Readings for this Sunday: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15, James 1:17-21, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
It’s a tiny ordinary town, surrounded by other tiny, ordinary towns. This is a town of everyday folks – farmers, housewives, small shop keepers, artisans. People who have known each other for generations, who are related to each other. Simple people of deep faith.
Looking around, there’s nothing really remarkable about this town. Oh, but what a story it has to tell!
It was the winter of 1940. The people of LeChambon, France[i] embark on what would become a 4 year rescue mission. This town of Huguenots, a French Protestant sect persecuted by the Catholic church in the early 1700’s, opened its arms to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. For four years, they housed, fed, clothed, educated people they didn’t know, had no family ties to, who didn’t share their nationality, who didn’t share their faith. The last 2 years of the war, LeChambon was under Nazi occupation and despite the very real danger, the people protected and cared for the strangers in their midst – refugee Jews escaping Nazi death camps.
About 5000 Jewish men, women, and especially children passed through LeChambon on to safety and freedom. One of the men rescued – only a baby at the time – later made a documentary film about the story. He returned to LeChambon and found the same warm welcome that his family had found.
We call them heroes. But the people of LeChambon don’t consider themselves heroes. Frankly, they don’t quite get why people are so interested in their story.
“Again and again, when asked why they risked their lives for their Jewish brothers and sisters, the peasant farmers respond matter-of-factly with comments like: "Sure, We gave up our bed when there was no choice." "It happened so naturally, we can't understand all the fuss." "The bible says feed the hungry and visit sick. It was the normal thing to do."”[ii]
It was the normal thing to do.
In Lutheran circles, James often gets pushed to the side. Martin Luther famously calls it an “epistle of straw.”[iii] Luther firmly believed that the most important thing the scriptures do is reveal the love and grace of God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. James does not talk about Jesus death and resurrection, in fact it only mention’s Jesus’ name twice.[iv]
If Luther’s diss wasn’t enough to make Lutherans hesitant to crack open the book of James, there’s that the whole ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:17) thing. We know we’re saved by grace through faith and not by anything we do ourselves (Ephesians 2:8-9) It’s God’s good gift to us. Sola gratia, sola fide (only grace, only faith). We’re really uncomfortable when anyone wants to tell us that we need to do something - like works - to prove we are really Christians.
So often, we just leave James to gather dust on the biblical bookshelf.
And that’s too bad, because there’s some good stuff in James. Some wise advice. For a book that only mentions Jesus twice there’s an amazing parallel between what Jesus says in the Gospels and what James teaches. The Sermon on the Mount, the Greatest Commandment and the Golden Rule echo through James.
James wrote to encourage believers. Some of them had faltered in their faith because of intense persecution. Some of them had downplayed their faith to conform to the Roman culture. Some of them were ready to learn more about how to live their lives in a way consistent with Jesus’ teachings.
So, James is writing to Christians to encourage them in their faith and instruct them on Christian living – sort of a New Testament book of Proverbs.
Think about James as a handbook on how to live in response to God’s grace, not as a guide on how to earn God’s grace.
That’s an important distinction, and one that James himself makes:
17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
Every generous act of giving, every perfect gift is from above, from God.
…all the good works James is encouraging us to do are only a natural part of God’s grace working in our lives.
It’s like a plant. God plants the seed of grace in us, God’s Living Word. It takes root and grows and over time, pushes the weeds of sin out of the way and blooms. As a plant matures, it produces more blooms and more fruit. It’s the same with us.
James says to us, “So, you have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ…ok…now what? What difference does God’s grace make in your life? Show me!”
By the way – that’s the very question the people around us are asking.
I first met Jay Gamelin at Ohio State’s campus ministry. Jay is passionate about ministry to young adults and part of his passion is teaching congregations about the ministry needs of young adults.
Jay talks about the post-modern world we now live in and how young people experience the world differently than their parents and grandparents generation.[v] We are a generation of the printed word – our children are products of the Internet explosion. We experience the world and learn through word – spoken and printed. Our children experience the world and learn through what they see and experience.
Jay highlights this difference with a common faith question. Our generation would ask, “What church do you go to? Tell me about it”
Our young people ask instead, “Do you believe in God? Show me.” In effect they ask, “So, you been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ…ok…now what? What difference does God’s grace make in your life? Show me!”
We may never be called to risk our lives for others like the people of LeChambon. Sometimes living out faith calls for heroic actions.
Most of the time, though, living out your faith is quieter. It’s shown in small day to day actions.
When my paternal grandmother died, I remember people saying that she never said a harsh word about anyone. People said that about Tillie too at her funeral. Grandma and Tillie took James’ advice to control their speech to heart.
I remember a co-worker who sat through many lunch breaks listening to me cry out my grief over my mother’s death. He had learned from James to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
I remember a VBS teacher telling us about the time she accidently walked away from the store carrying the $3 pair of gloves she tried on. How she returned, apologized and paid for the gloves.
Sometimes it’s the little things that speak volumes. It those little things that you do Monday through Saturday that show the world that what you do here on Sunday has meaning.
Sunday is important, no doubt about it. We come here to confess and be forgiven, to encounter the God of love and grace, to be fed by Jesus the Living Word, to have our hurts heals and our souls encouraged. All of that is good and necessary and useful.
But when the last hymn is sung, we are given a charge – Go in peace, serve the Lord. Live in love as Christ has loved you. Proclaim the good news. Remember the poor. Feed the hungry.
With that charge laid on us, we are commissioned and empowered for a new week of caring for the little piece of creation – our family, friends, co-workers, our town and schools and houses and land – that God has entrusted to us.
As we read through the book of James together, I encourage you to ponder James’ challenge: So, you have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ…ok…now what?
Where does God’s grace in your life make a difference?
[i] Thanks to www.textweek.com movie suggestion of ‘Weapons of the Spirit’ for reminding me of this story of faith in action.
[ii] Quote from the documentary ‘Weapons of the Spirit’, as recorded on www.textweek.com.
[iii] Luther’s Works, vol. 33.
[iv] Martin Luther wasn’t the only one who had issues with James. The early Church Fathers (and we assume the Church Mothers also) never quoted from it and it doesn’t appear in the earliest lists of New Testament books. It wasn’t until about the mid 3rd century that James starts appearing in the lists of accepted books. (I found this tidbit in my seminary notes on the book of James and have no other attribution for it.)