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More than Words
Austin Seminary Intern Savannah Demuynck
October 27, 2019
Hebrews 11:1-3; James 2:14-26
A Reading from Hebrews
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
A Reading from James
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 apart from your 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. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
I can remember vividly when I first memorized the Apostles’ Creed. I was probably in 5th grade and my older sister was in confirmation. One of the tasks for confirmands at our church was to memorize the Apostles’ Creed. My sister took this task very seriously. She got a big poster and wrote out the creed in different colors and fonts. As she worked through the different parts, I sat on her bed and learned along with her, both of us working through these words that now come as second nature to me. I can remember feeling the importance of learning the apostle’s creed, and being excited to finally be able to join in. Learning these words felt like a way for me to join in the chorus of the congregation who loved and raised me. It felt like a rite of passage. It was like a tune that everyone in the congregation knew and I wanted to be able to participate. To join in the chorus felt like the ultimate goal at the time.
As members of the reformed faith, the confessions are our way of claiming the religious history that has come before us. These creeds were written in contextual moments of history. They are responding to what was happening in a particular time and remind us of those moments that brought us to where we are today.
Our Hebrews text gives us a simple and clean definition of faith. “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews reminds us to trust in the things that are not made visible to us, resting in the hope that was given in Jesus Christ. And this is the comfortable part for us. As the reformed faithful, we have known since the days of Luther and Calvin how to trust that God will be with us, that there are unseen things that we don’t understand and we trust that there are forces in the world working for good.
But James, as usual, rocks this boat. He reminds us that our words only have power if there is true action that follows. That our faithful words are not enough. He says that faith without works is dead. James is calling us to put fire in our belly’s and show the world what these words we’ve been saying for 500 and 2 years really mean. It’s not only that we hope and have faith in God, but it’s also the actions that follow these words that truly give us meaning. It’s not only comfortably giving our money to just causes, but it’s also showing up when volunteers are need and getting our hands dirty.
When I was in college, I had the privilege of spending a semester abroad in Spain. While I was there, I got to travel all around Europe, seeing these beautiful, ancient cities, full of rich history and culture. And while I spent a lot of time looking up, at the beautiful buildings and amazing architecture, at the trees that were placed picturesquely, at an often-blue sky that smiled down at me, I also spent a lot of time looking down. I saw poverty. I had seen poverty before going to Europe, but there was something incredibly striking to me as I walked the streets thinking about what my next delicious meal would be and seeing so much suffering around me. My privilege was undeniable and unavoidable. I spent a lot of that semester feeling incredibly blessed, but I also spent a lot of time asking God how I got to be the person traveling around Europe when there were people in such different circumstances from me. It was during these prayers that I discerned that my faith in God had been just about me and God, but it needed to be about me and God and God’s people. I needed to get my hands dirty, put some fire in my belly and show the faith that I had been carrying in my heart with my dirty hands.
It is precisely when we get our hands dirty that we actually affirm our faith and all that we do become extensions of our words. When someone tells us they are hungry, responding with prayer is not enough, we need to be able to give them food. When we witness systems of oppression, a sexist comment, a white person crossing the street instead of walking past a person of color, offering prayer does not align with what we say in our affirmations of faith. Our thoughts and prayers in response to the increasing homeless population, in the wake of yet another mass shooting, in response to the crisis at the border is not enough. And it’s not what we say we believe. We say that we believe in a God of love, grace and justice. And yet we stand by and offer prayers rather than stepping in when we see something that needs to be done. Boldly saying what we believe only matters if we leave this place and show that belief to the world.
We recite these creeds and statements today to affirm our faith in the holy, triune God in response to the life-giving Word. We show up on Sunday morning for worship and are filled to go out and do the work of the words that we claimed in here in this space. On Sunday morning we say the words, and then spend our week continuing to define this faith by our actions. These words we say are inextricably linked to the actions we do, defining each other, giving each other meaning and purpose, sustaining us through the hard work that we are called to do. And friends, it is hard work. To speak out against injustice, to go out of our way to welcome the stranger, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
These are not easy tasks. Even though these tasks are not easy, they still seem small in the face of such large systems of injustice and oppression. Hebrews tells us that we are assured of things hoped for. But what do we hope for? And how do we begin to see the fruits of that hope? I think here at UPC, we hope for justice. We hope for grace. We hope for love. And we see this hope in the ways that we show up for the things that matter. When you volunteer at uplift. When the church overflows the cart. In these acts we participate in Gods salvific work. We are participating in the things hoped for, the salvation of God, the thing that we do not see and yet, we believe that it is coming. When our actions are in line with these words, they bring definition to our faith, through the testimony of the lived faith that we show in our lives.
When I memorized the words to the apostle’s creed, it felt like the foundation for the house of faith and I continue to build every day. In the years since memorizing the apostle’s creed I have learned that simple memorization wasn’t enough to call myself a Christian, though at the same time, as a child I felt that I needed to know these words of faith in order to be a part of the community. These words are important and remain important now, but what I have learned since that time is that the words themselves are not the goal of faith. These creeds carry with them the weight of all the Christians who have come before us and said these words, proclaiming their faith in the face of injustice, in the face of oppressive forces, in the face of civil powers. On this day, Reformation Sunday, we celebrate the parents of the reformed faith, who made bold claims about the Church and God and started a radical church revolution. When we say an affirmation of faith, we invoke those who have come before us and proclaim for ourselves and for others what we believe today. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, who built a foundation for us. And we continue this work of building a house of faith that is shaped by our words and defined by our actions.
The creeds were indeed written in a particular time and place and they continue to speak to us today. But we are also living in a particular time and place. Friends, continue to build the house that was given to us, making our own marks. So that those who come after us will know our words and also see the fruit of our actions. May it be so.