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Sermon for Sunday 5 September 2021

First Reading: Isaiah 35:4-7a

4Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7athe burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water … .

Psalm 146

1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. 2Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. 3When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. 4Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God; 5Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; 6Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. 7The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; 8The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.

9The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.  Hallelujah!

Second Reading: James 2:1-10, 14-18

1My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? 8If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.

14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

Gospel: Mark 7:24-37

24{Jesus} arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. 25But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. 31Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. 34And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

Faith Working in Love

I ran across a reprint of an article that appeared in Readers Digest sometime ago and I want to share part of it with you.  The title of the article is “Mama Hale and Her Little Angels”.  The introduction begins, On the third floor of a brownstone in New York City’s Harlem, a woman holds a two-week-old infant in her arms.  The little body trembles and twitches with pain, but Clara Hale has no medicine to offer against that agony, unless you count love.  In an old bentwood rocker, she soothes the hurting child.  “I love you and God loves you,” she promises.  “Your mother loves you too, but she’s sick right now, like you are.”  She coaxes the baby to nurse at a bottle.  She bathes the child, sings softly, tries a little patty-cake game.  “After a while, maybe you get a smile,” she tells a visitor.  “So you know the baby’s trying too.  You keep loving it — and you wait.”

Clara Hale is 79 years old, a tiny, birdlike woman with nut-brown skin and a curling halo of white hair.  “The baby craves something he doesn’t understand,” she explains.  The “something” is heroin, and it may take a month before the baby is cleansed of the addiction that began in his mother’s womb.  A physician, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a social worker all have examined the infant and written a prescription, the same one Mrs. Hale found by instinct 15 years ago, when she started cradling such drug-poisoned babies: lots of patience and calm, mixed with mega-doses of love.  Her cure works, but that’s just the beginning of being one of “Mama Hale’s children.”  It’s a moving story that tells of Clara Hale spending a lifetime caring for other women’s children.  

In a fifth-floor walkup, she raised 40 foster children as well as three of her own.  And now she operates a place called Hale House, a unique haven in the heart of the drug darkness of New York’s Harlem.  At the time the article was written, she had cared for 487 babies of addicts.  I share this story with you because I believe that Mama Hale not only understood our epistle lesson from James, but I believe she is an example of these words into action.

I like what Dr. Hans Kung, a Roman Catholic theologian from Germany said, “Whoever preaches one-half the Gospel is no less a heretic than the person who preaches the other half of the Gospel”.  That’s one of the temptations of every preacher.  Far too many pastors want to preach only the gospel and no law.  That’s the first temptation, and that’s a sermon for another day.  The second temptation is to preach the faith alone part of the gospel and ignore any involvement, or works, that God expects of us.  James is an unapologetic champion of works.  

I, for one, wish James would have phrased this passage differently, making it easier for us to understand.  But he didn’t, and this has caused a great many arguments among theologians, Luther included, over the centuries.  However, maybe James knew that sometimes we need to wrestle with scripture instead of always being spoon fed.  So, our Lord’s brother goes right to the heart of his message: works are the results of God’s saving grace.

Listen again to verses 14- 17: “What good is it, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also, faith by itself if it does not have works, is dead.”  This is the primary emphasis of James’ entire Epistle.  We must be doers of the word, and not hearers only.

This is what has caused so many problems for this letter throughout the years.  This is the reason Luther called it a “right strawy epistle”.  Luther, after centuries of works righteousness teaching within the Roman church, was calling the church back to the core of the Gospel: Justification by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9).  Faith alone was his battle cry, and for years, he felt that James was undercutting that core of the Gospel by contending that Salvation also had to do with works.  Later in his life, Luther reexamined James, and felt he better understood what James was writing about. 

St. Paul was clear, faith alone is indeed needed for salvation; James isn’t arguing that.  St. James is talking about how a person, that has received God’s mercy through faith, should live.  We must remember, James wasn’t writing to the Jews; he was writing to Jewish believers.  He was writing to the early Christians, instructing them on how to live out our salvation.  As I said, the question of God’s grace isn’t the issue here. 

The issue here is how we live and work in God’s kingdom fulfilling Jesus’ command to love God above all else, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  I’ve often wondered if the seminal moment for Luther was when he considered James’ letter in relation to Paul’s instructions in Phil. 2:12, we are to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”  Still, the battle of the necessity of work for the Christian has raged ever since.  

