Today, I begin at the end. The last line in our Bible lesson says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
There’s a song that little kids sing: “If you’re happy and know it...stomp your feet...clap your hands...bang your head.” The point of this song is that if you believe in Jesus Christ and through Him, you know that God is with you forever, it will show in how you live.
Many Christians seem to have forgotten this and instead of living their faith in the here and now, act like passengers on a jetliner waiting to land at a busy airport, circling eternity with no apparent interest in this life or how they live it.
The world notices this detached attitude, too. One blogging writer whose site I read this past week wrote, “I don’t understand religious people who look for a paradise after this life, instead of doing their best to create it here.” Apparently he has only encountered Christians who view their lives as inconveniences to be endured, rather than places where they can live with the power of the risen Christ at the center of their lives. The phrases, passionless Christians and disengaged Christianity may be two oxymorons, but we all know Christians and congregations who are indifferent to their faith, to life, and to the world around them.
A colleague of mine told me about something that happened in the life of his son-in-law when the latter was a boy of about ten. Someone at his church gave an impassioned presentation about the work of missionaries and told the congregation how important it was to support them with their prayers and their dollars. When my colleague's future son-in-law heard this, he approached the speaker and offered him all the money he had in his pocket. The speaker looked at him and said, "It was only a talk, son."
For we Christians, one antidote to such un-Christian non-living might be to read the New Testament book of James! Its author has traditionally been thought to be James, the brother of Jesus. As you read the first few verses of his book, you understand why James wrote it: The late first-century church was squabbling so much, everyone so hung up on getting their own ways, that its effectiveness was hampered, killing its mission. Ask God for wisdom, James tells the churches early in his book. With God’s wisdom, you’ll resolve your disputes and tap into the power that God gives to His Church to fulfill Your mission of sharing Christ’s kindness with the world. You’ll be happy and the world will know it!
As I've mentioned before, when my wife was three-and-a-half months pregnant for our son, she underwent an appendectomy. Three hours after her surgery at University Hospital in Columbus, one of the nurses had her up and walking. Years earlier, that would have been unthinkable. But in the intervening period, medical professionals had seen that extended bed rest for surgical patients isn’t good for their recovery. They lose strength needed for recovery when they’re not up and moving.
That’s a lot like Christian faith. Jesus Christ has done everything necessary for us to have a relationship with God that lasts forever, of course. Our role in our salvation is simply a matter of trusting what Christ has done for us when He died on the cross and rose from the dead. But faith is a muscle. If you don’t use it, it becomes a blob of unused potential.
If you have Christ and you know it, your life will surely show it. That’s why James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for [people] in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Well, if that’s the object of our faith while we live in this world, how do we get there? It starts with God, the generous giver. “Every generous act of giving,” James says, “with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights...In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” God gives us new, everlasting lives. That’s how the life of faith begins: We let God save us from sin and death.
James writes next: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger...rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”
There are no solo Christians. People who live out their faith in Christ do it within the fellowship of the Church. But being part of a fellowship of believers isn’t always easy. A friend of mine once told me that in the midst of excitement over a new building program, one family left the church because they didn’t like the color of the carpeting selected by the appointments committee!
Churches that take care of the needs of people in their communities are ones that have figured out how to get along with one another and allow for differences. They trash their egos and they listen--to God, to others in the Church, and to their spiritually-disconnected neighbors. In fact, I think that listening may be among the most powerful ways we have for sharing Christ with each other and the world.
In the latest issue of Lutheran Partners, a magazine for rostered leaders of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Dr. Nathan Frambach tells of an experience he had back in 2000 in a hotel coffee shop. During the year before it happened, he had been flying into Saint Louis for weekly planning meetings surrounding the National Lutheran Youth Gathering that was to happen in that city. He stayed at the same hotel every visit and because of his odd check-in time, he seemed always to be assisted by the same part-time hotel clerk, a college student named Leslie. By the time the two-week gathering rolled around, Frambach says that he and Leslie had brief, chatty, and polite conversations.
When it finally dawned on Leslie that Frambach had something to do with the Church, she had questions. Learning that he was Lutheran, she said that she had been raised in the Lutheran church. After all her questions, Frambach decided he could ask her a few. Foremost among them: Where, he wondered, was Leslie at now in her spiritual life?
She grew silent. Finally, she told him that she was a Wiccan, a believer in witchcraft. Leslie seemed to wait for the condemnations or the recited Bible verses or the rhetorical manipulation to which she had apparently been previously subjected by Christians. Instead, Frambach allowed as how he didn’t know much about what it meant to be Wiccan and said that he’d like to know more.
Reluctantly, Leslie said that if he was sincere and wouldn’t try to religiously manipulate her, she could meet him in the hotel coffee shop at 11:00 to talk. When they met, Frambach said almost nothing for the first forty-five minutes. Leslie told him about her life and her religion. She apologized for talking so long. But Frambach assured her that he didn’t mind and that he had learned a lot. Then Leslie asked about his life and faith. It was an open invitation to share his belief in Jesus Christ and it had all come about because Nathan Frambach had listened.
Christians and churches that live out their faith depend on God to give new life and they work hard at maintaining loving relationships with each other and the world around them. Those are the first two steps to being a church that lives out its faith by caring for others. What’s the third step? James writes, “...be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Christian churches that live the faith they confess don’t confine it to Saturday afternoons or Sunday mornings. They know that faith in Christ is more than reciting a creed. They do the Word they read in the Bible!
That’s why I’ve gotten so excited every Sunday night this summer when going through your reporting on the hours you’re spending in service to your neighbors--whether it’s with the Boys and Girls Club, or picking up groceries for an elderly neighbor, or whatever it might be.
It excites me, too, to hear about the telephone calls and cards you share among one another in tough times.
And it excites me to know how much time all of you spend praying for the people on our prayer list.
It excites me to see how welcoming you are toward visitors.
And I loved it this past summer when, in our most recent new members class, Kelly talked about how she and her daughter and new son-in-law came to Friendship. The M Family, especially Bryan, told them how much the congregation meant to them and invited them to be with us.
These are all examples of faith--not some dead religion that waits for the sweet by and by--but of faith that’s alive. Faith that’s alive brings a taste of heaven to the world around us and that’s what God wants to use us to make happen, if only we’ll let God shine through us!
This past week was a horrible one for our community. In a house just one-quarter of a mile from where I live, three year old Marcus Fiesel was killed. I have no answers as to why this was allowed to happen.
But a different question has haunted me ever since word of his murder came out. It’s this: What if we in the Church had more overtly lived our faith here in our community? Maybe somehow, you or I or someone could have given the people who allegedly killed Marcus Fiesel a glimpse of the new life that Jesus makes possible for all sinners. Maybe they would have come to faith in Christ. And maybe their lifestyle of utter depravity, self-centeredness, and evil would have been replaced by life with Christ and with Christ’s Church.
I don’t know the answer to my haunting question. But I do know this: We in the Church--we at Friendship Lutheran Church--should rededicate ourselves to the mission of the Church so that what happened to Marcus will never happen to another child in this community again!
It’s also why I hope that all of us will remember that authentic faith is something that we live together and that we live that kind of faith...
- when we gratefully receive the gift of new life we have in Christ;
- when we live together within the Church in humility and love; and
- when we dare to do the love that we read about in our Bibles!