Scripture: James 2:14-26
German is a fun language, because if there is a concept that does not have a word to describe it, then Germans will create one by mashing other words together. An example of this is zeitgeist. This word is made by combining the German word for time and spirit. The definition of zeitgeist is “the defining spirit of mood of a particular time as defined by the ideals and beliefs of that time.” A couple of weeks ago there was an interaction that gave a fascinating glimpse into the zeitgeist of our current time. At the very end of February director and writer Kevin Smith suffered an almost life ending heart attack. I realize that you may not know who Kevin Smith is, but he is known for making niche movies that feature a lot of geek culture references and 80’s nostalgia. Because we live in the Internet age, he announced he had a heart attack by posting a picture himself in a hospital bed on twitter. In response to this Chris Pratt, an actor known for his roles in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, tweeted that he was praying for Kevin Smith. Because it is the Internet, anyone can comment and give their unsolicited two cents. The initial response to Pratt’s comments was overwhelmingly negative. This backlash mocked the power of prayer, considered it a waste, and ineffective. If you are like me, then your knee jerk reaction is to fight against that notion. First, do not worry the Internet has you covered and the responses quickly devolved into a back and forth mud-slinging contest. Second, I think this is an ideal opportunity as Christians to listen to the zeitgeist of the culture.
One of the early negative responses does a good job at summing up the growing cultural mood of the era. A twitter user by the name of Joey Yeung responded by posting: “If you wanna help, actually help. Praying is just a way to feign helping so you don’t have to go out of your way.” Now for the record, I believe Joey is wrong. I believe strongly in the power of prayer, and I believe that when we pray God can and does change the fabric of reality to answer those prayers. However, even though I disagree with Joey Yeung it is important to hear him, because his viewpoint is one that is growing in the world. It has become a terrible cliché that whenever ever a tragedy of any type happens in the world, our political leaders (of both parties) respond by expressing their “thoughts and prayers.” The criticism often leveled against these political leaders is that thoughts and prayers are meaningless if we are not ready to back them up with action. Over the past several years, this discontent has grown, and it manifest itself has disdain for prayer that was seen in reaction to Chris Pratt’s tweet. Again, as Christians I think it is important we hear this. Right now what the world wants from the church is more than just our thoughts and prayers, they want us to act. The world is not interested in hearing about our displays of faith, they want to see us back it up with our deeds. As this morning scripture shows James, the brother of Jesus, would agree with that.
Throughout Lent we are going back to basics. We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God do and why we do them. Today, we are getting back to the basics of acts of mercy. For much of Christian history the church has divided things we do as Christians into acts of piety and acts of mercy. The acts of piety, are largely what we have focused on the last few weeks. The acts of piety are the things we do that connect us with God and strengthen our relationship with God. The acts of mercy are the ways that we live our faith out with other people. They are the deeds we do as the people of God. The message of church tradition is the same as this morning’s scripture from James. Authentic Christianity requires both faith and deeds.
This morning’s scripture has always been somewhat contentious, because it requires a bit more thought and insight than just taking it at face value. On the surface level this scripture seems to be a direct contradiction of one of Paul’s writings. In Ephesians Paul wrote “It is by grace you have been saved through faith . . . it is a gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” Yet here James matter-of-factly states “faith without deeds is dead.” Despite potentially seeming at odds with one another there is not a contradiction, because both ideas are true. Salvation absolutely is by grace. It is a gift of God offered to us without price. We accept it by faith and it is not something that we can earn. However, when we claim this free gift of grace it will change us, it will mold us, and it will absolutely drive us to action. That is what James is getting to in this morning’s scripture. He is not saying that we earn faith, through our actions. Rather deeds is the natural result of faith. A proper faith grounded in the grace of Christ will produce the fruit of deeds that serve and love others. This is the one of the core beliefs of the United Methodist tradition. Article X of our articles of faith state, “We believe good works, pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, spring from a true and living faith, for through and by them faith is made evident.” Faith without deeds that naturally grow out of it, is not true faith. Faith without the fruit of deeds is all talk with no game to back it up. Faith without deeds is thoughts and prayers without any power behind it. It is just a façade, it is a veneer that might use church-y sounding words but has no true substance to it.
