Paying grace forward

Psalm 24, 29 (Morning)

Psalm 84 (Evening)

Ecclesiasticus 36:1-17

I Corinthians 12:27-13:13

Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35: Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

“I guess it’s hard for people who are so used to things the way they are – even if they’re bad – to change. ‘Cause they kind of give up. And when they do, everybody kind of loses.”–Trevor McKenney (Hayley Joel Osment,) from the movie Pay it Forward

Our Gospel reading today brings up an interesting uncomfortable truth–that God is probably more interested in people paying divine mercy forward rather than back. But as the Hayley Joel Osment character in the movie Pay it Forward learns, that’s not as easy as it seems. Every character in the movie seems to have a dark secret that either causes them to close down, or act out. Yet, character after character in the movie finds themselves in a place where they actually find the courage to pay something forward, and as the movie unfolds, we discover that the people who perform these acts of kindness are connected by far fewer than six degrees of separation. Although the movie ends on a note of hope, it is at the cost of Trevor’s life.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, when one puts it in the context of the Gospel?

Yet look how much effort seems to go into the things we seemingly do “to please God.” As children, it seems like the Bible stories that got hammered into many of us followed the plot line of, “God punishes you if you do X, Y, or Z–and you really don’t want to do Z; the outcome is really awful.” Really, it’s not much different than the other cause and effect lessons we mislearned as kids. We learned that going outside without your coat causes pneumonia. We learned that not eating our brussels sprouts somehow caused poverty and hunger to continue in India. We learned that making faces at your mother put you at risk of it freezing in that position, for the rest of your life.

Of course, as we grew up, we learned things weren’t exactly that way. We discovered that bacteria cause pneumonia, hunger could not be cured by eating our vegetables, and that there were no plastic surgeons who made their living by unsticking frozen faces. We learned that we were told things in a certain not-exactly-but-sorta-related way because a) our parents wanted us to be aware of some things and b) we weren’t cognitively sophisticated enough to understand the most accurate explanation.

But for some reason, it seems humans sometime hold onto that childhood disconnect when it comes to comprehending our relationship with God. We still, at times, might think looking a certain way, acting a certain way, or even voting a certain way pleases God–and a displeased God will almost certainly stomp on us with both feet. That version of God has exacted a terrible toll on humanity, frankly. Some people yearn for God, yet can’t bring themselves to walk through a church door because they feel so irreparably sinful or bad. Others claim a belief in God but shun formal religion because they are angry at the cause-and-effect version of God they were exposed to as a child (and really, who can blame them? Who wants to be in relationship with a God who sounds more like an abusive parent?) Even sadder are those who want nothing to do with that rendition of God for another entirely understandable reason–they were abused by people who claimed the authority of God. How can they even begin to trust any form of God? Finally, some deal with it by denying the possibility of the existence of God altogether, preferring to trust only that in the natural and physical world.

I think for even the most faithful Christian who feels he or she is in a loving and trusting relationship with God, and doesn’t buy into cause-and-effect God, these scenarios feel impossible to undo, and carry a heavy hopelessness about them. We have, as Trevor said, given up.

Jesus’ parable, however, opens up a secret compartment in what appears to be a stonewalled relationship. What if the notion of “pleasing God,” isn’t as much about what we claim to do to show our support “for God” as it is about paying our own moments of grace forward in a one-to-many fashion? In the movie Pay it Forward, we see how Trevor’s social studies assignment changes people in an avalanche of grace. Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, we the audience get to see the face-to-face view rather than the “through a mirror, dimly” view. But could Hollywood become Heaven? I’ll be the first to admit I like the attention of doing good works, but when I look back, it always seems the best works I ever did, I did in secret, and if I had the patience to wait long enough, I was given at least a peek through that fogged mirror on how that changed things for others for the better, even if no one ever acknowledged my part in it.

What changes when we, in the words of today’s Epistle, put away our childish ways that involve hopes of a reward, and, instead, put that effort in loving others with no expectations of reward?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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