Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 18)

Text: James 2:14
My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it?

Faith at work

It was a wild, windy, wintry night. The temperature had dived to below zero. But in spite of the weather the palace gates must be guarded and so a Russian soldier was on patrol between two sentry boxes. Poorly clad, the miserable man marched from one post to the other, shivering and chilled. Then it began to snow. Before long everything was covered with snow. The sentry was wrapped in the vicious embrace of a fierce, freezing blizzard.

Then a poor peasant happened to pass nearby on his way home. "Who goes there?" the soldier asked. The poor farmer didnít like the Czarís soldiers who were always at his door collecting taxes for the king. Fearfully he identified himself. When he saw how cold the young soldier was he said, "You are cold and have to stay at your post all night. I donít have far to go to get home and a warm fire. Here, wear my coat tonight. You can return it to me in the morning."

The soldier gladly accepted it but even the heavy coat could not keep out the cold. The next morning his comrades discovered the soldier frozen at his post. The farmer never got his coat back. But he did see it again.

A long time afterwards, when the farmer himself lay on his deathbed, he dreamed that Jesus appeared to him. "You are wearing my coat, Lord," the dying man said, recognizing the coat that was once his.

"Yes," answered Jesus. "This is the coat you loaned to me that terrible freezing night when I was on duty guarding the palace gates."

"But Lord," objected the poor farmer, "That wasnít you to whom I gave the coat; it was some miserable soldier whose name I donít even know." "No, you are wrong," replied Jesus in the dream. "When you did this for that young soldier that night, you did it for me!"

Iím sure youíve heard variations of this story that attempt to illustrate Jesusí explanation of what will happen when he returns and separates the good from the bad. To those who are welcomed into heaven Jesus says,
"I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink;
I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me;
I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me" (Matthew 25:35).

At first glance it seems that those who get into heaven are those who do all kinds of good things for other people. I thought that those who are welcomed into eternity are those who have faith in God's grace and forgiveness, those who relied on Jesus and the salvation he has given to us freely. "It is by God's grace that you have been saved through faith" St Paul tells the Ephesians (2:8,9). Salvation is not something we do. No amount of good works will get us into heaven. In fact, all of our own good deeds are stained with our sin and can never be good enough to get us into God's perfect heaven. Isnít that what we have been taught as good Lutherans?

Thatís right. But one thing thatís easy to forget is that when we fail to show love and compassion, kindness and a willingness to help this might be an indication that we donít know what it means to be saved by grace through faith. Paul says, "In our union with Christ Jesus he has created us for a life of good deeds". James in our reading today asks the question, "What good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Faith that doesnít include action is dead".

James invites us to be onlookers into the daily life of a Ďbelieverí whose faith does not affect his life at all. He bumps into someone who is a member of his own church and notices that they are half naked on a cold day, and they havenít had a wholesome meal for ages. This believer says, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but doesnít do anything to help this person (v.16). He is supposed to be a Christian; the needy person is not even a stranger; someone from the same church and would you believe it, all he can offer are some feeble platitudes as he hurries on by Ė "God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!"

James is providing an exaggerated illustration here to make a point Ė well, I hope it is an exaggeration. He asks, "What good is this personís faith if he can walk past someone who is obviously in need?" The answer - nothing whatsoever. He says he believes in Jesus. He says he trusts in the love of God for forgiveness and salvation and yet when it comes to the hard work of showing others the same kind of compassion and love that Jesus has shown him, he fails miserably. He knows about how generous God is toward him but he canít offer the same generous love to the needy person. His faith has had no affect whatsoever on the way he meets the demands of everyday life.

In the late 1800s, there were just two deacons in a small church in the United States. These two men worshipped in the same congregation, listened to God's Word being read and preached week after week, took turns in leading prayer, read their Bibles at home with their families, could recite numerous Bible verses and hymns off by heart but these two deacons could never agree and took every opportunity to get one up on the other. On a particular Sunday, one deacon put up a small wooden peg in the back wall so the minister could hang up his hat. When the other deacon discovered the peg, he was outraged that he hadnít been consulted. They angrily confronted one another; one accusing and abusing the other. The congregation took sides and the church split.

One could possibly dismiss this as just a bit too extreme just as we could dismiss Jamesí story about the person who could only say "God bless! Keep warm and eat well!" to the person who really needed help.

But I believe we are all level headed enough to realise that it is so easy to separate our faith from everyday life. If our faith in God who has shown his love for us and sent his Son to die for us produces nothing in our lives except pious religious feelings then this is not true religion according to James. Our faith in Jesus is a living, renewing faith, a strong powerful work of the Holy Spirit which changes our hearts, our attitudes, our relationships with others, and the way we see those who are in need. Faith exists so that we donít continue in our old selfish ways, but it changes us so that we are happy to do what is pleasing to God and helpful to other people.

True faith will not be happy to just talk about love Ė about Godís love for us and how we should love one another. True faith wants more than talk; it wants to do deeds of love. John sums all this up quite simply in his First Letter saying, "My children, our love should not be just words and talk, it must be true love, which shows itself in action" (1 John 3:18).

Those of us who are honest about our faith and its effect on our lives will have to admit that we fail miserably when it comes to putting our faith into action. Iím sure youíve heard people say that they donít go to a church because itís full of hypocrites. Well, how right can they be! Itís true that we hear about our faith, sing about our faith, state our faith in the creed, and that God strengthens our faith in Holy Communion, and yet when we get back into our everyday routine we mess up so terribly putting our faith into action.

Our faith in Jesus has so little impact on what we say and do. Yes, the church is full of hypocrites and thatís precisely why God has brought us into the church. When we believe one thing but donít carry out what we believe in the way they interact with others, the Holy Spirit reminds us that even hypocrites can be forgiven. Here in the church the Spirit tells us over and over again that we have a Saviour, Jesus, who died in our place and given us a fresh start in living out our faith everyday. The Holy Spirit renews our faith and fills us with God's love and forgiveness everyday and challenges us to let that faith and love control everything that we do Ė how we speak to others, how we treat them, how we react when offense is given, how we make it our one desire to let the love and peace that Christ gives us rule our lives.

There is no doubt about it, this is hard work. It is easier to let our faith be knowledge and pious feelings mostly relegated to things we do in church. But thatís not faith, James says. Knowledge is head stuff and pious feelings come and go. Faith is more life changing and solid than either of these. Faith canít be separated from what happens every day. Faith directs and controls us and especially impacts how we treat one another as members of the body of Christ, the church.

Faith will not let us stand by and do nothing. If someone has offended us, faith demands that we do whatever it takes to bring glory to God, namely to resolve differences and misunderstanding and even if we canít come to a conclusion at least we can still disagree with love and not let that come between us.

If others do or say something that is hurtful, faith will not let us get revenge by giving back as good as we have received. Faith will not let us build walls up between each other because of the differences from one person to the next. Faith will lead us to seek understanding, show love, reach out to help, be sensitive to the needs of others, speak kindly and act with compassion.

We admit our failure to let our faith guide us in the way we speak and act and ask the Holy Spirit to help us here at church, at home, in our work place that we may be controlled and guided by the love and peace that he has placed in our hearts to the point that all we say and do gives glory to God.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
6th September 2009

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