14 Pentecost Proper B18                     
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
James 2:1-10; 14-17 Sermon                                
September 6, 2009

Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
160 "Praise My Soul The King Of Heaven"
406 "How Sweet The Name Of Jesus Sounds"
428 "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing"
307 "Jesus Shall Reign Where E'er The Sun"


TEXT (vs. 14-17):  "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

            I think most of you are aware of the big event that happened this weekend, yesterday to be exact.  Last night at 6 pm, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, the first football game of the 2009 season was played between Nebraska and Florida Atlantic.  And from now until the end of the regular season, a very large number of Nebraskans and Nebraska fans living elsewhere dedicate at least a little of their time as they follow Nebraska football.  They might attend a game, watch it on TV or listen to it on the radio, perhaps listen to some of the pre-game and post-game programs, and otherwise devote some conversation time with others discussing the topic of Nebraska football with others.  That was even being discussed here before services began this morning.  And this will continue through the conference championship game and whatever bowl game that will happen to come our way.

            Living in Nebraska, football fans and football conversations are part of our ordinary way of life.  Certainly not all of the state's 1.7 million people are football fans, but it's still a common topic of interest.  Chances are that you can strike up a conversation with most people around here about some facet of Nebraska football.

            If you visit Lincoln on a football Saturday, you could experience the over 85 thousand people who assemble at Memorial Stadium.  That's a lot of football fans showing a lot of dedication.

            If you see somebody wearing red or a combination of red and white clothing, or a red hat, or a red jacket, or one of those funny foam rubber corncobs on their head, you can just about bet they are a Nebraska football fan.  The "Big Red" shops sell an unbelievable amount of Cornhusker memorabilia and souvenirs.  You can get all manner of clothing, stickers, banners, flags, pennants, jewellery, car decorations, and even shot glasses if you want bearing the Husker logo, or maybe you'd like a temporary Husker tattoo you can transfer on to your face.

            Nebraska football fans can be very easy to spot sometimes.  Of course not every football fan will be decked out in their regalia at every game.  But there will be other things about them that will attest to their loyalty. For example, you won't find me dressed in any of that stuff at a game because I have to wear my Chaplaincy Corps  uniform when I'm there, but I'm a fan just the same.

            Now think of this situation.  Can you imagine what it would be like if somebody all decked out in Nebraska stuff would be in the stadium in Boulder cheering on Colorado, or be the only person in red attire in the sea of purple at a game in Manhattan?  That not only would be way out of place, but I'm sure that a person's sanity would be questioned if that were to happen.

            The point of all this, is to illustrate the fact that people outwardly demonstrate various things about them.  Nebraska football fans dress in red.  Kansas State fans dress in purple.  Green Bay Packer fans dress in green and wear foam rubber cheese slabs on their head.  These outward things make a person readily identifiable.

            So what about a Christian?  What makes a Christian as readily identifiable as a Nebraska football fan dressed in red on game day?  What is there that is so special and unique?

            Well, I suppose there are various things that people openly display, like wearing a cross as an article of jewellery, or displaying a fish emblem, or something to that effect.  People often incorporate various unique Christian items into their personal lives.

            With this in mind, I'd like to share a humorous story with you somebody Emailed me awhile back. 

             A man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy boulevard. Suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of him. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection.

            The tailgating woman was furious and honked her horn, screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to get through the intersection, dropping her cell phone and makeup. As she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer.

            The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, finger-printed, photographed, and placed in a holding cell. After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects.

            He said, "I'm very sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him. I noticed the 'What Would Jesus Do?' bumper sticker, the 'Choose Life' license tag holder, the 'Follow Me to Sunday School' bumper sticker, and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. So naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car."

            As we look at our text for today, I think we can readily see how this can be applied.  In today's epistle reading, along with many other places in the Bible, God tells us that Christians are supposed to act like Christians.  Christians should be as easy to spot as Nebraska football fans on game day. 

            Now even though the jewellery and the bumper stickers and the other various Christian items are fine in and of themselves, and it's always good to openly display these things, that's not the primary way we are to show we are Christians.  Today our text very clearly points out that we demonstrate our faith by the way we treat other people.  That's right.  We demonstrate our faith in action by the way we treat other people.  And that is a very sobering thought indeed.  The woman in the humorous anecdote I just read is a great example of that.  She had all the stickers and emblems intact.  But when it came time to actually put that faith into practice with somebody else, she fell flat.  She messed it up so badly that she was arrested.  Now maybe that was an exaggerated situation, but it does make a point.

            Verses 8 and 9 of our Epistle lesson for today says, "If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers."  The sincerity and depth of our Christianity is shown by how we treat other people and how we deal with them in our daily lives.

            In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes a big point out of all this when he compares the good works of a Christian with a tree that bears fruit.  In Matthew chapter 7 verses 17-20 Jesus says:  "Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them."

