Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
September 3, 2000
James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
David Long was headed for vacation a few weeks ago. As he was going down the road he couldn't help but see a rather panicked looking woman packing her belongings into her car. Her name was Susan Tyson and David stopped to see if he could help. Susan pointed to the hills several miles away and said she thought she should evacuate her house because she had spotted smoke. David climbed on the roof of Susan's house with his pair of binoculars and studied the horizon. As he came down he said to her, "Mame, I am a firefighter and I can tell you have less than 30 minutes to collect all your treasured items and get out of here."
From the extremely serious look in David's eyes, Susan knew she had to move fast. As she was packing, David prepared himself for the firefight of his life. First he ran to the home of Melvin Wattenberger, a 77 year old retiree who lived close by. Melvin initially refused to leave his home. Finally David said to him, "Mr. Wattenberger, with God as my witness, I will save your house." With that, Melvin packed up and left. David always travels with his firefighting gear - for occasions like this one. He dressed and within minutes was preparing his battle line against a wildfire which by now was blowing through the valley at extreme speed. Although he called 9-1-1, the lines were dead. Both Melvin and Susan continued to call for back-up after they left, but it became clear on the scene to David that he was fighting this fire alone.
Through the night, and on for 24 hours David Long fought the fire. With winds blowing and firestorm reached heights of 40 or more feet. He fought on. When the fire had finally blown by, David Long collapsed. In his words, "my arms finally gave out." Susan Tyson and Melvin Wattenberger returned to their homes to find their homes looking like (in the words of one reporter) "two island in a sea of charcoal earth." Everything, except their homes had been destroyed. Susan said, "I tried to thank him and he responded, `But, Susan, it's what I do.'" (This story is drawn from a National Public Radio Story aired on "Morning Edition," Tuesday, August 29, 2000).
Numbered among Jesus' opponents during his earthly ministry, James the brother of Jesus, James is transformed by the resurrection of Christ and rises to become the leader of the Jerusalem Church. In the letter we know as "The Book of James," the author offers 60 verses of pastoral care and admonition in his 108 verse letter. In today's passage found in chapter 1:27-37, he offers words about being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (1:19-20). He admonishes listeners to strip themselves of vices and filthiness and welcome God's word through a gentle inborn spirit (1:21). He calls his people to accountability for right action, which is, after all, the "Law of Love." (1:25). He also entreats his listeners to offer God true worship. Pure and undefiled worship is defined by James as visiting widows and orphans and keeping oneself unspotted in the world. Finally, he exhorts his flock to be doers of God's Word, not listeners only (1:22-24).
James involves all parts of the body in the living of the faith. The tongue is silent, while the ears are active. The yes see and remember true images of worship - not things but rather people - widows, orphans, and the poor (about whom James speaks often). The heart must not be deceived by worship which is never put to practice (1:26). The ears hear God's Word (1:23) and the feet, hands, and other body parts go out and live for God (1:25).
For James action speaks louder than words. True piety cares for the lowly. Faith must produce good works. In fact, James was so wedded to practicality in action, this letter drove Martin Luther crazy. Luther, who believed we are saved by God's grace, felt James was just another return to salvation by works righteousness. Yet, James was a pastor who ended up being martyred - stoned to death for his convictions in the late part of the first century. He was calling his Jewish-Christian sisters and brothers to live their lives as a "mizfah" - a blessing to others. He calls us to do the same.
I like James' image of looking into a mirror and measuring ourselves by what we see. When you look into a mirror do you see the face of one who lives the Word of God daily? It is almost like the Word of God is to be implanted in our visage. As St. Francis of Asassi Said, "Live as if the only Gospel your neighbors will ever read is the Gospel they see lived out in you."
To be inspired by Doers of the Word, each of us only need listen to the story of Rev. Bhaskar Onawale and his wife, Dr. Neela Onawale - in whose name and memory we should all dedicate our special offerings today because they are the founders of the Deep Griha Society (which means "the Lighthouse"). Called to serve in a village with no toilets, no water, and no electricity, the Onawales dedicated their lives to Christ in mission. Feeling called by Christ to serve rural people, especially, poor women and children, they started in one room of their very humble home with little to nothing. They simply felt God calling them to serve the poorest of the poor.
In 1972, the Bhaskar and Neela came here to Columbus and shared their lives and their stories with First Congregational Church and First Community Church. We were captured by their stories and their intense living of God's Word. Ever since, we have supported the Deep Griha Society and their mission. From small beginnings, they now house a school, a hospital, and services for the poor which no one else is providing. They Onawales are themselves Lighthouses for God! They are the embodiment of Christian faith and service! Please support them with your gifts today, but more importantly, be doers of God's word as they are Doers of the Word!
For 70 years now and continuing into this fall semester, Professor Abe Goldstein has taught law at Baruch College in New York City. As the son of a Polish immigrant, Abe wanted to play baseball. But, his father told him to put a book in his hand instead of a glove and teach. He has. Now 101, Abe says his guiding principles have always been honesty and fairness. His students and colleagues claim that generosity and wisdom have also and always guided him. He said in a recent interview, "I chose law because I wanted to help people." And he has. He has helped tens of thousands of people. Like David Long, and the Rev. and Dr. Onawale, Abe Goldstein lives his faith by action which speaks louder than words. When our days are numbered, may our Savior Jesus Christ along with his brother, James, the martyr and senior pastor of The First Jerusalem Church look down upon us and say, "Here was one who was a Doer of God's Word." Amen.
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