In a world of madness, offer sanity.
In a world of anger, offer peace.
In a world of confusion, offer comfort.
In a world of darkness, offer light.
In a world of despair, offer hope.
In a world of apathy, offer action.
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.
Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the top of his sack. Put my cup, the silver cup, in the top of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him. As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away with their donkeys. When they had gone only a short distance from the city, Joseph said to his steward, “Go, follow after the men; and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you returned evil for good? Why have you stolen my silver cup? Is it not from this that my lord drinks? Does he not indeed use it for divination? You have done wrong in doing this.’”
When I stood in front of the Pharaoh to interpret his dream, I did not hesitate. When I gave him advice about how to save his kingdom, I did not hesitate. When people come to me from distant lands to ask for favors, or when I need to make decisions with far-reaching consequences, I do not hesitate. So why am I hesitating now? Why am I so unsure about what I need to do with my brothers? Should I reveal myself to them? Should I punish them for what they have done? I wish I knew their hearts. They are strangers to me after so many years, after such betrayal. And yet, I love them. They are my blood, the sons of my beloved father. So, I hesitate. I do not yet know enough to make such an important decision, and I have learned enough wisdom in my years to know when to wait. I need to test them, just a little more. I need to be sure…
“During his service in the Egyptian court narrated in Genesis, Joseph possesses a personal silver cup that he claims to use for divination, particularly in forecasting judgment on evildoers… In Genesis 37-50, Joseph typically receives wisdom from more direct contact with God, mediated sometimes through dreams, but not through divinatory objects.” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2 (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2007, 144.)
* New Revised Standard Version Bible, © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
When Joseph came home, they gave him the gifts they had brought him, then bowed low to the ground before him. After greeting them, he asked, “How is your father, the old man you spoke about? Is he still alive?” They replied, “Yes, our father, your servant, is alive and well.” And they bowed low again. Then Joseph looked at his brother Benjamin, the son of his own mother. “Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?” Joseph asked. “May God be gracious to you, my son.” Then Joseph hurried from the room because he was overcome with emotion for his brother. He went into his private room, where he broke down and wept. After washing his face, he came back out, keeping himself under control. Then he ordered, “Bring out the food!” The waiters served Joseph at his own table, and his brothers were served at a separate table. The Egyptians who ate with Joseph sat at their own table, because Egyptians despise Hebrews and refuse to eat with them. Joseph told each of his brothers where to sit, and to their amazement, he seated them according to age, from oldest to youngest. And Joseph filled their plates with food from his own table, giving Benjamin five times as much as he gave the others. So they feasted and drank freely with him.
I consider myself a man of great control. After everything I have endured and conquered, that I should find myself weeping like a small child, unable to even look my brothers in the eye. I know that I should hate them. But they are still my brothers. And when I look at young Benjamin, all I can see is my mother’s face. He is a beautiful boy. Oh Lord, was I ever that young and innocent? And my father lives and is well. I never thought that this could be possible. But now, what am I to do next? They are here, within my power, and entirely dependent upon my goodwill. What will I do? Even I am not sure at this moment. It’s time. I need to pull myself together, wash my face, and walk back in to play the gracious host. I will see what they have to say, and observe them closely. Then I will know if I am to be a brother to them or an executioner. They were, after all, both to me.
* Holy Bible, New Living Translation, © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation.
And their father Israel said unto them, If it be so now, do this: take of the choice fruits of the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spicery and myrrh, nuts, and almonds; and take double money in your hand; and the money that was returned in the mouth of your sacks carry again in your hand; peradventure it was an oversight: take also your brother, and arise, go again unto the man: and God Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he may release unto you your other brother and Benjamin. And if I be bereaved of my children, I am bereaved. And the men took that present, and they took double money in their hand, and Benjamin; and rose up, and went down to Egypt, and stood before Joseph.
And when Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to the steward of his house, Bring the men into the house, and slay, and make ready; for the men shall dine with me at noon. And the man did as Joseph bade; and the man brought the men to Joseph’s house. And the men were afraid, because they were brought to Joseph’s house; and they said, Because of the money that was returned in our sacks at the first time are we brought in; that he may seek occasion against us, and fall upon us, and take us for bondmen, and our donkeys. And they came near to the steward of Joseph’s house, and they spake unto him at the door of the house, and said, Oh, my lord, we came indeed down at the first time to buy food: and it came to pass, when we came to the lodging-place, that we opened our sacks, and, behold, every man’s money was in the mouth of his sack, our money in full weight: and we have brought it again in our hand. And other money have we brought down in our hand to buy food: we know not who put our money in our sacks. And he said, Peace be to you, fear not: your God, and the God of your father, hath given you treasure in your sacks: I had your money. And he brought Simeon out unto them. And the man brought the men into Joseph’s house, and gave them water, and they washed their feet; and he gave their donkeys provender. And they made ready the present against Joseph’s coming at noon: for they heard that they should eat bread there.