            I entitled my sermon this morning, "The Christian Balance."  I did this for a very important reason.  As Biblical Christians, we take God's Word very seriously.  In a doctrinal sense, we want to make sure we keep the "i's" dotted, and the "t's" crossed, just as God does.  We keep God's Word in the center of our faith, and faithfully teach according to it.

            Furthermore, the two central teachings of Scripture, the Law and the Gospel are the fundamental building blocks of our faith.  God's law shows our sinfulness and how we have transgressed God's holy will.  And the Gospel shows how we are forgiven by grace through faith in Christ Jesus alone.  This salvation by grace through faith is something that God himself does, with no help from us. 

            Now to keep this all straight, we have the tendency to downplay good works to a certain degree.  We don't ever want to give the impression that our good works and deeds are necessary for salvation.  That is something that happens purely by grace alone through faith alone.  We know that there is nothing we can do to help the process or to get in good with God through some righteousness of our own.  And lest we give people the mistaken idea that we are puritanical legalists, a Christian's good works can be left faltering someplace in the background.

            But now we are faced with the sobering words of verse 17 of our text:  "...faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

            In a way, this could almost give someone the mistaken idea that good works are necessary for salvation--almost.  But we have to read these words in light of the rest of the Bible.  In the Sermon on the Mount I quoted a little bit ago, Jesus made the comparison, using a healthy tree and good fruit as a metaphor for a healthy faith and good works.  And it's here where we need to put things in proper order.  The faith has to produce the fruit, and not the other way around.  Good works are a by-product, or the result of a person's faith.  Good works cannot create faith, just like a piece of fruit hanging on a tree branch cannot produce a healthy tree.

            Doctrine and teaching are important, vitally important.  We have witnessed the results of what can happen when they become trivialized and deemed unimportant.  People have gotten the idea that the most important thing is what you do, and not what you believe.

            But like I said before, we need to have a Christian balance going on here.  It's like the picture of the balance scale we see in courtrooms.  There has to be a balance of teaching and practice.  One cannot exist to the exclusion of the other, or the whole thing goes completely out of whack, like a shaky, unbalanced tire acts on your car.  Our balance needs to be between what we believe, teach, and confess on one side, and what we put into practice on the other.

            In our Epistle, James goes into detail about how we treat others, specifically how we as human beings tend to show favoritism toward people on some very shaky ground.  The example he uses is someone who shows up as a visitor to the assembled congregation.  How is that person treated?  Is that person judged according to their clothing, or money, or social stature?  What is it that makes us think that one person is better than the other?  And what right do we have to judge according to these faulty standards?

            Over the years, there have been numerous horror stories told about visitors coming into a worship service.  People sometimes treat newcomers very coldly.  Some are bashful, so they just turn away and say nothing.  Others circle together with their own little clique, and allow nobody else in.  And it is so sad when a person who doesn't know anybody else is just left standing.

            I know that our congregation genuinely appreciates it when people visit us.  We have a casual atmosphere, and what I like to describe as a "down home" feeling.  I would hope that people who visit us will leave knowing that they were amongst other brothers and sisters in Christ, and most importantly that they were with friends.

            But are we a perfect family without any flaws?  Have we always demonstrated our Christianity as we should in our lives?  Have we unfairly passed judgment upon others based upon emotions or faulty reasoning?  Have we always kept our faith/good works scales in balance?  Or have we been guilty of acting, even in some small way like that woman in the car I talked about earlier?

            Our faith leads us to Jesus, who is the very heart and core of our congregation and of our lives.  We know that we are far from perfect.  But thankfully Jesus is perfect; and through faith in him, that perfection is ours too.  That's the forgiveness he won for us on the cross, and the guaranteed entrance we have into God's family.

            Today in our Gospel lesson, Jesus also gives us a good example of how he treated others.  Jesus healed the Phoenician woman's daughter from demon possession.  And then he healed the deaf-mute by putting his fingers in his ears and then spitting on his finger and touching the man's tongue.  The methods might have been crude, but the love and care Jesus had for humanity shown like a flawless diamond or beautiful pearl. 

            We can easily tell a Nebraska football fan by what we see in them--their clothing, their accessories, their souvenirs, their conversation, and their loyalty to the team.  That's an easy distinction to make.

            We also need to tell others that we are Christians by what they see in us.  God wants us to have a love of humanity that is fashioned after the love he has for us.  God wants us to look at others through his eyes, and not ours.  God wants us to put the Gospel into practice that accepts others the way they are.  We want all people to know the love of Jesus and the forgiveness he offers through faith alone.

            When somebody walks through our door, we want them to know that they are loved and accepted.  We want to share Jesus with them.  And we want them to be assured that they are indeed a part of God's family, and a welcome addition to our family here at Mighty Fortress.

            The balance is obvious.  On the one side, God wants us to be Christians through faith.  And on the other side, God wants us to act like Christians.  When we keep this in balance, then people will, like the old camp song goes, "Know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they'll know we are Christians by our love."