The battle reached its current peak with the publication of John McArthur’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus.  McArthur takes on the big boys like Charles Ryrie, the author of the Ryrie Study Bible, two or three other professors at Dallas Theological Seminary, and a number of other well- known theologians in the evangelical world.  The current battle swirls around a concept called “Lordship Salvation” in conflict with a “belief only” position.

Basically, those who hold the “Lordship salvation” position contend that Jesus doesn’t come to us as Savior, offering us eternal salvation, and then come to us later as Lord with a call to surrender ourselves to Him, to clean up our lives and follow Him as disciples.  He comes to us as one and at the same time as Savior and Lord.  For us to be saved means that we surrender to Christ as Lord and are regenerated in the waters of baptism by His grace.  And I agree with that much of the thesis – but McArthur take this to the extreme. 

One could say that the McArthur camp is the purveyors of the dos and don’ts list which if followed means you are saved.  Once saved, it’s our works alone that keep us saved.  This view relegates Jesus to a back burner in our lives.  God’s grace is only needed at the time of conversion or maybe when we backslide.  Under this teaching, the continuous need for the saving work of Jesus is ignored and people then make an idol of their works and pride becomes the problem.  The focus is how big a crown we build for ourselves in heaven and how saintly we are in our own and in the eyes of others.

At the other extreme, or the other half of the Gospel, is the “belief only” position.  This teaching forwards that one can be a Christian without even being a follower of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Some have referred to this position as once saved always saved, or the doctrine of predestination.  On a very basic level, this teaching says that one can be a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus.  These folks are so committed to preserving the Gospel of “faith alone”, that they separate the offices of Christ.  

They teach that Jesus only comes to the sinner as Savior and makes no claims of Lordship over our lives.  This teaching, when push to its limits, says, “I’m saved, so it doesn’t matter how I live, Jesus loves me and forgives me unconditionally.  I’m the lord of my life.  The bottom line is, it encourages people to claim Jesus as Savior by a simple intellectual affirmation and it defers or never acknowledges the claims of Christ in the transformation of our life.  It denies the transformative power of the washing and regeneration Titus talks about.  This teaching leads people to believe that their behavior has no relationship to their spiritual status.

Thus, there’s nothing uniquely different about Christians in terms of the way they live their life in the world and those who are not Christians.  Interestingly, in a 2019 survey, 65% of Americans claim to be “Christians”.  Think of that.  Two-thirds of the population!  If two-thirds of this country are indeed faithful followers of Jesus as they claim, then why is our nation drowning in drugs, wallowing in pornography, or allowing millions to go hungry and without shelter?  Clearly, we as disciples of Jesus, have failed in what we’re teaching.  We have failed in teaching that there is more than a simple intellectual acknowledgement of Jesus as Savior.  God has expectations for how a person lives their life.

“If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Aren’t we mocking the Gospel when we reduce the requirements of the Christian life to simply believing that Jesus died for our sins — and all He requires of us is to give intellectual assent to that and accept by faith the eternal security He offers?

As we look closely at our second reading for today, we realize that James isn’t asking whether works without faith can save us.  As I said, God’s mercy and grace extended to us isn’t at issue here.  The issue is, can a person that has truly received God’s lifesaving gift, not respond?  For James, God’s gift of grace, when received and understood in faith, will drive us to act.  When God’s gift of grace is fully understood, we will, out of joy and thanksgiving, respond.  The act is proof to the world, that God has done something wonderful in our lives, and because of that, there is a change, a rebirth, a regeneration, a response.  The question for James is, are you really saved, if there is no outward evidence?  Let me come at this from a different perspective.

Consider the similarity between James’ words in verses 14 – 17, and Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25.  This is one of the few times Jesus talks about what the final judgment will be like.  Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and gathers before him all the nations of the world, he’s going to separate the sheep from the goats.  He’s going to place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  He will say to those on his right hand, “Come, blessed of the Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”  Those on the left failed to do these things.

In this passage we hear the surprise expressed by both the left and the right; neither of them knew when they did these things to Jesus.  “When,” they asked, “when did we see you hungry?”  Jesus’ response to their question is unforgettable: “As you did it or didn’t do it unto the least of these, you did or did not unto me.”  Salvation isn’t discussed here in this passage.  Nothing about belief — nothing about right doctrine — nothing about proper churchmanship.  Jesus is talking purely about how a true believer lives out their faith.  About how they did or did not follow Jesus’ command to love their neighbor.

