The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer. At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times. Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on July 26. The scripture for the morning were James 2:14-26 and Matthew 7:15-23.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
To see the entire worship service on YouTube, click below.
I don’t know how it was in your house as you were growing up, but I know that my mom said a lot of things that sounded confusing to my eight-year-old self. Whenever we were in the car and someone zoomed past us in what she thought to be incautious driving, she’d mutter, “Well, people who drive that fast usually don’t get there.” I wondered how she knew where that car was going. Another phrase that sticks with me is, “if ‘ifs’ were fifths we’d all be drunk.” I mean, I get it now, but who says that to a kid? Perhaps you’re familiar with a third expression she’d use: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
When I heard that, I assumed it meant, “the best part of pudding is when we get to eat it.” I later came to understand that it really meant “the way we’ll know the pudding is good, or that the story is true, is when we see that proven in the kitchen or in the real world.” But really, in the 1960’s, when pudding came from a box and consisted mostly of sugar, what was there to prove? It was always good!
I’ve recently learned that this proverb dates back hundreds of years, and I was a little grossed out to discover that the “pudding” to which it refers was not the sweet dessert of my youth, but rather to a concoction of animal parts and innards that was usually stuffed into a skin casing and fried. When we understand that we’re being presented with a bowl of farmyard by-products, we can see that perhaps a taste test would be in order. After all, if it’s not cooked right, that stuff can kill you.
As we continue to read through the book of James, we come this morning to a section wherein the Apostle offers his thoughts about the relationship between theory and reality, or between faith and works. As you heard a moment ago, what we believe must be tied to how we act, or our beliefs are worse than useless. Faith without works, he says, is dead.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever thought of it like this before, but bad theology can kill you – or worse. Here’s what I mean by that…
When I was a kid, I heard a number of talks and saw some printed tracts that were titled something like, “Missing Heaven by Eighteen Inches.” The thought behind those messages was fairly simple: there is a difference between being intellectually convinced of a fact and feeling that truth in the depth of your heart. These teachings usually talked about the fact that it’s not enough to “know” that Jesus died for our sin and rose again, but I had to somehow move that knowledge 18 inches from my head to my heart. The way to do that, I was told, was to accept Jesus into my heart as my personal savior. When I converted my ideas about Jesus to trust in Jesus, I was told, eternal life was my reward.
My sense of the bible passages at hand this morning is that James is saying, essentially, “Look, that’s a start. But it just doesn’t go far enough.” A faith that travels 18 inches from my head to my heart is insufficient. For that faith to be effectual and have real consequences, it needs to go further. In my case, it would need to go another 36 inches so that it reaches my hands; it would need to go another 50 inches in order to reach my feet; it would need to reach around my back about 23 inches so it could touch my wallet. If I’m not doing anything in my life as a result of the faith that I hold, then in what sense can I say that the faith is meaningful or alive?
James, like his brother Jesus and their host of predecessors in the Old Testament (some of whom are mentioned in today’s reading), assumes that faith is a communally-shared practice and activity. All of these witnesses to God’s power and presence presume that what we think about God and what we believe concerning God will find its way into our daily lives, and the ways that we conduct ourselves in relationship with each other.
I’ll say it again: bad theology can kill you, or worse.
Now, hold on, Pastor Dave. What could be worse than something that kills me? Isn’t that about as low as we can go?
Unfortunately, it’s not. Just like a batch of bad pudding in the Middle Ages could sicken the entire family or village, bad theology spills over into the lives of people around us.
When I’m talking about bad theology this morning, I’m speaking specifically about the tendency that some of us have to take one verse or one thought out of context and then absolutize it over the rest of what we know. We find a verse that we like, or a notion we hold dear, and then we use it to prove our point or to justify our actions. We see that in many ways.
For instance, who among us has not heard of a young mother who has gone through the unspeakable grief of burying her child, only to be faced with a “loving” Christian friend who says something like, “Well, you know, Susan, that God only takes the best. He must have needed another angel up in heaven. It’s all a part of God’s plan.” How is that helpful at all? And in what instance is such a comment likely to bring about a situation where the grieving mother is more eager to trust God and God’s so-called “plan”?
Another illustration of bad theology bringing harm and pain pops up every couple of years. There were faith leaders who assured us that Hurricane Katrina or the Australian bush fires were sent by God as punishments for the ways that our societies tolerate homosexuality or abortion or “loose living”. Whenever I hear that, I wonder if such is the case, why in the world hasn’t the Almighty done anything about Washington DC? Presumably God is still irritated by greed, idolatry, lies, and pride, right? Those are just not disaster-worthy sins? These people are taking something or someone that they hate, and assuming that God hates it just as much.
