Hancock Church Sermon – Rev. Dana Allen Walsh – November 24, 2013 – John 13:3-15


 “Paying It Forward”

An interesting and noteworthy phenomenon has been sweeping across the United States: drive-through generosity.

Fast-food workers are seeing kindness that they’ve never witnessed before. And it’s become more and more common. People are paying for their own meal and paying extra for the car behind them in the drive through.

You can imagine what being the recipient of such generosity looks like: after placing your order, you drive up to the cashier and are told that your order has been paid for. By someone you never met. Pretty powerful.

This kind of good deed is often referred to as “paying it forward”. While a bit confusing in the context of paying for the car behind you in a drive-through; “to pay it forward” means to repay a kindness by being kind to someone else rather than the person who was kind to you. The expression was popularized by a best-selling novel which was then adapted into a film in 2000 starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. The protagonist in the story does three good deeds and asks the beneficiaries to do three good deeds and it continues to pass on.

In the past, paying it forward in drive-throughs occurred maybe once or twice a year, now fast-food operators say it might happen several times a day.

Citing a recent NY Times article, the largest outbreak of drive-through generosity occurred last December at a Tim Hortons in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when 228 consecutive cars paid it forward. In April, a string of 67 cars paid it forward at a Chick-fil-A in Houston. And in July, a Heav’nly Donuts in Amesbury, Mass., experienced a good-will train of 55 cars.

This notion of “paying it forward” has become a popular way of doing good, but it’s not a new idea. This kind of generosity and care for others is rooted deep in our Scriptures, particularly in the life of Jesus.

We see it in the story of the Feeding 5,000, when Jesus instructs his disciples to take the 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread and feed the hungry crowd.  The disciples were skeptical but still they shared their meager meal of fish and bread, their generosity became contagious and others also shared their food, until all the people were fed. 

We see it in when Jesus sends his disciples out two by two, to go without a staff or extra tunic, and share the good news of hope and heal people in need. He does not send them out with giant backpacks filled with food and supplies, instead, he sends them out with very little, so that they need to rely on the good will of others. 

Jesus’ deep faith enabled him to trust God that his needs and other people’s needs would be met. And he instructed his followers to have that same trust. He wanted his disciples to step out in faith and take action, even when it was uncertain where the bread or tunic or the warm bed would come from. 

I think of our early Pilgrim forebears who began the American tradition of Thanksgiving. Just as the frigid temperature was demanding more wood for the hearth and an extra wool coat to protect against the wind and their short supply of candles had to burn through the long hours of darkness, the Pilgrims choose to offer the “first fruits” of their meager harvest to God. They didn’t focus on what they were missing; on what their lives lacked in this new land, instead, they practiced gratitude and generosity.

Many of us today have bought into our culture’s great myth of scarcity. There isn’t enough to go around. Everything from safety and love, to money and resources feels restricted and lacking. A few fish and loaves are not enough to feed the crowd. One tunic and a staff is not enough for a long journey. This underlying belief drives us to consume, hoard, accumulate, and devour, rather than share, contribute, and give.

Global activist and fundraiser, Lynne Twist, writes on this issue in her book, “The Soul of Money”:

“For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “ I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of….Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.”

I know this is true for me. Scarcity and fear mix together in my mind, and they drive me to consume and mistakenly believe that I’m not complete how I am. I need something more. Sure, I have a problem with shoes. There can never been enough shoes. But even deeper than that, when I focus on what is lacking or missing in my life, I don’t want to share or trust in others. I want to keep everything for myself.

If this is true for you too, our faith offers us an interesting response.

We don’t need to feel gratitude in order to practice gratitude. Sometimes you don’t feel grateful at all, but that shouldn’t stop you from practicing gratitude.

It’s easy to love the person who loves us back. It’s easy to be kind to the person who’s been kind to us. It’s easy to bless the person who has been a blessing to us.

But, as Christians, we are called to pay it forward.

So, we need to pass that love, that kindness, that blessing on. Sometimes it looks like a simple action like paying for a meal for a random stranger or saying hello to a homeless person, or visiting a lonely neighbor. Or it might mean working for systematic changes like healthcare reform, gender equity, or racial equality.

Jesus taught his followers to be bold, to give freely, and “to love others as much as you love yourself”.

Contrary to the scarcity that we might feel, we need to act with generosity and gratitude. It’s a little crazy, but that’s what our faith demands.

French philosopher, Jacques Ellul wrote: “Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be.”

On Jesus’ last night on earth, he gathered at the dinner table with his disciples and friends. He knew that he would soon be captured and suffer and die at the hands of the Romans. And he knew full well that some of his disciples that he loved to the depths of his heart would betray him, abandon him, and deny him. But still, before their last meal together, he took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist, and began to wash his disciples’ feet. This was shocking because only slaves washed feet. It was an act of service and a symbol that pointed to Jesus’ love and sacrifice. And after he was done, he only made one request of his disciples: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

So, friends, in response to the God who has wiped away our tears, cleaned the dirt off our feet, and set us on a new path, we now have the opportunity to “pay it forward.”

When we make a pledge to Hancock, it’s not a transactional experience. You don’t pay for what you get.  Instead, we pledge to make possible programs and services that you might or might not receive. In this action today, we recognize that we are in covenant with one another, which means we care for one another.  And we care for the person we might never meet.

This is how we pay it forward. This is how we insist on creating a world of generosity and gratitude. This is how we live out our call as holy troublemakers and resist the culture of scarcity and fear.

So, in this Faith Promise procession, let us create our own drive-through generosity. As you place your pledge on the table, you aren’t buying a Happy Meal for the person behind you, but you are giving them the gift of a church home where their spirits can be nourished, their souls be fed, and their hearts filled. Amen.