A Sermon for October 21, 2012, 2 Corinthians 8:7-12, James 2:14-17, 19-26 (Eugene Peterson’s The Message)
When I was six years old, there was nothing I enjoyed more than watching hours of Saturday morning cartoons in my footy pajamas with a big ole bowl of Frosted Flakes. In between the adventures of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? and Super Friends, the ABC Network would air the animated series Schoolhouse Rock, 3-4 minute short educational commercials in an effort to squeeze some knowledge into our TV-possessed brains. Of all the episodes, which regularly featured creative musical lessons on history, math or English, my favorite was the one entitled Verb: That’s What’s Happening:
A boy and his super hero idol Mr. VERB demonstrate the grammatically correct use of a verb with colorful action and a groovy 70s pop beat. On the surface it’s an ordinary exercise in English… until you look closer at the lyrics:
I get my thing in action
To be, to sing, to feel, to live
I put my heart in action
To run, to go, to get, to give
That’s where I find satisfaction, yeah!
To search, to find, to have, to hold, to be bold
When I use my imagination
I think, I plot, I plan, I dream
Turning in towards creation
I make, I write, I dance, I sing
When I’m feeling really active
I run, I ride, I swim, I fly!
I get my thing in action
In being, In doing, In saying
A verb expresses action, being, or state of being. A verb makes a statement. Yeah, a verb tells it like it is!
I get my thing in action.
The cartoon’s lyrics and the animation convey a deeper message about how verbs are an essential part of human experience, and quite possibly the core of existence itself.
The boy in the story is not sitting idly in his bedroom doing nothing. Instead he is active in the world, embracing the wonder of life. Throughout the cartoon, the boy is imagining, dreaming, creating, playing, working, laughing, singing, moving and serving. The kid is excited to be alive; his narrator voice croons: “I put my heart in action/I get my thing in action/In being, In doing, In saying…I get my thing in action/To work/To play/To live/To love” In the words of the song, the boy is “telling it like it is.”
For Christians, telling it like it is…in being, in doing, in saying is precisely how faith in the living triune God is to be demonstrated. In his book Faith Works, Jim Wallis, respected preacher, activist and author, says:
When put into action, faith has the capacity to bring people together, to motivate, and to inspire, even across former dividing lines. We demonstrate our faith by putting it into practice and, conversely if we don’t keep the power of faith in the actions we undertake, our efforts can easily lead to burnout, bitterness, and despair. The call to action can preserve the authenticity of faith, while the power of faith can save the integrity of our actions.
Faith that isn’t practiced or put into action or lacks expression in being, doing, saying, is actually no faith at all. It’s as dead as the spirit of the one who God calls to live in faith, as James writes in a letter to early Christians:
Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? (Consider) Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn’t her action in hiding God’s spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse.”
James’ insistence that faith must be translated into practice makes good sense. I don’t suppose there are too many Christians who would argue with his wisdom. Several believers might even wonder why James’ words need saying. It’s fairly obvious that faith needs to be acted upon.
And yet, the statement probably can’t be repeated enough. Since the early 2nd Century, the time in which James’ letter was written, there continues to be a human presumption that “knowing the right truth or holding the right position is enough to make them righteous.”
From what is reported in the news and experienced first-hand by people in Christian communities, there are numerous good and decent believers who make genuine statements that “Jesus is Lord” and “God is love,” but ignore the one who is suffering from hunger, abuse and violence…
Christians who daily read their Bibles and recite the Apostle’s Creed and Lord’s Prayer by heart but who rarely embody God’s commands to be merciful, hospitable and loving on a daily basis.
Christians who spend too much time arguing over the right words and who is the more devoted follower than actually devoting themselves to God and serving those in need.
Christians who waste years of their lives fighting over whom is welcome in the church and the rules over the best way to be the church instead of welcoming and being church for all people.
Christians who put all of their time and energy into rules and the creation of a power structure instead of immersing themselves in the power of God’s grace.
Christians who have separated faith from works, turning the institution and ministry of the church into a corpse. Christians who have failed to put faith into action. Christians who have forgotten that God is a verb.
“I am a verb. I am that I am,” says God to the middle aged Mack in the 2007 best-selling novel The Shack by William P. Young. Perplexed by this statement, Mack, who is having a crisis of faith while spending a weekend in his family’s vacation home in the mountains, asks God to explain. God, who has taken the form of a older African-American woman, continues:
I am a verb! I am alive, dynamic, ever active, and moving. I am a being verb…and my very essence is a verb. I am more attuned to verbs than nouns. Verbs such as confessing, repenting, living, loving, responding, growing, reaping, changing, sowing, running, dancing, singing, and on and on. Humans, on the other hand, have a knack for taking a verb that is alive and full of grace and turning it into a dead noun or principle that reeks of rules: something growing and alive dies. Nouns exist because there is a created universe and physical reality, but if the universe is only a mass of nouns, it is dead. Unless ‘I am,’ there are no verbs, and verbs are what makes the universe alive…I give you an ability to respond and your response is to be free to love and serve in every situation, and therefore each moment is different and unique and wonderful. Because I am your ability to respond, I have to be present in you. If I simply gave you a responsibility, I would not have to be with you at all. It would now be a task to perform, an obligation to be met, something to fail.
