Sermon by Fr Brian on Sunday, September 9, 2018
There was a time almost 500 years ago when the church was bitterly divided, right down the middle. On the one hand, the Catholic Church held firm: there could be no salvation without the forgiveness of sin. Such forgiveness was entrusted to St Peter by Jesus himself, and passed on to the church, from generation to generation, in an unbroken line of succession to the Pope in Rome himself. His hands held the keys to the gates of heaven. Through the sacraments of the church, bishops and clergy opened those gates for the faithful. The only way to salvation led through the sacraments of the church.
But corruption was rampant, and the church was in the eyes of some no longer a worthy custodian of God’s mercy. For protestant reformers, Martin Luther chief among them, such works of the church had become bankrupt. In 1554 Philip Melanchthon, the movement’s foremost theologian, wrote, “sola gratia justificamus et sola fide justificamur“(“only by grace do we justify and only by faith are we justified”). Sola fide, “by faith alone”, became one of the rallying cries of those who sought the end of an oppressive regime and the misappropriation of God’s divine right to bestow grace freely on all who hold to true faith in Jesus Christ.
To many this sounds like the tune to which so many angels dance on the head of a pin. What matters more: faith that inspires works, or works that give evidence to faith? Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Does anyone even care? What does salvation even mean?
Today we have a different enemy: complacency. Does faith matter in Carleton Place in the year 2018? Would anyone pick up a pamphlet? Like a Facebook post or retweet a Tweet?
In this letter of James, the church seems to be going in a direction that could be its ultimate end. Somehow favoritism and a preference for those who look like the “right” kind of people had crept into the culture and practice of the church. And James seems to think it will eat up them up from the inside out.
Whether its complacency or favoritism or theological warfare, from time to time, the church needs to remember who we are, why we’re here, and what God’s grace really looks like. We need to remember what it means to be saved by grace. What it looks like, what it sounds like, smells like and tastes like. We need to touch and be touched by the grace of God. Because without that, we are nothing. We have nowhere to go and nothing to discuss.
I think most of us long for a faith that matters. Fighting about theology doesn’t make faith matter. Attracting the right people doesn’t make faith matter.
Growing up, there was a man at our church named Bob. Bob was probably developmentally delayed, but it was hard to tell, because Bob lived on the streets and he lived rough. Bob was addicted to alcohol and drugs, but his main addiction was his violent lifestyle. Bob would show up at church on Sundays just as the service was ending and wait in the lounge. Back then, that was the smoking room, and he would light up if he had any, or bum one if he didn’t. He’d wait for one of the parishioners who was an emergency room doctor. Ray would check him over, patch him up, and sometimes send him to emergency to get something really serious looked at. Bob was a bit scary, but he was part of the fabric of that church.
One summer a number of years later, I had just finished University and was out having drinks with friends. We were all going separate ways, and this was a goodbye of sorts. I was off to Huron College in the fall. We were walking downtown, and this guy across the street looked at me and waved. It was Bob. I went over to see him, surprised he recognized me.
He asked for a smoke. Since my late teens, that was always one of the things we shared. I had just quit – again – I told him so. He took a few minutes to process and asked a couple of times just to be sure I wasn’t holding out on him. It had been years since I’d seen him, so I asked where he’d been. I was hard to make out what he was saying, as he was pretty high, but it sounded like he’s been in Montreal, and in jail a couple of times. My friends looked on from across the street. I realized in that moment that this very well could be the last time I’d ever see Bob, and it struck me that in all the goodbyes to friends and the people at church, this one mattered too. I did my best to explain to him that I was leaving Ottawa for the next three years, and when I came back, I probably wouldn’t see him at church very often. I’d be going to another church.
Bob looked at me through his self-induced haze and reached out and hugged me. I hugged him back. He told me to say hi to my mom and my sister, and as I went back over to my friends, I could smell smoke and body odour clinging to my shirt. But the odour was incense of a sort. In that moment, I felt the loss of someone I’d known most of my life, from childhood through my adolescence and into the first years of adulthood. But I also felt like I’d found something. I knew that my life had touched another life. In that moment, I knew grace was present. The separation that usually keeps us apart was almost gone. The distance between me and people who are not like me, between my self and God’s desire that we all be one, was smaller. In that moment, and in other moments since, I have known somehow that love, and being loved as a precious child, is possible and real.
My prayer is that we all have at least one experience like that and those experiences drive us when it comes to practicing our faith. Like the young girl in Tyre who woke up and found herself free from the confusion and darkness. Or like her mother who for the first time in forever felt heard and believed, something she had to struggle and fight for. Or the man who was separated from everyone and everything because sounds couldn’t get in or get out properly. And one day, the barriers disappeared, and he was opened.
When we are open, when God’s grace flows, our faith is real. Our faith has consequence. Faith without expression in real and tangible ways is just an idea. It doesn’t go anywhere. It ends in a puff of logic. But faith that grows a pair of legs and moves us somewhere reflects the life of Jesus and his message of grace and salvation for all.
So I’ll ask the same question this week I asked last week: What does in mean to be a Christian community in Carleton Place in 2018? What does a faith that is alive and meaningful look like here and now? How will we harness our experiences of unity, love and grace and pay it forward? How will we, by our love, show this town we are Christians, and that we’re not done yet?