Part 3 of 3 in the series “The Best of My Love”
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Last Monday night, Tammie and I were out with our friends, Pastor Scott and Rhonda Archer, and they suggested we stop by and see their son, Kyle, who is a firefighter in the San Diego City Fire Department. Kyle showed us the new ladder truck he works on, and in the glow of all the red and chrome, he asked if we wanted to try out the 102’ foot ladder. Tammie was the first to say, “Yes!”, so I figured she was also temporarily lifting my ladder restriction too.
Before he raised the ladder, however, I was interested to see that Kyle had to extend two massive hydraulic outriggers on either side of the truck. Those outriggers lifted all 20 tons of truck off the ground and anchored the beast, making it possible to rotate the fully extended ladder left and right without causing the whole rig to tip over. The ladder functions just like a crane.
After the fire truck was anchored securely, then – and only then – it was safe to extend the ladder and begin our ascent, one at a time. None of us made it all the way to the end, but we all made it pretty far. Tammie has pictures.
That ladder truck painted a picture for me of what we’ve been talking about in this series about loving God and neighbor. There is a progression, a pathway, love must take in order to be all it can be, to be holy love. Without the foundation of God’s holy, unearthly love for us, followed by our willingness to anchor ourselves in love for Him, we can never fully extend the ladder of true love to our neighbors.
Love is like a big, red fire truck.
In the previous two messages, we explored what it means to be loved by God, and what it means to love God in return. Today, in the third and final installment, we are going to look at what it means to love our neighbors.
It is no surprise to anyone who has been at Spring Valley Community for long to be reminded that our mission is, quite simply, “Heart to God, Hand to Neighbor.” What that means is that we measure our success as a community by our ability to honor the twofold challenge of Christ to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. These are the two greatest commandments according to Jesus and everything else hangs on them. Every word of the Bible, all the law and the prophets are a glorious masterpiece that hangs from the fixed points of these two nails – heart to God, hand to neighbor. Easy to say, easy to remember.
It is absolutely essential to note that, even though “love thy neighbor” it is the second greatest commandment, it is not an optional add-on. Loving our neighbor is not an elective, but a core competency that reflects our love for Jesus. He who follows Jesus must demonstrate that by loving his neighbor, or he is a liar and a hypocrite. Taking it even further, when pressed as to who our neighbor is, Jesus made it very clear in the parable of the good Samaritan that our neighbor is everyone in the world – including and even especially those we might be prone to despise.
Yes, that is something that we might not like but, as with all of what it means to follow Jesus, this precept is something difficult that we must grow into; otherwise we falsely claim to love God. 1 John 4:12 reminds us that our relationship with God is made complete only when we work in love on our relationships with one another: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
There is no controversy on that point. If we say we love God, we have to love our neighbor.
Controversy stinks up the room when we try to determine what loving our neighbor actually looks like. James reveals the false tension some create in the passage we read today.
“14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
Do you see the two points in tension with each other? There are those who feel that love is expressed best through spiritual, faithy things, and others who feel that love is expressed best through physical, worksy action. This is a false tension, and I will show you how in a moment, but most of us tend to break one way or the other. Some tend to focus on faith, while others tend to dote on deeds. Some emphasize standing for the truth while others focus on feeding the poor. Some show love for their neighbor by addressing their spiritual needs, while others prefer to address their physical needs.
It isn’t a matter of sin that we do this – it is just a matter of our humanness that some of us emphasize the spiritual over the physical, and vice versa. We all struggle to make the whole enchilada.
And speaking of enchiladas, like an enchilada, we need both the tortilla of faith and the meat of action. Take away the tortilla of faith and we have an unmanageable mess of aimless slop. Take away the meat of action and we have a tray of flavorless, air-filled tortillas.
Is anyone else hungry now? Anyone up for enchiladas after church?
That’s what James is getting at in today’s reading. Faith and deeds, justice and mercy, truth and compassion, spiritual care and physical care, are both essential, both needed, both required in order to fulfill the greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbors – Heart to God is the Tortilla, Hand to Neighbor is the goodness inside. It is not one or the other, but both working together.
I stumbled across this quote yesterday reading the news:
“Mercy and justice are not alternatives but walk together, proceeding in balance toward the same end, for mercy is not the suspension of justice but its fulfillment,” (Jorge Mario Bergoglio, aka Pope Francis, at the opening of the 2023 tribunal prosecuting corruption in the Vatican.)
Justice is faith in pursuit of the heart of God. Mercy is action expressed in practical love for our neighbor. Justice is the anchor that holds the truck. Mercy is the ladder that reaches out to our neighbor. Even though it is our human nature to favor one over the other, faith over deeds or deeds over faith, as we press on to maturity in Christ, we must set aside our preferences and press into both with increasing intensity until we reach the full measure of Christ.
Here’s a different way to look at love for our neighbors: misappropriating a catch phrase from the New Deal, I’d like to propose that there are three three ways we can love our neighbor. Relief, Reform, and Recovery.
