James writes: “What good is it, my friends, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed or hungry, and you say “go in peace, be warm and filled”, without giving them what they need, what good is that?”
Today’s Lessons: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
We’ve all heard and know that faith without works is dead – it’s not enough to believe that Jesus is Lord, to believe that we’re all made in the Image of God and that we have a story of freedom and mercy to bring to all the world, if we’re not going to turn that into real action.
We all know that.
But have you ever thought about the fact that works aren’t just physical things we do: they’re not just deeds done – like feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, or offering a word of encouragement or a listening ear when someone is lost and lonely. Works are more than that. There’s a reason that, when we confess our sins, we’re taught to ask for forgiveness not just for things done or left undone, or for the words we’ve said: no, we ask forgiveness for thoughts, words, and deeds.
The big idea for today is that, as much as faith without works is dead, one of those necessary works is changing how we think about and see each other.
God’s Generous Perspective
We all know that God is good and God is generous. He provides for all people – the good and the bad, the faithful and the self-righteous. What does anyone of us have that doesn’t boil down to a gift from God?
But as we read in today’s lessons, one of the great gifts of God that we rarely think about is the gift of his generous perspective. God’s gifts to us aren’t just stuff or talents or health and strength; one of the greatest gifts he gives us is the way he chooses to see us.
In Proverbs today, we’re reminded that, unlike the way the world works, God doesn’t see rich or poor. As James teaches, God doesn’t see well-dressed or shabby, and he doesn’t see worldly power or the many distinctions we make between people. Jesus shows us today in the Gospel that he doesn’t respect the boundaries we set up about race or language or inequality.
No: the great gift of God’s perspective is that He looks past all of that. He looks at us, in the moment, as men and women made in His Image, and looks only to see if we’re reflecting that Image back. He looks past all the distinctions and divisions we make to see if we’ve unpacked – or at least opened – that gift of faith, and whether we’re allowing his love, mercy, joy, peace, and abundant life to shine, reflected back – to His Glory, and for all the world to see.
Reflecting God’s Glory
Now, we’ve spoken before about the fact that we are created to reflect the glory of God.
But it’s important for us to remember that isn’t just about the warm, fuzzy ideas of reflecting God’s love and light. Faith without works is dead, but one of those works is choosing to look at others as God looks at us, the work of choosing to share God’s perspective both for ourselves and for those around us. And let me say: that’s a far more difficult task than donating some time, talent, or treasure. Learning to share God’s perspective is the life-long task of allowing your mind to be transformed, renewed by being an apprentice, a disciple, of Christ Jesus.
It’s easy for us to limit generosity. The world thinks only of charity, giving from what you have to someone who has less, whether it’s a millionaire generously building a wing on a hospital with their name written over the door, or someone making a donation to support the food bank or PWRDF. But like so many other things, God’s definition goes deeper, and asks more of us.
Now don’t get me wrong – that charitable sort of generosity is great. In fact, James says it’s essential. You can’t get emptier words than looking at a hungry person and saying “oh, feel full! Think happy thoughts! Don’t be hungry any more” and walking away!
But, at the same time, we all know giving great gifts doesn’t mean you have a generous spirit.
So as James says, yes, we’re to fill and clothe those in need, but reflecting God’s generosity means we’re also going to look at them from God’s perspective.
Whether rich or poor, regardless of any of those distinctions or lines we draw based on race, or gender, or addictions, or whether they’re unemployed, or whether they live in housing, or struggling against a mental illness, or fighting the demons of childhood trauma and broken families, or whether we disagree with how they raise their kids, or even whether they smell and just don’t appear to take pride in what they’ve been given, or even if they’ve earned a reputation for taking advantage of the system – regardless of all of that, God’s perspective is to look at that person and say “yeah, I know what you’ve done, but I love you, and I want you to be my child; I’ll always give you another chance as long as you live – take it, don’t trust yourself, trust in me”.
That’s God’s radical generosity. And that’s the sort of incredibly hard work, without which our faith is simply dead, little more than empty words saying “be well, be full, be happy”.
Are we willing to look past all those lines that we draw and reflect God’s generous perspective back to a world that divides and enslaves and weighs people down?
Faith in Practice
Faith without works is dead, but the matter of putting faith into action is always a hard one. God’s not saying “go, be taken advantage of”; after all, it was Jesus who said we’re to be shrewd as serpents but innocent as doves! And we all know Jesus was making a point when he told the rich young man to sell everything if he wanted to be a disciple: it wasn’t that his stuff kept him from the Kingdom of God, it was the fact that his heart was attached, weighed down by that stuff.
But the point is, when it comes to reflecting God’s generosity, putting faith into action it’s not a matter of just writing a cheque, buying a meal, or spending an hour chatting with one who is sick or lonely.
God generously looks at each person and says “I love you as much as I love my own Son; I want you to be my child”, so we’re to look at each person – no matter who they are, where they’re from, or what they did – and change our thinking, to do that work of looking at that person and thinking “I want you to be my brother or sister”, of seeing that person, in whatever condition they might be, and honestly saying to yourself “I would love nothing better than if this person, right here, would come to church, put their faith in God, and be my brother or sister in Christ, so we can work together, learn to live together, and bear one-another’s burdens”.
That’s radical generosity. Anyone – even the most selfish – can put in a few dollars for the Christmas food and toy drive. But God’s generosity, the one we’re called to share, is to allow your mind to be transformed so that your honest desire is to welcome that hungry, or lonely, or annoying, or lazy, or sly, or mean person into your family of faith, trusting that God can do the same work of forgiving, healing, and changing their heart as he’s done for each of us.
What does the law of God require?
That you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and that you love your neighbour as yourself.– The Summary of the Law
Yes, that’s our faith. But the trick is turning faith into action, adopting the perspective, allowing your mind to be trained to think “I don’t see rich or poor. I don’t see you as powerful, or unemployed. I don’t see you as anything greater or less than my equal, and as God looks at me, I’m going to choose to love you as myself.”
It’s a tall order. But that’s the kind of faith-in-action that changes lives, and changes communities, and changes the world. That’s the kind of radical generosity that God is calling us to live. My God give us his grace to say “ok, here I am, I’m willing, send me.”
 Yes, I guess that is a Backstreet Boys reference. It just happened… sorry, I grew up in the 90s!