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
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
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
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
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
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?