Reconsider our second lesson for today in terms of this Mathew passage.  James’ question isn’t whether works without faith can save us — but rather whether we’re truly saved without any evidence in our lives.  So, let’s press for further clarity by putting the issue into some bold affirmations.  One, there is no salvation without discipleship.  What do I mean by that?  I mean we can’t claim Jesus as Savior without a willingness to surrender to Him as the Lord of our lives.

Second, an emphasis on faith that does not include a commitment to Christ’s call to walk in newness of life is a distortion of the Gospel.  What do I mean by that?  I mean what James said in our scripture lesson.  Faith that doesn’t give attention to righteous living – to sharing the gospel, to telling the truth in love, to seeking to live morally clean lives, shunning evil, fighting personal immorality and social injustice, feeding the hungry, caring for the needy — in short loving our neighbor enough to be concerned for their eternal soul, then how can we be a true disciple without works of love?  Claiming to have a faith that saves that doesn’t include giving attention to these issues is dead.

But we can carry this too far.  A faith that only emphasizes ethics and good works as a saving way of life is a false faith.  We call this works salvation.  According to works salvation theology, it’s possible for a person to do enough good things to somehow earn God’s grace.  The problem is, under this teaching, there is no need for Jesus and Jesus died in vain.  What I’m saying is, ethics and good works are simply the evidence, they do not save us, good works are the expression of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit within us.  This brings me to my final point.  

A good a definition of practical Christianity comes from Paul.  It is this: Faith working in love.  In Galatians 5: 6 Paul wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.”  Paul is saying that when we stand before God at the judgement, the question isn’t going to be whether we did enough good works to earn His grace.  The question is going to be, did we really understand the revelation of God’s love expressed in His crucified Son, thus turned to Him in faith.  And when there was a testing of that faith, was our faith expressed in acts of love toward God and our neighbor.  Was there evidence of the Spirit’s work in us?  So, I use Paul’s words as support of what James is calling for: Faith working in love – it’s a good definition of practical Christianity.  

Let me close now by considering the Syrophoenician woman from our gospel reading for today.  Mark records that a gentile woman comes to Jesus with a request to drive the demon from her daughter.  On some level she believed that Jesus could heal her daughter.  If it was simply a matter of faith, then she would have simply sat at home and exercised the needed faith.  But this isn’t the case.  Instead, she acted upon that faith.  Against the odds she sought out Jesus.

Consider what was against her.  She was a woman, a gentile, more accurately, a woman of Philistine descent, and she was approaching a Jewish holy Man.  Add to this that she not only inserts herself into the setting, she also has the audacity to argue with this Man of God.  She put her faith, her concern for her daughter, into action.  And how did Jesus respond?  He healed her daughter.  Matthew records that Jesus commends this woman by saying, “O woman, great is your faith!” (Matt. 15:28).  Faith in action. 

Back to Mama Hale.  Along the drug grapevine, word spread about “a crazy lady, five flights up,” who would give your baby a home.  Before long, there were 22 children sleeping in cribs in the Hale apartment.  When social workers found out, they insisted that she move into a bigger place.  Not far away was a vacant, city-owned brownstone that eventually became Hale House, financed with public funds and private contributions.  

Mama Hale says, “my job is just to love the children.”  The ones who worry her most are the toddlers who arrive scruffy and neglected.  One little girl and her younger brother, left alone while their parents pursued drugs, were used to searching for scraps in a near-empty refrigerator.  In their first lunch at Hale House, they stared wide-eyed at the food.  When told to fold their hands and say the blessing, they began to cry.  “They were worried that someone would take it all before they had a chance to grab some,” says Mama Hale.  When the boy thought no one was looking, he slipped food into his pockets.  “You don’t have to do that,” Mama Hale said gently. “You’re coming back for dinner.”

Against the disorder of the world they will return to someday, she teaches them a sense of order.  Regular meals and bedtimes.  A clean house and clothes.  “Be honest,” Mama says.  “Be smart,” she urges.  Lulling a six-month-old baby to sleep, she says, “One day, when you go to college…”  “They don’t always know what I’m saying,” she says, “but they know I love them.”  That’s part of her “gift,” as she calls it, her secret for saving children and changing their lives.  The question that we must ask is, as a true Christian, is faith without works or the evidence of God’s grace in our lives, really faith at all?


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