Thursday, November 5, 2015

Three Widows--One Common Bond

Every now and then, the Revised Common Lectionary offers us a week when all three major scripture passages blend beautifully into one common theme.  This week is one of those weeks.  This next Sunday is listed as Stewardship Sunday on the official United Church of Christ calendar and at the congregation I serve it is also that special Sunday.  So, we have three stories from scripture that all have something to do with trust and giving and hope.

First, there is the great old story from I Kings 17 about the prophet Elijah.  The land of Israel is in the middle of a great time of drought and it has not rained for years.  God sends Elijah to Zarephath where he meets a widow who is gathering up sticks.  He asked her for a cup of water and as she is going to get the water he also requests a little bit of bread to eat.  She replies that she only has enough meal and oil to make one little cake and after she and her son share it then they will have no more food and will just die as a result.  The prophet sounds very selfish as he tells her first to prepare that food for him and then she and her son will eat.  Did he not hear her?  She said she had no more food to prepare.  And besides, he is just an old wandering man who happened by...why should she give him the last bit of food she has in her house?  Perhaps she is despondent and thinks what difference does it make anyway and just does what he asks?  Or maybe she saw something special in who this old man was and decided to take a risk and do as he asks to see what would happen?  So, she brings him that little cake she prepared and then he tells her to go check her meal and oil again, and sure enough, there is enough again to make another cake.  So, she and her son eat and drink as did the prophet.  The story concludes that until the rains came there was never a lack of meal or oil in that household.

This story is a wonderful one that preachers have loved to preach for generations.  It is about faith and taking a risk because of that faith.  The widow decided to risk using the last bit of food she had in her house hoping that the word of this old man would be true, and sure enough, what he said would happen, did happen.  Her needs and those of her son were provided miraculously because she was willing to take a risk and give all she had to give.

So, that brings us to the second widow story, this time from the Gospel of Mark.  As Jesus and his disciples watch those passing through the Temple give their offerings, he observes a widow among the wealthy folks who are depositing their offerings with great gusto.  She drops in two small coins in a quiet way and leaves.  We do not know how Jesus knows this but he tells his disciples that she gave more than all the others who were giving that day because "she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."  (Mark 12:44b).  Jesus commends her because she gave all she had while others had a lot still to live on after they gave their offering.

This story is used often for Stewardship Sunday messages.  It teaches a lesson about giving that it does not matter the size of the gift.  It is the motivation behind giving that matters.  When we look at the main character of the story, however, and see what is involved in her gift, we see, as we did with the Widow of Zarephath, that she took a risk in giving all she had.  She gave away everything she had, all she had to live on, so what would she do then to support herself as a result of her gift?  This too was an act of faith, a result of trust in the God of Israel to supply her needs.  She put herself in a position where she would have to rely  upon God because she had nowhere else to turn.

The final story this week looks at that wonderful story of loyalty and love from the book of Ruth.  Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi are both widows and return to the land of Israel because of the drought in the land of Moab where they lived.  Ruth is a Moabite woman and was welcomed in Israel only because of her relationship with Naomi.  Both women were dependent upon society caring for them because they were widows.  Women only had anything in society because men provided it for them.  So, Ruth took a risk and followed Naomi back to Israel where she would be an alien.  We do not know how society in general viewed Ruth but we know that a man named Boaz took a liking to her and treated her kindly.  Because of this good deed, Naomi suggested that Ruth be nice in return to Boaz and perhaps he would marry her and, sure enough, Boaz fell in love with Ruth and married her and their son became an ancestor to David whose line would rule the house of Israel for years to come.

Ruth took many risks in this wonderful ancient story.  She followed her mother-in-law into a country where she would be viewed as an outsider.  She gathered leftover grain in the fields to support her and Naomi despite it being a dangerous thing for a woman to do.  She approached Boaz by night in a way to let him know that she would be willing to marry him, risking rejection and scorn if her plan did not work out.  God's providence and care were at work, however, and Ruth was accepted and loved by Boaz and she and Naomi became part of the ancestral line of David and Mary and Joseph and Jesus.

