When I was in seminary Tony Campolo came to speak in a chapel service. He set off quite a controversy because he began with these words – I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a (blank). What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said (blank) than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.
That comment was quite the conversation starter around campus. Quite a few people were offended by Campolo’s words. In one class, as people complained about his language, the professor said, well, you’ve proved his point, haven’t you?
Perhaps there are times when we need a jolt to get our attention. In our Scripture passage for this morning, Jesus gives us just such a jolt. Remember that we have been studying the final days of Jesus, as found in the gospel of Matthew. In those final days Jesus seeks to drive home some of his most important teachings to his disciples and his followers. As we read a portion of a longer passage, we hear Jesus talking about the importance of deeds over words.
34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘”Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,
36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?
39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
40 The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Jesus pulls no punches in this passage. He steps on toes. He goes from preaching to meddling. Jesus says, in essence, we will be judged by our deeds, and specifically those deeds that are directed at the least of these. It is tempting to try and take the edge off of this passage. It is much easier to talk about God’s grace and his love than it is to share the tougher passages, such as this one. But it’s a tough passage, and there is no way to remove the edge from these words.
I’m an optimist at heart and I try to paint everything in as positive a light as possible. If our house burned down and I had to call and break the news to Tanya, my approach would be guess what! You know that skylight you wanted? It’s tempting for me to want to sugarcoat things, especially difficult or bad news, or even worse, the challenging words of the gospel. I love to talk about grace and love, but there are some very challenging words in the gospels as well, and it’s not nearly as fun to talk about those words.
James, the brother of Jesus, really absorbed these words. Listen to what James writes, in 2:14-18, showing just how deeply he allowed these words of Jesus to sink into his heart -
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.
Interestingly, Martin Luther, the great Reformer, was so disturbed by those words that he believed the book of James should be removed from the New Testament. Imagine that! It bothered Luther to read words that seem to indicate our faith is judged by our actions, so he wanted to remove them.
In terms of our relationship with society, people are looking to see if people of faith will live out their words by their deeds. People want to know that we are not just talking about the importance of love, but actually living the way of love in our daily lives. People want to know that we are not just talking about the importance of reaching out to others; they want to see us actually practicing it. People want to know that we are not just taking about the importance of being welcoming to all people; they want to see us actually practicing it. They want, in short, to see us emphasizing deeds over words. The most effective way for churches to connect with, and make a difference in, their communities will be to live out their words through their deeds.
The world of unbelief has heard all the words; they need to see the deeds. Jesus was loved and accepted by crowds of people because of his deeds – his love, his compassion, and his care. Many of the religious leaders of his day, by comparison, were very good at talking, but not at acting, on their words. Jesus was a person of action. He certainly talked – a lot – but his words were always brought to life by his actions.
I was fascinated by the coverage of the election of a new pope. Did you watch the video feed of the chimney to see when the smoke would come out? I got excited when I saw white smoke coming out of the tailpipe of my car the other morning.
I was really fascinated that the new pope took the name of Francis, after Francis of Assisi. Francis believed the church needed to reform, so choosing that name is a really big deal, and it will take a lot to live up to the name. The world is watching, and in choosing the name of Francis the pope is going to have to move quickly on some important matters, especially the scandal of abuse that has so shaken the Catholic Church.
Perhaps you wonder why it would matter to those of us who are Protestants. It matters a great deal, because the world of skepticism and unbelief does not make distinctions between denominations; they simply see us as one group of religious people and every scandal in the church world, wherever it takes place, taints us all in their eyes. But the reality is, abuse happens in all kinds of churches, and it is not always dealt with in the proper manner. One Protestant denomination actually refused to create a list of perpetrators of abuse so other churches would not risk the chance of calling an abuser.
Churches can’t give mere lip service to such matters. I’m grateful that in Disciples churches there is a process that guarantees that if I do something improper I will lose my ministerial standing and every church in North America will know to stay away from me.
The heart of our congregation is in our deeds. I’m grateful for the ministry of our congregation and what you do. The CWF ladies had their tables set up this morning. Do you know what they do with the money they raise? It goes to the Disciples Mission Fund – $4,000.00 a year. The Disciples Mission Fund supports 72 different ministries in our country and around the world, reaching into countless lives. Every month we serve at God’s Kitchen downtown, serving people who need a meal. Dinner is taken to the Men’s Shelter. Dozens of baskets of food are delivered at Christmas time. Dozens of kids are tutored through Arriba Ninos. That’s how people really learn who we are – through our deeds.
I heard the head of a relief agency once describe traveling to a place of great need. As she walked through an area where young children were being treated for malnutrition and other health difficulties, she saw a young child in a bed and because he looked so malnourished and so weak she thought he had passed away. As she stepped up to his bed she realized he was still alive, but not by much. She put her hand behind the child’s back and head, and could feel the ribs as though they were ready to break through the skin. In telling of the experience later she said, hunger seems very real when you can touch it.
In telling that story she was trying to make real to us, as did Jesus, how difficult things are for so many people. In the time of Jesus the majority of people would have been classified as the least of these. There was a small, wealthy, upper class; a very small group of what we would call a middle class; and a large number of people who struggled to earn enough to survive on a day-to-day basis. Among the wealthy were some of the religious leaders, who could be particularly callous toward the poor. Jesus challenged them to move beyond mere words, and into deeds.
We must touch the hurts and the suffering of the world. I think that people outside the church world are looking for deeds more than they are words, and when they see deeds rising to a level beyond mere words they will be much more interested in what we have to say.