You can see that kind of thinking in a particularly nasty batch of bad theology that’s been brewing for centuries. In October 2018, Robert Bowers entered a worship service at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill and murdered eleven people. His actions were the fruit of a theology that taught him that it was the Jews, and only the Jews, who killed Jesus, and that they had to be punished for that. Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism have long been cloaked in religious-sounding language that has done nothing but bring pain and evil into the world.
The last example of bad theology being life-threatening is ripped from the headlines in our current pandemic, where a quick Google search will reveal far too many people who have taken a sliver of what is true (“God is loving and protective”) and then twist that into a theology that says “I don’t have to worry about the Coronavirus because God has promised to save me. I’ll skip the masks, forget about the physical distancing, and do what I want to do because I am free in Jesus.” Just this week I read of a pastor who claimed that the people of God were safe from the virus and held packed services of worship where he implored his congregation to hug and shake hands and sit closely together. I’m saddened to say that pastor is dead now, one of nearly 150,000 people in the USA alone who have fallen victim to this disease.
Almost all bad theology starts with something good – God is the source of comfort, God implores us to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday, Jesus was murdered by people he loved, and God’s intentions are for wholeness – we take something that is good and then we twist it to suit our own behavior or desire. Such thinking often assumes, relies on, and even trumpets God’s grace while at the same time it rejects the means through which that grace can come.
Last week we were told that the calling of the Christian is to “fulfill the royal law of love”. Fulfill the law of love.
How do we do that? What does that look like?
It’s not just believing that love is a good thing, or by thinking that love is an ideal to which we all can aspire. We don’t fulfill the law of love by singing songs about it or getting tattoos or putting up yard signs. Not that those things are bad, but they’re just not actually doing what scripture calls us to do.
We fulfill the law of love by acting like people who have love to give. We fulfill the law of love by talking about love a little less and giving away love a lot more.
What does love look like in Pittsburgh, PA, in 2020? If I had to choose one practice (and you don’t, by the way), I would choose to say love looks like generosity.
Often when we use the word “generous”, we are implying that it has something to do with finances. And that is surely the case here. Many of your neighbors, and the non-profit institutions that serve them, are hard-pressed right now. Folks who have never been poor before are struggling to get groceries or pay rent, and people who are, unfortunately, very experienced at being poor are pushed further to the margins. So if you have what you need, you are blessed. This is a good season for you to explore what it would mean for you to spread some of that blessing around in acts of generosity that are rooted in gratitude and love.
But it’s not just your money, you know. You can also be generous with your time. Are you the parent of a young child? Then you know that you are being stretched a hundred ways right now. If you are a person without young children in your life, perhaps this is a moment when you can be offer to step in somehow. I realize that it may not be practical or even safe for you to offer to spend time with or tutor someone else’s child right now, given the precautions we need to take with the coronavirus. But there may be a family or two for whom you can make that offer. If you can’t be with them physically, perhaps you can offer to read a story over Zoom or Facetime. Or maybe you can offer to help with the shopping or cut the grass or just call and check in with someone who is pushed to their limits right now.
Perhaps even more important than generosity with finances or time, though, is the opportunity that each of us have right now to show love through a generosity of spirit. Resist the temptation to dive more and more deeply into your own rabbit hole of opinions and preferences and take the time to listen to the stories and pain of others. Seek an opportunity every single day to learn something new, and to offer truth in ways that are gentle and wise. Give the person who just blew up at you for some perceived offense a break, realizing that many of us are past our limits right now. Seek to live with others in mind.
When I read this passage in James, and the similar one in Matthew, I am reminded of a story told by former President Jimmy Carter. He describes a church that sent out a group from their congregation in Georgia all the way to Pennsylvania, where they were to save the lost and convert the unbelievers. The evangelists encountered an old Amish farmer out in the fields one day. “Brother,” they asked, “Are you saved? Are you a believer?”
The old farmer replied, “Do you want to know if I’m a Christian?”
The “missionaries” said yes, that was their question. The man asked Carter for a piece of paper and a pencil. He wrote something down and handed the tablet back to the evangelist, saying, “These are the names of the four families whose property borders mine. Don’t waste your time asking me if I’m a Christian. Ask them. You can trust them. They’ll tell you whether I’m a Christian because they see me.”
May we seek every opportunity to be generous with our love, particularly during this difficult time. And may every time we open our ears, our hearts, our mouths, our wallets create an opportunity for people not to see or notice or praise us, but rather to come closer into an appreciation for the Love in which the universe was born. Let our expression of and commitment to live in the love of Jesus be more than “thoughts and prayers”; let it instead be not only non-toxic, but life-giving nourishing, to our neighbors. Thanks be to the God who gives us neighbors, Amen.
 Jimmy Carter, Living Faith, (Crown Publishing, 1996) pp. 240-241.