This past August at a Starbucks in Florida there was another outbreak of the “Pay-It-Forward” phenomenon. What happens is this: You drive up and place your order, and by the time you move up to the next window to collect your latte and pay for it, the guy behind you has ordered, and the guy in front of you has paid. You are told that the guy in front of you also paid for you, and so you are presented with the opportunity to do the same for the guy behind you.
Various different episodes of this “caffeinated kindness,” as one writer called it, have been reported in recent years. In Connecticut last Christmas, the kindness lasted for four days and nearly 1500 customers who paid for the coffee of the car behind them. In Florida this past summer, it seems that 378 people paid for the coffee of the car behind them at the drive-thru, over the course of about eleven hours. The charity came to an end when finally a customer was not willing to pay for the car behind him or her. The barista who served this customer tried to find a way to forgive him or her, saying he didn’t “believe the final customer understood the pay-it-forward concept.”[i]
The next day the media were reporting, I guess, that the whole thing had started again – people paying for the coffee of the car behind them. And here’s where it gets interesting… Because some guy who is hearing this on the radio or TV, or on the web, or wherever, decides that it’s an outrage. He decides that this is not a pattern of spontaneous generosity because the baristas are suggesting (maybe even asking) that drivers pay for the car behind them. That information puts this guy – whose name I will withhold to protect him – in a tizzy. That’s not generosity, he decides, that’s guilt. So he drives over to the Starbucks in question, orders two Venti Mocha Frappuccinos (one for him and one for his wife), and declines, flat out, to pay for the car behind him.[ii]
So let’s cast this guy in the role of the villain. Let’s say he’s the bad guy in this story. I’m not saying he has horns and is marked with the sign of the beast, I’m saying, for my purposes, he is going to be the villain toda… not only because he insisted that his way of seeing things must be the only good and proper way of seeing things; not only because he put an end to a good thing for no good reason; not only because he squelched the spirit of generosity and kindness that this world is sorely in need of (even if only at the drive-thru of a Starbucks); not only because he felt moved to get up and into his car and make the effort to drive to this coffee shop with the sole purpose of choking off the good and decent impulses of his fellow citizens; but also because, if you think about it, he is the only guy all day who actually got free coffee out of the deal! Yes, in his self-righteousness our villain remains the only person who benefited from the generosity of the guy in front of him without assuming any cost at all for the guy behind him, so he drives away with coffee that cost him nothing.
There’s more than a hint of self-righteousness in the attitude of the guys who track down Jesus to challenge him about paying taxes to Caesar. The situation is different, but similar. They have been hearing that this guy Jesus is challenging their authority. He’s been telling parables that suggest that the poor and the outcast are every bit as likely to be favored by God – and maybe more so – than those who hold high status in the religious pecking order. But who is Jesus to be turning over the tables in the Temple? Who is he to speak well of tax-collectors and prostitutes? Who is he to criticize them?
So when news reaches them of this guy who is upsetting the established order of things, they get up and take themselves over to find him and put a stop to all this, possessed of pretty much the same attitude of self-righteousness with which our villain was possessed. And although times have changed, they must not have changed all that much because these guys decide that they will try to trip Jesus up with a challenge about taxes, which, just like in current American political discourse, you must never ever actually say are acceptable, because then you will identify yourself as a socialist at best, and probably something much more subversive than that. I don’t know what the label they would have pinned on Jesus would have been, but I am sure they had one at the ready.
And how frustrating it must have been to find that this guy, Jesus, who has actually only recently arrived in Jerusalem, is able so successfully to turn the tables on them by refusing to let the conversation be about taxes. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Pay it forward, boys, he might have said. Pay it forward.
You can always find a good reason not to do so. You can always find a reason to take offense. You can always decide that one man’s generosity is another man’s guilt, and that you are not going to play that game. So you can always put a stop to the spirit of generosity and kindness, and choke off the good and decent impulses of others by impugning them one way or another. You can always find a way to justify not rendering to Caesar what Caesar thinks you owe him – and this ancient tradition is enshrined in the insane American tax code, and keeps a lot of political and commercial wheels turning in our own day and age.
The flip side, of course, is that you can always find a way to justify not rendering to God the things that might be God’s, because, well, who I am or – or anyone else – to tell you what you should be paying to God?
And it is absolutely correct that I have no idea what you should be giving to God. I have no idea what number of hours you might offer in God’s service. I have no idea what talents you might share with the church. I have no idea how much money you should give away to strengthen God’s church and to build up God’s kingdom. I have no idea how much.
