Lent: Works of Love

Lent: Works of Love
A Message on James 2:14-17
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 29, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

James 2:14-17 (NRSV)

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 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? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

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When I think of the book of James in the Bible I think of steel-toed boots. You know that I’m talking about? They are boots that have a steel cap inside around the toes. They were developed as a safety item for those who work around heavy items and equipment that could fall and crush toes. It is a requirement to wear them on many jobs still today.

The reason I think of steel-toed boots when I think about the book of James is that… well.. James is pretty good at stepping on toes. Yep. Real good. So if you have some steel-toed boots at home you may want to put them on. (Metaphorically speaking, of course. Although if you really want to…)

I love James in that he is direct and straightforward. He doesn’t couch things euphemistically or with long, flowery prose. He is direct, to the point, and at times, even blunt. (And thus, stepping on toes.)

The scripture we just read from the second chapter is a good example of that. The author not-too-subtly points out that if we say we have faith, but our actions don’t show us living out that faith, then we really don’t have faith after all.

Think of it like this: because of the COVID-19 virus many of us aren’t going to the grocery store that much. Sometimes when we do go we find vacant shelves instead of the things we want. As a result of this I have seen many people post on social media about baking their own bread.

We have an old breadmaker machine at our house. It’s old, dented, beat up a little bit, but it still works. Prior to COVID-19 we tried not to use it much because, let’s face it, if we have warm, freshly baked bread we can’t resist spreading a little butter on it and eating it. I’m talking like all of it, which my doctor doesn’t like. But now it has really come in handy.

To make bread, either with a breadmaker or without, you need a recipe. You need something that lists the ingredients you are going to need, as well as directions on measurements, instructions on how to mix what when, and even temperatures needed for baking the bread.

So say we want to bake some bread. We get the recipe out and read it (and maybe even memorize it). We get all the ingredients out and set them on the counter. And then we do nothing with it. Nope. Just stand there and look at it, and then walk away.

Doesn’t make sense, does it.

I think what James is saying in the scripture we read today is that if we know the Christian faith but don’t live it, if we don’t turn that faith into actions, then it doesn’t make sense. It would be like knowing the recipe for baking bread and have all the ingredients, but unless we take action, unless we mix those ingredients together, knead them, and put them in the oven, then how can we offer others the bread of life?

I like to call those actions “works of love.” It’s what we are called to do as Christians, and I believe that it is not an option.

So what are works of love? My definition is that it is acts done for others that puts the needs of others before your own needs.

One example that I gave a while back in one of my messages is my friend Pat Morchat who lives over in the bustling metropolis of Liberty City. (Okay, maybe it’s not a bustling metropolis…)

There was a man in Kilgore that was in need of a kidney transplant. The need was dire, and his life pretty much hung in the balance. Pat found out that she was a match, so she volunteered to give one of her kidneys to the man. They did the surgery, and it was successful. The man is living today because of Pat’s “work of love.”

Let me give you another example of works of love. Many years ago, when we lived in Kilgore and before I went into the ministry, I came down with severe headaches and was hospitalized for several days. It was in the spring and our yard really needed mowing, but I was in the hospital and couldn’t do it. Pam was splitting her time between being with me and taking care of the girls and she didn’t have time to mow the yard.

And then one day a guy showed up with a mower and started mowing the yard. It was our pastor at St. Luke’s UMC in Kilgore, Robert Besser.

Now you need to know something about Robert. He’s a great pastor and a very funny guy, but he is not a yard-mowing type of guy. He borrowed a mower from some friends that needed the oil and gas mixed together, but somehow he had gotten it wrong and the mower wouldn’t run. He ended up using my mower, which was a sort of a Frankenstein of a mower because I took an old but reliable engine and put it on a newer body. (And yes I had to remove all the safety mechanisms in order to do that.)

But Robert, who didn’t even mow his own yard, by the way, got out there with my Frankenstein non-self-propelled mower and mowed our yard, which was a ½ acre in size. That, my friends, is a work of love. He didn’t have to do that. I didn’t ask him to. But he did it, and for that I was–and still am– very thankful.

Now I want to pause for a moment to stress a very important point about works. It is crucial to remember that we are not saved by our works. You can’t get to heaven by good works alone. Good works are great, I’m not saying otherwise, but our salvation comes only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Thinking you can get to heaven by your works is called “works righteousness.” It fits into our human mindset that you get what you earn, but unfortunately it goes against the scriptures.

To me it’s kind of like the story of the boy scout who was determined to do a good deed one day. He put on his boy scout uniform and went out in his town searching for good deeds to do. After walking around and not finding anything he spots an elderly lady walking down the sidewalk toward a street intersection. Catching up with her, he asks if he can help her across the street.

“No, thank you young man,” she said.

“Come on, I really want to help you cross the street.”

“I thank you for your willing spirit, but again I must decline.”

The Boy Scout wouldn’t give up. “Please, please, lady! I’m begging you. Please let me help you cross the street. It would mean a great deal to me if you would.”

The woman thought for a while and said, “Well, I guess it would be okay.”

So the Boy Scout checks the traffic signals and walk signs, and then escorts the lady across the street. When they got to the other side he said, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Well, there is one more thing,” she replied.