Three women who took a risk and found grace and hope as a result.  All gave of themselves so as to bring about good things for their lives.  Today, we offer what we have to God and neighbor in many ways.  Sometimes we give financially to our church and to other organizations to provide for the needs of those less fortunate than we are.  Sometimes we give of our time and talents to assist individuals and organizations that care for others in society.  Sometimes, like the widow who cooked the last of her food for Elijah, we give what we have hoping that it will bring about a good result....and it does.  Hungry people are fed.  Those without adequate clothing are covered.  The sick are given healing.  Those on the road to destruction are given hope.  All because we give as we can in whatever ways we can because we know that God provides for our needs daily and commands us to care for others who have needs.

When I was growing up in the church I attended as a child, the preacher was fond of quoting a verse from the Bible that said, "Give and it shall be given unto you, pressed down, running over, will men give unto your bosom."  I cannot tell you where that verse is found but its promise is one that as we give to benefit others, our own needs will be taken care of.  That I do believe and preach.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

New Lives for Old!

Resurrection---for now or later?  Kind of like when a server asks you, "Sweet or unsweet?" in reference to iced tea...Would you prefer your resurrection now or later?  Or maybe you would like it both now and later on.  You really can have resurrection now, in this life, today....and later, when you die.  For, you see, resurrection happens continuously throughout life and we just do not recognize it for what it is.

Like the time I had the flu, years ago before flu shots were so popular.  I remember I was a school teacher and stayed home an entire week with it, something I never did when I was a teacher.  I may have called in sick now and then because I needed a mental health day but when I was ill I tried to get better and get back to work.  So, I had the flu and suffered through a week of chills, fever, coughing, sore throat, general malaise, and in the middle of it thinking...."I could get well or I could die, and right now I really do not care which happens."  It was that severe and I was just staying at home, alone during the day because my wife worked too and we needed both of our incomes to survive, and spending much of the day on my back in bed, moaning with pain when I was not asleep.

Then....I got well.  That gnarly old flu germ finally gave up on me and I began to feel as normal and I could feel.  (What is normal, after all?)  I was resurrected from my bed of death and brought back to life, just like in the story of Lazarus that we will read this week in worship as we observe All Saints Day (or Totenfest, as we call it in German).  Lazarus was Jesus' best friend in the world, along with his two sisters, Mary and Martha.  In fact, some Bible scholars think it refers to Lazarus in John's Gospel when it mentions "the disciple whom Jesus loved".  So, Jesus was very close to Lazarus and hated it when he got the news that he had died.  In fact, he hated it so much that "Jesus wept."  Jesus wept when he encountered others weeping over the death of his good friend.  He saw their pain and knew he would work a miracle to end the reason for their pain but at the time he knew how much they were hurting because he hurt too.

Jesus had told Lazarus' sister Mary when he was talking to her after he arrived at Bethany, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live."  (John 11:25)  Now, the resurrection was standing with them in their time of grief and weeping with them.  Soon, he would work a miracle that would end their time of weeping but for the moment he sympathized with them and was with them in their pain.  Sure enough, Jesus called Lazarus out of his tomb and, all mummy-like, he hobbled out and was unwrapped and was back in the land of the living.

On All Saints Day we remember those whom we said goodbye to during the past year and think about them again.  In the church setting, we remember their lives in relation to the church and how they were involved in their church.  We also remember the good and kind things they did and how their lives reflected the love of God in the world around them.  We remember and we in the promise of Jesus being the resurrection and the life and that he promised to all who believed in him that they would live.  So, the saints whose names we call aloud are alive even as we say their names.  That is true and sure and a promise based upon the goodness of God and the love of Christ that lives in our hearts.

So, know that resurrection is a part of daily living.  We experience it each morning when we wake up and have our coffee and come back to life.   We experience it each time we are ill and recover and find life to be meaningful again.  We experience it each time we see a sunset, a butterfly, a singing bird, a jumping whale, or anything else that is alive and reflecting something about the goodness of life and living to us.  Resurrection is not just an Easter event.  It is a daily event and we saw it in the lives of those whom we remember who are not gone on to have it as their reality in a world we can only imagine.  We know it now, though, because it is also part of our world.  We just need to recognize it as we open our eyes and ears to life around us.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Free, At Last!

I was driving to a church meeting last Tuesday when I saw the sign that has been erected by Washington County welcoming travelers to the county.  It is a large white stone monument that says "Welcome to Washington County" but also adds, "Birthplace of Texas."  I know what that last part means but to travelers from outside of Texas or even to foreign visitors perhaps they shake their heads and wonder what it means for Washington County to call itself the Birthplace or Texas.  If they venture a bit farther then the sign, perhaps to Brenham, and go to the Visitor Information Center, they may find a brochure or other information about the hamlet of Washington, Texas, just up Hwy. 105 from Brenham.  There is where they will find the official "Birthplace of Texas" with the historic building where they could learn about why this place bears this name.