I was so excited when my brothers came back from Egypt, even if they looked very stressed and tired. But instead of greeting me like they normally do after a long journey, they went right in to talk with our father. They were talking in such low voices, I couldn’t hear a word they were saying, but it sounded very serious. For the next few weeks, we had food, and I was happy. But no one else seemed to be! It was as if the food wasn’t satisfying them. They all looked so worried, but no one would tell me what was wrong. It is so annoying when they treat me like a little kid! But finally this morning Father told me that I’m going to get to travel with them to Egypt. Hurrah! I’ll get to see my brother Simeon again — he’s been busy doing something in Egypt while we’ve been home, but no one will tell me what it is. I’ve never been outside of Canaan, because Father doesn’t like me to leave his sight. I’m so excited, I can barely stand it! I’m off on my first adventure!
* American Standard Version (ASV), Public Domain
Now the famine was severe in the land. And when they had eaten up the grain that they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, “Go again, buy us a little more food.” But Judah said to him, “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food; but if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us, ‘You shall not see my face, unless your brother is with you.’” Israel said, “Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the man that you had another brother?” They replied, “The man questioned us carefully about ourselves and our kindred, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Have you another brother?’ What we told him was in answer to these questions. Could we in any way know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?” Then Judah said to his father Israel, “Send the boy with me, and let us be on our way, so that we may live and not die—you and we and also our little ones. I myself will be surety for him; you can hold me accountable for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. If we had not delayed, we would now have returned twice.”
This is a choice a parent should never have to make. If I do not send Benjamin with his brothers, we will be given no grain. And Simeon and whatever sons I do send will probably be killed as spies. But if I do send Benjamin, what assurances do I have that I will ever see his face again? None! When I lost Joseph, I thought I would die. And I still miss him every day of my life. But when Rachel, after all these years, was able to have another child, my heart was made happy again. How could this be happening? If I do not send Benjamin, surely we will all starve to death. This overseer my boys met in Egypt must be a hard man indeed to force an old father to make such a choice. Because I know that if I do not send Benjamin, he will die anyway. With no food, there is no hope. All my children, along with their wives and children, will die. And so I know the choice I must make. God help me.
* New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them. They said, “The man who is lord over the land spoke harshly to us and treated us as though we were spying on the land. But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we are not spies. We were twelve brothers, sons of one father. One is no more, and the youngest is now with our father in Canaan.’
“Then the man who is lord over the land said to us, ‘This is how I will know whether you are honest men: Leave one of your brothers here with me, and take food for your starving households and go. But bring your youngest brother to me so I will know that you are not spies but honest men. Then I will give your brother back to you, and you can trade in the land.’” As they were emptying their sacks, there in each man’s sack was his pouch of silver! When they and their father saw the money pouches, they were frightened. Their father Jacob said to them, “You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!”
Then Reuben said to his father, “You may put both of my sons to death if I do not bring him back to you. Entrust him to my care, and I will bring him back.” But Jacob said, “My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow.”
My brothers have left for Canaan, and Simeon sits waiting in a prison cell. After all this time, I’m just not sure how I feel about what has happened. I remember having those dreams as a teenager, dreams of power and influence, and I remember how I felt knowing that my brothers would bow down before me. All through the years in the prison, I remembered that feeling, and wished that it could come true. What did I want? Revenge? Reconciliation? When suddenly the dreams were fulfilled, and my brothers lay on the floor in front of me, it was almost overwhelming. I am a man of great power with responsibility for the greatest land in the world. And yet… seeing those faces after so long… I wanted to weep. If I had told them that I was their little brother Joseph, they would undoubtedly have rejoiced. But would they have been happy to see me, the boy they once so hated? Or would they have been happy to see someone in power who they could influence? I have to be sure of their motives before I reveal myself to them. How could I blindly trust my brothers when they have injured me so greatly? How can I forgive them for what they have done?
At this point in the story, things are not looking well for Simeon. But never fear. “Exodus 6:15 provides a list of the offspring of Simeon, while the census accounts in Numbers list the clans and their total size for the wilderness period (1:22-23; 26:12). Simeon is also named as one of the six tribes who are to stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people once they enter the promised land (Deuteronomy 27:12; Joshua 8:33).”
The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 5 (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2009, 258.)
* Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.