November 15, 2020    2020 Foresight: Paying It Forward, Pastor David Tatgenhorst 

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Let’s take a moment to let the music and scripture sink in - to hear God’s word speaking to us on a different level than our conscious awareness. 

November 15, 2020            2020 Foresight: Paying It Forward St. Luke UMC

I’ve only really managed to try it a couple of times - paying forward someone’s bill in a grocery line or the bagel shop. It’s funny - it feels a little embarrassing to do - to give the cashier extra money and say, “Pay that stranger’s bill who is coming after me.” It’s really kind of fun. One time I tried it when I was paying for bagels for the church service. There’s this couple that was always in the bagel shop having breakfast, and I told the cashier to take some extra money and pay for their breakfast next time they came in. 

The next time I went in, I tell you the truth, I really wanted to hear how it had worked out. I was disappointed when the cashier told me that they hadn’t come in the next week or so. I forgot until doing this sermon that I never found out anything about how the surprise went over. That wasn’t the point anyway. I enjoyed the thought of paying for their breakfast anonymously more than once over those few weeks. That’s living into the kingdom, paying it forward.

I don’t think I have to convince you all how fun it is to pay forward - to make sure you leave a little for the next person. You do it all the time, in different ways. You paid forward when you as a group gave Lauri Cumming $300 or so to buy stuff from Milene Ausdauer for the local food bank. You pay it forward when you give to UMCOR to help with hurricane relief every year, and when you give an extra offering at Christmas so Jim can buy winter coats for folks at Mary Jane Enrichment Center or the Methodist Home for Children. 

Some people give knowing those coats will keep somebody warm - and some of us give just because it’s so much fun to see Jim McDermott having so much fun giving the coats away. Lauri talked about the win-win-win situation of giving. One of these wins is definitely our own sense of well-being, our own feeling of being a little lighter from getting to be there for somebody else, knowing that we are part of the kin-dom, the new realm of God. (We don’t create it. We just get to be part of it.)

Paul has that same feeling about the congregation he started in Thessaloniki, in what is now Greece. He keeps saying, “I don’t need to tell you…” “you don’t need to have anything written to you.” They already know the feeling of well-being that comes from the assurance of Christ’s return. (I had this a little wrong in Bible study, I think) They had been anxious about the second coming for some time. They had been expecting Christ to come back and turn the world upside down any day - like a thief in the night, or with the suddenness of birth pangs. But their anxiety was easing. They were starting to live with a different assurance.

These analogies of thief and birth pangs are used several times in Paul’s letters and in the gospels. We usually read them at the beginning of Advent, and in a way, I feel like Advent is beginning early today, just the way Christmas decorations go up earlier and earlier every year. Paul knows that people in these communities have been on edge, living their lives in anticipation of the new reign of Christ, paying it forward, living as though that day had already come. 

Slowly Paul was realizing, and the community was realizing, that living as though Christ is coming tomorrow, or even that Christ had already come, was a good way to live. Paul encouraged them not to be too anxious about it, because they were part of the kin-dom simply by living the way Christ wanted them to live. They weren’t making it happen necessarily. They just got to be part of it. Christ was already living in and through them, and returning through their community. Paul was just beginning to realize that.

Or maybe I am. The more I read this passage, the more reassurance I get from it. Paul is talking to us the same way he was talking to that congregation in Thessaloniki. Here’s the way the Message puts it: “God didn’t set us up for an angry rejection but for salvation by our Master, Jesus Christ. He died for us, a death that triggered life. Whether we’re awake with the living or asleep with the dead, we’re alive with him! So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind. I know you’re already doing this; just keep on doing it.” 

These are loving, reassuring words - not words of exhortation or disappointment. They are meant for us this day. When we pay it forward - whether it is helping someone out with some laundry detergent, paying their grocery bill, or filling out a commitment card to make sure this church continues its ministries for another year - we are living out and actualizing the presence of Christ, the return of Christ, the incarnation of Christ. 

Let me take a moment here, an aside, to tell you about our Bible study on Friday. It was just a few of us, but we took some time to list some of the things we believed or were taught in church growing up that we have had second thoughts about as our faith has matured. We had some good thoughts about that. Sometimes I know we worry that we don’t have anything strong enough in faith to replace the naive faith of our youth. But I want you to be brave, because I am sure that God really is available to you. When you let go of that white haired old man in the sky, you will find a deeper sense of the Living God is actually with you. I thank you for being brave with me for these last 25 years, questioning and trusting, and renewing our faith together. It’s a brave and alive journey. 

Paul invites us to stay awake to the possibilities of being Christ’s presence on this journey. Paul is totally confident of that presence and that return of Christ in power. Paul is sure the new realm of God is on its way and that a congregation dedicated to the faith, hope and love was (and is) witnessing that new realm being born. 

Sometimes I have that kind of confidence. I feel it especially when I get to love somebody and know it’s getting through. I feel it when I can pay it forward for someone’s breakfast and rest assured that there was a little joy in that person’s world. I feel it when I see this congregation making win-win-win situations happen in people’s lives. I feel it when I trust that tithing from my salary for God’s work in the world will leave me and the world better off. I feel it when I know God is taking my life, taking our lives, and using them for the creation of a new day. Paying it forward for someone else is paying it forward for me, paying it forward for us too. 

*Responsive Hymn 399 Take My Life and Let it Be