What’s Holding Us Back
Sermon Series: The Art of Neighboring
By: Anna Hillaker – July 08, 2018
We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. We’re grateful for you and the gifts of God that you bring with you into this space. As we gather together as a church, we do so in the active presence of God through our worship, community, and engagement with Scripture, which we hope will lead to transformational growth in our everyday life. As a congregation, we want to experience belonging, cultivate tangible joy, activate hope, and know comfort as we learn to trust Jesus more and more, enabling us to reflect the welcome and peace of Jesus to those closest to us. We pray that whether this is your first time with us this morning, or you’ve been a part of our community for a while, that you will feel the invitation of the Holy Spirit to join in with our vision. If you are looking for a church home, we would love to be your church home.
Over the past couple of weeks, we have been diving into our summer sermon series on the Art of Neighboring. We’ve heard from Cathy Bartholomay and from Pastor Sam so far, and I’ve felt both encouraged and challenged by what I’ve heard.
I. What Good is it?
This week, I’ll be drawing from the book of James to guide us as we seek to develop our neighboring skills. Before we dive into the text, I want to give you a heads up about James. He’s… pretty blunt. You know those friends who you know will tell you about yourself? Those friends who you go to when you need someone to be brutally honest with you, but who you might avoid if you’re trying to get away with something? That’s James. He doesn’t really mince his words. We will start in James 2:14-19:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that— and shudder.
Like I said, James is not particularly subtle. James is all about integrity. Our actions ought to reveal our faith, and our faith ought to move and influence our actions. Because you see, we have a tendency to act out of what we believe the most. And not necessarily our intellectual beliefs, more likely whatever it is that drives us, whatever it is we are longing for. Our heart beliefs. If we are rooted in fear, we might act out of self preservation. If we are rooted in hopelessness, we might not act at all. So James is saying that true faith, mature faith, is rooted in God and trusts God in such a way that it is revealed in how we treat others.
Let’s look a little bit closer at the example that he uses. Say someone in your community doesn’t have their basic needs met. And your response to that person is “Go in peace, keep warm and well fed.” That is such a cruel response, isn’t it? “Go in peace” is both a prayer of benediction, a kind of “may God bless you and provide for your needs,” and it is also a way of saying goodbye. It’s kind of like a holy blow-off. A sort of ancient “thoughts and prayers” kind of a response. And what good is that?
Some of us, James is saying, are content to delegate the whole loving your neighbor thing. “I’m more of a faith person than a loving my neighbor person. But my church has some really great ministries that support the poor!” But for James, if we aren’t acting out our faith through love of neighbor, something is seriously wrong. Faithful action isn’t something we get to opt out of. Some people can recite all the right things to believe, James is saying, but they leave it at that. And James, well, he has some words about that. “Congratulations!” he says, dripping in sarcasm, “even the demons believe!” See, I told you the guy’s pretty blunt.
II. What’s Stopping Us?
Now, most of us don’t see ourselves as the heartless kind of people who will blow someone off and say it’s someone else’s problem. But whenever I hear a call like James’ for our faith to be reflected in how we act, I must admit that I start to feel a little squirmy. Because, see, I may not be the person who is blowing off someone right in front of my face, or arguing that it isn’t my responsibility to care for others, but when the integrity question is raised, it starts to become clear to me that my faith isn’t where it should be. So often, I’m not loving my neighbor as I ought to. I think many of us find ourselves in this boat. We think it’s important. We want to do it. But we don’t. Or we do it infrequently and inconsistently. We hear words like James’ and we feel convicted that we are not living the lives of integrity that we hope for. So, what’s holding us back? Maybe it’s that the situation just seems so hopeless that it feels futile, like there’s nothing we can possibly do. Or maybe we get paralyzed by the enormity of a situation and don’t know where to start. Or maybe we get a little too comfortable, a little too complacent, and our compassion slips a little. Or maybe we don’t think we’re good enough, equipped enough, loving enough, smart enough, or put together enough to possibly help anyone else. Or maybe we’re waiting for someone more qualified, more resourced to get the ball rolling. Surely some of this loving your neighbor stuff is advanced faith isn’t it? God isn’t asking beginners or on-the-fencers to do this loving your neighbor stuff, right?