We learned in school when we took Texas History that early Texan pioneers settled in Texas when it was still a part of Mexico and, as the Colonies did in the century prior, soon they became disgruntled with the policies of the Mexican government that greatly affected their lives.  Rather than move back to the United States and give up the land that the Mexican government had given them, they decided to have a rebellion and soon the Texas Revolution began.  Those who were bent on revolution met at Washington on the Brazos in 1836 and declared themselves free from the Mexican government and soon the armed forces of Mexico led by General Santa Anna were racing across Texas to quell the rebellion and restore order.  Unfortunately for him, the Texans were led by the tough soldier Sam Houston who led the forces of Texas to conquer the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto and took Santa Anna captive as part of it all, bringing independence and freedom to the Texans there.

From 1836 to 1845, Texas was a country of its own with its own government, President, and money.  For nine years it functioned as a country of its own until finally its leaders decided they would be better off as a state in the United States rather than a country, a decision that some Texans today still hate happened.  Texas gave up the right to be independent when it joined the Union and today is one of 50 parts of one whole unit.  Despite what some secessionists say, Texas does not have the right to be an independent nation again.  It became part of a nation in 1845 and its future is bound up in that nation and its welfare.

Jesus was talking to the religious leaders of his day in John 8 and one of the most quoted verses in the Bible is found in that chapter.  "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (John 8:32)  His point to his listeners was that he would bring them the truth and they would be free from sin.  They took him literally and got upset that he would imply that they were not already free because they were not slaves (except to the Roman government).  His point was that freedom from sin is even more important than freedom as individuals.

Many religious persons throughout history struggled with this idea.  Some were even the founders of certain religious traditions found throughout the world.  Martin Luther believed that he was consumed with sin and tried to do all the works he could to bring about relief.  He beat himself, he crawled on his knees up the steps of St. Peters in Rome while on a pilgrimage there, he read the scriptures voraciously, he prayed over and over again for relief from the sins he believed plagued him.  Finally, he was reading from Romans and came across the idea that salvation was achieved through faith, not works, and the lightbulb came on over his head and he began to teach and preach that, much to the dismay of the religious hierarchy of his day who made their living selling the right to get out of hell for the right price.  His very life was at stake because of his decision to tell the good news of faith to those fearful for their eternal future.  All this happened while he was a priest serving as a monk.

John Wesley was an Anglican priest serving a parish in the Church of England.  He mourned his sins and also wondered how he would escape the fires of hell because of his wickedness.  He was attending a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London when he heard the book of Romans read and explained and he had what Methodists call his "Aldersgate Experience" where his "heart was strangely warmed."  He received good news from the Holy Spirit about the role of grace in his life and how he could have assurance for his sins being forgiven rather than have to be in despair.  That experience launched him into the work that became the forerunner of the Methodist movement both in England and abroad.

Both of these Reformers received news of freedom that they had longed to hear.  The Holy Spirit spoke to them of this good news that they shared with others and began the Reformation that brought about the Protestant churches we have today.  When you know the truth, it will set you free from worry, anxiety, despair, and sin.  You will be free to know God's love is true for you personally and that God loves you just the way you are.  Let the Spirit speak words of truth to you so you will find peace in this world of conflict and strife.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Right Priorities

When I meet with a couple to discuss their upcoming wedding, we usually discuss my list of things that I have decided cause the biggest problems in marriage for couples.  The list is one that I have formulated over the years as I have talked with couples and counseled with individuals concerning their relationships.  The list is not one that incorporates all the issues or problems that may evolve during a marriage but it is one that I think lays the groundwork for a good relationship if one considers what is involved in having a good relationship or marriage.  

I always tell the couple that at the foundation of a good relationship is communication.  If two people can talk about whatever is on their minds, then they can usually tackle just about any problem if both of them are willing to try to solve them.  Actually listening to the other person and hearing what their concerns are AND having a desire to find a resolution to a problem will help people to get past whatever the issues may be that divide them.  So, good communication is at the heart of every good relationship.  

