“When Necessary, Use Words”

April 28, 2013


James 2:14-17

Acts 14:8-18


“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Those words are usually attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who is getting some extra attention lately as the namesake of the new pope.

It’s a slogan that falls comfortably on the ears of many in the United Church of Christ. After all, actions speak louder than words, right?

Christians have affirmed this since the time of earliest followers of the risen Christ. The author of the letter of James says it as vividly and directly as possible: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says to that person, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself—if it has no works—is dead.” A living faith will clothe the naked and feed the hungry and through those actions the gospel will be preached.

With the rest of mainstream Protestantism, we affirm that we find salvation, the wholeness that makes life worth living, by the grace of God, not by what we do. And yet, our Congregational tradition within the United Church of Christ often favors action over words.

Perhaps this is because a wariness of formulations of faith is one of our most distinctive features. No creed is binding upon the members of this church. This is not because creeds do not matter, but because sincerity of conviction requires that we all have the full opportunity for intellectual freedom and personal experience. We’re not going to limit ourselves or our children to a museum faith. We avoid dogmatic proclamations. We are people who cherish the freedom to think out and work out what is always a growing, changing faith. As a result, Congregationalism naturally attracts men and women of genuine conviction and of gracious respect for each other’s sincerity.

Yes, there is a kind of “easy Congregationalism” that always tempts individuals and congregations. It suggests that since we don’t have creeds, what we believe doesn’t matter and you can pretty much think as you please as long as you act in the right way. There’s some validity in that, but it misses the richness that our tradition offers to us as individuals and as a congregation.

We have chosen an expression of the Christian faith that calls us into action. You know that being a member of this congregation is not a spectator sport. How we act says much about the God whom we seek to follow. We join in the struggle for freedom, advocate for peace, and seek justice because we believe these are the tasks to which God calls us. Often enough Congregationalists have ended up in jail for practicing this kind of faith.

We deliver a spiritual message in physical ways.

All of this grows out of our theological understanding of the incarnation. We claim that God is most fully revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. To show love, God took on flesh and blood, became incarnate in one person. God shared our lot: hurting as we hurt, laughing as we laugh. It’s incredible—and every time I say it I think: “How can that be?”—but it’s what we believe.

Our approach to mission has a similar “incarnational” aspect. We don’t throw pamphlets at people. We don’t bombard them with words.

Love shows itself in human action—just as God was revealed in the life of the very human Jesus.

Since we are people with bodies instead of pure spirits, we need food and water, medicine and care. We need shelter and community. We need simple human kindness. What we believe leads us to act, to heal, to build up.

This physical message is good news for weary spirits. God’s love heals, comforts, nurtures. In physical ways, in concrete places around the world, we deliver a message to the human spirit.

Actions speak louder than words—right?

The problem is, our actions are never as clear to others as they seem to be to us. Our actions can be misunderstood.

One of my favorite Bible stories is that account of Paul and Barnabas in the city of Lystra. It reminds me that actions are open to any number of interpretations. It reminds me that when we speak about our faith we might be put into strange and laughable situations. It reminds me that many will respond in almost comic ways to the message that we have.

In the ancient city of Lystra, Paul and Barnabas come across a man crippled from birth. Paul does not preach at length—for which I’m sure this fellow was thankful. He simply speaks the healing word. “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man, we are told, begins to walk.

Now, shouldn’t this act of healing be enough on its own? Was any explanation necessary?

We would expect to hear that the crowd—amazed by what has happened—start to worship the living God.

Instead, the people want to worship Paul and Barnabas. “Zeus and Hermes have come down to us in human form,” they cry out.

What good fortune! Call the priest. Bring an ox. Let’s make a sacrifice to the gods we have known for so long.

“What we have here,” as the warden in Cool Hand Luke would say, “Is a failure to communicate.”

Most likely, when we act out our faith today—and even when we speak from what we believe—we won’t be called “gods.” But we could be called:

Fools—when we give money to support the mission of the church, as if our efforts might make a difference in the world.

Do-gooders—when we look for ways to feed people or provide them with decent housing instead of letting the market economy take care of things, recognizing that  it’s a dog-eat-dog world and that there are just bound to be winners and losers.

