I never expected to have a job that required me to write. When I was in grammar school and high school, I didn’t pay too much attention to creative writing classes or spend too much time learning how to craft a perfect essay because it never entered my mind that I’d have to write for a living. I mean, I knew I’d have to write things down but I guess I never expected anyone to have to read it or hear what I had written. Most of my life I thought I’d be an actor or a psychologist I never expected to be a preacher. But now, here I am. And if my math is correct (and it may not be since I never expected to have to do math either) – I am standing in front of you this morning delivering my 100th meditation as pastor of Memorial Congregational Church.
It’s an interesting turn of events. Even though I never expected to be a writer, I’m now called, week after week, to craft an essay that lasts 25 minutes…ok, 20 minutes….ok, 12 minute in which I reflect on a chosen piece of scripture and try to relate it to our world and our lives today in an engaging, thoughtful and entertaining way.
For a long time, I wasn’t sure that I could do that. When I first felt (what I believed to be) a call from God to become a minister, I wasn’t sure that I was the right person for the job. I firmly believed that God was there and that God was asking me to do something, but I didn’t have the faith in myself to believe that I could answer that call with action. Over time, through practice and prayer, I’ve developed a few skills and some confidence that allows me to share with you the many ways in which I believe God is still speaking to us today.
We’ve been spending some time with the letter attributed to Jesus’ brother, James. Today’s selection is, in many ways, the most important part of his work. It contains the phrase that led me to use this epistle to drive our conversation about social justice, about doing God’s work.
That phrase, “faith, without works, is dead,” like many others in scripture, has been the cause of many disputes over the years. Preachers and theologians have debated its meaning and its truth. The argument revolves around the two words “faith” and “works.” Martin Luther referred to James’ letter as the “epistle of straw” and even the letters from the apostle Paul seem to have a different idea about the two concepts.
Paul said that faith in Jesus Christ and in God is all that we need to be saved. James seems to be saying that’s not enough. “Even the demons believe in God,” he says, “our beliefs are useless if we don’t do something with them.”
Over the years some have understood “works” to mean the rituals and sacraments of the church. If that’s true, it may mean that we can simply go through the motions – taking communion, giving confessions, going to church once a week – and somehow those actions will make us right in the eyes of God.
But James isn’t talking about those rituals – especially if we’re just going through the motions. If we’re just going to church because we think we have to; or we take communion without recognizing that we’re sharing the meal with God; or if we read the words of a confessional prayer without taking them into our hearts and seeking forgiveness, we are not being transformed by the Spirit.
James is talking about more than just simple religious ritual. He’s talking about action that is grounded in faith: feet on the ground, getting your hands dirty works – feeding the poor, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, standing up for the oppressed.
And James isn’t saying that God demands or even requires that we do this work to be saved to be loved to be forgiven. If we are truly being faithful to God, if we’re thankful for the blessings we have received, we should be moved to give back to God. We should know that we can show our thanks to God by serving humanity.
And when we put our faith to work when it is strong, we’ll be able to better handle the times when our faith is weak. When we’re struggling with our doubts and when we’re faced with questions, we’ll be able to look at the work that we’ve done and be able to see into the eyes of other children of God and we’ll be lifted up. The works that we do will help us keep our faith alive.
You are gracious enough to honor me each week with the gift of your time. You don’t have to be here and you certainly don’t have to give me your attention while I’m standing up here in the pulpit. But you do. That means the world to me. I try to honor your time by prayerfully considering the story of scripture and trying to find ways to show you how alive God’s story is even today. I don’t always get it right, and I’m sorry for those times that my work falls short. But the fact that you come back and give me another try is incredibly important to me. The fact that you have faith in me gives me faith in myself. My hope is that my meditation help bring God a little closer to you.
Cathy and I meet often and spend a lot of time working to craft worship services that will help you to connect with God. Most of the time, we try to follow the traditions of MCC. We work to find the songs that are meaningful to you and to observe the rituals that bring you comfort. But we also find that the Holy Spirit calls us to shake things up once in a while. Today is one of those days. The Spirit spoke to us and said “hey, what about a bluegrass service.”
I’ll be honest with you, my first reaction was “what? are you crazy?” I certainly didn’t have faith that our actions would create a worshipful service. But spending time this week learning some new songs and singing some old hymns a little differently, we’ve found the Spirit reaching us in exciting ways. We’ve learned that, standing on the solid foundation of our traditions we can always keep our hearts open to hear what our still speaking God is saying to us so that we can let the Holy Spirit lead us towards new opportunities of experiencing God.
So, on this the occasion of my 100th meditation, I thank you for the many blessings you have given to me. I pray that God will continue to lead us forward as a community together, leading us into a future where our church helps people find God and experience the Holy Spirit on their own terms, a future in which we use the gifts we’ve been given to serve our neighbors, a future in which our faith leads us to do great things together.
When we find that we are struggling we just need to remember to have faith: faith in ourselves, faith in our community and faith that God will remain with us, Jesus will always be our friend and the Spirit of the Living God will always be upon us.