Harrowing Of Hell
September 6, 2015

James and the God-Acts

Preacher: Wellesley Chapman

I don’t carry cash. It’s not a habit I’ve got. When I was a child I had change, lots of change, but didn’t know how to count it, which made me sad. And so I didn’t much like cash. In my later youth, I didn’t carry cash because I didn’t seem to have any. And now, well, I do know how to count money, and I know where I can find it, but cash seems less relevant. I can pay with a card, a click, or even just wave of my phone over a pad to make something like money move from my invisible stash to somewhere else. It’s pretty cool, I think. I don’t know why, but not having or needing to carry currency feels like progress, and I am a participant in that progress. I like that.

But guess what? There are still some experiences that require cash. Want a burger and fries at Dick’s? Bring cash. You can’t drop a credit card in the hunger basket. And a copy of Real Change costs two dollars, cash.

It is this last example that caused me to go into a spiral of moral inquiry recently. I was walking to lunch with my friend Erika. We work in South Lake Union, which has become quite busy lately with Amazon employees, tens of thousands of them, who empty onto the streets at noon in search of lunch. And vendors are ready: there are dozens of restaurants, coffee shops, food trucks, a hot dog stand, and the Whole Foods experience. The scene is amazing, really. Broad sidewalks thick with clumps of people.

While Erika and I navigated through the neighborhood, we wandered past a gentleman on the corner outside the bank, selling Real Change. I don’t want to make assumptions, so for those who don’t know, Real Change, to quote from their website, “is an award-winning weekly newspaper that provides immediate employment opportunity and takes action for economic, social, and racial justice.” It’s a job selling a newspaper. And this man was there on the corner, holding up a copy of the paper—silent and alert, watching us all while no one noticed. He stood out to me. He was—and I don’t mean this disparagingly—filthy. His clothes and skin were a collection of the dirt of city streets I presumed to be his home. The shorts he wore revealed swollen calves with reddened, thick skin I see so often in patients with heart or liver failure. His facial features were muted, an effect similar to Parkinson’s disease often seen with years of medications used to manage the most challenging psychiatric disorders. His nose had been broken more than once, and other facial clues suggested fetal alcohol syndrome, an illness inflicted in the womb. This was a fellow with a hard life. How much was written from birth? How much his choice? I don’t know.

But all the same, there he was, silently offering his newspaper—watching us not watch him, believing, and taking action. And this moved me. I wanted to believe too. I would also take action. I would buy a newspaper.

But I did not have a single dollar. It is hard to describe the feeling that overcame me, but I think we call it shame. I wasn’t able to help because I chose to make myself incapable of acting.

In a fleeting attempt to redeem myself, I made eye contact with him, desperately trying to say to him with my eyes, “Hey, I’m a good person, I just don’t have any money…believe me, I would help if I could…I want to…I live by faith…I am a good person.” Maybe that looked like a greeting to him. Or maybe it was a stare. I imagine he’s grown used to stares.

All of this happened in just a few seconds. The walking river moved on, Erika and I with it. And we were past him. We ate lunch and walked back to work. He was gone. I went home to Brooke and the girls. I slept, woke, worked, and so on… It can go on just like that in mindless cycles. But piercing this dazed meandering were that man’s image and these words: faith without works, Wellesley. Faith without works.

Today’s New Testament reading is that selection from James on faith and works. In the Episcopal Church we read it in the New Revised Standard Version. It’s fun to try other translations, and I enjoy when we do this in Bible study. Let’s look at The Message, from Eugene Peterson:

14-17 Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

The God-acts called for in these verses are pretty clear: Give real comfort—food and clothing—to those in need. It’s practical. James’ letter is nothing if not practical. In five chapters James gives us a practical guide to getting good stuff done. What it lacks in poetry it makes up for in its stridency. Life is hard, and that’s okay. Get over it. Be bold in prayer, listen to what God tells us, and act on it without concern for what other people think. Do what is right and just. There’s a little James in Yoda when he says, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

But this doing is hard. Praying and hearing God and translating that into action: we don’t always succeed. My encounter with the man on the street didn’t end in action, but in shame. What would James find more useless than faith without works? Faith laced with shame—and still no works!

When we’re weary or ashamed, cannot hear God clearly, or struggle to turn faith into action, where do we turn? We have our families. Our community here. Some of us are in small groups. Priests are abundant at Epiphany, too.

And we can build strength by practicing. At Epiphany we refer to the seven spiritual practices:

  1. Daily prayer
  2. Weekly worship
  3. Observing the Sabbath
  4. Pilgrimage
  5. Living into the rhythms of the liturgical year
  6. Fasting, and
  7. Tithing

Practice builds strength. Practice helps us do what is right and just when we are called to do so. Our practices are acts of faith, and though they don’t themselves feed the hungry, they help make it possible.

Dallas Willard calls these practices:

“Intentionally directed actions by which we do what we can do in order to receive from God the ability to do what we cannot do by direct effort. It is not in us to love our enemies,” he says. “If we go out and try very hard to love our enemies, we will fail miserably. Always. This strength, this power to love our enemies…is simply not within our natural abilities. We cannot do it by ourselves. Ever.”

The practices help us get there. They aren’t easy. They’re not supposed to be. But how will we ever have the capacity to do what is needed in the world if we don’t practice? And if we are too weary to put faith into action, then what kind of world do we create?

One answer is found in the daily news images of terrified families fleeing the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters reduced to begging for shelter, risking and losing their lives to flee a ruler intent on killing them. And wealthy nations quibble over who will take them in. I get it. There are hard political realities. But is the suffering we see and do not act upon not suffering that we inflict?

God sent his son into the world also a beggar for shelter and a refugee from a ruler intent on killing him. And we did not have the ability, in his time on earth, to love him enough. Captives of our own fear, we sentenced him to die. We were there when we nailed him to the cross.

And if this is what we are willing to do to God, then I ask you, what will we not do to one another?

Let’s come back to our man on the corner, quietly offering Real Change to people who cannot even see him. He stands there carrying a banner proclaiming that he believes in us. Despite the indignities he endures: filth, invisibility, beatings. He holds up his declaration of faith that the world is just. Faith into action. God-talk into God-acts.

Our liturgy is full of beautiful God-talk: it has poetry, ritual, and music, and I love every moment. My prayer for us today is that our practice of weekly worship sharpens our senses to hear when God is speaking to us, strengthens our belief, and moves us to God-acts worthy of our place together in the Kingdom of God. Amen.