Date: October 4, 2009—World Communion Sunday Text: James 2:14-24 Title: Draw Near to God: Dead or Alive? Hymns: 229 From All That Dwell Below the Skies 2269 Come, Share the Lord 514 Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ The weather definitely turned this week. It is no longer summer. So I hope you will forgive me as I begin this morning with a bit of a story that is actually something perhaps I should keep and use at Christmas time. But I want to read it now. It is from a collection of essays by Robert Fulghum entitled Uh-Oh: Some Observations from Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door. Robert Fulghum is best known for a little essay that has been around for over 25 years entitled ―All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.‖ Some of you are familiar with that essay. Fulghum is a Unitarian pastor, now retired, a fine writer with a wonderful knack for understanding the human condition. Listen to the way he describes a scene from his childhood. ―Chinkelty-tink, chinkelty-tink, chinkelty-tinklety-tinklety-tink.‖ A sound from a street corner in Waco, Texas. In the late afternoon of a windy December day in 1944. Just in front of Woolworth‘s five-and-dime store. A tall, slender middle-aged man in suit, tie, overcoat and Stetson hat stands by a red steel tripod from which hangs an iron kettle. An eight-year-old kid, bundled up snugly against the cold, is with him, and is working up a little rhythm with a small bell. It is a privilege for the child to ring the bell. First time. An important promotion. For in previous years, at this same post, it has been the prerogative of the man. Admonished not to do anything silly, the kid is trying to mix a little joy in with the necessary solemnity required of one who has been trusted. ―Chinkelty-tink, chinkelty-tink, chinkelty-tinklety-tinklety-tink.‖ The kid is me. The man is my father. For an hour the two of us are the Salvation Army. At dusk, as people started home from work, the real Salvation Army appeared. In proper uniforms. Dark blue with red piping. Carrying a flag with the words ―Blood and Fire‖ on it. The Salvation Army Band, as well. Bass drum, tambourine, trumpet, French horn, trombone. I was allowed to ring along when they played ―Jingle Bells.‖ And allowed to occasionally shout, ―Put a nickel on the drum! Please put a nickel on the drum!‖ between carols. What I really wanted to do most of all was play the big drum. And I would have played the drum—if only they had asked. My father was not a Christian. At least not by the standards of the Salvation Army, the Baptist Church, or my mother. Oh he went to church once in a while—Easter, Christmas, and Mother‘s Day. But he didn‘t have much use for the church crowd. Thought they were mostly Sunday talkers. Yet year after year he took me along with him to ring the bell for this army of God. Sometimes I saw him quietly singing along, with the hymns played by the band. He didn‘t sing in church—it surprised me to hear him sing here—and I didn‘t realize he knew all the words by heart. My father once told me if was going to be a Christian, he would join the Salvation Army—they practiced what they preached. He did join the Salvation Army temporarily—every year during the Christmas holidays, as one of the local businessmen who volunteered to tend the kettles. But there was a deeper reason for his participation. Years later, after my father died, his sister told me that when the family home had burned down, leaving the family destitute, the Salvation Army came to the rescue. My father was helped by the Salvation Army to find his first job. His debt to them was large. He owed. My aunt said that the family was so humiliated about their poverty that they never talked about it, even among themselves. All the help they got in that awful time was from the Salvation Army. I finally understood why I was ringing that bell. Fulgham goes on in his essay to talk about how years later he would take his own son, Sam, to ring the bell for the Salvation Army Christmas kettle. On the way home Sam wondered things like; if there is a Salvation Army is there a Salvation Navy or Salvation Air Force? What about Salvation Green Berets? What would you have to do to qualify for the Salvation Green Berets? Sam‘s questions are amusing, but it made me stop and think about that name, Salvation Army. It is a bit of a contradiction in terms, a paradox, if you will. Over the last few weeks as we have been studying the book of James, I have been giving you some lessons in the Greek language as I have referred to various Greek words. You actually know a lot more Greek that you think you do. There are many English words that are straight out of the Greek language, and one is that very word ―paradox.‖ It is a compound word made up of two parts, and you already know what both parts mean. The first is a Greek prefix –-para— and we talked about that term last week. ―Para‖ can mean a number of things. One possible meaning is ―to the side.‖ Last week, we talked about how the word James uses for deception is literally setting logic aside. But another possible meaning is ―beyond.‖ So the word we looked at last week could also mean beyond logic. The second part of the word —dox— is found in such words as ―doxology‖ and ―orthodox.‖ The root of this word is ―believing‖ or ―belief.‖ Therefore, when we sing the doxology we sing words that we believe, and something that is orthodox is the right thing to believe. So a paradox can mean setting aside belief because of some sort of contradiction. But the original Greek word can also mean something that is beyond belief, not in the sense that it is false or imaginary, but rather in the sense that it is wonderful or amazing. Sometimes when we have a great time and really enjoy ourselves, we might say, ―That was fantastic!‖ or ―That was unbelievable!‖ That captures some of the original meaning of the Greek word ―paradox.‖ This word ―paradox‖ appears in many places in classical Greek literature, but it only appears once in the Greek New Testament, and that is in 5th chapter of Luke‘s gospel. There you find a story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man. If you remember that story, four men brought their paralyzed friend for Jesus to heal, and they couldn‘t get in to the house where he was preaching because it was jammed pack with people. So they went up to the roof and removed the tiles and lowered their friend down to Jesus. There is this little verbal sparring match with the Pharisees, but in the end Jesus heals the paralyzed man, and then in Luke 5:26 it says, ―Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‗We have seen strange things today.‘‖ In the original Greek it is actually, ―We have seen paradoxes today!