Sermon delivered by David Burrow October 26, 2008 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa
Click here for an audio version of this sermon. (13.5MB - .mp3)
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. …
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Those of you in the sanctuary today have seen me up front for about a decade now, but today is the first time I’ve been “flying solo”—both leading prayers and giving a message by myself. You all know that’s because right now our church is in a period of transition. Our interim minister, Rev. Gilbert, recently left, and it will be a while before a new called minister can take over.
When Rev. Gilbert told the board he would be departing, they passed the burden of filling the pulpit to the Worship and Music Committee, a group that really hasn’t existed in a meaningful way for over a year. With less than a month’s notice, trying to find supply speakers was no small challenge—particularly since the list we were provided by the conference hadn’t been updated in two years and included many people who had moved or even passed away.
Chuck West suggested that something we might consider would be having the board members and others in the church take turns sharing meditations that related to their own experiences. I hesitate to use the word “sermon”, because none of us is a professional in this type of speaking. The idea seemed interesting, though, and being the educator I am, I figured modeling was the best way of teaching people. So I figured I’d go first, and that’s why I’m here to present our message today.
Being in this position brings back memories of stories my father used to tell of the time shortly after he and my mother were married. At the time they lived in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Today Pagosa is a major resort, but in the early ‘50s it was a tiny town set among some of the most rugged mountains on earth. It was on the far side of Wolf Creek Pass, which at the time was a one-lane gravel trail that was frequently closed by washouts in summer and avalanches in winter.
Pagosa in the ‘50s was a mostly Chicano town—we’d use the word “Hispanic” today—and the only large church there was Roman Catholic. There was also a small Mormon church in town. My parents had grown up Methodist, and especially in those days both Catholics and Mormons were about as far from their background as could be. Before long, though, my dad found out about a small group of Protestants who met each Sunday in each other’s homes. This being the ‘50s, the husband of the host couple would lead a service, and the wife would serve dinner to all the neighbors afterwards. About once every three months a minister who served a dozen little churches spread throughout the mountains would show up to serve communion and baptize any children who had been born. Aside from those seasonal visits from the clergyman, though, the church in Pagosa Springs was pretty much on its own.
In the time my parents lived in Colorado, the church outgrew its members’ living rooms, and they eventually moved their meetings to a saloon. My father was in the old Methodist tradition of strict temperance, and he found some nice irony in using this rather unholy ground for Christian purposes. Years later our family went out to Colorado on vacation, and my father was pleased to see that now the congregation had a full-time minister and was housed in a handsome church building. What had started literally with hope and prayer had blossomed into maturity.
While it happened a century later in Colorado, the story of that church is remarkably similar to our own church’s history here in Algona. We call Father Taylor our church’s founder, but the missionary also founded other congregations, and he wasn’t able to sustain any of them by himself. 150 years ago our church didn’t have the beautiful building we now enjoy, and the handful of people who attended would make us think we have great crowds at our worship services today. The early members of our church, though, took on the responsibility for sustaining themselves, and—well—God helped those who helped themselves. The church grew and prospered. Today it’s our job to follow in our founders’ steps and again take on more of the responsibility for keeping our church growing and charting its course into the future.
We also know that this was also the model for the early church. While he organized churches and sent letters of encouragement, Paul was not the pastor of the far-flung string of churches around the Mediterranean. The early church didn’t have a rigid hierarchy, but the first Christians made it work and endure. The early believers met together to pray, and they pitched in to do the work that needed to be done—just as we need to do as our church faces challenges in the 21st Century.
… So that’s why I’m here today. But my message doesn’t really have to do just with having the laity fill in preaching in a pinch. Nor is it about how a historic church can keep going as its membership ages and its town loses population. It’s about much more than that.
The title I chose for this message is “Change the World Today”. I first came across those words four years ago when I happened to be in Portland, Oregon, during the Christmas season. I picked up a copy of The Oregonian, and found that instead of news it was full of those sappy heart-tugging feature stories we so often see during the holidays. I’m normally pretty cynical and just give a quick scan to such stories, but out in Portland one particular article caught my eye.
Matt Seguin was at the time a seventh grader. He lived in a quiet middle class neighborhood in a wood-frame house on a tree-filled lot. He was the only son of a single mother who loved him dearly. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him, and except for living in a big city, he could as easily have been one of the kids here in Algona. Each day when his mother dropped him off at school, she would hug him and say, “Now Matty, you go out and change the world today.”
