us to defensiveness, to fear and to conspiracy theories. In many respects, fear is the opposite of faith.
Fear tells us that loads of illegal immigrants are storming our boarders, sucking the resources from our benefits system; even when the facts tell us that immigrants make a net contribution to the British economy.
Fear tells us that that there is an organized conspiracy against the Christian faith and that Christians should spread the ‘news’ that Christian teachers will soon be discriminated against in law.
Fear tells the banks that they had better move quickly to foreclose on homeowners the minute they miss a mortgage payment and that, somehow, the entire economy is going to be better off that way than by allowing a person to find another job and take up their mortgage payments again.
Fear encourages us to be suspicious of other people and to act defensively and it encourages us to be frightened of any one or anything that is unknown.
Rather than building a Kingdom that is run on the principle of a ‘conspiracy of hope and healing’, the way of fear is to counsel a Kingdom that is run on the principle of ‘a conspiracy of despair and disintegration’. ‘Look out for number one’ and ‘I’m going to make sure that I get mine.’
God’s Way, not Evil’s Way
Paul calls us to turn our eyes toward the new creation and to walk by faith. Paul calls us to Pay it Forward and to enter into a conspiracy of hope and healing. Paul reminds us that these things are the core of God’s New Creation because they are also at the core of Who God Is.
The secret of The Kingdom of Fear is that if you are really willing to threaten other people with death and destruction, you have a good chance of grabbing anything you want. This is the world’s great wisdom.
The secret of hope and healing is that if you really believe in resurrection and in God’s Kingdom, then you have the freedom from fear to dare to do what is right. The secret of the Kingdom of God is that hope and healing are the ultimate reality and fear and destruction are not.
The Kingdom of God is place of ‘Paying it Forward’. It is a conspiracy of hope and healing and a place of life.
We may not have a choice about all the events in our lives, but we have a choice as to how we react to these events. We can choose the way of fear and act defensively and destructively. Or we can choose to walk by faith and not by sight and choose the path of hope and healing.
And the reason we have a choice in the matter is because God is our Creator, our Saviour and our Sustainer. Before the foundation of the world, he chose to weave salvation, goodness, righteousness, hope and healing into the very fabric of reality. And this is very good news indeed.
My prayer this morning is that we may each be given the faith to trust in God’s promise of salvation and New Creation.
And I pray also that when we see the harvest that has grown from the seeds of hope, that we will be inspired to give thanks to the God who constantly conspires for a Kingdom of hope and healing. Amen
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