The Macedonians, whom the apostle Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians and Dave preached about last week, appear to understand this concept that God is a verb who gives human beings an ability to respond freely to love and serve in every aspect of life.
The Macedonians, writes Paul in the verses read last Sunday, “voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints…they gave themselves first to the Lord.” The Macedonians put their faith in action. They recognized God was active in their lives and they responded by eagerly joining in God’s activity—God’s work to redeem and transform a broken world through love.
And it is the Macedonian’s incredible demonstration of faith that Paul uses to encourage the Corinthians to not let their faith become stale and eventually crumble away, as we heard in this morning’s scripture reading:
It is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something—now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.
Late last week I had coffee with Patrick Borders, an active member of Pleasant Hill who recently became the executive director for Water @ Work, a faith-based, non-profit group dedicated to providing clean and safe drinking water to the poorest of the poor in the Dominican Republic. During our conversation about Water @ Work, Patrick shared an amazing story about a Dominican pastor who, like the Macedonians, gets it.
Pastor Alejandro serves 1,200 to 1,500 Haitians, about 200-300 families, in the village of San Joaquin, less than 10 miles northeast of Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. While the village is one of the most calm and peaceful in the country, it has suffered for many years from the existence of a bar/drug-infested prostitution den where girls as young as 12 could be seen dancing out front.
One day, Alejandro stood defiantly in front of the bar and shouted at the drug dealers who owned the business, “This land belongs to God and you must leave!” While the chronological details of what happened next are fuzzy, the drug dealers cleared out and Alejandro eventually reclaimed the land and the building where horrific abuse, violence and oppression occurred. With a fresh coat of paint and some minor repairs, the space has been transformed into a place where children can joyfully play without fear of being harmed.
Pastor Alejandro’s larger vision is to use the space as a trade co-op so the residents of San Joaquin can sell clean water, which will eventually come from a Water @ Work filtration system, and also use that water to make and sell their own shampoo and soap. Alejandro recognized that God was active in the life of the village, and he responded by eagerly joining in God’s activity—God’s work to redeem and transform a broken world through love.
That recognition of God’s work in the world and that eagerness to put faith into action is precisely why this congregation has:
- provided some small assistance to Patrick and Water @ Work;
- supported efforts to send Pleasant Hill mission teams overseas to do mission work for more than a decade, most recently to Honduras
- volunteered to host Family Promise of Gwinnett County twice this Fall
- and continues to actively give of their financial resources, time and talents to Rainbow Village, the Clifton Men’s Shelter, the Duluth Co-Op, the Red Cross Blood Drive, World Relief Refugees, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Habitat For Humanity, food banks, emergency assistance programs, after-school tutoring, hospice care, knitting prayer shawls for the sick, teaching church school, mentoring youth, creating opportunities for fellowship, planning meaningful worship services, etc.
Time and time again, you live up to the church’s motto and God’s call to love and serve by “connecting faith with everyday life.” And it fills me with indescribable joy every time I witness each one of those moments.
You’ve done these things not because it is expected of you. If expectation was what drove you, then ministry (as the character of God explained in The Shack) would be “a task to perform, an obligation to be met, something to fail.” No, you put your faith into action because you realize that God has given you the freedom to love and serve and to make every moment different, unique and wonderful!
So in an effort to continually foster that seamless unity between being, doing and saying and to prevent a stale faith from turning Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church into a corpse, we invite you to visit the display tables that comprise “The Verbing Fair,” this Sunday and the next, in the Gathering Area outside the sanctuary doors.
Each display table offers a special opportunity for you to share your passion, wisdom, imagination and love with a ministry of this church…and your gifts in these ministries are greatly needed!
So don’t be afraid to tell your faith like it is!
Put your faith into action
God, that’s what’s happening!
Schoolhouse Rock, “Verb: That’s What’s Happening,” 1974, music and lyrics by Bob Dorough, performed by Zachary Sanders, and animation by Phil Kimmelman and Associates, owned and distributed by ABC and Disney, http://www.schoolhouserock.tv/Verb.html
Faith Works: How To Live Your Beliefs and Ignite Positive Social Change by Jim Wallis, 2000. Random House.
The phrase “God is a verb” was coined by Buckminster Fuller, American philosopher and systems theorist, http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Buckminster_Fuller
The Shack by William P. Young, 2007. Windblown Media.