Sermon for September 9, 2012

Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 18, Sept. 9, 2012

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas

Sermon Text: James 2:1-10, 14-18

Sermon Theme: “The Need for Spiritual Glasses”

(Sources: Emphasis online Commentary and Illustrations; Anderson’s Cycle B Workbook; Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 22, Part 4, Series B; original ideas)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

As I am learning in my old age, corrective eyewear is a physical necessity for many of us; I long ago graduated from bifocals to trifocals. Without these glasses I am wearing, it would no longer be possible for me to stand here in this pulpit and proclaim the word to you.

That seems like a good metaphor for the message the Apostle James is presenting in our sermon text from his letter. It seems to me that James is saying that corrective eyewear is also a spiritual necessity for our hearts. He wants us to take a trip to the “glorious” light of Jesus Christ as part of a spiritual ophthalmologist exam. We need glasses that will change our attitudes about each other, and we need glasses of the heart that will alter our perceptions. We need corrective lenses of the soul that will make us encourage and build others up, rather than cut them down.

Among Christians today, there are two kinds of faith, and there are two doctrinal beliefs that get distorted.

As our sermon text makes clear, the two kinds of faith are a living faith and a dead faith. True, living faith connects you to God and to other people. Dead faith results from being disconnected to other people, and consequently being disconnected from God. It takes those glasses of the heart and those corrective lenses of the soul to help us understand this.

Along with this there are the two doctrinal beliefs that are distorted by the spiritually nearsighted and the spiritually shortsighted.

Those like Lutherans with bad spiritual eyesight take the motto of the Reformation, “We are saved by Grace through Faith alone,” and push it beyond what Paul meant by those words. They believe that they can do whatever they want to because God’s grace is there to pick us up. Or they believe in doing nothing because works count for nothing. They lose sight of God’s truth that what we do or don’t do does matter. What we do happens because we are saved.

The other distorted doctrinal belief which those we call “reformed” churches hold is to believe we are saved by our good deeds and righteous works. In our text, James is not saying that, although folks with spiritual vision problems see it that way. If such were true, then Christ counts for nothing and did not need to die for our sins, and the Holy Spirit is a piece of fiction.

Years ago, in the comic strip, Peanuts, Snoopy is sitting in the snow shivering. Charlie Brown and Linus are walking by all bundled up. They spot Snoopy and decide to go over to cheer him up. “Be of good cheer,” they say warmly to Snoopy. Then they walk off. Snoopy is left there sitting in the snow, still shivering with a huge question mark looming over his head, as if to ask, “You mean, that’s it?” Faith without works is dead.

It is our weak human nature to want to take the easy way out. I see that in myself, too. It is hard to obey God’s commandments, and sometimes we don’t do very well at trying to. So we like to grab onto the distorted view that we can do whatever we want to do because God’s grace is there to pick us up. The easy way out is also to rationalize that since we are not saved by our good deeds, but by grace through faith, we don’t have to do anything. We don’t have to send health kits, we don’t have to take food to the food pantry, we don’t have to collect money in our mite box, we don’t have to help our friend whose husband is in the hospital, etc.

It’s inconvenient for me to help my neighbor with his sewer problems, especially if they occur on New Year’s Eve.

The problem with a sermon like this is that the people listening just react by saying under their breath or thinking, “Yada, yada, yada.”

So I think I can get you to see more clearly what James’ letter is all about by telling you a true story about a real person and other real people.

Johan Eriksson came to learn the lesson our text teaches. In 1939, trainloads of Jewish children were piling into Sweden. Because of the changing political climate under Hitler’s European campaign, Jewish parents were trying to get their young ones out of Germany. Boys and girls, sometimes only three or four years old, stumbled off boxcars and into culture shock carrying nothing but large tags around their necks, announcing their names, ages, and hometowns.

The Swedes had agreed to take in the children “for the duration of the war.” Unfortunately there were more children than suitable homes, so even Johan Eriksson was called. Now Johan was a widower, middle-aged and gruff, and not a likely candidate for foster parenting. The adults stood in front of the train station, and each child was to walk to an adult that would take him or her home and take care of him or her.

Sort of in a daze, a young boy, Rolf, walked away from the train station to Johan. The boy was emaciated from starvation at the time, and was so frightened he couldn’t speak to Johan. But Johan took him home with him.

When he was at Johan’s home, Rolf would run into the closet and hide any time someone came to the door. For years, in his new home, Rolf wouldn’t smile. He hardly ate. Johan created a cold, Spartan, but stable home for the boy, just waiting for the time when Rolf would be gone and his life would be back to normal. He hoped it would be sooner rather than later.

It never happened. Rolf never went back to Germany, because no one ever sent for him. His parents were killed in concentration camp ovens.

So Johan did his best with a son he never wanted nor anticipated. When Rolf was in his twenties, Johan managed to get him a job in Stockholm. For a while Rolf struggled along, but he couldn’t handle the pressures. “His mind just snapped one day,” his employer said, and the local authorities wanted to put him in a mental institution.

Even though Johan was now an old man, he would not let this happen. He went to Stockholm and brought Rolf home again to the little town where he lived. For many years, Johan tenderly nursed Rolf back to health, as his love for his adopted son grew and grew. With such loving care, Rolf finally got better, married a wonderful woman, started a successful business and eventually became wealthy.

All along, he knew that his achievements were only possible because of Johan, the big gruff Swede who took him in out of a sense of duty, learned to love him, gave him an identity, and hugged away his fears. Although Johan had numerous biological children, Rolf became his dearly loved son.

Johan was a Christian. In this strange way, he found the spiritual corrective glasses that our sermon text prescribes. They gave him the ability to see the little orphan boy Rolf as God saw him, and Rolf began to live that day.

Our sermon text concludes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’”

The life we live is the life God has worked for us in Christ. What He has done for us and what He has given to us motivate and enable us. He is the content of our faith and the content of our living. Therefore, He is the content of our works. Christ in us and through us creates both faith and works; first faith, then works, and NEVER one without the other. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.