So, let’s go back a little bit to the beginning of Amy and I’s relationship. At the time Amy and I met, Amy was an avid runner, and what she especially loved to do was run in nature. I was willing to overlook this flaw in her character. Anyone who has known me for more than 10 minutes knows that I don’t like nature, I like showers. I like existing in air-conditioned spaces like God intended.
Anyway, Amy had this spot she loved to run and it was this dicey path through a forest and one day she invited me to go out somewhere. She told me to wear athletic clothes so I knew it couldn’t have been good. And where do we end up if not this dicey, overgrown path in the woods. And it was very clear that I absolutely hated every second of what was happening. Our new relationship was really put to the test that day. But there was one instance in particular I’m not exactly proud of. It’s something I don’t like to talk about. But I figured it was going to come out sooner rather than later so, here’s the story: we were on the final stretch of the path, heading back to the car. And we were just talking, I was so happy it was over, and then, out of nowhere, Amy starts SCREAMING. Now, I had no idea what she was screaming at. So, what do I do? Turn and defend her from whatever was making her feel so threatened? No no no… I turned the other way, and ran as fast as my chubby, asthmatic legs would carry me. That’s right. I sprinted away and left my girlfriend — my now amazing wife — there to fend for herself. And the worst part is I had no idea what I was running from! It could have been a ferocious bear for all I knew.
Now when I realized there was no real, imminent danger, I turned around and walked back, very shamefully I might add, and after receiving a look of utter betrayal, I was told what exactly it was I ran away from. That’s right — I, J.T. Young, ran away, from a spider. Now, in my defense, one might say that Amy’s screaming was an overreaction, which is what prompted my fight-or-flight response. However, my wife doesn’t care and often likes to remind me of this event. And what’s usually my first response to her? “You need to let that go! It was 6 or 7 years ago. Just let it go!” She never has, but that’s beside the point. But we often have similar responses to people sometimes, right? Especially people who have been through traumatic experiences or issues of injustice? These are some of the moments when Christian clichés come in handy, because we don’t know what else to say. “Just let it go. This is the way of the world – there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s in God’s hands. Just let go and let God.” Well, our text today is about learning just what exactly that means, and what exactly it doesn’t.
We’re back in the letter of James today. We were in James a few weeks ago, too. Who here remembers what we talked about in that sermon? That’s comforting. That’s what you want to see. It’s just the thing I’ve poured my heart and soul into all week. It doesn’t matter. Anyway, we’re back in James today, and the last time we were talking about James, we were talking about “pure religion” and how this “pure religion” is nothing other than loving service to our neighbor.
Well, our passage today is kind of the other side of that coin. A few weeks ago, we talked about how religion facilitates relationship, and relationship legitimizes religion. Well, today we’re talking about the faith that moves us into religion, into relationship, and how we’re to understand that faith lived out in the world. Because it’s easy to think that we’re living out our faith in the world by going to church and taking part in bible studies. And that’s a piece of it. Don’t get me wrong. That’s a piece of what it means. Christianity is necessarily lived in community. However, the problems come when we make that the sum total of Christianity; when taking part in a worshipping community or small group is the exclusive end of our faith. That’s the thing James is attacking in our passage here.
Now, there are a few different ways to look at this: Maybe we need to understand that works are a resultof faith. Think about a fountain: if water is the good works, then faith is the force behind the water. Faith is the thing underlying the works making the works overflow. Or maybe we need to understand that works are somehow synonymouswith faith; that faith which does not yield works isn’t really faith at all. Or maybe there’s a third way to think about this. Maybe, just maybe, faith isn’t something that belongs to us at all. Maybe faith is like an event -- an encounter with God which forces us outside ourselves, outside our own egos, and into a new way of living.
And maybe that new way of living we’re thrust into is one that doesn’t allow us to “let go and let God.” Maybe our new existence in Christ isn’t a life that expects a metaphysical construct in the sky to come to the world’s rescue and fix everything. Maybe our new existence is one that allows God to work through us. If that’s true, if faith is something given to us or something that happens to us, then this kind of “dead faith” James talks about isn’t really faith at all. It’s wishful thinking; it’s a kind of delusion, a wool we pull over our own eyes to shield ourselves from the things in the world we don’t want to see. It’s easy to live in the world so long as we can pass the buck to a deity who will one day come and fix everything. And that’s what a lot of people and churches believe. A lot of churches want to offer people fire insurance while they watch the world burn. “Eat this bread…drink this wine…say these prayers…and all will be well in the end.”
Our author this morning isn’t interested in that kind of faith. James makes it clear that that kind of faith, which is really nothing other than escapism, is meaningless. This first century context still confessed belief in literal angels and demons, right? James says that this kind of faith is something even demons can do, so why on earth would it be special when we do it? Look, here’s the underlying question: if this faith we receive from God, which has moved millions and millions of people in the last 2000 years, doesn’t change anything in the world, then why should anyone care? Why should anyone care about Jesus if his example doesn’t inspire us to do something wonderful with our lives? Why should anyone care about the bible if we ignore the passages in it which tell us to care for the poor?
When we say that people should just “let go and let God,” all we’re really doing is acknowledging that someone’s circumstances are less-than-ideal while admitting that we don’t want to try and do anything about it. Now, to be sure, there’s value in learning how to let go. There’s value in coming to a place where we can know – not fear – but know that life is imperfect and that pain and death will come. However, that’s a whole lot different than telling people to let go of their hope for a better life. And it’s definitely different from telling people to let go of their anger or frustration surrounding the state of their existence when it’s something within our power to change.
It’s estimated that it would cost about $30 billion/year to end world hunger and about $175 billion/year to end global extreme poverty. That $200 billion is less than 1% of the total income of the world’s richest countries. We could fix some of the world’s biggest problems if we wanted to, but we’re too tied up in our own greed to worry about it. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, has this quote which many of you have probably heard before: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” This is true of us as individuals, but it’s also so much truer of us as a community. This is the time to band together in solidarity with Jesus’ vision of love and grace for those in need of it. We live in a time of great pain and suffering and we’re called to be a light to the world the darkness can’t snuff out. Maybe we should “let go” of our own egoism and pride and “let God” work through our actions to change the world. Then, and only then, will we have a faith that’s alive and not dead.