You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
— Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel 20:25-28
How many of you played soccer when you were growing up? Depending on where you’re from in the world, you may have called it football. When I was nine, my family and I moved to Central New York. All of my new friends were playing soccer, and so, at the beginning of the new school year, I signed up for a team. I remember being so excited when I received my team t-shirt, and Mom and I went shopping for special soccer sneakers. No cleats at that age, but brand new, pristinely white sneakers with a fancy neon stripe up the side.
I loved those sneakers. Thought they looked fast, even just sitting there in the box. I couldn’t wait for the first practice. And it was fun learning the rules of the game, taking turns kicking the ball into the big net, talking with my friends as we stood out in the field.
Then the first real game day arrived. It was a rainy Saturday morning. (My Mom swears it always rained on soccer match days.) We arrived at the field to see parents already lined up with their folding chairs and umbrellas. I went down the hill to meet up with my teammates. We received a little pep talk from our coach, and then headed out to face our opponents on the wet field.
For the first part of the match, most of the action was on the other side of the field from me. But, then, suddenly, I saw a wild kick that sent the ball hurtling through the air, past me, toward my team’s goal. It came to rest, and, as it had been drilled into me in practice, I took off after it.
But then came to a screeching halt about 10 feet away from the ball. My coach was screaming, “Go get the ball! Go get the ball! What are you waiting for? Go get it!”
You see, that ball was sitting in the middle of a huge, muddy puddle in the grass. I remember looking at my fancy, still white sneakers with their brightly colored stripes. Then looking at the mud. Then my shoes again. All the while, my coach, my teammates, my Mom, are all yelling for me to “Move!!”
And that was the end of my soccer career.
I knew the rules of the game, knew how to play it, knew what was expected of me. I loved the game, thought it was great fun, loved playing with my friends. But I had apparently missed the point about what all that knowledge and practice was all about.
This happens in faith, as well. It is entirely possible to have an impressive, encyclopedic knowledge of scripture, and to love God with your heart, soul, and mind, but still to miss out on the whole putting-it-into-action thing. Frankly, it’s more than just possible. It happens all the time.
That’s exactly why our Pastoral Intern at Plantation UMC, Sherlain Stevens, came up with this three-week sermon series, which my church finished up this past Sunday: Head Heart Hands.
Over the past few weeks in our worship services, we’ve looked at how we’re called to love God with our head, our minds. The first Sunday, we looked at the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”: a tool for exploring scripture through the church’s tradition, through our ability to question and consider and reason, and through our own experience.
Again, it is entirely possible to have a “head faith,” a beautifully intellectual, deeply understood, robustly studied faith, and to put that faith up on a high shelf, just to be admired. Perhaps to occasionally to take it down for polishing to an even higher intellectual shine, but then, place it back in its resting place, and walk away. Like my pristine soccer shoes, not actually used.
Last Sunday, Sherlain talked about the unique “brand” of the Christ-follower: that the way we each live our lives is meant to powerfully demonstrate God’s love. That’s meant to be the brand of the Christian: love!
It is also entirely possible to have a “heart faith,” a faith that enlivens us, gives us joy, that changes us, leads us to be nice people, caring people, respectful people as we walk through our daily lives. And, let’s just say it, in a world that can be as discourteous and ill-mannered as ours, the simple act of just being kind can be surprising, even shocking, to the people we encounter.
A faith of the heart is beautiful, lovely, hopeful. But if that is where it ends, if that is the final way that our faith is expressed, then, like me standing on the edge of that muddy puddle, we’re missing the final point of it all.
As Christ-followers, our faith is meant to be one of the head, the mind. It is meant to be of the heart. And it is meant to be a faith of the hands. It is meant to be a faith that acts. A faith that works.
In the second chapter of James’ letter in the New Testament, we read this: “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.”
“Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” The word we translate there as “dead” in Greek is nekros, which means a corpse, a dead body, something that was living but that is now utterly without life.
Harsh, don’t you think?
Over the past year and change that I’ve served at Plantation UMC, I’ve shared bits of my faith story. How I first came to an intellectual faith in Jesus. How after exploring the Christian faith, I came to believe that it just made sense. Becoming a Christian, for me, was a rational, long-thought-out decision.
And then how one evening, while holding the Communion cup in a worship service, saying over and over again, “This is the blood of Christ, poured out for you,” as people dipped the Communion bread into the juice, it suddenly hit me — powerfully — that Jesus had given his life for them, for me. That this was not just a purely intellectual exercise in faith. This was real, this was life-transforming. To my “head faith,” “heart faith” was added that night.
I firmly believe that in those moments, as I actively chose to invite God into my life, I was saved, rescued, healed, made whole in God’s love. It is sufficient. It is enough.
