Thoughts and Prayers and Action

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Thu, 03/15/2018 - 9:15pm

Matthew 7:24-27, James 2:14-17, 1 John 3:17-18

Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, March 11, 2018, Lent 4 

            We know something about storms around here, just as Jesus’ listeners did. The thought of a house falling into the water and being carried off is not far-fetched. This week I saw on TV a woman from somewhere on the coastline of Massachusetts during the nor’easter. She was carrying large rocks by hand to place next to a concrete seawall in front of her house. “I’ve got to do what I can,” she said. “If the wave comes over it one more time, my house will be gone.” We’ve all seen photos of houses with the sand washed out from under the front porch, so that the whole house appears ready to tilt into the sea. 

            That’s the image Jesus uses in the little parable that closes the Sermon on the Mount. It’s one heck of a way to end his teaching. Jesus has been telling us to do a lot of things that seem difficult: Don’t be angry with a church member or throw out insults; don’t lust after women; don’t divorce; don’t swear; don’t hit back; give to everyone who asks; love your enemies; give and pray in secret; choose God over money; don’t worry; don’t judge; do to others what you want them to do to you. Jesus, is that all?

            That list is what’s behind this kicker at the end: if you do all those things, you’re like a wise man who built his house on a rock; if you don’t do what I say, you’re like a fool who built his house on the sand, whose house will not stand. Jesus does not say, “Those who hear my words are wise.” He doesn’t say, “Those who believe in me” will be in good shape in the storm. He says that the ones who will survive the flood are those hear “these words of mine and act on them.”

            We tend to think of the rock in the story as representing Jesus. We say, “I’m building my life on the rock; that rock is Jesus.” We sing sometimes, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” That’s not wrong; Christ is the church’s one foundation and the basis of our faith. But that’s not what Jesus is saying in this parable. The solid rock in this story is obedience to Jesus; it’s taking action in response to what Jesus says. It’s love that is not just words, as First John says, but rather love that expresses itself in action. It’s faith, as James says, that is intimately tied to action and kindness to the poor.

            I think Jesus is disappointed with the way the church talks about the gospel—as a concept to be believed and accepted rather than as a way of life in line with what Jesus taught us. I think Jesus is saying to us that you can’t claim that you believe if you don’t obey. We are so determined to say that you aren’t saved by your own efforts that we have forgotten what we are saved for—a life of good works that God has prepared for us to do (as Ephesians says). When young people say they are disillusioned with the church, what they mean is that our deeds don’t match our words. They have heard about what Jesus said about not judging and turning the other cheek and loving your enemy, and they haven’t seen the church as an institution acting that way, or the Christians they know behaving as if Jesus really meant it. Why would they want to come into a house built on sand?

            One of the student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, David Hogg, spoke on CNN the day after the shooting: “What we really need is action. Cause we can say, ‘Yes, we’re going to do all these things, thought and prayers.’ What we need more than that is action.

            In recent weeks, there have been countless cynical posts on social media about “thoughts and prayers.” Just Google that phrase and you’ll see. Sometimes it’s directed at politicians who offer thoughts and prayers after each tragedy, but never do anything to change the situation. For many people, “thoughts and prayers” are the opposite of action. One of the funnier memes on this subject is the picture I reproduced in the bulletin. If you can’t tell, those are tater tots. A greeting card is sending tots and pears.

            Kelly Rippa cried on her TV show after the shooting and said, “Offering thoughts and prayers is not enough anymore.” When Dick’s Sporting Goods issued a statement on their new gun policy last week, the statement said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims and their loved ones. But thoughts and prayers are not enough.” They probably weren’t aware of it, but they were using the same words President Obama used after an Oregon community college shooting in 2015: “Thoughts and prayers are not enough.” Alas, in 2015, as in 2012 after Sandy Hook, we never moved from thoughts and prayers for victims to action on guns that might prevent more people from becoming victims.

            I’m not going to give a sermon on gun control today, although I believe Jesus taught nonviolence, and it only takes a slight updating to hear Jesus saying to Peter, “Put your gun away. All who live by the gun will die by the gun” (Matthew 26:52). I want to think more broadly about how the church moves from thoughts and prayers to action. Jim Wallis is using a hashtag on Twitter that is #thoughtsprayersaction. We need all three.