[Story about my friend who pastors in a very challenging environment. How I have often felt intimidated by the kind of care she shows for her neighbors, feeling like I could never do that. But how her ministry is really very contextual, and often very simple.]
III. Start Where You Are
Luckily for us, James is also a pragmatist. He doesn’t just argue that caring for the poor, loving our neighbor, supporting the downcast are important. He gives us some examples to work with. Let’s pick up the text in v. 20:
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
One of the first things I noticed about these examples is that they are both very concrete. Neither of them are stories about someone going out into the world to combat against the vague forces of injustice. They are about two people who did their best to discern how God was inviting them to act in very specific situations. We are not being called to rush out into the world and save everyone. We’re not even being asked to rescue everyone that we encounter. We are being asked to consider how we respond in real time when we encounter situations in which God is inviting us to act in keeping with our professed faith. For me, hearing this is a relief. This isn’t to say that we aren’t meant to fight systemic issues of injustice. But it reminds me of what Cathy was preaching about a couple of weeks ago. She invited us to consider the example of Nehemiah, who when he was confronted with a heartbreaking situation, brought his pain and his concern before God and waited for God’s invitation to act. When we get bogged down in the enormity of a need, it is easy to become too paralyzed to act. But what if we considered our call to love our neighbor more as an ongoing practice of discerning how God is calling us to engage those we encounter who need us? What if we can simply ask, “Ok God, what would you have me do next?”
The next thing I noticed about the examples of Abraham and Rahab was how different their stories are. Abraham is this great hero of the faith, a cornerstone of the Jewish tradition, the start of it all. I’m not sure that I would respond to God the way Abraham does in this story. That feels like a little more faith than I honestly think I’d be able to muster. And that is another thing that can paralyze us when it comes to living out our faith with action— we don’t think we are holy enough, good enough, smart enough, full of enough integrity to pull something like that off. That’s why I’m so grateful for the second example that James gives, which I’m going to focus on for a little while. If we don’t think we’ll even be able to achieve Abrahamic levels of faith, maybe we can consider Rahab as a guide.
Here is a Caananite woman, who is poor, living a lifestyle that isn’t exactly on the moral up and up, someone who was an outcast in her own culture, much less how she may have been seen by the Israelites. And one day, seemingly out of the blue, she is confronted with a choice. She can either give up the foreign spies that she is sheltering, or she can protect them. And, having seen the ways that God had been faithful to the Israelites, she somehow manages to discern in this moment God’s invitation to do something radical— to protect these men. As people who are mostly reading this story through a Judeo-Christian perspective, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the men that she chooses to save are Israelite spies who have come to scope out her country so that they can take over.
In the book of Joshua, where this story is told, Rahab repeatedly says that her entire country is filled with fear of these foreign invaders. At one point she uses the phrase “melting with fear.” I think this shows an incredible amount of faith! But let’s remember something. Rahab didn’t begin this story as a hero, someone whose life was put together, someone whose faith had been proven. But she, just as much as Abraham, was able to make choices in a concrete situation in line with what she understood God to be doing in her midst. James’ message to us is this: if Rahab can do this we can too. So your life might not be where you want it to be. So you aren’t exactly a model follower of Jesus. So you don’t feel equipped to handle complex situations, or you feel like you don’t have much to offer. That’s okay. James lays out a wide and complex spectrum of faith and says— we all get the opportunity to live out our faith with actions of integrity.
One of the scholars I relied on for this sermon is named Elsa Tamez, who wrote a book called The Scandalous Message of James, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in learning more about some of these themes. She says this about James: “James challenges Christians to be authentic, to respond as they should to the grace of God who lovingly has shown us the path of God’s son Jesus Christ.” (p. 64). That is what both Rahab and Abraham are doing— they are responding to the grace of God that they have experienced. They are doing their best to respond through faithful action. Tamez calls this praxis, a term that comes from the Greek word, that in Latin America refers to “a liberating practice always linked to a transforming belief.” (p. 42) Action that flows out of a transforming belief.