So, why in the world, then, do we declare that “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”? Why do we declare that faith without works is nekros, something that was living, but is now without life?
Our living, breathing bodies are the perfect object example of why this is true. I’d like you, in just a moment, to take a deep breath, and hold it. Ready?
Okay, deep breath! And hold.
What would happen if you never let that breath out? If you kept on holding it and holding it and holding? Never expelling that breath that fills your lungs? Never releasing, never letting it go?
Okay, please breathe out! What would happen if you never breathed out?
Answer: You’d die!
You’d become nekros.
Now, let’s do the opposite. I just a second you’ll take a deep breath, then let it out and hold. Ready? Deep breath. Now breathe out, letting out all the air in your lungs. And hold.
What would happen if this is where you stayed? Your lungs empty and drained of oxygen. What would happen?
All right, I think the point has been made. Breathe again, please!
In order to not become nekros ourselves,
we need to do both:
and breathing out.
It’s a cycle,
ongoing and life-giving.
Intellectual faith, “head faith,” is the breathing in of faith. As we learn more and more about who God is and who God created us to be, we are breathing in knowledge of God. And that is good.
“Hands faith” is the breathing out of faith. It is taking what we have been given, and actively using it. It is letting loose our faith into the world. Also good!
And where is “heart faith” in this, you might ask? I believe it is right in between the two. It is that place where the breathing in and breathing out meet, in both directions.
Because “heart faith” gives us the compassion and courage we need to take our “head faith” and take it out into our lives. We take what we have learned and use it.
And then “heart faith” is what drives us, encourages us to take our “hands faith” and allow it to inform and deepen our knowledge of God and God’s desire for our world.
Head, heart, hands…
hands, heart, head…
It’s the most perfect virtuous circle possible.
It’s the exact opposite of nekros!
It is the breathing in
and breathing out
of a lived, lively, lovely faith!
So… with that all in mind, what does “hands faith” look like? As we talk about that, I’d like to share a picture with you.
One by one, they passed each pumpkin down the line, until they reached the wagons that would take them over to their final resting place on the pallets.
These pumpkins, they were dirty. They had been taken straight from the fields, loaded on a conveyor belt, and onto the truck. No stop in between for a nice cleaning-off. There was caked on, dried up muck on each. It wasn’t long before all of our hands were grossly dirty. At it was a hot day, so we were sweaty and stinky and dirty.
And it was awesome.
Because people hadn’t come there to unload pumpkins. That alone is not a super inspiring task. No. They were there to help create a place where people from the community could come for fun, to learn that a church campus is a joyful, safe place, where they could meet wonderful people serving them, where they could select a pumpkin for their home that would remind them of that wonderfully welcoming church they had found it.
Last Saturday, we had people in their eighties passing pumpkins with a smile. We had tiny kids running back and forth, all wanting to carry pumpkins that were way too big for their little arms. Teenagers raising their voices in song as they passed pumpkins and gourds down the long row. People who have known each other for years. Complete strangers who now know each other’s faces and names. We didn’t care that we were getting dirty.
We were just having fun serving.
In that moment,
it was one way of being able
to breathe out our faith.
A faith we have studied and learned.
A faith that has given us joy and hope.
A faith that was acting itself out
through dirty hands.
I want this to be an encouragement — and a challenge — to you. Be on the lookout for ways to live out your faith in your everyday life. Don’t stop! Run full tilt into this messy, muddy, dirty world.
After all, that’s exactly what our Savior did! In our scripture reading today, Jesus told his followers this: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The Son of Man, Jesus, came not to be served, but to serve. The word we translate here as serve is diákonos in Greek, from two words: diá, “thoroughly” and konis, “dust”. It means to raise up dust off the ground by your movements. It means to get dirty.
Jesus. The Son of God. Who left behind the pristine perfection of heaven to come down to our world, in our dirt and mud and confusion. Who touched the lepers. Who invited the outcast. Who grieved with the grieving, sat with the widow, healed the broken. Who reached down to drag his hand through the dirt, and thereby saved a guilty woman from death. Who died our death on the cross, broken and scarred and bloodied and dirty. And who, by his actions, saved us all.
And we are called to live our lives as the reflected image of Christ in our world. Reaching out to the lost and hurting. Supporting the grieving, holding the hand of the sick, lovingly cradling the broken. We are called to step right into the muck and mire of our world, to be honest and open about the messiness of our own lives, and to offer hope and healing by sitting into the dirt of the lives of people around us.
Friends, don’t stand on the sidelines.
Boldly dive in to the mud.
Reach out and get your hands dirty.
And, I promise, Jesus will meet you there,
his dirty hands working right alongside yours.