Lessons from James
This is the second of five talks given at Lee Abbey in the summer (first talk here). Do take a listen or download it here:
Below are some notes from my talk:
A vicar was too busy to help a homeless lady who was needing help, so he fobbed her off with a promise to pray for her, and then continued on his way. She wrote the following poem and gave it to a local Shelter officer:
I was hungry, and you formed a humanities group to discuss my hunger.
I was imprisoned, and you crept off quietly to your chapel and prayed for my release.
I was naked, and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance.
I was sick, and you knelt and thanked God for your health.
I was homeless, and you preached a sermon on the spiritual shelter of the love of God.
I was lonely, and you left me alone to pray for me.
You seem so holy, so close to God
But I am still very hungry – and lonely – and cold.
Brennan Manning wrote: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world, simply finds unbelievable.”
Problem is, we can all relate to that situation with the vicar. We’ve all been caught in such a scenario. In fact, I got death threats from a guy to whom I said I was too busy, and he subsequently came to my house with a grenade to blow me up, that’s another story! So the challenge in this talk is to being encouraged to act and not be guilt-tripped or feel shame and a sense of failure. Let’s listen to James:
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.James 2
This true incident happened to Tony Campolo a number of years ago. Tony is a professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University:
A few years ago Tony flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. The way he tells it, he checks into his hotel and tries to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 a.m. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling. He gets up and prowls the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He goes in and sits down at the counter. The fat guy behind the counter comes over and asks, “What d’ya want?” Well, Tony isn’t so hungry anymore so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he says, “I’ll have a donut and black coffee.”
As he sits there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night’s work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing ladies of the night. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him says to her friend, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which her friend nastily replies, “So what d’ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?” The first woman says, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the fat guy at the counter, “Do they come in here every night?” “Yeah,” he answered.
“The one right next to me,” he asked, “she comes in every night?”
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s Agnes. Yeah, she’s here every night. She’s been comin’ here for years. Why do you want to know?”
“Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?”
A cute kind of smile crept over the fat man’s chubby cheeks. “That’s great,” he says, “yeah, that’s great. I like it.” He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, “Hey, come on out here. This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes’ birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here.” His wife comes out. “That’s terrific,” she says. “You know, Agnes is really nice. She’s always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her.”
So they make their plans. Tony says he’ll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turns out to be Harry, says he’ll make a cake.
At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall. At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She’s stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.
And when the birthday cake with all the candles is carried out, that’s when she totally loses it. Now she’s sobbing and crying. Harry, who’s not used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbles, “Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake.”
So she pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells, “Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!” But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if…I mean, if I don’t…I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?” Harry doesn’t know what to say so he shrugs and says, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want.” “Oh, could I?” she asks. Looking at Tony she says, “I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I’ll be right back, honest.”
She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. They look at each other. They look at Tony.
So Tony gets up on a chair and says, “What do you say that we pray together?” And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her salvation. Tony recalls, “I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.”
When he’s finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that.”
Mahatma Gandhi’s comment on the Bible to a group of missionaries rings as equally challenging today as it did back then: “You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.”
The Rev. Pattison, a respected friend of Gandhi, recounted how one Sunday morning Gandhi decided to visit one of the Christian churches in Calcutta. As he tried to enter the church sanctuary, the ushers blocked his path. They told him he wasn’t welcome, nor would he ever be allowed to attend this particular church because it was only for high-caste Indians and whites. He was neither high caste, nor white. As a result of that single event, Gandhi rejected the Christian faith, and never again considered the claims of Christ. He was turned off by the sin of segregation that was practiced by the church, and that experience of rejection prompted his declaration: “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.”
Mother Teresa was 85-years-old when she was invited to address the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. This frail old lady, dressed as ever in her simple cheap clothing, passionately and eloquently called on the powerful luminaries gathered around her to enshrine the protection of unborn babies in law. She pleaded for compassion on behalf of the ‘little ones’: “How can we speak out against violence, when we are the most brutal with the most defenceless?”
It was obviously a controversial and sensitive subject, and many of the media elite spoke of that awkward moment for the President Clinton, Vice-President Gore, and their wives as this humble diminutive lady spoke with such conviction. As she stood down, the audience gave a roaring standing ovation. However, a number of people, who were seated on the stage, very ostentatiously chose not to stand up, in obvious disagreement with what she’d said.
Afterwards, President Clinton was asked in an interview what he thought of Mother Teresa’s pointed message. He paused and said only this: “It is very difficult to argue against a life so beautifully lived.” He was wise to keep his words to a minimum, because he recognized that all the arguments supporting his opinion about her words were irrelevant at that time. Anything he said would only reflect his attitude toward Mother Teresa the person; and in the presence of a life well lived, he was no longer responding to an issue at hand, but to a person in front of him.