Then, we go into discussion of issues that regularly cause division in a marriage--children, relatives, work, use of time, religion (church attendance), how to decide where to spend holidays, and finally to the big one, the problem that causes many marriages to, not that one, but the one I name is MONEY.  Yes, money, the use of money, overspending and overuse of credit is a huge problem for couples and if they do not talk about how they will spend their money, how they will arrange their banking and saving, these issues can divide a marriage and has even ended marriages.  

Money is a necessary part of living and all of us want it and need it in order to live comfortable lives.  Money allows us to buy possessions, both small and large.  Money is both real (such as cash or checks) and imaginary (such as is given to us by credit cards and loans of various sizes).  We can see the cash we use and the checks we write that represent cash but the use of charge cards and the acquisition of loans is an almost mysterious process.  It is very easy for people to be overextended in their use of credit cards and their handling of loans.  When people begin to feel the pressure and tension of living in an overextended state with little money to do anything except pay bills, then tension may develop between the persons involved in the use of money.  

Jesus talked about money many times in the Gospels.  Sometimes he told parables that ended with platitudes such as "You cannot serve God and money."  This week, we are reading from Mark's Gospel a familiar story commonly called, "The Rich Young Ruler".  Mark seems to only tell us that he is a man and that he is wealthy.  We do not know that he is young or rich but that has been the tradition told in regard to the story over the years.  

The man bows at the feet of Jesus and asks him to tell him what he needs to do to have eternal life.  Jesus tells him to obey the commandments and Jesus names some of them to which the man says that he has tried to obey them all from his youth.  Jesus then tells him to go sell what he has and to give the money to the poor and to come follow him.  At this command, the man goes away "grieving" because he "had many possessions" which in the ancient world would indicate that some was wealthy since most people had very few possessions.  

Jesus then does a teaching segment on how wealth can stop one from entering God's Kingdom, although he says it is not impossible, but just difficult.  He also says that those who give up things in order to follow him will be rewarded in the world to come.  The platitude that ends this story is: "Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."  In other words, things are not always what they seem to be using worldly standards to try to negotiate the spiritual world.  Worldly things do not matter as much as spiritual things when it comes to following Jesus.  

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ involves having a relationship with him.  It is just like having a relationship with a spouse or other relative.  We can allow things in life to separate us from others, things such as the ones on my list, or we can not consider them as important as our relationship with Jesus and consider it to be of utmost importance to our lives.  Money may be one of those things for some people but it is not the only one.  Life is full of choices that may present options that stand between us and our devotion to Christ.  

Jesus was actually describing the greatest commandment when he commanded the man to sell his possessions and follow him.  He somehow perceived that this man's wealth stood between him and his relationship with God.  The first commandment says to love God with all our of being.  It is called the greatest commandment because of that duty.  Anything that comes between loving God with all of our being and us is something to be cleared away so as to have a right relationship with God.  

It may be money but in the modern world it may be one of a host of other things that keep us from truly knowing, loving, and serving God.  It may be something that we have to do, such as resolve a conflict with another person, or something we have to not do, such as turn off our television or computer now and then to allow time to seek God through prayer and study.  In either case, asking God to direct our lives so we can have a better relationship with God is a prayer that God will truly answer as we seek the truth and light that only God can bring.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Biblical Literacy or Is That Illiteracy?

Recently one of the candidates who is running for President of the US was asked what his favorite scripture was in the Bible since he said that he thinks the Bible is the greatest book ever written.  He first said that it was too private for him to discuss and then, when pressed further, said that his favorite verse was the proverb that said not to bend to envy.  Some Bible scholars have been discussing this interaction and many think that perhaps this candidate has rarely if ever actually read the Bible and perhaps is bringing it into the public forum so as to gather some votes and voters.  Who is to know if the man ever reads the Bible but his response is similar to many who say they value the Bible and think it is the greatest book ever written but they do not actually read the Bible?

When people defend certain societal views of theirs using the Bible as their defense, hardly ever does one hear them quote Book, chapter, and verse in their defense.  Usually they just say, "Well, the Bible says..." and they leave it at that.

I had a young woman in a Bible study group one time tell everyone, "Well, it is like it says in the Bible, 'Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach him to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime."  As the words came out of her mouth, I could not believe that she actually thought the verse she quoted could be found in the Bible.  I raised my hand and said, "I don't believe that is actually from the Bible."  She was taken aback at what I said and tried to defend her views and I challenged her to find the verse in the Bible.  She could not, of course, because that proverb is taken from American culture, not from the Bible.  She admitted to me later that she was mistaken and we both laughed about it.

