Sunday Sermon by Rev. J. Michael Solberg on July 12, 2015.
“What Does Mature Faith Look Like?”
(James 2:14-17, 24)
Okay, so imagine this: as a kid, I was a pretty good swimmer. Back in the day, I won the Illinois state championship in the 50 yard breast-stroke – in the 10 and under age group. By high school, I had slipped a bit compared to my peers, but still placed a respectable 7th in the high school state championships when I was senior. I also played football, and was the starting center on my high school varsity team both my Junior and Senior years. I was a life-guard, and my girl-friend was the homecoming queen. Woohoohoo, pretty cool, huh?
The only reason I tell you that today is so you can put this next fact about me into the proper context. When I was 16, I became something of a theology nerd. I was a rare and odd teenager who studied the Bible, but was not a fundamentalist, and I was serious enough about my faith that I read some of the great classics of the Christian faith, but I didn’t try to convert anyone.
I remember the summer after my junior year, I had a particularly easy job as a life-guard at the Illinois Beach State Park. That’s a state park on Lake Michigan up near Zion, 50 miles up the coast from Chicago. It was such an easy job because like this summer, it happened to rain a lot that summer, but even when it was raining I had to stay on the beach and keep people out of the water. So I would sit under an umbrella in one of those big white wooden life-guard platforms and read studies of the parables of Jesus, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great book The Cost of Discipleship, and his Letters and Papers from Prison, written as he was imprisoned awaiting his execution by the Nazis. I also read the classic Confessions by St. Augustine, which he wrote in 397, but which, with a good translation, sounds amazingly contemporary in tone.
I also remember arguing with some of my friends at the time about the doctrine of justification. Yes, that’s 16 year olds arguing theology. I grew up in Zion, which was dominated by one big church that had sadly become very fundamentalist in those years, so most of my friends were fundamentalists. They didn’t believe in things like evolution, and they thought the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world were going to come soon. Me, not so much. In their evangelical zeal they also were sort of worried about the fate of my soul, since I didn’t believe that stuff.
In fact, they weren’t sure I believed at all, because I resisted the idea that all you had to do to get to heaven was be born again by accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Even as a teenager, that seemed pretty silly to me. They said all you have to do is believe and you were good to go. I remember saying that the way you lived your life actually mattered a lot more than a bunch of stuff you believed – especially when a bunch of that stuff seemed fairly irrational. Because I had read books about the parables of Jesus, I could even back up my argument by referring to the teaching of Jesus “by their fruits you shall know them.” My fundamentalist friends all agreed you had to be a good person of course, but the key thing was being born again by accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. After digging through the Bible, because I didn’t memorize this stuff, I read them part of the scripture passage Connie read earlier, James 2:24: “You can now seem that we please God by what we do and not only by what we believe.” They said I had to be born again by accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. I said, okay fine, but the only way you would have any idea of whether I was born again by accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior was by looking at my actions and seeing if I lived the way God wanted me to.
It was funny. We were 16 year olds in 1980, basically having the exact same argument we see in the letter of James written almost 2000 years ago.
What does it mean to “have faith?” Or, to say exactly the same thing, what does it mean to “believe”? That’s the same word, of course, in the Greek of the New Testament, “to have faith,” “to believe,” “to trust,” those are all the same thing.
James faced a difficult situation that has echoed throughout the centuries. He faced people who used Christian language to defend a way of life that didn’t look particularly Christ-like. They would very happily talk about believing, talk about having faith in Jesus Christ, but James, at least, didn’t see what difference it made. They, as he says elsewhere in his letter, lived like friends of the world, rather than like friends of God.
But I should clarify what James was talking about, lest it come across the wrong way. James wasn’t dealing with moralistic stuff. He wasn’t arguing with people because they drank or swore or slept with the wrong person or watched movies on the Sabbath. Those things may have been important to James opponents, and they were certainly important to my teenage friends. But what James was talking about when he was talking about the necessity for “belief” or “faith” to be shown in action, he was talking about what I guess I could call hard core social justice. He was talking about feeding poor people. He was talking about neglecting widows. He was talking about unjust labor practices. Chapter 5, verse 4 says, “You refused to pay the people who worked in your fields, and now their unpaid wages are shouting out against you. The Lord All-powerful has surely heard the cries of the workers who harvested your crops.” He was talking about how putting money before all else can accurately be called murder.
People said they had faith, people said they believe, and James, I think rather courageously and forcefully asks, “Okay, where’s the evidence? How can we see it? Because there is no such thing as invisible faith. There is no such thing as believing without doing.” James seems to have been the first ask the question, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
I suppose you can sense that there is some passion, some heat, in this letter of James. Perhaps that heat is radiating over 2000 years and you are feeling it a bit now. I think that’s the idea. Maybe you can understand why early church wasn’t even sure they wanted to include this letter in the New Testament. It took hundreds of years for it to be fully included in books of the Bible we accept today. When you read stuff like the following, we may wish people had left it out: “While here on earth, you have thought only of filling your own stomachs and having a good time. But now you are like fat cattle on their way to be butchered. [Through your lack of care] You have condemned and murdered innocent people, who couldn’t even fight back.” You have faith, okay, where’s the evidence? How can we see it? There is no such thing as invisible faith.
In my sermon title, I tried to dial back the heat a little by asking, “What does mature faith look like?” That’s really what James is getting at. What does real faith look like in real life?
I know some of you think I don’t answer that question often enough. As I have said before, I think an important part of preaching is reminding you of who you are – God’s precious children and thus followers of Jesus Christ – and trusting you to take responsibility for your own spiritual journey, your own life of faith, your own moral decision making as you work through what it means in your own life.