IV. Equipped with Hope
But here’s the thing. What does a transforming belief look like? What kind of belief or experience with God can fuel that kind of heartfelt action? What could possibly equip us to love our neighbors well in the face of what can feel like insurmountable obstacles like poverty, war, hatred, and fear? We are never going to make an effort, never going to take a step forward, never going to find it worth it to even try loving our neighbors if we aren’t equipped with hope.
In preparing to preach in this sermon series, there was a crucial resource that I knew I needed to engage. Obviously, I mean the documentary about Mr. Rogers called Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. [Mr. Roger’s example— so much of what he did was very simple and unglamorous, but he was motivated by a deep set of convictions, and I think a profound hope that things can change. He talked about the neighborhood not being a fantasy place, but a real place with conflict. He said “What changes the world? That love can about and be shared.” He wrote at one point “Am I kidding myself? Why don’t I trust myself? After all these year it’s as bad as ever”, but at the end of the day he said he just had to get down to it and just start. He said “We are all called to be repairers of creation.” ]
Running throughout the book of James, paired with his bold critiques and challenging reflections, is the belief that God is really at work in the world, that Jesus is not only deeply present to those who are suffering, but is actually working to do something about it. It is clear to me that James is confident of the nearness and the activity of the kingdom of God. There is hope. Profound hope that is not rooted only in our actions, or our ability to solve crises, or even to love each other well. It is rooted instead in the belief that the Holy Spirit is alive and present to us, and that God is actively working to make all things new. He writes in James 1:2-5:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sister, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may not lack anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
Without hope, without a tangible encounter with God that roots this reality in our hearts, it will be nearly impossible to confront the overwhelming challenges we find in our world. What do we do if we don’t have hope? We ask for it. We do our best to stand firm. We wait for the “God who gives generously without finding fault” to meet us with love, to fill us with hope, to sustain us so that we may persevere, to empower us so that we can “get down to it and just start” as we work to become repairers of the world.
V. Heroic Patience
Let’s also be realistic. It is really hard to maintain that kind of hope in our world. We see our attempts to love well to awry. We see people taking advantage of one another. We see people ignoring and exploiting each other. And that’s why I think we also need another concept that James introduces— heroic patience. We tend to think of patience as passive, don’t we? Maybe even as a cop out or an avoidance tactic. Certainly we often think of it as the opposite of doing something, right? But one word James uses for patience is a Greek word that is often used in military contexts, ‘υπομονε. It implies a very active waiting, it means “persevere, resist, be constant, unbreakable, immovable.” This is the word translated “persevere” in the passage I just read. “you know that the testing of your faith produces heroic patience. It isn’t simply biding your time, twiddling your thumbs, only to be caught off guard when the moment arrives. No, this is diligent, attentive waiting, waiting so that you will be ready to act when the decisive moment arrives. I love that James pairs this word for patience with another one, μακροθυμια. This one is a more agricultural picture— like a farmer waiting for her crops to grow, watching for every green leaf, every tender bud, noting the rain and the sun. She knows it’s coming, but for the moment, it is out of her hands. But this is not “passive futility” (Tamez, p. 45), but loving, active attention.
Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. (James 5:7-8)
I think we need both of these kinds of patience as we work to love our neighbors. Patience that waits, discerning when God is calling you to action. Patience that trusts, knowing that the bigger picture is out of our hands, but that God is at work underneath the soil, causing the seeds to germinate, the plants to sprout, new life to spring forth.
If you are someone this morning who is eager to love your neighbor in whatever way God is calling you to, but you feel a barrier, be it hopelessness, fear, impatience, or a feeling like you are not good enough to have something to offer, we would love to pray with you this morning. I would like to pray that all of us may be equipped with hope and with patience. That we would experience the goodness and love of God in a way that becomes a transforming belief in our lives, a belief that springs forth in action and in love for those around us. There’s a prayer from Ephesians 3 that I would like to pray over us this morning as I close:
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge— that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)