            Thinking and praying is pretty much all we do on a Sunday morning. If I get you to think and pray, I’m satisfied. But I should be dissatisfied unless you respond with action of some kind. Are we known as people who will think about those who are hurting and pray for them? Or are we known as people who are trying to do what Jesus said? Are we known as a seedbed for action in the community and the world? (Maybe just a little bit we are, I think.)

            It’s a good thing to have a prayer list, and a better thing if we actually use it to pray for people, cooperating with God’s love energy in blessing people. I don’t know how to do it, but it would be even better if we had an action list. Here is our “thoughts and prayers list,” and here is our action list of things we are going to do for those people or to address need and injustice in the community. What would it be like if we made commitments to one another? “I’m going to visit Willis this week, anyone want to come with me?” “I’m going to march in Washington on the 24th, anyone else interested?

            In James, when he’s talking about the need for actions to go with faith, the context is concern for the poor within their community. Earlier in the letter, he’s slammed the church people for treating the rich better than the poor. When a potential donor comes to church all dressed up, you give him the best seat; when someone comes in looking homeless, you seat them on the floor or make them stand. James asks the church, “Hasn’t God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom?...But you have dishonored the poor.” If you show partiality to the rich, you have broken the royal law Jesus gave us, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

            So when James comes to the subject of faith and works, he uses the example of a poor person in the church. “If a brother or sister in Christ doesn’t have clothes or food, and you say to him (maybe at the end of worship), “Go in peace; be warmed and filled” (as if your prayer for them would make it happen)—and you don’t actually get them clothes or food, what is the good of that? What good are thoughts and prayers without action?

            How do you think God will answer your prayers? Is it likely that clothes and food will miraculously be dropped down on this person you know? Or is it more likely that you are the answer? A Baptist musician who sang for us in previous churches, Kyle Matthews, recorded a song that says this:

“God knows that the world needs help,
His ways are mysterious.
He could fix it all by himself,
But he chooses to work through us.
And the thought that’s haunting me,
Is someone in need might be
Praying a prayer, that even I could answer.”

                        (“Praying a Prayer” from the album See for Yourself)

In fact, I myself might be praying a prayer that I could answer by my actions rather than waiting for God to do it some other way.

            Sometimes, as in the case of the high school students from Parkland, we have to join together and organize to accomplish God’s purpose. Many island residents organized recently to protest the removal of a grocery worker by ICE; they didn’t just send thoughts and prayers to Meriton where he is being held. We are nearing the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, so we are reminded that what had him in Memphis was the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King had shifted gears in 1968 from seeking rights for black citizens to seeking rights for the poor. In Memphis, he was marching with the garbage workers. Sometimes the particular action we need to take on behalf of the poor might not be collecting food or clothing, but rather working to change policies and laws to guarantee that the poor are treated fairly. Rev. William Barber and others are leading a Poor People’s Campaign this spring.

            Things have not changed that much since James wrote complaining that the rich were treated with honor—even in the church—and the poor were dishonored. Recent changes in tax policy dishonor the poor even more than before. In the words of Billie Holiday,

Them that's got, shall get
Them that's not, shall lose
So the Bible said, and it still is news.

Nowhere in the Old Testament or New Testament do you find an attitude of suspicion toward the poor. It never says, “Be sure the poor don’t take too much,” but that is the attitude our government takes. The Bible never suggests that helping the poor creates dependency or is somehow bad for them. I think that is a theory developed by the rich who wanted to cut their own taxes. It’s true that we will always have the poor among us—that is, there will never be a completely just society until the kingdom comes—but the rest of that verse (Deut. 15:11) says “therefore I command you to open wide your hand to the poor and be generous to your needy neighbor.”

First John asks, “How can a wealthy person claim to have God’s love living in them and yet see a brother or sister in need and refuse to help?” The answer is “They don’t have God’s love. They don’t know the sacrificial love that Jesus taught us.” So then, John says, “Let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love” [The Message]. Not just thoughts and prayers—but let thoughts and prayers lead to action.