September 12, 2021
Isaiah 50:4-9a Psalm 19 James 3:1-12 Mark 8:27-38
Before today’s lesson from the Epistle of St. James, in the second chapter, he writes, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” The Apostle Paul teaches we receive salvation by grace – not by works. James does not contradict this. Instead, he reminds us that our faith needs to be more than simply believing what we say, for true belief changes lives.
On my trip, as I was riding through the desert in New Mexico, I began thinking about what it means to be Christian. In a day when the number of people who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” is increasing, what does Christianity have to offer? First, I thought, it changes our center of attention. True belief causes us to focus outward, rather than inward. It shifts our concern away from our inward wants and desires to an outward focus on what is good for all. It helps us to understand that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves.
It was easy for me to look around and see the beauty of God’s creation and to realize that I am only a small part of it. My friend on the bike in front of me was the only person within sight. Around me there were sage bushes and small mountains with cliffs of red and brown. A sense of gratitude filled my heart and I felt a peace that I had not felt since our son died.
People talk about finding God in creation, and that is what I experienced that day. As I rode on, my mind returned to the question I had been considering – what about Christianity is relevant to those who are not a part of church today? The answer was around me – we are a part of God’s creation which is so much larger than ourselves. Faith AND works AND community are important. We were created to be a part of a community. We yearn for community. And being a part of a community of faith directs our attention outward.
I then thought of my favorite scriptures, Jesus’ answer to the question, “what is the greatest commandment?” Jesus responded with what we know to be the Two Great Commandments: We are to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul – and our neighbors as ourselves. To draw others to the church, I think we need to start with loving our neighbor as ourselves. By placing the needs of others on the same level as ourselves, we can see that our lives are connected and that we are part of something far larger than ourselves.
Some faith communities have a different approach. They start with a promise of what is to, the afterlife, and not what God is calling us to do here and now. It is an approach that tends to scare people into believing rather than love them into being a part of the church, Christ’s body in the world today.
James has something to teach us about living out our faith in today’s lesson. He reminds us that what we say matters. The power of the tongue is compared to a small fire that can start a forest fire, and with the rudder of ship which guides directs where it will go. “From the mouth,” he writes, “come blessings and cursing.” The tongue, he says, can stain the whole body.
I am reminded of the truth of this statement as I reflect upon the 9/11 attack on our nation. Judging others is best left to God, but religious extremist preached hate and condemnation of our country and motivated a group of men to become terrorists and take innocent lives. They may have believed they were doing God’s will, but God’s will for us is to love our neighbor as ourselves – not to judge, condemn, and devastate lives.
Only one of the four flights that were hijacked failed to reach its target, and that was because its passengers, having learned of what the hijackers intended, were courageous and sacrificed their own lives for the good others. They were not the only ones however, who acted courageously that day. Flight attendants on the other flights did what they could to help others – including contacting authorities on the ground and letting them know what was happening. Later, first responders, police and fire fighters rush toward the danger and got people out. Many lost their lives saving others.
James teaches us that actions and words are important. Words need to unite and express God’s love, not divide and create hatred. Actions need to be unselfish, not self-centered – and on 9/11 we saw the harm that comes for using words to promote hate and we saw selfless actions of true faith. We saw how faith can result in acts of heroism and how it can be twisted to perpetuate evil in our world.
When Peter tries to persuade Jesus not to allow himself to be crucified, Jesus tells him, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” I think of this when I reflect on questions of faith. On that day, there were those who lost their lives in service to others vs. those who lost their lives destroying the lives of others. God’s will is always for the good, any other understanding of God’s will is misguided. God also desires justice. My focus today however, is on the faith that motivates our actions – not justice, which may or may not be achieved in our lifetime. Our faith calls upon us to focus outward to the greater good, rather than inward and selfishly toward what we want for ourselves.
The events of 9/11 are fresh on our minds for a numbers of reasons but we are challenged daily to say that which encourages others and act in ways that help our neighbors. Not everyone has the skills and talents of those who rushed to danger, some of us help best by getting out of the way. I do pray however, that I might use my gifts and talents to help others when and where I can.
Let us pray.
Loving God, creator of us, help to use our words wisely and act as you would have us act for the benefit of those who are on this journey through life with us. Help us to lead by example, that others might experience your love through us. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.