Practicing Faith

Sunday’s sermon …

You know … it’s really great to have the church school back in session.  I missed it.

James 2:14-17

Practicing Faith

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: An Essay By The Rev. Sarah Weaver

I baptized seven beautiful children.
I officiated three weddings.
I presided over two funerals.
I broke the stove at the parsonage.
I profusely apologized to the Trustees for breaking the stove at the parsonage.
I watched Jesse and Bruce replace the stove at the parsonage.
I bought a tractor.
I lost two weeks’ worth of sleep watching Olympic coverage (who knew “speed walking” was an Olympic event?)
I “finished at the 50” at Gilette Stadium with a group of people from the church.
I went to Martha’s Vineyard with my New Clergy Group for an overnight retreat.
I caught my first striper.
I spent a lot of time in my running sneakers, on my bike or in my kayak.
I redecorated my bedroom.
I preached a sermon using Ken dolls as visual aids.
I read a lot of books.
I went down to the Cape for a few days with Bruce.
I ate a lot of mints at my desk.
I put forth a less-than-stellar gardening effort.
I made several trips to Connecticut.
I visited with my family and my friends.

I went for long walks. I listened to music on repeat. I sat alone in the sanctuary at the end of long days. I looked for answers and found more questions. I felt God’s presence in my life, even when I did not know what it meant.

I thoughts about this church a lot; a congregation of people that – 18 months ago – called me to be their pastor. I took a step back and thought about the time that has passed since I received my first phone call from the search committee. I thought about what I thought was going to happen and what actually happened. I thought about what I have learned about the church and what I have yet to learn about the church. I thought about the church’s strengths and weakness. I thought about my own strengths and weaknesses; where my strengths fit well with the community and where I still need to improve. I thought about where the passion lies in the community. I thought about how lucky we are as a congregation to have such phenomenal nursery, church school and youth fellowship programs. I thought about how grateful I am for the older generation of members, who continue to share stories and wisdom with me – and who give me a glimpse into the life of this church so many years ago.

I thought again and again about the great hopes that I have for this church.

This morning’s scripture comes from the book of James. The book of James is a letter, though we really do not know by who or to who. The Letter of James contrasts many of the Apostle Paul’s letters, because there is an emphasis on works – faith is not enough, this writer implies. There needs to be some sort of correlation between faith in speech and faith in action.

I actually trimmed down this text from what was suggested in the lectionary. I could not think of a better way to start off our church year. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? … Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

“Faith without works is dead.” If there was ever a time to make a commitment to live out this statement, the time is now.

I read a book this summer by Diana Butler Bass called Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. In this book, Butler Bass talks about the changes that are happening in the church right now – and how it may be time to focus more on faith and spiritual practices and less on institutional church structures.

Butler Bass talks about the three strands of religious faith – believing, behaving and belonging. The strands, themselves, are not changing, she says; what is changing, however, is the order in which we live them out. She suggests that belief does not come first; we must first belong, and then behave – and then we will believe.

Towards the end of the book, Butler Bass references specifically this passage from James when she talks about what it means to “behave” in the 21st century. She says:

The early community that followed Jesus was a community of practice. Jesus’s followers did not sit around a fire and listen to lectures on Christian theology. They listened to stories that taught them how to act toward one another, what to do in the world. They healed people, offered hospitality, prayed together, challenged traditional practices and rituals, ministered to the sick, comforted the grieving, fasted, and forgave. These actions induced wonder, have them courage, empowered hope, and opened up a new vision of God. By doing things together, they began to see differently.

Jesus did not walk by the Sea of Galilee and shout to fishermen, “Have faith!” Instead, he asked them to do something: “Follow me.” When they followed, he gave them more things to do. At first, he demonstrated what he wanted them to do. They he did it with them. Finally, he sent them out to do it themselves, telling them to proclaim God’s reign and cure the sick. When they returned from this first mission, they could not believe what had happened. They discovered that proclaiming the kingdom was not a matter of imitating Jesus’s actions. Jesus did not tell them to have faith. He pushed them into the world to practice faith. The disciples did not hope the world would change. They changed it. And, in doing so, they themselves changed.

Later, in the New Testament book of James, the writer says, “Faith without works is dead” (2:17, 26). This verse has caused much consternation in Christian history. Does that mean we work our way to heaven? That good works save us?

It is a mistake to think that this verse is about some future salvation—about whether or not a person will go to heaven. The context is not eternal life; rather the context is this life. When place in the here and now, and in the context of following a spiritual path, the meaning is crystal clear: actions shape faith. Spiritual practices engender hope. Behavior opens the door for believing. Doing what once seemed difficult or impossible empower courage to envision a different world and believe we can make a difference. Without practices, faith is but an empty promise.

“Without practices, faith is but an empty promise.”

Here are my hopes for the Rehoboth Congregational Church this year:

I hope that we will continue to grow, continue to heal and continue to thrive as a community of faith.

I hope that we will find our niche, discover what we do well and allow ourselves to improve upon them even more.

I hope that we gracefully let go of some of the things that we do not have time for right now and are willing to see change as an avenue towards great opportunities.

I hope that we learn to love one another unconditionally.

I hope that we strengthen our faith – both as a community and also as individual people.

I hope that we explore new opportunities for service and missions.

I hope that we continue to upgrade our facilities.

I hope that we experiment in worship and education, finding new ways to experience God and our faith.

I hope that we embrace who we are as a community church, reaching out to those around us with a spirit of evangelism and extravagant welcome and hospitality.

I hope that we “practice faith”.

Practicing faith does not mean spending 24 hours a day at the church. Practicing faith does not mean volunteering for every committee, regardless of whether you have an interest in or time for it. Practicing faith does not mean constantly evangelizing to your neighbor. Practicing faith does mean forcing yourself to read the bible or a daily devotional. Practicing faith does not mean writing over your entire paycheck to the church.

Practicing faith means making a commitment to be patient with yourself and with others along this journey we are all on. Practicing faith means being willing to come and worship, serve, learn and fellowship with people who you may not always agree with. Practicing faith means looking at the needs both inside and outside of the church walls. Practicing faith means listening to how God is speaking to you. Practicing faith means knowing that everyone around you is on their own journey of faith – and accepting people where they are. Practicing faith means supporting others and allowing others to support you. Practicing faith means being open to the possibility of change. Practicing faith means looking at where our community is now and seeing how we can best move forward into the future. Practicing faith means loving unconditionally, serving consistently and learning and growing always. Practicing faith means standing in community and saying together, “We are the Body of Christ”.

My hope, members and friends of the Rehoboth Congregational Church, is that this year, we will truly “practice faith”.

So … what did YOU do this summer?

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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