Fleshing Out Our Faith

Delivered November 10, 2002 by Alan Tibbels,
Co-Executive Director of Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, Baltimore

Sermon Text:
James 2:14-19
and Isaiah 58:6-12
James 2:14-19: 14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith
but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without
clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep
warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17
In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
19 Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.
Isaiah 58:6-12: 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed
free and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor
wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away
from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like
the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call,
and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs
of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become
like the noonday. 11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your
needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a
well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. 12 Your people
will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be
called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Good morning. I bring you greetings from New Psalm Community Church in Sandtown, the Sandtown community, that I know a lot of people here have been to, which is great and I spoke at the 8:15 service and then at the 10:00 service and I think the hope of everybody in this room is that the sermon gets better as it goes along. So we will see what happens. One good thing is my wife says I always speak too long and there is the big red numbers on that clock back there. They told me to be finished by 1:30 and I am going to make sure that I do that.

You know one great thing, everybody hears about Habitat for Humanity. It’s all over the world. They have done over 125,000 houses worldwide since 1976 and you know what that is, you know black and white, affluent and poor, every ethnic group, every religious group, political spectrum, you know Newt Gingrich had a habitat with ___ and Jimmy Carter, you know the main habitat advocate, won a Nobel. Everyone loves doing that and that is such a great picture of the flushing out of our faith, which is sort of what the name of the sermon is for today. You know the gospel is really shown as a lot of different people coming together working toward what we saw earlier in the song. I like the line, “Dancers who dance upon injustice.” There is injustice, there is oppression, and there is racism. It doesn’t need to be there. Its not what God wants and that’s exactly what you are doing whenever you do anything like that. Folks who work in habitat are dancing upon injustice. Folks who love their neighbor in any way whatsoever, who love those who are hurting or marginalized or oppressed are doing that very thing.

I want to start out with three stories. The first story is this. In Sandtown, which is about 20 minutes from here, that’s where we have been working for about 15 years, a very hurting neighborhood, medium income less than $10,000 a year and about 1,000 vacant houses. So that’s pretty bad. I have about a four block commute each day, so I go down the street and three blocks over and so its not too bad, you know. But on Friday I was on my way home and I was really tired, weary, weak and worn. I have been there for 15 years and its hard. There is never enough money and a lot of people with a lot of problems. Everything is difficult. So I am on my way home thinking that, you know, poor me. I get about a block towards home and its 6:00 p.m. and I see one of our habitat homeowners Levi, some people in this room may even know him. He’s a great guy. He has worked hard and has had a pretty hard life. He just got married recently, his second marriage. He just go in to a habitat house recently. He is really excited about that. Every time I see him, he is really encouraging. I said, “How you doing?” He said, “Great, how are you doing?” I want to get home because I am tired. But then he goes in to this sort of lamenting of what’s going on in his life right now. You know his stepdaughter who is 16, anyone that’s a parent, and there is a lot of 16’s in here. You guys are all good, but some 16’s can really be rough, you know. So anyway, he is having a hard time. She does not respect him. She is not respecting her mom. He doesn’t know what to do about this and it makes it really hard for him to be in his house right now. So the great joy that he has realized recently, which is so precarious to begin with in hard places like Sandtown is now really being sorely tested. And I left thinking I don’t know what to say to him because that’s really hard and you know I wonder why do things like this happen when someone who is realizing joy even though fragile and even though precarious, like “Why God do these things keep on happening and there is so much pain in the world?” It made me sad.

The second story. I was in New York a couple of weeks ago seeing our daughter who graduated in her third year at Columbia Grad School, you know theater, and the funny part about that is you know she is this artist who will never compromise her artistic integrity, which means she will never make any money, so I am not very excited about that, but I am excited that she loves her art and she has loved it. Anyway, we go up and we celebrate her 25th birthday and my wife and I and other daughter. We took sort of a granddaughter that we inherited from the neighborhood. We were having a great time. We went to this little restaurant on Amsterdam called The Kitchenette. And we were having a nice time and I was thinking this is great, family together, Jenny is happy, in the midst of a play, here we are in New York and while we were there a gentlemen was hosted in and seated at another table, you know kind of facing us and he was dressed really shabby. You would look and say well chances are he is probably homeless, but he had this look of sadness of his face, he was probably in his 40’s or 50’s, hard to say and he really looked sad. The whole rest of our time there, that was it for me because I see him watching us. Us celebrating as a family with this joy and him with this great look of hardship, loneliness and pain on his face and that was hard and that made me sad.

