SJF • Proper 19b • Tobias S Haller BSGMost of us have probably heard, or perhaps even used, the expression, “He wears his heart on his sleeve.” This describes someone who is transparent in his emotions — there is no doubt about how he feels, or what he thinks. Sometimes people aren’t aware of how much they reveal through their body language or facial expression — the unspoken outward eloquence that lets everyone around them know how they feel inside.
Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead... Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
Other people, on the contrary, are adept at concealing their true feelings, either by nature, as a part of their personality, or by intent. One of my seminary professors — now a bishop — was skilled at preserving this kind of inscrutable expression. It was a little frustrating sometimes for me to converse in tutorial meetings with him, because it was impossible to tell from his facial expression or body language what his inner reaction was to anything I said. Only when he spoke was his judgment on my paper or my assignment made clear. He preserved this poker face as a way of getting me to articulate what I really felt or thought, quite apart from his opinions one way or the other — remaining seemingly impartial to allow me either to dig myself deeper into a hole of error, or mount up on eagle’s wings — and only at the end would I know how well or poorly I had done in my presentation.
Sometimes people will preserve a“great stone face” in order to let others know that they can’t get to them. They will maintain a stiff upper lip, or a brow of adamant, enduring insults without showing any reaction at all. We have an example of this in our passage from Isaiah this morning — the Prophet suffers disgraceful insults, but sets his face like flint. And he does this because of his faith in God, his trust that God is on his side and will vindicate him and not allow him to be put to shame for ever. Boldly he says, “Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me!” — thus strong is his faith, which is not shown by making faces, but by setting his jaw, remaining steady and immovable.
The irony is that this action reveals faith rather than concealing it. Isaiah’s face, set like flint, in its very immobility and endurance — keeping his face steady and not wincing at the insults of those who pull at his beard — in not showing pain he shows his faith.
Faith is shown in many ways — primarily, as James writes in the epistle, through the good works to which it gives rise. James does not suggest there is any conflict here between faith and works — rather they go together as naturally as melody and rhythm combine to create a song. “Faith without works is dead,” James assures us, and by this I suggest he means that it isn’t really faith if it doesn’t produce positive and visible actions. If what I think is my faith gives rise to no real work, it may simply be a pious feeling — a sentimental impulse rather than a commitment, rather like the difference between feeling homesick and actually returning home! For the proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes; or as our Lord would say, “A tree is known by its fruit.” So James and Jesus both attest to this truth: if you say you have faith, let your faith be shown by what you do to fulfill “the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
A true and lively faith will show itself not simply in a our demeanor — how we appear, how we seem to be — but in our actions. And we are warned in our reading today about judging others simply on the basis of their appearance — not to be overly partial to a person who shows up dressed in fine clothes, while turning away or turning aside the poor person who is not so well dressed. Though the outer appearance is important, it is not simply the appearance of clothing, which one can put on or take off, but rather being clothed with the good works that arise from a true faith, a heart of faith worn on the sleeve — whether that sleeve be silk or denim. It is not fabric, but faith, that is the concern — and the faithful man in poor clothing is worth a dozen finely dressed but spiritually empty peacocks. It is very easy, after all, to put abig silver cross around your neck, to dress up like a Christian with a load of Christian bling — but that’s not what Jesus meant when he said, Take up your cross and follow me!
Our gospel passage today shows us Jesus himself submitting to this rule of not simply relying on appearance — however wonderful — but getting into action. What has immediately preceded the event recounted today is his transfiguration on the mountain, where he appeared to Peter and James and John on the mountainside, marvelously transfigured in raiment white and glistering: a preview of the resurrection for these chosen three. You will recall that Peter was so moved by this experience that he wanted to stay on the mountain. But Jesus brings them down, down to the midst of a city in turmoil, and to a clutch of the remaining disciples unable to cast out the evil spirit that has beset a child. And what does Jesus say to them? What does he call them? “You faithless generation.” The point is that they cannot do the work because they do not have the faith. “All things can be done,” Jesus assures them, “for the one who believes.” (Remember, Jesus had said that even a mustard seed of faith could move mountains!) But faith is needed before the work can be done — the inner strength must be there before the outward act can show what was within; there has to be gas in the tank in order for the engine to run; the seed precedes the tree.
The problem is, for whatever reason, even though they have seen Jesus perform many miracles, even though they have received his assurance that they too will do such things in his name, even though he has explicitly commissioned them to do such things as casting out demons — still, when he is away from then even for an afternoon, the disciples begin to have doubts, they begin to lose their faith, and so can no longer do the very works they have been given to do. Without faith, they can do nothing.
And are we any better? Do we not also sometimes lose our confidence? Do we not sometimes dress up as Christians even though our hearts aren’t in it? Do we not sometimes even let our doubts show? Do we not sometimes feel as if our Lord has gone off and left us on our own, leaving us with problems that make us feel helpless, not knowing what to do? Let’s be honest, folks — haven’t you felt that way sometimes?
And yet although Jesus may give us a stern look when we confess this fact, he will also smile upon us when we say that prayer that a father said so long ago, a father who turned to him for help to save his child when the disciples could do nothing. “I believe; help my unbelief!” For even this cry of need is in itself an act of faith — for who cries for help to one who can not give it? And by crying out to God even in our darkest moments, even in our weakest moments, we are placing the heart of our faith upon our sleeves — the heart of the faith which puts its trust in God, a faith which places its dearest needs in the hands of God who alone can deliver and save. This is true repentance, my friends — not just confessing our weakness, but turning to our Lord and God and calling for help.
We know that God will help us when we call out: that is the substance of our faith. We know that if he rebukes us with a harsh countenance from time to time, that as we confess our weakness so too his regard toward us will soften to a smile, and he will grant our request according to our need.
But remember — he demands the same of us. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” We are called, all of us, to be like God, who shows no partiality, called to fulfill that royal law, to love our neighbors as ourselves — not judging by mere outward appearances, not showing partiality, not refusing the cry of the poor and weak when they call out to us no less than we ourselves cry out to God — but bearing the fruit of good works nourished by a lively faith.
Help then, O Lord, our unbelief;
and may our faith abound,
to call on you when you are near
and seek where you are found;
that, when our life of faith is done,
in realms of clearer light
we may behold you as you are,
with full and endless sight.
(Henry Alford, Hymn 209)