With all of the news coverage around the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I went and reread parts of Historian Douglas Brinkley’s amazing book on the events surrounding Katrina called ‘The Great Deluge’. I know many of you gave and organized projects and went yourself down to Mississippi after the storm, part of the waves of people from around the country who went to help. Brinkley shares a number of extraordinary firsthand accounts, like this one:
As Jimmy Duckworth [a Coast Guard Captain] told the story, two of his petty officers came back to Alexandria exhausted….They had black circles under their eyes when Duckworth sat them down for a debriefing. "They hadn’t bathed in days and they were just grungy and…beat," Duckworth said. "They sat down and told me that at the start of their watch they had shots fired at them in near proximity. They continued on… [and] wound up evacuating some people, including a nurse, from a hospital. The nurse had been severely beaten…The crew took them to safety and then, later on their watch, wound up doing a second-floor entry into a flooded building. Upon entering, they realized it was either an old folk’s home or a type of hospital. Every room they went into, there were dead people."
According to Duckworth, his two petty officers suddenly heard a noise and their hearts jumped, scared out of their wits. "They found an old [African American] gentleman who had a cross on his neck and he said that he was religious," Duckworth recalled. "There were two other old people in the room who were… gasping [for breath]…dying. And the crew said, ‘Do you want us to call a helicopter? Get these people out of here?’ The old man said, ‘They’re too far gone; they’ll never make it.’ A moment of silence ensued and one of the petty officers asked, ‘Would you like to be evacuated?’ and he replied, ‘Come back tomorrow. I’ll stay with them until they’re gone.’"1
"What good is it, my brothers and sisters," James writes, "if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 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 is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."
James addresses us powerfully, without fear. As Betty helpfully pointed out last week, we know little about the context of this book, which in many ways feels more like the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures than most epistles, written to specific churches under specific circumstances. Its style and vocabulary is unique to the New Testament. We don’t know who the author is, or whether this was written by someone else in James’ name, assuming the brother of Jesus, to give the text greater authority. James has had a funny role in the Christian tradition, with Martin Luther wanting to remove it from the canon, labeling it "a right strawy epistle," primarily because he heard nothing of the gospel in it. He remarked on one occasion that he would give his doctor’s beret [his fancy academic regalia] to anyone who could reconcile Paul and James.2
But James isn’t arguing that faith is irrelevant, or what you believe isn’t important. My guess is that James has seen about enough of religion that is shallow and devoid of heart. As this text is read you can imagine the scenes that make James so angry. You can imagine a community filled with good looking, well-dressed people. They don’t have many chances to welcome a poor person in dirty clothes, they wouldn’t feel comfortable walking in. In that church, James says, people are glad to go out of their way to give up their seat for a friend, even someone who looks like them. But their welcome of others is less sure. Maybe in that church James was visiting the members didn’t say to the poor, ‘sit at my feet,’ but maybe they said it with the looks they cast their way, with their eyes.
And these differences in hospitality, James argues, aren’t just people who didn’t happen to notice a visitor, but are indicative of a posture of welcome, or lack of welcome, which points towards deeper divisions. Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Has not God, and there are many echoes of the gospels here, especially pointing us to the reversals in the Sermon on the Mount – is there not something about the poor in this life that Jesus calls blessed, that they may inherit the kingdom of God? But YOU, and James is speaking to the church, have disregarded the poor, drug them into court, constructed systems against them. You do well, James says, if you REALLY fulfill the royal law according to the scriptures, You shall love your neighbor as yourselves. Do you, James asks? Do you REALLY?
James leans in. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? What good is your bible study, what good is your small group, what good is – and this is hard for a preacher to say – what good is your worship, your fancy sermon, if all of those things don’t move us towards following Jesus in the world with our LIVES.
What good are all the gifts God has given us if we are too caught up in all of our own busyness to even notice the people around us?
What good is the money God entrusts to us, that’s not ours, doesn’t fundamentally belong to us, if we keep it for ourselves over and over again? Presbyterians and Episcopalians tend to be the wealthiest Christians, and among the wealthiest of all religious groups, but across the Christian spectrum the average individual or family gives about 2.5% of its income away to all places, even less, around 1.5%, to the church.
What good is the wisdom we are given? We are also among the, if not THE, highest average education level among all religious groups in America. What are we using our smarts for? What problems could we really work on if we did so together?
What good is any of this if you do not take time, serve, get to WORK, James says, particularly to help the poor around you. What good is your faith then?
The call to commitment is real, to be a part of the ways Jesus is transforming the world, the spacious homes with lush lawns, the apartment complexes down the hill, the public housing off downtown, the neighborhoods of east Durham. James is particularly concerned about the rich and the poor, but it’s also about how we know each other, as we scurry off to pick our kids up instead of greeting folks around, or how we turn and talk to the people we know and give the visitor a pleasant wave, but little else…
This Friday night, September 11, we are going to host an extraordinary saint. Father Michael Lapsley is an Anglican priest who was in the heart of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. He became chaplain to undergraduate students – a campus minister both black and white – and quickly drew the attention of the authorities by speaking out on behalf of schoolchildren who were being detained, beaten, and killed. He was expelled from the country in 1976 and became the chaplain to the leaders of the African National Congress living in exile. He was later working in Zimbabwe when in 1990, three months after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he was sent a letter-bomb that exploded as he picked up the mail, and he lost both his hands, the sight in one eye, and was severely burned. But instead of becoming angry and bitter, though I’m sure he worked his way through those feelings, too, he got to work, putting his deep faith into action. He has spent the last 25 years working to support victims of trauma and torture, and working for unity and reconciliation in extraordinary circumstances, from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to refugees from around the world, from victims of terror attacks to soldiers who come back from war profoundly changed by what they have seen and done.3 He is an extraordinary man, and his story, especially this Friday night, September 11, promises to be a powerful way to spend a somber anniversary.
Here in a moment we’ll come to the table. And we’ll bring with us all of the burdens we carry, and grief in a world filled with too much pain – religious violence, random attacks against reporters and the police, generational poverty that grips communities. But we’ll also bring our faith – faith that is strong sometimes, and much weaker other days – but faith nonetheless, in the One, Jesus the Christ, who equips saints like Michael Lapsley, the man in that flooded nursing home, and even people like you and me, to show the world once again that our faith is something that is real, and is true, and we don’t need to argue the world into believing, they’ll KNOW it, because our works, our lives, our communities will be so inspired. Not a faith without works that is dead, but one that is ALIVE, so alive, for all to see.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, (New York: William Morrow, 2006) p 325.
2. Charles Cousar, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2006), p 165.
3. See more at Michael Lapsley, Wikipedia.