And the third story is this. When we first moved to Sandtown back in the 80’s, one of the first families we met was a single mom named Miss Hilda, her two sons, Frankie and Rodney. The reason Miss Hilda was a single mom, a widow. Her husband had been murdered just about a year before we came, just a few blocks up. You know her youngest son was probably 10 or 11 at the time, Rodney. Now I loved Rodney immediately. He had a great smile, still a lot of joy in his life, the hardness of the streets had not hit him and we had a great time. We hung out a lot. He really missed his dad. He would say things like, “Man, if my dad was here would I have me some money.” He came to our church, played base a little bit, not very good but and you know he didn’t have money and he didn’t have his dad and he did have a hard life and so he began to drift away from us and I didn’t see him too much. I would see him on the corners now and then. I guess when Rodney was about 15 or 16, I am not sure exactly what, but there was an article in the paper one day, page three of Maryland, which is where articles like this go and it said that two males had been found murdered in the basement of a vacant row house, of which there are so many in our neighborhood, one was an older gentlemen and then was about a 15 year old or 16 year old and that was Rodney. And so, I felt a lot of things. One of the main things was a profound sadness for many reasons, for Rodney, for Rodney’s life, for his family, for his dad that he had lost, but also that I thought that we as a congregation, a small congregation in Sandtown had failed him and so those thoughts of those three stories and all of you have similar stories here and there, but the fact is that life is hard, life has a lot of pain, life has a lot of struggle and it can really make us feel bad and it can really make us feel sad and I wanted to say this, the church is God’s instrument of grace and blessing in the world. Jesus representative on earth and Jesus walking on the earth would have hung out with Rodney. Jesus would have loved him. Jesus would have cried over his death. I believe Jesus did cry over his death. Jesus would be hanging out with the man in New York at the Kitchenette and following him back to his house and you know laying his hands on him and loving him and he would know what to say to Levi in his pain and his hurt over his family situation. And now, Jesus is not walking on the earth, but Jesus has everyone in this room and millions of his children and his representatives all over the earth. Now who is going to love those who are hurting and marginalized and really feeling crushed. It’s going to be the church. It’s going to be us as his representatives.

You know, that is what Isaiah 58 is all about. And we are going to refer to Isaiah 58 for a few minutes, but Isaiah 58 is a great chapter, which really has three quick sections. And the first section is that the Israelites are fasting and they are thinking that this is really showing a lot of measure of merit. Rather than a sign of sorrow, which fasting represented in the Old Testament, instead the Israelites are seeing this as some great thing, but what God is saying is, you know through his prophet Isaiah is that this is the improper way of fasting. And you know what the difference is between feeling bad about things that are happening like those three stories that I just told you, what Isaiah says is, “Yeah, that’s okay to feel bad, but do something about it. Do something about it.” And so we don’t have to sit and be idle, but rather we can do something about the pain we see all around us. If you have your Bible and you want to look at a few of the verses. One of the things that I wanted to refer to is Chapter 1, Verse 2 and the unfortunate thing is like, here’s the Israelites doing this fasting and thinking that they are really God’s favorite people and then these verses point out while they are doing that, why they are being externally religious, okay. I go to church every Sunday. I take care of my family. I pay my taxes and don’t cheat on my income taxes and don’t go more than nine miles over the speed limit, because you don’t get a ticket unless you hit ten, but you know like that is religious external piety and you know, while they are doing that, while they are fasting and being good in their mind, workers are being exploited according to Isaiah. Some of the very people that are fasting are exploiting their workers. And so, you know what’s really scary that in the meantime here they are thinking they are God’s favorite people. Well you know that is scary about the white church in America today. All of us I think really have to question, you know generically, the whole church, there is so much pain and struggle and increasing disparity throughout the United States and yet in general as the church putting us all in that boat together with all of our other brothers and sisters, often we feel like we are God’s favorite people when there is so much pain going on right underneath us. So that is very scary looking at the first five verses of Isaiah, where the people are fasting, thinking they have favor and you know what God says at the end of that through Isaiah, through the end of those verses, “That’s not the kind of fasting that I have chosen.” Okay, so what is the right thing? What is the kind of fasting that he has chosen? I want to read two verses here for you, Verses 6 and 7.

