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Faith Works

Sermon - 9/10/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

James 2:1-17

The text for our reflection this morning comes from the letter of James:

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.


As I think many of you know, this letter of James almost did not make it into scripture.  Some patriarchs of the church thought it was not authentic.  And Martin Luther was one of those who did not want to include it in his editions of the New Testament.  He called it an "epistle of straw".  Luther, based on his reading of Paul's letters, emphasized justification by faith alone.  That is, the idea that it is only faith in Jesus Christ that saves us.  

Thus the question, in verse 14 here in this text, "Can faith save you?", is nothing short of scandalous from that perspective.  Because Luther and millions of Christians ever since would answer "why yes, of course!".

But in the context of this passage, the answer is the reverse -- "no, it cannot".  Faith cannot feed the poor.  Faith cannot put roofs over the heads of the homeless.  Faith cannot clothe the naked.  But the faithful can and do feed the poor.  The faithful can and do house the homeless.  The faithful can and do clothe the naked -- when they live out their faith with their works.

And so James has often been touted as a corrective to the over-emphasis on the sufficiency of faith alone to the neglect of the importance of works.  But if you look deeper at the writings of Paul, I think you will discover that this is not really a contradiction.  In fact, Paul and James pretty much say the same thing, just in different ways.

Paul does not pit faith against works, as often is claimed.  But rather for Paul it's an issue of faith-works vs law-works.  The primary difference between those is that works of law are those things we do because we they are imposed upon us, from the outside.  You know, how many of us would drive 80, 90 miles an hour if it weren't for that police officer sitting by the side of the road?  Be honest, you're driving through Nevada, Wyoming, pedal to the metal, you know.  It's because of that position of the law that keeps us from doing those things.

Whereas works of faith come from the inside.  From the desire of the heart.  And so Paul writes to the Galatians:  "We cannot be made right with God by works of law [and he, of course, has in mind primarily things like circumcision and kosher diet and the like].  The only thing that counts", Paul says, "is faith working through love".

And James also is not pitting faith against works.  But faith with works against faith without works.  And he says the latter is nonsensical, it's meaningless.  Faith without works is dead.  It's inconceivable.

So what is the primary work of faith?  On this I think James and Paul are in perfect agreement:  love is the action by which faith is shown.  How do we show love?

Walt Wangerin is a very white Lutheran Pastor in a very black inner-city church.  Among his parishioners is Lillian Lander, a tiny, elderly, soft-spoken black woman that pastor Wangerin would literally have to bend over to hear her speak.  And she always had something to say after every service.  She would say things like "You taught us today, pastor", or "Mmmm, mmmm, how you did preach", or "When you preach, God is here, God is holding us".  So pastor Wangerin was often encouraged by Lillian.  Next door to the church was a rather crazy woman who made her living, supported herself, by prostitution.  And the city cut off all of her utilities -- her power, her water.  Maybe because she didn't pay her bill, maybe because they wanted to drive her out of business, he didn't know.  All he knew is that it didn't slow her down one bit -- she and her customers came to the church and helped themselves to the spigot on the side of the building whenever they needed a drink of water.  Well, pastor Wangerin wasn't about to condone this activity, so he took care of the matter -- he removed the handle off the spigot on the side of the building.  And he thought he could make some fine illustration in a sermon about the importance of standing up for morality in the community, and he did so.  

But Lillian didn't care for his finer points on morality.  She came out after that service and took a grab of his hand and she said to him: "You preached today, pastor".  But not letting go, squeezing even tighter, she said:  "God was here.  God was holding you.  Jesus said 'I was thirsty', and you gave me no drink'."  And then she let go of his hand and with her two hands she grabbed his face as if she were holding a chalice.  And she said to him:  "God was not smiling".  Then a smile crept across her face as she said:  "But he will".

And you know what pastor Wangerin did, what he had to do.  When everyone had left, he locked the doors of the church, and he took that handle and put it back on the spigot.

Mercy, says James, triumphs over judgment.  But too often we put judgment first.  How many of you read Dear Abby?  Go ahead, fess up, be honest J.  I never read it, but how many of you do?  My wife called my attention to this letter, maybe you say it a couple days ago -- a great letter:

Dear Abby:

I recently learned a lesson about not judging a book by its cover.  A young man and his divorced mother moved into our quite neighborhood of mostly retirees and young couples who have not yet started families.  When we first laid eyes on the young man we saw a guy with shoulder-length hair and dressed all in black, complete with black fingernail polish and black eye-liner.  Everyone thought the worst -- oh no, a heathen devil-worshiper.

A few months later, he presented himself in ragged jeans, a flannel shirt, his head completely shaved.  Again we thought the worst - he's turned into one of those neo-nazi skinheads.

I later learned from his mother that her son is a sociology major at a university 200 miles from here and had to evacuate during hurricane Katrina.  The black attire we first saw was for a costume party he was attending that evening.  He grows his hair long to donate to "Locks of Love" which uses it to make wigs for cancer patients, hence the shaved head.  He spends his summers working with groups going to under-privileged countries to teach children to read and write.  He also goes with Doctors Without Borders to help inoculate people who have never had the basic childhood vaccinations.  

I felt completely ashamed of myself for forming such an opinion about this wonderful young person simply from his appearance.  I am honored to have him as a neighbor.


You might think of that young man every time you see someone who might appear otherwise.

James makes it clear that love shows no partiality, for our love is to emulate the love of God as revealed in Christ.  And whenever we treat people different because of the way they look, because of their economic status, because of their race, their appearance, James says:  we commit sin.

