"Faith Is a Verb" - Pentecost 16B
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
September 9, 2018 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
James 2:1-17
Subject
Pentecost 16B
Description

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: September 9, 2018 – Pentecost 16B

James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

 

Faith Is a Verb

 

              There’s a classic Peanuts comic strip, over 60 years old now, which shows Snoopy shivering in a violent snowstorm. Charlie Brown and Linus see Snoopy’s misery, and decide to go over and “comfort” him. “Be of good cheer, Snoopy,” Linus says. Charlie Brown adds, “Yes, be of good cheer.” The boys walk off, leaving Snoopy utterly bemused – and still shivering.[1]

 

              James would have approved of Charles Schulz’s satire. Elaborating on the scandal of making distinctions between rich and poor in the assembly, he writes, “Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.”

 

              Now, I think this is something we know. We know that faith results in faithful action, or “works” as we’ve traditionally translated it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a “God’s Work: Our Hands Day”. We wouldn’t collect special offerings and items for Wernle, the food pantry, and Grace Village. We wouldn’t have mentors at our local elementary school. We wouldn’t adopt several families at Christmas to give gifts to.

 

              But the church, as we also know, has entered a new time. A more frightening time. A time where the church – at least, oldline congregations like ours – have been relegated away from the centers of power and influence to the margins. Now, this may not be a bad thing. The church often does better work when it isn’t hand-in-hand with Caesar. Nevertheless, the fear of losing our influence, and with it, our numbers, can cause us to stagnate. To freeze in place. To simply keep doing the same things we’ve always been doing, in the vain hope that somehow, they will enliven and revitalize us. There’s an ancient myth about Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a slope for all eternity. Once he got to the top, the boulder rolled all the way back to the bottom. That’s what it feels like sometimes with our work in the church. Like we’re pushing and pushing and not getting anywhere. It can be discouraging. We can lose heart, give up, and drop out.

 

              So the question for us is: What is faithful action, in this new age in the church?

 

              We can remember that we are beloved children of God. That identity actually means something. That identity has consequences for how we live. Notice how James addresses the congregation, even when he chastises them for showing favoritism to the wealthy. He calls them, “My dear brothers and sisters.” James does not break fellowship with this congregation even when they make grievous missteps by courting favor with the powerful and oppressing the poor and needy. No – he addresses them as “dear” (or in the Greek, “beloved”). They are still brothers and sisters in Christ. And this identity is not merely cultural or social identity. It’s an identity that cuts to the core of who we are. First and foremost, we are adopted children of God in Christ, whom God has forgiven, enlightened, and redeemed. Even when we don’t feel forgiven, enlightened, or redeemed – we are. We are still beloved children of God.

 

              And not only are we forgiven and freed children of God, God desires to gather ALL people – yes, ALL people – under the banner of God’s kingdom. We say this a lot but I don’t think we grasp the consequences. God’s love is for all people – especially for those who don’t look, think, act, or vote like we do. Or those of a different economic class than we are. If you read through the whole letter of James, you’ll notice just how much James stresses that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. This might be something we’re deeply uncomfortable with, but it resonates with much of Scripture. “The last shall be first”, after all. For James, the last are already first.

 

              Even Jesus needs to learn this lesson, it seems. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is up in the Gentile district of Sidon and Tyre, north of Galilee. A Gentile woman approaches him, begging him to heal her daughter. Jesus refuses, saying that it is unfair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. In saying this, Jesus echoes much of the chauvinism of his day. The children of Israel are to be fed through Jesus’ ministry, not the Gentile “dogs”. The fact that this is a woman adds another layer to the story. What is amazing is that when the woman challenges Jesus – using his language against him – Jesus allows himself to be taught. Think of it. A Jewish man, a faith healer and prophet, and, we believe, the Son of God himself, is taught something by a Gentile woman. We don’t understand how this could possibly work, given that Jesus is also fully God, but I’m not sure that’s important to the story. What matters is that Jesus adapts. Jesus’ mission – his faithful action to God – adapts with the challenge of the Gentile woman. Instead of just being for “his people”, the mission of Christ will expand to all people – even people like us. As a prominent rabbi once wrote, if it hadn’t been for the spread of Judaism through the Christian church, we may still be offering sacrifices to Wotan on the Danube. The fact that God found US worthy to be called his children should give us pause – and make us grateful.

 

              And this gratitude will change how we act. Faith, we know, is not just a noun. It’s a verb. But it’s not a stagnant verb. Faith adapts, faith changes, depending on the age that the church is in. Faith reaches out to different kinds of people. Faithful people listen to each other and to the Holy Spirit in discerning God’s movement for them. And faithful people follow the example of their Lord, who himself was willing to be taught by someone the wider society considered “beneath him”.

 

              On this “God’s Work: Our Hands” Day, God help us to remember who we are, to listen to the Spirit, and follow Christ as he leads us. Faithful action today may look different than it did sixty years ago. But God is faithful – and will give us the strength and will to be faithful ourselves.

 

Let us pray.

 

              Help us, Lord, to adapt our faithful actions to where you are leading us. Open the ears of our hearts to hear your voice, and the courage to follow through. Amen.

 

© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

 

 

 

[1]Charles Schulz, Peanuts, December 1955.