My bet is that originally the mother didn’t mean anything in particular in saying that, other than just an expression of her love and a wish for her son to do his best. Like many kids, Matt took her literally, though, and he thought about the admonition long and hard. Finally one day when his mother gave him the daily send-off, Matt complained that he couldn’t. “Changing the world is too big a job for a little kid,” he said. “There’s too many problems. There’s no way I can do it.”
Mom didn’t miss a beat. Whatever she may have meant originally, she now knew she had to show her son how he really could make a difference in the world. “Changing the world isn’t a big job,” she responded. “It’s a lot of little jobs. You need to discover which little jobs you can do and do them.”
Matt took his mother’s words to heart, and he’s been working tirelessly to change—if not the whole world—than at least the little part of the world around Portland. Matt got a local grocery wholesaler to donate hundreds of cases of Gatorade, and after school he and his friends go downtown and pass out bottles of Gatorade to homeless people. He also helps clean up litter around the city, and he reads to little kids at a local library. His biggest work, though, is with Loaves and Fishes, the local meals on wheels program in Portland. He delivers meals for them on his bicycle, and he spoke at a fundraiser where he convinced people to donate $172,000 to provide meals for shut-ins.
The story of how that seventh-grader in Portland changed the world is one of the most inspirational articles I’ve ever read. After returning from that trip out to Oregon I made a poster with the words “Change the world today” and put it up in the classroom where I teach. From time to time I’ll have students ask me about it, and Matt’s story has inspired many of them to look for little jobs they can do to help change the world.
The reading from James this morning reminds us that faith without works is dead. The Bible commands us get off our behinds and put our faith into action. We need to find the jobs that need to be done and really work to make the most of God’s creation.
Changing the world is a lot of little jobs, and none of us is too young or too old that there isn’t something we can do to help out. That’s really what our gospel today is saying. The Great Commandment tells us to love the Lord our God and love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s what it takes to change the world—truly loving God and loving and serving each other.
There are a lot of small jobs that change the world everyday, and sometimes something tiny and even unintentional will snowball into an avalanche of change. We all know the story of Rosa Parks, the seamstress and secretary from Montgomery, Alabama. Fifty-three years ago Mrs. Parks was tired after a long day at work. She wanted to sit down, and when the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white woman, she politely refused. That sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which gave birth to the modern Civil Rights Movement. That one tiny act didn’t make a huge difference all at once, but five decades later things our country has progressed beyond anything Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King could have imagined.
But there’s more! The Civil Rights Movement that Rosa Parks’ little action started lit the spark for a push toward freedom and equality all over the world. When I was in college the Solidarity movement was spreading through Poland, using the methods, language, and songs of America’s Civil Rights movement. That was the first push that led to freedom in Eastern Europe and brought down the Berlin Wall. Later the Civil Rights Movement would inspire native people in South Africa to push for an end to apartheid and establish a government that includes all the races and classes of people in that country. And the movement started by Rosa Parks would even inspire a student in China to stand in the path of a tank and focus world attention on one of the most repressive regimes in the world. So, you see, just one little job started the wheels in motion and really did bring change to the whole world.
There are countless little jobs each of us can do to bring change that will improve the world God gave us. God gave each of us unique skills, and our challenge is to use those skills to make this world a better place. It’s by using our gifts to help our neighbors that we show our love for God. That’s how we fulfill the Great Commandment in this morning’s gospel and it’s how we turn our faith into works as the epistle reading commands.
I began today by talking about my father, and I want to close by mentioning one of my mother’s favorite hymns. It’s a lovely old hymn that dates back nearly a hundred years, one that I’m sorry doesn’t appear in our current hymnal. I’ll spare you my feeble attempt at singing, but I do want to share the words with you:
Do not wait until some deed of greatness
you may do,
Do not wait to shed your light afar,
To the many duties ever near you now be true,
Brighten the corner where you are.
Just above are clouded skies that you may
help to clear,
Let not narrow self your way debar,
Though into one heart alone may fall your song of cheer,
Brighten the corner where you are.
Here for all your talent you may surely
find a need,
Here reflect the bright and Morning Star,
Even from your humble hand the Bread of Life may feed,
Brighten the corner where you are.
My hope for all of us is that we may do just that—that we may brighten our own corner and put our faith into action. May we show our love for God and neighbor by finding the little jobs that need to be done to bring positive change to our home, our church, our community, and our world.
… So, now for all of us, let’s go out and change the world today!
(C) 2008 firstname.lastname@example.org
The background music on this page is a country swing version of "Brighten the Corner Where You Are".