SHIFTING FROM NUETRAL TO DRIVE
James 1: 17-27
The decades of the 20th and 21st centuries often get encapsulated into sound bytes. We had the “Roaring 20s,” filled with many people out for their own gain, as the rich got richer. The 30s are labeled as the era of the Great Depression -the great leveler- as the haves joined the breadlines with many have-nots. The 40s were the era of World War II, in which a common cause brought Rosie the Riveter into the war along side Uncle Sam. In the 50s, after the Korean War, a sense of optimism encouraged returning soldiers to marry, settle down, buy a house, start a family, and pack the pews of churches. The prosperity and rise of corporations continued into the 60s, an era depicted by the popular AMC show, Mad Men. But the 60s were a confusing mixed bag of purpose and pain for our nation; of war and peace; of hippies and Vietnam. The 70s had the bookends of a conservative President Nixon and a liberal President Carter. The 80s became an era of rugged individualism and national pride. The 90s have often been called the decade of the technology and dot.com rise and fall. Now we find ourselves in the first decade of the 21st century. In all of those eras, revisionist history can make the good old days seem better than they really were, while modern labor-saving devices have caused many people to burn fewer calories than they consume. Cell phones mean people can reach you anywhere, even in church or a movie theatre; the phone’s built-in camera can either capture a crime in progress, or be part of a criminal activity of photographed flesh. If the people will buy it, someone will sell it.
Now in all of these eras, what was the relationship between faith and works; or to put it another way, what eras were self-centered, and which ones were service-centered? A litmus test of a decade is foolish, but you in your life might be able name those whose service to church, nation, or community inspired you. And you might be among those who someone else looks up to because of your kind and tireless work on behalf of others. Eras of boom, such as the 20s, and the 90s, made people depend on one another less as many could meet their own needs. You remember a few years ago when house flipping happened regularly. But then cam the bust: foreclosures, gas prices climbed, fewer bought cars. Values of possessions plummeted but house payments and rents did not. And now the pendulum, with human and holy help, may be swinging back the other way.
Today our issue is the relationship between faith and work. In his New Testament letter, James declared in chapter 1 verse 18 that the Father of all Creation breathed life into us with his Word of truth for a purpose: Rick Warren was not wrong when he reminded readers that God created us with purpose in mind! Among those purposes, James says, is for us to become the first fruits, so to speak, of his creatures. The Genesis 2 account of creation has the human being created first: and the Old Testament concept of First Fruits in farming is just this: the first of your crop or your livestock, and even of your firstborn child was to be dedicated back to God. The first born child especially was dedicated back to God for a purpose: to serve the Lord. James says that we human beings are the first fruit of God’s creation; we have been created to serve God and the downtrodden if we can lift them up. Even Jesus said he came not to be served, but to serve.
Over the last century, churches, civic groups, and school groups have been hot and cold when it came to service projects. From the government instituted “Peace Corp” of the 60s, to the plan of one Georgia lawyer to give up his wealth and start “Habit for Humanity,” both organizations still are helping others. The question of why we help is one of the faith issues of the ages. It was the great preacher of New York’s Riverside Church Harry Emerson Fosdick who once observed that in his experience, those who reflect upon their lives and conclude that they have received far less than they deserve tend to be among those from whom no great living comes. Others evaluate their lives, thinking they have broken about even, and conclude that they got about what they had earned. Rarely do you see any exceptional living from either. However, those who readily reckon that they have received far more than they deserved are among those who have indulged in great living.” (As quoted by Peter Rhea Jones, from Fosdick’s RIVERSIDE SERMONS, New York, Harper, 1958, p. 174) As I tried to demonstrate with the children, there are no gold stars given out for good intentions! How many times do the words limp out of one’s mouth “I meant to be there for that event, I just couldn’t seem to find the energy to do it.” What do the actions convey? Or how about this: “I intended to write a thank-you note to you, I just didn’t get around to it yet.” What do the words mean without the actions? Or one time as I was asking potential new members what time or talent they might want to offer back to the church once they joined, they said, “Oh we don’t want to be asked to do things. We come to church to be fed.” With that answer, I thought of the great saints of our church, who, every week, work hard for church events, classes, and services. Saints do not become saints because they sat! Saints become saints because they served! James calls out in a stage whisper: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only! What deafening silence and utter discouragement came over the Board of Directors of my Homeowners’ Association, where many of us served for years, when everyone complained at the annual meetings, but no one said they’d help! Be doers of the word, not hearers only. Although we have heard a lot about the Kennedys this past week, the famous quote President Kennedy used in January of 1961 was used much earlier by General William Tecumseh Sherman: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It is a rallying cry for citizens, yes, but the one who works in a civic club like Rotary, a fundraising group like the American Cancer Society, or the outreach or care in their local church, the same message would make James from the Bible smile. Of course, work without faith can be like a rudderless boat, moving in circles without a clear destination or purpose in mind. It is about doing with the goal in mind, not just listening, or complaining, or even thinking about doing! None of those carry the weight that Isaiah’s words carried when God was looking for a worker: “Whom shall I send?” With Isaiah, God didn’t get a man shuffling of feet, a woman trying to be like a wallflower, a youth absorbed in texting, or a child sheepishly looking at the floor. He got Isaiah saying: ‘Here am I Lord! Send me!” And that response, among others, lifted up the Lord, bringing a new chapter to the cities of Judah. “Here am I! I’ll be there! What can I do?” are words that can build a relationship, change the direction of an organization, and honor God. Along with Luther and St. Paul, we may agree that we are saved by faith alone, but like James, we believe that fa
ith without works demonstrates that faith is not fully understood, and God misses our thank you note of gratitude.
Jesus did not just sit in a Temple or a home, or even in a tent. Jesus was a doer of the Word not just a hearer. If actions speak louder than words, what then, will you do this week as a disciple of Jesus?
Jeffrey Sumner August 30, 2009