Relief is loving our neighbor by addressing their immediate, physical needs.
Reform is loving our neighbor by addressing their long-term, spiritual needs.
But Recovery only happens when we do both of these well.
If we operate a food pantry, and only provide temporary relief to our neighbors' physical needs, while neglecting to address their deeper spiritual needs, we are only fulfilling half our duty to love our neighbors.
By the same token, if we host a prayer meeting, and only address long-term, spiritual needs, while neglecting to address our neighbors’ immediate physical needs, we grow lopsided in our love for them.
Real love – holy love – must address both the physical and the spiritual needs of our neighbors, or it is like watching a movie without sound.
We know what it means to meet the physical needs of our neighbors: assistance with food, shelter, clothing, etc.
But what we are less comfortable with is addressing their spiritual needs. Specifically, I can identify at least three spiritual needs every neighbor has that no government or county-run program can truly provide. However, these are needs that we as a fellowship and a community of faith can address in ways no one else can.
Our neighbors have the following three spiritual needs: the need for a big picture, the need to begin again, and the need to belong.
Big picture: finding purpose by recognizing that there is a bigger plan at work, and that I am one part of that plan. A six-dollar word for this is transcendence, which basically means stepping back and seeing things from heaven’s perspective. This is why caged birds sing, and prisoners pray.
Begin again: once we start to see the big picture, it doesn’t take long before we run into the obstacle of our past failures and shortcomings. We, as followers of Jesus, are thoroughly equipped to share the good news that forgiveness is full and free for all who ask. One of the greatest spiritual needs our neighbors have is simply to know that they are forgiven, and can start life over again, can be born again, can begin again.
And finally, belonging: Nobody can go far if they go alone. Our society has lied to us and brought itself to the cusp of oblivion on the premise that our highest goal is independence. Our greatest need is not to be lone rangers, but to belong in a community where we receive and give support to others. In a world where relief programs aim to get people on their own and isolated in cold, empty apartments, the body of Christ offers an alternative. We offer a community in which whosoever will may come and belong and be loved.
As we think and pray about how we might as a church grow into addressing our neighbor’s spiritual needs, I propose that these three should be the focus of efforts: the need to see themselves as part of a bigger picture, the need to begin again by embracing the forgiveness of God, and the need to belong in a healthy, supportive community.
Now, from a practical standpoint (as in, “What tool can I give you for your spiritual toolbox this morning?”) two questions should be occupying some portion of our thinking when we go from here.
First, we should all seek to reflect on our own, personal lopsidedness, and ask God to correct it. What I mean is that we should all reflect on whether we tend to be more of a faith person, or more of a deeds person, and we should be asking the Lord to show us how we can expand in both until we reach the sacred equilibrium of faith and deeds working together in unity. In other words, pray to be the whole enchilada.
Second, and more challenging, we need to spend some serious time reflecting on what our role is to be as a church – as a community within our larger community, loving our neighbors both spiritually and tangibly.
Let me lay it out for you. We are being placed in a big, wonderful, scary, totally-bigger-than-we-can-handle position as a community of faith. Through a series of efforts to help our District bring new tenants to this site that will better serve the mission of our local church, God has turned it on its head and is bringing in tenants that will better serve the mission of His kingdom.
Allow me to unpack that just a little – forgive me if this is boring business stuff, but it is crucial background info you need to know, so please pay attention. We do not own this building at this time. One day the Southern Cal Nazarene District may turn the deed back over to Spring Valley Church of the Nazarene, but we are not there yet. For now, we are simply tenants. Which has a few upsides, to be sure. We do not pay anything for electricity, water, gas, or even the use of this space itself. I hope we all recognize what a tremendous blessing it is to have access to this wonderful, slightly leaky, house of worship!
But you need to understand that this very good situation depends on two things: first, the generosity of our District Advisory Board as they seek to help us become a stronger congregation, and second, I have offered to serve personally as a property manager for the District. In order to pay the bills for us, we need to have tenants renting space to cover the costs.
When we came here seven years ago, two churches were using this space, but a few years ago I suggested to the District that we should shift our attention to finding groups that might better serve the community in concert with our mission as their church. I looked for schools, counseling centers, and other Christian ministries that would harmonize with our mission.
In spite of a few close options, none of those tenants ultimately came through.
And then through a series of truly remarkable coincidences (not coincidences, if you ask me) we were approached by the County to serve as a site for a results-based, action oriented program to get people out of homelessness for good and into permanent homes. While I was initially skeptical, after spending a good deal of time reviewing the project's goals and methods, I happen to believe it is going to do a lot of good, not only for the program participants, but also for our neighborhood and community as a whole. Why do I think that after working with the homeless in San Diego for more than 30 years and seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly programs up close and personal? I think this one has a good shot because at a very minimum it will get people off the streets and out of the parks and off the sidewalks and into long-term supportive care. Jesus said the poor we will always have with us. But we cannot hide behind those words as an excuse to stop serving the poor. I was once an outspoken skeptic, and I am now a vocal advocate for these programs.