Diana Butler-Bass teaches religion and politics at Virginia Theological Seminary and is leading a Lilly Foundation-financed study of vital congregations in the United States.  When I heard her speak in June at Trinity Cathedral in Portland, she told us about one of the churches in her study.  An Episcopalian congregation just a couple of blocks from the White House.  A church just a little bit larger than ours, with 2 services like we do, and a combined worship between the two.  But the poorest church in her study.  For many years the church leaders would meet in between the 2 services over breakfast.  And one Sunday they had more food than they could eat, and someone suggested:  why not invite some of those homeless folk who came to worship with us this morning?  So they did, thought it would be the appropriate thing to do.

Guess what happened the next Sunday?  There were more.  Hungry folk in the worship service.  They had prepared breakfast for their leaders as they always did.  What could they do?  They fed them.  One thing led to another and before they knew it, they were operating a full-blown soup kitchen on Sunday mornings in between their worship services, and the services were full!

Diana Butler-Bass says that instead of draining the church, it has transformed it.  It has energized the congregation, and it has become a central focus of their mission.  And it has taught them the act of hospitality.  Love in action.

Now there's certainly much that we can lift up as a congregation along that line.  Examples of faith at work that we do:  our Helping Hand ministry, with all the folk that it serves, providing clothing for people in need.  Our trailer shelters that provide a temporary place to live for 4, 5, 6 people throughout the year.  The interfaith shelter in which we participate when we take our turn to provide housing for 10 or 12 families in the basement of our church for 2 weeks every year.  Our Good Samaritan ministry that provides assistance of all kinds for people who walk in or call in seeking help.  The school kits for children in Darfur that Judy Siebert has been collecting, now upwards of 2,000, and they're getting ready to send those to the Sudan.  And the special offerings we take for Week of Compassion and on and on and on.

And even that interfaith service tomorrow night on the 5th anniversary of September 11th, opening our doors after that tragedy to all faiths -- Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha'i, Native Americans, Sikhs, you name it.  That all people would find here in this place a house of prayer for all nations, all faiths, all people.  I think that truly is an act of love of this congregation.

But I always wonder:  is it enough?  Are we doing all that we can do that God is calling us to do?  And that is not a hypothetical question, for right now we are facing two major challenges.  And I think we need the guidance of God, especially now, in determining how we are going to respond to them.

Just before I left on vacation, Pat Farr, the CEO of Food for Lane County, knowing of our work, came to our July Board meeting, and asked if we would be willing to take over part or maybe even all of the work of the soup kitchen run by Food for Lane County in the dining room on 8th street.  Because that facility has reached its limit and they can no longer serve the people that come and they are looking for larger facilities to serve more folks, and wanting to get out of that business of running a soup kitchen.  And even though they would provide staffing and food, that represents a significant challenge for us -- we already have a soup kitchen that operates here on Thursday nights.  It's run by another congregation, and it has been going successfully with very few problems now for 8 or 9 years.  So we know we have the facilities.  The question is:  do we have the volunteers, and are we willing to make that kind of sacrifice, to open up our church on one or more additional nights during the week to feed the hungry?  It is a very daunting prospect, and I have a number of reservations, as did our Board when we met with Pat.

And then I read something like this text this morning:  "If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says to them 'Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?"  And I hear a sermon like Chris Whitehead gave to us last Sunday talking about the importance of the table as a place where all God's people are welcome and fed.  And I think -- Dang!  It's hard to be a Christian.  Sometimes I don't want to be a Christian, as I am faced with such daunting tasks.

The second challenge is even tougher.  Two years ago, a newly retired minister came to me, and said "What do you most need, and what can I do?".  I thought for a while and said "Frankly, the biggest challenge for us are all the folks who come to the office and call needing help.  We're overwhelmed by it.  It takes a lot of our staff's time.  And I feel at best, we are placing band-aids on broken limbs and lives".  We talked over the next several weeks.

And then Darey Burkhalter founded for us the Good Samaritan ministry.  He talked to the various agencies in town and gathered up resources.  He recruited and trained volunteers.  He has spent 2 days, most weeks, in our office serving others and assisting us with all kinds of needs.  Since it began a year and half ago, the Good Samaritan ministry has served over 1,000 people.  Helping with rent and utilities and food and transportation and medicine -- probably most of the time not even able to provide any financial assistance, but helping people to figure out where to get help, troubleshooting with them.  Sometimes just providing a listening ear, to know that there is a place where they can go.  To talk about things, to figure out what to do.

I cannot tell you how valuable that service has been, or how invaluable Darey has been not only to the many folk that we have served, but to our office and to our staff.

After cooking breakfast for our youth a week ago Saturday, Darey went home, and in the midst of preparing the house for painting, he fell off of his ladder as I think most of you now know, hit his head on cement in the driveway causing a massive hemorrhage.  Friday morning, finally his heart gave out with his wife and sister at his side as a harpist played hymns of faith.  

The hole that Darey leaves in this church and our ministry is exceeded only by the hole he leaves in our hearts.  Carol has requested that gifts in memory of Darey be given to the Good Samaritan ministry.  But that will not begin to take the place of the void he has left.  The future of that ministry now depends on the extent to which we as a congregation step forward to fill that void and to assist the other remaining volunteers with that incredibly difficult and important task.

I have to honestly tell you that I do not know what meaning, if any, can be derived from Darey's death.  I can tell you what meaning can be derived from Darey's life, for he truly was a person who lived his faith with his works.

Will we do the same?


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