‖ We have seen things that are amazing, fantastic, and unbelievable. I bring up this idea of a paradox as something amazing and fantastic, because theologians and Biblical scholars down through the centuries have had some problems with our Scripture passage for this morning. The most notable theologian who completely disagreed with the second chapter of James was none other than the father of the Protestant Reformation himself, Martin Luther. How many Lutherans or former Lutherans do we have here this morning? If you grew up in the Lutheran church, you probably did not hear many sermons on our text for this morning. This is because Luther did not like the book of James at all. He did not think it should even be included in the New Testament. He called it an epistle of straw, claiming there is nothing of substance in this letter. The reason he said this comes right from our passage for this morning. You have to remember what Martin Luther and the rest of the first Protestants were protesting about. The church in Rome was trying to raise money, so they had launched an immense international capital campaign. There was a lot of fuss and talk, but what it all came down to was this: church leaders said that if you gave a lot of money to the church, you were a good person and were going to heaven. If you did not give a lot of money, well, you weren‘t exactly going to hell, but you were in a rather precarious position and your soul was definitely in peril. Luther said this was just plain wrong. His key text was from the writings of the Apostle Paul, specifically Ephesians 2:8 & 9, which reads: ―For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.‖ Luther preached, and rightly so, that we are not saved by giving money to the church. You could give millions and millions and that would not guarantee you a spot in heaven. No, we are saved by grace through faith. It is not the result of works, anything we do. It is our faith that saves us. Now, remember what James says in our scripture lesson, James 2:14, ―What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?‖ Three verses later he says, ―So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.‖ Then in verse 24, he says, ―You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.‖ Can you see why Luther did not like this passage from James? It seems to negate all that he stands for and validate all he is working against. We cannot deny there is a contradiction here. Who is right? Is Paul right when he says that we are saved by faith? Is James right when he says that we are justified by works and not by faith alone? One way to resolve this is to simply say that this is a paradox. These are two separate truths that we believe that do indeed contradict each other. However we hold them side by side, holding on to each without denying one or the other. Or maybe what we say is that these two ideas are indeed a paradox in the original sense of the word. They are wonderful, fantastic, amazing, and beyond belief, which takes me back to Fulghum‘s essay. While he never uses the term he is well aware of the paradoxical nature of the Salvation Army. Listen to one more paragraph from his essay: ―Like my father before me, I have reason to admire the Salvos. There are only about twenty-five thousand soldiers in this army, and they are thinly spread across eighty- six countries. Yet wherever there is trouble, there is also the Salvation Army. An army that takes no prisoners—an army whose only enemies are degradation, pain and sorrow. As a parish minister engaged in the social concerns of my community, I found the Army at work wherever human need was greatest. Doing the hard stuff— the work nobody else would do. Shelters for the homeless, food for the hungry, refuge for the battered, company for the aged, and a hand to alcoholics, drug addicts, the jobless and the young. Whenever there was no other place to turn, the end of the road had someone from the Army beside it. The only qualification was need. No test of faith, race, color, sex, or place in life. Just need. As one officer explained to me, ―Jesus was one of the homeless, you know.‖ Yes, we know. And when we look at what some followers of Jesus Christ are doing in this world, suddenly it is no longer some sort of intellectual exercise. Is the Salvation Army out there fighting degradation, pain and sorrow, because they think James is right or they think Paul is right? Are they feeding the hungry, and providing for the homeless and offering hope for the addicts because they believe they are saved by doing the right things or believing the right things? Those are ridiculous questions. Why? Because when your faith is alive, something that is part of who you are; when you have been touched by the passionate love of God, you want to get involved in some incredible, amazing, unbelievable, paradoxical things. When your faith is alive, you care deeply that there are hungry people right here in Marion; little kids whose only decent meal each day is the one they get at the school cafeteria. You care about elderly people who are coming to our food pantry because they have enough money to buy food or enough to buy medicine, but not enough to buy both. You care about kids out at the Azure apartments who look forward each week to Monday nights, when they can have a hot meal, and some adults who will pay attention to them and want to teach them about God‘s love. When your faith is alive, it matters a great deal to you that there are still people down in Cedar Rapids who are homeless because of the flood. You care that there are home bound in our congregation that would like to receive the sacrament of the Lord‘s Supper. You are concerned about those in hospice care, about Hispanic women in the county jail, about those who are illiterate and need tutors, about those who need big brothers and big sisters, about those who are trying to break addictions to alcohol and those with eating disorders, and the list goes on and on. You care about these things because you know God loves you unconditionally, no matter what you do. You care about these things, not in some silly hope of making God love you more, but because you know this is a way to thank God for loving you and to love God in return. This brings me back to the open story about Robert Fulghum‘s father. James says, ―faith without works is dead.‖ Fulghum says his dad was not a Christian and had little use for the church crowd regarding them mostly as Sunday talkers. But this man recognized something alive and genuine about the Salvation Army. He knew there were Christians with living genuine faith. They the ones who were there when his family needed some help. So for a few hours a year, he joined the Salvation Army. He wanted to identify with Christians like that. I find that both inspiring and convicting. Is my faith dead or alive? Is there anyone out there in the community that recognizes something alive and genuine about me, about this church? Is there anyone who would like to join me, join us, even for just a few hours? Is there anyone who would like to identify with us, because we do practice what we preach? They understand that we don‘t just talk the talk, we walk the walk. If there is, I think that would be amazing, fantastic, and unbelievable. May God help us to keep our faith alive. May God continue to fill our lives with wonderful paradoxes. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.