September 5, 2021 / 15th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
First Reading Isaiah 35:4-7a / Second Reading James 2:1-10, 14-17 / Gospel Mark 7:24-37
The history of Lutherans in the United States can be described as a kind of Alphabet Soup. Back in 1988, three Lutheran denominations came together to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Those predecessor bodies were: the L.C.A., the A.L.C. and the A.E.L.C. Back in 1979 I was ordained as a pastor in the L.C.A. – the Lutheran Church in America. I recall a national campaign that was conducted by the L.C.A. to raise funds for outreach and mission. The campaign employed the same three letters – L – C – A – to give a title to the campaign: Love Compels Action. It was a good them, had to be because I still recall it all these years later.
Love Compels Action is a simple, straightforward message. Love can’t flourish as an idea or as an ideal. Love leads to action, love motivates a person to serve, to care, to be generous, to sacrifice, to risk. Love that stands still and ventures nothing is really not love at all. In the musical, My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle grows weary of mere words and sings:
Don’t talk of stars burning above,
If you’re in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams, filled with desire,
If you’re on fire, show me!
Don’t talk of love, lasting through time,
Make me no undying vow – show me now!
God is love, and God understands how Love Compels Action. God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son to die for us.
What’s true of love is also true of faith. Faith also compels action. That is, faith that does not lead to any good works is really not faithful – it consists of empty words. Today James bluntly reminds us: “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Using an example from nature Jesus said: “…every good tree bears good fruit . . . a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:17-18)
The Holy Spirit blesses us with faith, and faith produces the fruits of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-Control. By their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus.
In his letter, James insists that when faith is genuine, the faithful strive to love their neighbors as themselves – doing what they can to help, to serve, to bless. James asks, what good is faith that is not active in love? “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet YOU DO NOT SUPPLY THEIR BODILY NEEDS, what is the good of that?” Words without actions are empty.
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Now before St. Paul and Martin Luther start spinning in their graves, I must emphasize: You and I are not saved by our good works! Nobody gets to heaven by being a good man or woman. No one is good but God! If Lutherans know anything, we know we are saved by faith in the grace of God. We are saved by the good works of Jesus – and our faith in Jesus. And then as a consequence, because we have been saved, our gratitude and our trust in God’s continuing grace lead us to gladly express our faith in good works of love and kindness. In short, good works don’t earn us salvation. Instead, good works are the outcome of our salvation.
Today’s gospel offers insight into the kind of work you and I can be doing. Jesus came to save the whole world – yet so often we see Jesus working on one person at a time. In our gospel Jesus heals the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman, and a deaf mute. He works at ground level, with individuals. Now Jesus did feed a crowd of 5,000 – and he provided more than enough wine for a large wedding reception. Yet many times Jesus works one-on-one.
Think of the man he heals who was born blind.
Consider his long conversation with the Samaritan woman he meets one-on-one at the community well.
Jesus intercedes on behalf of a single woman, guilty of adultery, and saves her from being stoned to death.
Passing through Jericho, Jesus sees the little tax collector, Zacchaeus – a man despised by the whole town – and Jesus asks to have lunch with him.
The sisters of Lazarus thought Jesus had arrived too late to save their brother – but Jesus had a miraculous one-on-one encounter with Lazarus.
Even on the cross, Jesus reaches out to the thief on the cross next to him and promises him salvation.
After the resurrection, Jesus has a memorable one-on-one with a repentant Peter, commissioning him to continue the mission and care for the flock.
Jesus came to save and to love us all, yet we see his saving love in action with specific individuals. Love is like that. It is never generic or generalized. Love flows from one person to another, like a life-giving blood transfusion. What this says to us is that faith in action often works on a small scale. You and I can work one-on-one, loving one neighbor at a time.