“Is not this the kind of fasting that I have chosen to lose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke. Is it not to share your food with the hungry and deprive the poor wandered with shelter, when you see the naked to clothe him and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.”

The idea is this and there is two kinds of sort of help there. You know one kind of help is more systemic. Okay, where the oppressed are really helped because justice is increasingly brought to bear, through the actions of society and through the court system. And the second is relief. Sharing your food with the hungry. Sharing clothes for the naked. You know providing shelter for the wandered. In our case, doing shelter now is more systemic because it is providing homeownership. It’s providing an equity base for people to be able to enter in to the main stream and share in the wealth of the society. And so, when you work on a house then you are actually working toward that first way of justice and relief of pain of the oppressed. And you know, here’s a commentator that I wanted to refer to. Leopold says this, “Social suffering wherever it is found is to be relieved as much as lies in our power.” Now how much lies in our power to relieve suffering found around us? Well, a lot of people throw up their hands when they look at inner city Americans and they say the problem is too great. We can’t do anything, but yeah, we actually can. We have unprecedented wealth and blessing. Not only as Americans in general, but especially as the church in America and there is so much that we can do. And I really encourage Central because you do so much of that and that really is a light to so many other churches and a light to so many other people. You guys are known pretty widely for that very fact, doing house after house. People like Steve Simms who was here this morning, that has done legal for us. Scott Cory and Dick Wallace and so many other folks who are in this room. And you know that is a great thing. That is dancing upon injustice and that is true fasting. The kind that Isaiah is referring to here in Verses 6 and 7.

Now who was more oppressed in Israel, in ancient Israel? Perhaps in the widow and the fatherless. Isaiah, Chapter 1, Verse 17 says, “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” In ancient Israel, the women had very few rights. If you were a widow, you were really in trouble unless somebody decided to take care of you. If you are the fatherless, you are really in trouble. You know, you saw reports especially a year ago about the women in Afghanistan and there is a lot of places in the world where women do not have rights and so the widow in ancient Israel was in terrible shape. Well you know the widows today, the single moms and the actual widows like Miss Hilda in inner city American, are in terrible economic shape and it’s always precarious for them and you know true fasting involves being involved as a Christian in helping to relieve their plight. In sharing your resources with those who really have need and don’t have it and there is the NIV study Bible there is a note that is referred to that I want to make sure that I mention. And it calls the things that we do, like sharing your food, building your house, sharing clothing, “the outward evidence of genuine righteousness.” Now in other words, you are not just trying to do things that are good because you are trying to feel good about yourself or you are trying to impress God and make him happy with you in favor with God, but God’s love in the Christian individually is so great that it overflows and then where should it overflow? It should overflow to meeting the needs of your neighbor and that is corporately the same way. The church is so blessed and so filled with blessings that it should overflow out in to blessing to the world and that is in fact what happens and that’s what needs to increasingly happen. We should always be thinking about that as a church, both individually and corporately.

And you know this is interesting. Job 31:17-22. I think Job is saying there. “If I do not care for the poor and widow, I will feed, cloth, fight for justice” whatever he said, “then let my arm fall from my shoulder.” Now I don’t know that I would pray that for myself, but you know Job is saying that’s how important that is. Throughout the Old Testament Israel is in trouble for that very thing. There is injustice in the courts. The widows and fatherless are treated horrible. There is a widening disparity between the rich and the poor and unfortunately that sounds too much like our society nowadays.