Right wing conservatives—when we say that families are important and should be supported and nurtured.

Bleeding heart liberals—when we remind people that families come in all shapes and sizes—that there is no one God-given norm, aside from the reality that love makes a family.

When we act we may be misunderstood. Or worse, ignored.

Our actions are important. But “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words?” Although those words are attributed to him in countless sermons—and I’ve done that myself—St. Francis never said anything like this. I don’t know where the phrase originated.

Words are necessary. We need to be ready to explain why we do what we do. Yes, people want to see if our faith shows itself in our action. More and more, however, people long to hear what that faith is—so that they too might find a home among people who act and believe as we do.

Faith calls us to be open about what we believe and why we act.

The townspeople have declared Paul and Barnabas to be gods. Paul stands up and shouts for all to hear: “We are mortals just like you—and we bring you good news—that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God.”

When you stop to think about it, this whole Christian enterprise depends on the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ being told to other people in a way that can be understood. Paul once put it like this: “How can people believe if they have not heard the message? And how can they hear if the message is not told?”

It’s really kind of simple. If we tell the message to others the church seems to grow. If we remain silent, the church shrinks and finally dies.

Like Paul and Barnabas, we are mortals, not gods.

We are (and I hope this doesn’t offend you too much when I say it) we are not better than other people. We sense, however, that our lives have been claimed by a loving God. And we have claimed the message of God’s love in Christ as our message: “Turn from these worthless things. Turn to the living God.”

There’s a lot of worried talk these days about the decline of congregations. We don’t hear a lot of that here, because we are growing. Our church school is growing. Our nursery is growing. Our ministry to this city is growing. As one member put it, when people come through those front doors (if you can get them open—sometimes you have to pull kind of hard) they see that “something is happening here.”

Still, whole generations of people wait outside our doors. Like the crippled man in Lystra, they have what might be called the faith for healing. But they are wounded by the world. They are blinded by the glitter all around us. They hunger and thirst for righteousness.

They believe in God. God is not the problem. Belief is not the problem.

Congregations have been the problem.

I speak as part of a generation that—what?—wasn’t told?—didn’t hear?

Men and women born after 1945 didn’t get the message for the most part. What they heard often seemed old and tired. And for the most part, people born after 1945 stopped participating in the life of a congregation and never came back.

It isn’t that they stopped believing—or hoping to believe. They just stopped belonging.

And there’s a whole generation—or two—after mine who are—for the most part—still looking at congregations from the outside. The newest label for them is “nones”—people with no religious affiliation.

I think that many of them want to be a part of what’s happening in places like this. Yes, they need to see what we are about. They need to see that what we do matters in a world where so little seems to matter. And they need to hear that what we believe gives life and hope in a world where there is so much death and despair.

A place of beauty, vibrant worship, an inviting congregation that lives out its faith in the world, stimulation for the mind and the heart would be a welcome oasis for many. That’s what we’re trying to create around here.

And that is what makes this congregation exceptional. We are growing. Perhaps we would even be bold enough to say that the Spirit of God is at work among us in ways that many would never have expected. It’s an exciting time as we show our beliefs in action and speak out of what we believe—God’s love for us is shown in Jesus Christ.

So this is a stewardship sermon.

We have a message. We care for that message best by sharing it with others in our words as well as in our actions.

Let us be ready to explain—to be clear about what we believe and why we do the things we do. Let us be ready to help others turn toward the living God. Let us be ready to turn again ourselves.

Now I know that the whole idea of talking about what we believe instead of simply acting is difficult, maybe even a little distasteful to many. What would we say? What if people misunderstand us and think that we are like your “born again” cousin? And worst of all—what if people respond?

All in all it would be better to keep silent, right? Except that silence means the death of the congregation.

A living community of faith is called to speak rather than keep silent.

What happens when a group of scared followers of Jesus take the risk and start telling people about the strong love of God? The book of Acts is one account of the results—success and failure—some very strange events.

We are finding out for ourselves what that means. It means unexpected generosity. It means new vision, new understanding, and a new openness to the community around us. It means welcoming the new while keeping the best of our past.

Words are necessary. Let us use them as one way to tell the wonderful love of God.