I think the negative reaction to thoughts and prayers is related to the fact, that too many non-believers have had too much negative experience with that kind of hollow, fake news faith. The type of faith that the world is waiting to see from us is a faith that is more than thoughts and prayers. As James states in this morning’s scripture. “Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” It seems today, that if non-believers are going to welcome and accept our prayers then they need to be dirty prayers. By that I mean our thoughts and prayers need to be about things that we are willing to get our hands dirty in and do the work to bring about real justice, real restoration, and real reconciliation. It seems that the zeitgeist of our current age seems to understand faith without deeds is dead. So if we are going to make disciples of Jesus Christ, then we have turn our thoughts into actions and offer ourselves as living sacrifices that God can use to do good deeds that fulfill our prayers and transform this world.
In the Catholic tradition there are seven corporeal acts of mercy that Christians are to undertake in service to others. Our Methodist tradition inspired by John Wesley, was inspired by this catholic tradition but it is a bit more open ended in how we define acts of mercy. Methodist pastor, professor, and theologian Randy Maddox summarizes this viewpoint in his book Responsible Grace. About works of mercy he wrote, “This designation covers the range of possible contributions to the welfare of others-from clothing and shelter, to healthcare and education to basic friendship.” Works of mercy are the deeds we do because we are Christians. These could be formalized and regular events such as visiting the sick and imprisoned, or they could be informal acts like taking care of lawn for a sick neighbor. From our Methodist perspective it is less about what we do more, and more about why we do them. We do these acts of mercy not out of obligation and we do not do them because we are trying to prove ourselves before God. The reason why we should take on these acts of mercy is because of God’s all surpassing love. Even though we do not deserve it and we cannot earn it, God still loves us. That love should fill us to the very top, so that it spills out of our life. Acts of mercy are the way we love our neighbor as ourselves because God first loved us.
There is saying that is often misquoted to John Wesley. He did not say it, but his preaching inspired it and this quote evolved organically out of the Methodist Tradition. So even though John Wesley did not say it, this quote and the ethos behind it belongs to us. It goes like this: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” This is one of the reasons why United Methodist is the expression of Christianity I resonate the most with. Historically, United Methodist are doers. It is embedded in our doctrine and church practice not to sit on the sidelines, but to be the church through actions we do. Acts of Mercy should be one of the most prominent ways we display our faith. In other words, they should know we are Christians, not because of our thoughts and prayers, but because of our love.
The message of this morning’s scripture is that acts of mercy must be part of our faith expression. I suspect many of us know this, and we have a desire to show the love of God to others through our actions. However, we sometimes need some help with inspiration, intentionality, and direction on doing this. With that in mind here are a couple of challenges with how we can engage in acts of mercy. We can do this through intentional acts and random acts.
Intentional acts are when we are involved with ministries, organizations, or missions that meet the needs of others. These are planned times that we build into our lives to help people. These acts of mercy are doing things like feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, giving to the poor, and sheltering the homeless. These acts of mercy we do by volunteering such as serving at the food pantry, volunteering at a school, working with habitat for humanity, or providing fellowship and care to shut-ins. My challenge to you, is how are you doing this? I know for some of you, this is an easy answer. You re setting a great example for the rest of us to follow. However, if you struggle thinking of an answer, then I urge you to find a spot you can serve others and do it. It should not be hard. There is not a shortage of need in this world, so if you see need-meet the need. If there is currently not a process in place to meet that need, then let’s sit down, talk about, and create a new way to serve our community together.
The random acts of mercy are not so much random, as they are unstructured. These are acts we undertake in our daily life to be a blessing to others. This is where we do good of every possible sort in small ways. Again this is not hard, we simply need to take time to notice people around us. When we truly notice them, then the ways we can bless them and show God’s love through our actions becomes incredibly apparent. The second challenge is this: I challenge you for the rest of lent to do at least one thing a day that brightens someone else’s day. Do a small action, a small act of mercy, where you bring joy and show God’s love to another person through your actions.
May you get in the habit of doing that, so then you will show people your faith by your deeds. Prayers are incredibly important and world changing, but may we be more than a church of thoughts and prayers. May we be a church that embraces acts of mercy. Being full of the love of God, may we love our neighbors through our actions. May we show this world what a living faith looks like as we back up our beliefs of a loving God with loving actions. May they know we are Christians by our love.