James 1:22. It says, “When you hear what scripture says, do what it says.” So I can feel as bad as I want about those individuals that I talked about in the first three stories, but its not going to do anybody any good and its not going to be true fasting as we hear about here in Isaiah 58, Verse 6 and 7, unless I actually do something about it. Unless I put feet to the gospel and flush that out. And you know, Matthew 7:12 is a wonderful verse. Now why is that a wonderful verse? Because is says basically, like what do you want in your life? Okay, you want to have your needs met. You want a decent job. You want decent shelter. You know you want enough money to get by. You want enough food to eat. You want to be loved and taken care of. “Is that what you wanted” it says. It says, “Then do that for others.” Whatever you want, that’s what you do for others. And that sums up the whole law. That is the whole thing. That is so amazing to me. That’s how God has treated us. That’s what God has done for us. Now we in turn are his representatives in doing that for every hurting, marginalized person, the weakest among us, to each other certainly and then to all the hurting throughout the world, through all society.

Now what happens as a result of that? Verses 8 and 9 say this. “If we do this, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, bring justice, then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear, then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your real guard. Then you will call and the Lord will answer. You will cry for help and you will say, Here am I.” And then a little further on, “Your light will rise in the darkness. Your night will become like the noonday.” And you know I saw a phrase that said, “From gloom to noonday. From gloom to noon day.” If you are doing the improper way of fasting and you’re doing the external pietism, you are still going to be in gloom and you are not going to be in favor with God. The right kind of fast is going to lean to noonday.

When I left this morning to come speak at the first service, when I got out it was just starting to rain a little bit, it was overcast and a little chilly. And then all of a sudden, as I am getting in the van the light from the sun breaks through and you know the morning light is beautiful and that reminded me of that, from gloom to noon day and we want to have that kind of thing, noon day and then your light will break forth, you will be healed. You will call on the Lord and he will answer. So if we do what God has called us to do and walk in the works, which he in fact has created, according to Ephesians, we don’t even have to make up those works, they are already created for the Christian to walk in, then those will be the results.

Matthew 25. We are all familiar with that. You know there is going to be a point at which Jesus welcomes us in to eternity. He is going to say, “Because you did these things for me, you fed me, you clothed me and you housed me.” And we are going to say, “What, when did we do any of that for you Lord?” And he is going to say, “When you did any of that for the least of these, then you did it for me.” Are we doing these great things, small acts but great things, a loving people, a hurting people, people that are outside of often times even the vision for America, are we loving folks so much that one day Jesus is going say to us, “Remember you did that. You were actually doing that to me. You were actually doing that for me.”

Here’s Leopold once more commentats. “To expect God to hear our cries when we will not let the cries of the poor reach our heart, is quite unreasonable.” But then listen to the flip side of that. “How richly the Lord will bless those who engage in the loving service of their fellow men.” Now we know that. If you, whenever you do ministry, whenever you love others, you are going to reap so much blessing as a result. I have been married to Susan for a long time. She had this little plaque hanging up in the bathroom. You know you always read in there and so… And it said that very thing. It said, “Those who bring light to the lives of others, can not help but keep it from themselves.” When you bring light to the lives of others, you are going to reap far more blessings from God and from the folks that you bring light to. And it is very worth doing for so many reasons. And again, I want to close by saying thank you for all you do one behalf of so many hurting throughout the world. Right here in your community, in our neighborhood in Sandtown, everything I ever read that comes from Central, always talks about the great works that you are doing and I would encourage you to keep on doing that, to keep doing the things that loosen the chains of injustice, untie the cords of the yokes, set the oppressed free and break every yoke and I encourage you to continue on and I received a blessing that God has for you as a result. And let’s close this time in prayer.

Lord, you are wonderful. You are so wonderful to us that we don’t even realize how much, how utterly we are blessed, beyond what we could imagine. Lord, help us to take that overflowing of your love and blessing in our lives and be in turn a blessing to the world, to those around us, to those who are a little bit a distance from us, to those who are far from us. Help us to just be an incredible blessing to the world and help us to see our gloom turn to noonday because of the true fasting that we would do, putting feet to faith and doing what you want us to do. In Jesus name, Amen.