05 Sep Sermon: 14th Sunday After Trinity (Year B)
‘So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’. This verse, at the end of our reading from James, has a way of making us squirm, for all kinds of reasons. One possible protest is that, surely, we are justified by faith, not by our works. We do not, and cannot, earn God’s grace, love or salvation. They are free gifts. So what place do works have?
In his maiden sermon last week, Br Jonny reminded us of the dangers of black and white thinking, and of dividing the world into binary opposites, such as, ooh, faith and works. Such divisions are generally undertaken with good motives – a desire to offer clarity, or to help people in their discipleship. So a certain amount of binary thinking may be, perhaps, helpful, but it can also lead to some seriously unhelpful places too. The temptation to think that because I’m saved, it doesn’t matter what I do, since it can’t change the fact of my salvation, is often just around the corner, and yet even Martin Luther was clear that while we cannot work our way into God’s good graces, the faith we profess absolutely should – must – make a difference to the way we walk on this earth. From a sermon he preached in 1522: ‘God does not want mere hearers and repeaters of words but doers and followers, who practice their faith in a life of love. For a faith without love is not enough; it is in reality no faith at all but only appears to be faith. Just so a face seen in a mirror is in reality no face but only appears to be a face’.
‘Who practice their faith in a life of love’. It’s our failure as the body of Christ to live up to this that so often leads to charges of hypocrisy being laid at our door. These charges, though, show us what matters to those around us. The majority of people we encounter on a day to day basis don’t particularly care about the precise details of our theology – which is not to say that our intellectual engagement with our faith is unimportant, far from it. But, as aa quotation on the profile of one of my fellow nuns of twitter, from John of the Cross, has it: “In the evening of life, we shall be judged on love alone”.
And so, turning back to today’s readings, what might this love look like in practice?
In Isaiah 35, we see a concern for freedom: the message given us is that God is coming, with freedom for all those who life has ground down: ‘Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you’. We can be a bit wary of the idea of God coming with vengeance, and certainly we are told by Jesus to pray for our persecutors, but this is not the same as saying that such persecution is ok. For an individual or a group of people suffering oppression or abuse, the coming of God presents a decisive opportunity to break free, for ‘the tongue of the speechless [to] sing for joy’, to see the beauty of the world around rather than the prison bars, whether literal or metaphorical, that have surrounded for so long. So how are we agents of God’s freedom? Do our speech and our actions bring compassion and hope in the face of despair? Does our love make us unafraid to sit in the darkness with someone, our mere presence acting as a symbol of waters in the wilderness, as a sign that no one is ever truly alone? Something I read this week said that in a world where so much seems to be going wrong, we do our fellow humans a disservice if we fail to offer hope, if we do not offer a vision of a better tomorrow.
In James chapter 2, we see the potential for a love that bestows dignity and respect upon all. It’s not our job to make distinctions between people: they’re all children of God, full stop, whether they come with arms full of gifts, or simply full of their neediness. In seeking to redress the imbalances in our world, however, I believe that we should seek to cultivate a special regard for the poor, in as many ways as we can, while bearing in mind that in so many ways we are the rich oppressors.
As James points out, just wishing someone well is not enough. So: buy the homeless person a coffee, and while you’re at it, get yourself one too and sit with them a while. Lavish attention on the person you find the hardest to deal with: Thérèse of Lisieux made a point of being especially loving to the most difficult of her sisters, leading one to say, “I don’t know why she loves me so much”. Buy Fairtrade where you can, knowing that so doing is actively improving lives across the world.
And what of our gospel reading today, the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, and the deaf-mute man? Both outsiders, in different ways, both unable to advocate for themselves. Both with people who care for them, who recognise that in this man Jesus there is something that can help. He has power which they do not, and they are not too proud to beg for a share of it to help those they care for. There are all kinds of themes running through both these episodes that could be entire sermons in themselves, but for today, notice Jesus. Notice that he is the source of healing in these stories, whether he is physically present with the sick person or not. As we heard at Office of Readings this morning, notice his kindness and compassion towards the deaf man. Notice his ability to stretch his boundaries. Notice that in him there is a power at work which makes new beginnings possible. Notice the faith that others have in him, and the faith he has in his Father.
Love is hard, sometimes, both to accept and to give. It is most certainly not all sunshine and flowers and rainbows and unicorns. Love makes demands of us, just like love made demands of Jesus, especially when he was just trying to have a rest. I think part of what made Jesus able to respond with such generosity was that he knew that the love he shared came from God’s endless rivers. He didn’t have to conjure it up himself, he just had to let it flow through him. In the same way, we too can always, always look to God when our hearts are empty. This is one part of the value of a regular practice of prayer: it draws us back to the source of all love and life, refills our tanks, or throws another log on the fire.
Whichever metaphor you prefer, the point is the same: love is God’s doing, not ours. We’re just the conduits for something much bigger than ourselves. By God’s grace we are called to be the vessels by which more of God’s love can reach more of God’s creation. It’s a huge task, and yet also a very simple one. Just love. One moment at a time, one person at a time, one day at a time.
I’d like to end with a collect that we use occasionally; it’s been on my mind while I’ve been writing this sermon, and I think sums up well one of the many things today’s readings are drawing our attention to: God of grace and goodness, who made us body and spirit that our work and faith may be one: may we, by our life and worship, join in your labour to bring forth a new creation in justice, love and truth; through Jesus, our Redeemer. Amen.