But I do know how easy it is to decide not to do it at all. It’s actually even easier than it is to put an end to the Starbuck’s Pay-It-Forward, because at Starbucks you at least have to confront the barista who has asked you if you’ll pay for the car behind you. But to decide not to give to God, you don’t have to confront anyone at all. All you have to do is say nothing, and do as little, and give as little as you want, or less.
Thank God people give at Saint Mark’s. Every year a goodly number of us make a pledge to give all year long, and a fair number also just give something as the plate is passed. The story we have to tell here at Saint Mark’s is definitely a story of people who give.
Now, paying-it-forward is not by any means the perfect model of Christian stewardship; I don’t think that the sole reason we should give is because the person before you gave. But it is useful to remember that we are standing in a line here – a long line that stretches back about 165 years, over which time people have been giving and giving and giving. And at Saint Mark’s we are surrounded by signs of deeply generous giving.
And every year there comes a time when I am going to stand in front of you like a barista and ask if you are willing to give, too, if you are willing to continue that good spirit of generosity and kindness. And, as I say, the story here is that we usually get a pretty long line of people who are willing to say yes, and who find the good and decent impulse to give near at hand.
But I suppose that there are some who just don’t understand the giving concept. And I suppose that in each of us there is a little bit of that guy inside us who thinks maybe this is more about guilt than about generosity, and who thinks to himself: why should I be forced to give, just because people ahead of me in line have been convinced to do so? And since the people ahead of me in line have already been convinced to give, why do I even need to give at all, since everything seems to be paid for already?
Of course the little bit of that guy who occupies a space inside us never actually acknowledges that he is the only guy who benefits from the generosity of the guy in front of him without assuming any cost at all for the guy behind him; the only guy who drives away with free coffee. So that’s one thing.
But here’s another thing: Render to God the things that are God’s.
There are those who, in their self-righteousness, actually believe that everything they have belongs to them, and who cannot see that everything we have comes from God’s graciousness. And that’s another sermon.
But to those of us who recognize that God is the giver of all good things, it is not the question of paying taxes that we have to think carefully about, it’s the giving to God the things that are God’s that takes careful consideration.
And for that there is another kind of guy about whom we never hear in the papers or on the news, or on the Internet. There is this guy who is sitting at home, listening to the news that there are people lined up someplace at a drive-thru, paying for the car behind them. And this guy thinks that this is a pretty good idea, and so he gets in his car and drives down to Starbucks, even though he doesn’t like the coffee there and thinks it costs too much, and he feels ridiculous ordering a “Venti” anything when you could just say “Extra Large.”
And he lines up behind the cars in front of him and keeps looking in his rear view mirror, hoping to get a glimpse of whomever it is going to be who gets behind him. And he is hoping it will be a mom in a minivan who is harried by her kids, or a couple who have been recently arguing and need to find a way to forgive each other, or a guy in a beat up old Buick who is frustrated with his job search, or a older person who is wondering whether or not she should still be driving. You know, someone who is in need of something more than just caffeine.
And this guy is the hero of our story – the truly un-sung hero. He has adjusted his day for the sole purpose of keeping the pay-it-forward going. He has gone out of his way to encourage the spirit of generosity and kindness; to add his own jolt of energy to the good impulses of his neighbors. And remember, he doesn’t even like Starbucks coffee that much! You know you are giving to God the things that are God’s when you are behaving like this guy – who, remember, doesn’t even get any credit for it.
It’s not because he did a careful calculation of how many coffees he could afford to buy, and then prayed that a car with only one person and who’d order only a Short Macchiato would pull up behind him. In fact, I strongly suspect that after he paid for one car behind him, this guy circled around the block, came back, and did it again! And he probably gave away the first coffee he bought as he drove around the block!
There is part of that guy in each of us too. I want to be like that guy. And I want you to be like that guy, too. Because when we become like that guy then we begin to know what it is we have that is really God’s, so we can give to God the things that are God’s. Then we begin to see our lives as the gifts they are – given to us by God, so much paid for by someone else in front of us, who knew that her life was a gift from God. And this guy, so far, has no name; remains, so far, un-identified. We don’t even know, to tell the truth, whether or not this guy exists. Which means that this guy could be me, and this guy could be you, if we will render to God the things that are God’s!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
19 October 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] USA Today online, August 21, 2014
[ii] saintpetersblog.com, August 21, 2014, by Peter Schorsch