“Sure, what is it?” he asked.

“You can help me back across the street.”

The Boy Scout looked puzzled. “But we just crossed the street, lady. Why do you want to go back across it?”

She answered, “Because I didn’t want to cross the street to begin with! I was turning right at the intersection but you came up to me and wanted to help me across the street so much that I didn’t want to let you down.”

Doing good works because you think it will earn you some Brownie points or spiritual merit badges with God is kind of like that Boy Scout. Works don’t lead to salvation. Salvation leads to works.

Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9,“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” — Ephesians 2:8-9

Okay, understand? Good.

Now some people in history and even today read the scripture we read today from James and think that it either teaches or implies works righteousness. The Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther was known for criticizing the book of James, calling it an “epistle of straw” because he thought it implied works righteousness.

I don’t believe it does. I think what James is talking about is what happens after salvation, that our salvation is not the end of the story. Good works should be our response to experiencing salvation, part of what Wesleyans refer to as “sanctifying grace.”

Have you ever been so happy or excited about something that you did a happy dance? You know, the kind of dance with absolutely no choreography but lots of happy movement? As Christians our works should be our “happy dance.” The source of our actions should come not from wanting the spotlight of recognition focused on us, but be motivated as a response to God’s love for us and what God has done for us.

We’re living in challenging times now, aren’t we. It’s not every day that we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, an actual true pandemic, and one in which one the hardest to find commodities is toilet paper. Not medicine or food or water but toilet paper.

I saw a neat photo on Facebook that showed a group of people around a table playing poker. What made it funny was that instead of using poker chips, they were using rolls of toilet paper. Here, I’ll show it to you. (Show photo)

We are living in interesting times. Shelter in place used to be only for tornadoes. Now it is a new and growing reality for so many people. And it’s scary, and for good reason.

And yet… as Christians our faith in God should shine through the darkness and be expressed as works of love toward others.

In the short story “The Gift of the Magi,” first published in 1905 by author O. Henry, we hear about the story of a husband and wife, Jim and Della, who didn’t have very much money. At Christmas time one year Della sneaks off to a hairdresser and sells her long, beautiful hair to a hairdresser. She then takes the money and buys Jim a platinum fob for his pocket watch. In the meantime Jim sells his watch to buy some beautiful combs for his wife’s hair. When the couple exchange gifts they realize just how much the other was willing to sacrifice for them. To me it is an excellent example of “works of love.”

As Christians we should be known for our works of love, not only for our spouses and family members but to everyone. As the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

There are a lot of ways that we can show “works of love” to others. But in the last few weeks many of those options have been taken off the table.

Being sequestered from others presents us with a challenge. We can’t (and shouldn’t) gather as groups to meet with each other physically. To me one of the most powerful expressions of love is a good hug. I think there is something holy about a good hug. But now we can’t do that except with our loved ones that are isolated with us.

As Christians we must be creative now on how to have “works of love” without physical contact. How can we do that? Here are some ideas just off the top of my head (and off the Facebook pages of others…)

Write letters. Not emails, not text messages, but good ol’ pen and paper handwritten letters. Write to some elderly folks in our community or in our nursing homes and assisted living centers. Write to some of the men and women serving in our armed forces who may be thousands of miles away from their families. Whoever it is, write to them. Ask them how they are doing. Share with them some of the things happening in your life. Tell them of the things in your life that give them hope. Share your favorite scriptures with them, explaining to them why they are your favorite. Put a stamp on an envelope and mail it to them. (You can even buy stamps and envelopes online, so you don’t even have to go to the post office. And they have self-adhesive envelopes so that you don’t have to lick them. Please don’t lick them.)

You could do like Robert Besser did and mow someone’s yard. It can be someone you know or it can be a total stranger. (I really like the total stranger idea.) Drive around town and look for a yard that needs mowing, and then knock on the door and ask them (standing 6 feet away, of course) if you can mow their yard for free. When they ask you why you would do that, blame it on me. “That crazy preacher at the Methodist church challenged us to do “acts of love” and he said it’s a good way to let you know that God loves you.”

We talked about bread earlier. If you know how to bake bread and have the ingredients, bake up some fresh, homemade bread and share with your neighbors, people that you know might live alone, or even complete strangers.

And if you are one of those individuals who hoarded hundreds of rolls of toilet paper (and you know who you are) you first need to repent of your sin and ask God for forgiveness, and then after that you can post on social media that you have toilet paper that you would like to give to those who are out or running low.

You get the idea.

And that’s my challenge to you this week: Show “works of love” to others. Be creative but be safe. This COVID-19 is serious, folks. Remember James’ words that faith without works is dead. Live out your faith. Think ways to show “works of love” to others, not to earn browning points with God, but as an expression of gratitude for the grace you have received from God.

After all, the greatest “work of love’ was God’s only son, Jesus Christ, going to the cross bearing the weight of our sins. Jesus, who was perfect, died for us, who are not. The holy died in place of sinners, so that we can be reconciled to God. How can we just sit still and not do anything after receiving that kind of grace? We can’t. We are to be active in “works of love.”

And if you need Robert Besser to come mow your yard, just let me know. I have his cell number.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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