Growing with God in Love

Scripture: James 1:17-27

Shirley Bachelder is a 94-year-old woman who lives in Franklin, Tennessee. Shirley has been keeping a bucket list since she was nine years old, listing all the things she wants to do before she dies. Crossing off items on her bucket list, Shirley travelled across the world, took a ride in a hot air balloon, and when she was sixty years old graduated from college with a degree in art. She is a former missionary, an active member of her Methodist church, and someone who has lively conversations with God. One time long ago, Shirley asked God, “What can I do for you?” She got a curious reply: God wanted her to buy a 5-second ad on primetime television to share God’s message. It would “cost a bundle”, she said, so Shirley added it to her bucket list, where it sat for years.[1] But last month members of Shirley’s Bible study class told a local TV news reporter, and the station ran a human interest feature about her. In the middle of the story, they included five seconds with Shirley Bachelder’s message from God. White type on a black background carried three words: “love one another”. Shirley’s story has been shared countless times in the weeks since, including in Canada, the United Kingdom, China and the Philippines.[2] Everyone could use a reminder of God’s message through Shirley: “love one another”.

The writer of James had no news reporter or primetime television spot, but the same message is found in this small book near the end of the Bible. Today’s passage gives us a summary of the whole book: Christians are to follow the “perfect law” of liberty, described in the next chapter as the royal law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8). Most importantly, Christians live out that love in word and deed.

For the writer of James, “love one another” gives us a very clear choice, as plain as turning left or right. Either we adopt God’s path of love, lived out in service to others, or we allow ourselves to be captive to the lesser angels of human nature. There is no middle ground, just as the body cannot go both left and right. Turning to face one way, you must turn your back to the other. Christians cannot live with double-mindedness, saying one thing and doing another. We cannot be Sunday saints and then do something else the rest of the week. James says it clearly: put aside evil, and put on God’s love. Or, in the gospel according to Bing Crosby: You’ve got to accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative / Latch on to the affirmative / Don’t mess with Mister In-Between….

The whole world will know if we’ve put aside evil, and put on God’s love, because it will be visible in our actions. Hearing and trusting God’s word is important for James, but it’s not enough by itself. To believe in Christ is essential, and to behave like Christ is what ultimately matters. James writes in chapter 2: “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” There’s a word for believers in Christ who do not behave like Christ: hypocrites. They’re like the person who looks in a mirror and sees messy hair or crooked lipstick. But instead of acting to fix it, this person walks away and forgets the problem,
or pretends that seeing it was enough. That’s a hypocrite: one who sees or believes one thing, yet does another. How much better and more faithful to live with authenticity. Let the ways of love we see in God’s mirror become the ways of love others see in us. This is why James concludes the way he does: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

With God’s help, those who bear Christ’s name have done incredible things throughout history to show mercy to those in need. Four hundred years ago our ancestor in the Reformed Christian tradition, John Calvin set up Geneva, Switzerland as a model Christian community. There were many poor there, including widows, orphans and religious refugees. “Calvin established the General Hospital and designated the offices of deacon and deaconess to supervise citizens’ works of mercy as the ‘doers of the pure religion’ in care of the poor.”[3] Centuries later, the United Church of Christ still counts among our ministries Deaconess Hospitals and health care networks around the country, established by faith to show Christ-like works of mercy and healing.

This week I learned about a Methodist minister in Great Britain named William Sangster. During World War II, he was pastor of a cavernous church in London
that could seat 3000 people in worship. As German bombs started falling on London, the church basement levels became an air-raid shelter. One of his biographers tells what happened:

The first night was indescribable as thousands squeezed in, high-born and low, adult and infant, sober and drunk, clean and lousy. Equally adept at administration and preaching, Sangster quickly laid out the cavernous cellar in sandbagged ‘streets’ so as to afford minimal privacy to those who particularly needed it. Sunday services continued upstairs in the sanctuary. A red light in the pulpit warned that an air-raid was imminent. Usually he chose to ignore it. If it were drawn to his attention he would pause and say quietly, “Those of a nervous disposition may leave now” — and resume the service. While his wife sought to feed the hordes who appeared nightly, he assisted and comforted them until midnight…. As space in the below-ground shelter was scarce, he and his family lived at great risk for five years on the hazardous ground floor. They slept nightly in the men’s washroom amidst the sound of incessant drips and the malodorous smells. By war’s end 450,000 people had found refuge in the church-basement.[4]

Sangster could have preached of God’s deliverance and sung “O God, our help in ages past”, and few would have faulted him for leaving it there. But he measured faith by the yardstick of James, not resting until beliefs overflowed into behavior as fully as possible.

This church is not in Calvin’s Geneva or Sangster’s London, but faithful Christian discipleship is also found here. A few days ago I heard of a young man who grew up and was confirmed in this church. He recently saw the the neighbor kid across the street trying to play basketball with a miserable little hoop that had no backboard. This son of our church went on Craigslist, found a proper portable hoop,
and was prepared to drive all the way to Forest Lake to buy it until he found one closer. Now he plays basketball with that neighbor kid on a gifted basketball hoop,
showing what it looks like when Christian love is put into action. Another man, who also grew up at Community UCC, learned of a neighbor whose husband had recently died. Unprompted, he cooked supper, knocked on the door, and delivered it to the woman. He wanted to make sure she was fed and kept company in her grief.

Neither of these men attend worship regularly and of course we wish they would. Nevertheless, they show their creed in their deed. I could add to their stories those of many, many others in this church who have heard of someone in need and immediately responded, who have showed up with just the right act of mercy, who have befriended someone who was lonely, or who have helped serve and clean up after those who could not do so for themselves. By God’s grace, what we do speaks more loudly than what we say. So when we leave the sanctuary today, going from Sunday into Monday and the rest of the week, let the words here “fly off the page and out of our mouths and become acts of love done by us, the people of God.”[5]

Because in the end all that we do in Christ’s name is possible because God first loved us. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above,” James tells us. God so loved the world that God freely and mercifully gave us Christ. He entered in alongside the suffering of the world and shared our common lot. Christ showed us God’s love by his own deeds of mercy and salvation. At the crucifixion his body gave way to nails and thorns, but his love never gave out. And in a perfect victory of love over the grave, God raised him up from death. Christ has opened the way for all of us to live in God’s love forever, starting now.

“Love one another” indeed. Shirley Bachelder broadcast that message for five seconds, it gets shared around the world, and we try to show it in daily life. Because God is always broadcasting a message of divine, merciful, forgiving, redeeming love
on every channel possible to every hidden corner of this beautiful, broken and beloved world. What else can we do but open ourselves up to the seed implanted,
to the original goodness of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and participate—body and soul—in the sharing of that goodness?

Let us pray: God our Creator, Counselor and Comforter, we bless you for the love you have poured into our lives. So fill us with your mercies that we cannot do otherwise but let love overflow through our words and actions, until we embody your blessing of love for all the world. Amen.

[1] Antonia Blumberg, “What This 94-Year-Old Can Teach The World About Bucket Lists”, Huffington Post.

[2] Emily R. West, “Local woman contemplates next step after completing bucket list”, Franklin Home Page.

[3] Haruko Nawata Ward, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word commentary, Year B, vol 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 18.

[4] Described at oChristian.com.

[5] Seasons of the Spirit curriculum, Adult Pentecost 1 2015, (Wood Lake Publishing Inc,, 2014), 82.

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