I’ve shared all of that background to get to this: here’s where the rubber meets the road for us as a church. We did not go looking for the opportunity that has presented itself here. It has come to us. As early as May 1st, this year upwards of 25 people will be calling our campus home, sleeping in a safe space under the watchful eye of a 24/7 security guard every night. Also very likely – perhaps as early as next year – a number of unsheltered seniors will be living upstairs in a newly remodeled residential center while they await placement in permanent housing. This is not to mention the several hundred households that are already coming on campus daily as they are served by our tiny but mighty drive-through food pantry.
Friends, I am not making this up. Opportunity is about to knock, and knock loudly.
Just like the disciples who fished all night on one side of the boat and caught nothing, Jesus is showing us that there is a great shoal of fish on the other side of the boat, and He is calling us to let down our nets.
The question on all of our minds, especially mine, is, “What does that look like?”
Now, I know that some of us are perhaps concerned about us overextending ourselves. And those are valid concerns. But I can also see that God has been systematically clearing our schedules and our calendars as a church in preparation for what is coming. It is remarkable to me that many of the things we were doing successfully as a church in the past suddenly dried up and ceased, and no longer occupy our schedule. Perhaps this is God clearing a way for us to let go of the former things, stepping away from our old dried-up fishing holes, so that we can now concentrate on the new opportunities he is bringing right up to the other gunwale, the other side.
I also recognize that no one is called to do everything. When I say “we need to prepare” I am not saying that some of you church overachievers out there (we know who we are) need to carry the whole burden yourselves. Stop that! You’re making it hard for other people to serve. Stop that Steve! I’m trying, honestly, I am. Please be patient with me as I learn to get out of the way.
What I am saying is that I believe that God works from blueprints, and each of us has a part to play, no matter how small. I don’t know what your part is, but I know you are definitely a part of God’s plan. Nobody arrives here at Spring Valley Community because of the show or the location. If you are here, it is either because you got lost on your way to a nice, respectable church, or you have been led here directly by God. If you simply got lost, I apologize for the inconvenience and would be happy to direct you to a more comfortable church. But if, somehow, God led you to this zany, awkward, island of misfit toys, I say welcome home, and come on in, the water’s fine! And let’s see what unique and beautiful part God has for you to play as we love God and love our neighbors.
Maybe you’ve got a stucco truck that God commandeers a few times a week to feed the poor. God can use that. Maybe you’ve got a garage full of decorations that are just waiting to spill over into mind-blowing displays of hospitality. God can use that. Maybe you can sing. God can use that. Maybe you can sign. God can use that. Maybe you love to play pickleball. God can use that. Maybe you love to craft mini-houses and just relish the sense of accomplishment. God can use that. Maybe you know how to feed a lot of people on a tiny budget. God can use that. Maybe you love to play games with kids. Maybe you are really good at bagging potatoes. Maybe you just hug really, really good. God can use that. God wants to use all you are to accomplish all He wants in this holy place.
And it is coming. We have a lot of listening to do, a lot of thinking to do, and a lot of praying to do before we launch into anything. There needs to be a whole lot of “ready-aiming” before we should even think about “firing”. But the mission God is calling us to is a mission He is more than able to accomplish. We worry about our capacity when, in fact, our capacity is not even a factor in His thinking. Our ability means very little. It is our availability that truly makes all the difference. Whatever He is going to do here in this next season will be ‘“Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6)
I might be crazy, but I’ve seen God move enough in my life to know that what is about to play out here in the coming season is going to be incredible. This is not a drill. Stick around, and we are going to see miracle after miracle as we step out and say, “yes” to Jesus.
For those of you who do not want to bear the burden of loving our neighbors in this way, I can honestly say I understand your apprehension. It is not going to be easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. And while I am tempted to try to twist your arm and persuade you into staying, I also want you to know that I feel no ill will toward you if you feel you must move on. This calling is not for everybody. Nothing is more discouraging than serving in a place where you know God has not called you. I mean this with all my heart – go in peace. Be released from any prior commitment you’ve made. We are still friends and brothers and sisters in Christ, and nothing will change that. Nothing will take away the joy of the memories of what God has done here in prior seasons.
Now, let’s finish up for now. Let us pray. (worship team)
Father, thank you for loving us. We love you back. And now let us consider how we might extend that ladder of love to our neighbors. Help us not to be lopsided, but to extend into the fullness of loving our neighbors spiritually and physically. Help us to stretch into love that stands for both justice and mercy, truth and compassion, relief and reform, faith and deeds.
As we serve the spiritual needs of our neighbors, help us to be mindful of their need to see themselves as part of your big picture, to begin again and be forgiven, and to belong in the wonderful family of God.
And all so that we might grow closer to you and to one another, Lord. In Jesus’ name I ask, amen.