But today is a little different, because the letter of James is a little different. James makes it practical and I am going to follow his lead. I can’t say everything there is to say about what mature faith looks like, but that shouldn’t keep me from giving the highlights. If you read the whole letter of James I think you would find at least four characteristics of people with real, mature faith. And if you look at the cover of your worship order today, you can find a visual aid to help with this.
First, people with mature faith are humble. Humble, not in the sense of making themselves small or unimportant, but in the sense of valuing and respecting other people, finding the best in them, and being open enough to let other people change you for the better. People with mature faith are humble.
One great example of this type of humility is Mother Teresa. When she was serving the poor of Calcutta, the most important thing she did was not the physical care, but rather the fact that she treated those people, completely marginalized and forgotten by Indian society, as whole and beloved people, just as deserving of love and respect as any other child of God. She had such humility that she was able to see others as just as worthwhile as herself. In this way, people of mature faith are humble.
People of mature faith also, and sorry to state something so positive with a negative, but people with mature faith do not live out of fear. There is nothing more important in the Christian life than the fundamental convictions at the core of your being that God is at the heart of everything, and God is good, so goodness is at the heart of everything. The line is repeated over and over again in the gospels, “Be not afraid.” That’s what we’re shooting for if we’re shooting for mature faith.
The person I thought of to exemplify this is someone many of your probably don’t know: Marcus Mumford. He’s the key member of the band Mumford and Sons, and is a surprising character. You can see from the picture on the bottom right that he goes for this cool, carefree, leather jacket, scruffy beard look. He’s part of the whole alternative rock scene that isn’t exactly known for its wholesomeness. But Marcus Mumford is something different. His parents are the founders of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship movement in the UK, a loose collection of churches that really take Christianity seriously and are engaged with the contemporary world. Marcus Mumford comes from that background and you can see it in nearly all his lyrics – without fear, he puts forth stuff that is meaningful and thoughtful in a Christian way, but without being preachy. And get this, Mumford is criticized for being too positive – it doesn’t exactly fit with the whole alternative, soulful rock scene. But he isn’t afraid to put forth his way of seeing the world, and, with a foundation of joy, and without fear, he remains true to who he is. People of mature faith internalize Jesus’ words, “Be not afraid.”
People with mature faith are also courageous. I guarantee you that if you take the Christian faith seriously, it is going to require real courage. There are times when you are going to have to tell the truth when you don’t want to. There are times when you are going to have help someone when you don’t want to. There are times when you are going to have act out in the face of injustice when you don’t want to. There are times when you are going to have be different from others when you don’t want to be.
And as a matter of fact that being different business may last a long time. Because they are courageous, people of mature faith actively build relationships with the poor and work with them to end injustice. When the world around you celebrates wealth rather than what wealth can do for others, you need courage to be different. When the world around you tolerates racism in a way that goes on and on and on, you need courage to be different. When the world around you turns entertainment into an endless consumer pursuit rather than a fun break from the serious business of living, you need courage to be different. When the world around you is complaisant about the fact that 25% of children in Angola die before they turn five from preventable illnesses, you need courage not to accept such a world, to be different, and do something about it. People of mature faith are courageous.
One obvious person who demonstrates this is Malala Yousafzai. Of course, she is Muslim, but surely there is something that binds us together in the love of God, and her love has made her an amazingly courageous person. After publicly advocating for the education of girls in her region of Pakistan, where the Taliban often discouraged or banned education for girls, Yousafzai was three times, once in the head, but amazingly survived, and went on to be an even more power advocate for girls’ education in Pakistan and wherever in the world it is banned. Of course, last year she became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize (and the youngest to win a Nobel Prize of any sort). Her courage in calling for change even at great personal risk is a blessing to us all. People of mature faith live courageously.
And people of mature faith are generous. And let’s follow the letter of James here, and just be straight about how this should work in the world today. If you are here today, it is very likely that compared to the rest of the world, you currently make, or otherwise own, a ton of cash. Our faith has always taught that God is so kind and gracious that you get to keep 90% of that! Nine out of ten dollars you get to keep! But that last one – actually that first one – needs to go back to God. And God is happy to receive it in a huge variety of ways: supporting the church, building up the poor, buying bed nets for Africa, supporting efforts to change government policies that harm people. Whatever. There are a million good and godly things to do with your dollars – but one out of ten, that first one, needs to go back to God.
One great example of generosity is Paul Newman. Most of you know about his acting career, and maybe have heard of his charity work, although don’t know the extent of it. Apparently, when he and his wife, Joan Woodward (yes, the actress, to whom he was married for over 50 years – incredibly rare in Hollywood culture), would invite people over for dinner, Newman would make his own salad dressing, and apparently, it was pretty good. So he decided he would begin to sell it, and, knowing he already had enough to be comfortable in life, he would give all the proceeds to charity. The effort extended to more and more products, and to date, Newman’s Own has given over 400 million dollars to charity. I read that of all the public figures in America, Newman gave a higher percentage of his wealth to charity than anyone else. Bill Gates has given more overall, but as a percentage of wealth, Newman has been the most generous, and I am sure his and his wife’s generosity has changed lives. People of mature faith are generous.
Being humble, living without fear, being courageous, and being generous, that’s what real, mature faith looks like. We probably aren’t going to master all four of those and be some sort of super combination of Mother Teresa, Marcus Mumford, Malala Yousafzai, and Paul Newman, but hey, we can passionately pursue at least one of them, and maybe get a little better at all of them.
Remember, “You can now see that we please God by what we do and not only by what we believe.” There is no such thing as invisible faith. May God help us live as James, and Jesus, call us to live.
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