That example is not uncommon though.  Surveys have been done asking participants to say whether or not a proverb or verse can be found in the Bible.  Most of the time the participants are unable to successfully pass the test of the survey.

I enjoy watching game shows such as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" or "Jeopardy".  When the subject is something found in the Bible, I usually become amused because the game show participant rarely knows the answer and I usually do.  One time a woman was in the last round on the Millionaire show and a Bible question came up.  She either had to answer or had to walk away and she did not know the answer (which I thought was pretty simple) and she had to walk away ending her time on the show.

I know that I have been to seminary and have two theological degrees and have almost 25 years experience as a pastor but much of the knowledge of the Bible that I possess was taught to me as a child in Sunday School.  I had the Bible drilled into me weekly with games such as "Sword Drill" where we had to open our Bibles and find specific verses.  We were given challenges to make us want to look into the Bible and learn what was there.  We had memory verses to learn again and again and were given prizes if we could say them.  I had a mother who pushed Biblical knowledge on me over and over as long as I lived in the same house as she did.  So, even though I have advanced studies in seminary, I can attribute much of my Bible knowledge to my early roots as a Christian.

It is sad that many people who are Christians and who say they believe in the Bible as God's Word hardly ever open the book or read its words.  They may hear it read aloud in worship services and hear a pastor preach from it but they have never personally taken the opportunity to read it for themselves and to learn what it truly says about the social issues of our day.  They instead listen to television preachers tell them what they should believe and give a world view that is more akin to the medieval world rather than the modern world as they sway them into thinking the way they promote.

Some may be surprised to find that the Bible does not say anything about many modern topics.  It is silent on those because the cultures of the ancient world did not contain many of the modern things we discuss today.  Some Bibles are translated specifically to promote their own theological bent and even the translation of the Bible one chooses to read will lead one to think in a certain way about our world and its peoples.

The Holy Spirit gives light to those who seek it.  Those who honestly open the Bible and ask God to direct them in understanding it will find light and truth.  Those who simply carry it around or hear what others may say about it without actually reading its words for themselves will be led in one direction or another and may find turmoil and confusion.  God will lead us where we should go in life and God's Spirit will never fail to be our guide in our lifelong search for truth.  Open the book and read its words and ask God to direct you as you honestly search for the truth contained in it.  You will find peace and joy in such a personal venture.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

Being First in God's Kingdom

I recently had an experience while getting my hair cut at Supercuts in Austin that made me think about the Gospel lesson from yesterday's lectionary.  My wife and I were there and I  had already had my haircut and she was in the chair getting hers.  As I sat waiting for her to finish, suddenly the door opened and an elderly woman entered the place along with a younger man that I assumed could have been her son.  The older woman was using a walker and the younger man carried an instrument of some kind that had a tube leading from it to the woman's clothing where it was hidden beneath.  The hair stylist who had done my haircut, a younger man in his 30s, greeted the couple warmly and asked them to sign in.  He explained it would be a wait of about 30 minutes which seemed okay with the elderly woman.  As he told them to have a seat to wait, the younger man stopped him and asked a request of him.  He said that the woman could not sit in the regular chairs where we were waiting because of her legs and she may not be able to get back up if she did, so he wondered if she could sit in one of the stylist chairs that was not being used.  The stylist smiled and said, "Of course.  Just choose any one that is not be used and you are welcome to sit there."  The younger man with the woman thanked him for his consideration and the stylist replied, "Of course.  We are glad you are here and want you to be comfortable."

What a warm welcome this stylist gave to this aged woman with many health issues.  It made her feel included and accepted as she was.  They went out of their way to do what they could to be sure that her needs were met so that she could receive her hair styling along with other customers.

This lesson from life made me apply it to our life as Christians and as church members, of course.  It made me think about the welcome that we give to others who venture into our churches or the personal welcome we give to individuals whom we meet in life.

The Gospel lesson for yesterday was found in Mark's Gospel where Jesus asked the disciples what they were talking about as they traveled to Capernaum.  They were silent because he knew that they were arguing about who was the greatest in the Kingdom that Jesus was bringing.  Jesus told them that to be first in God's Kingdom means that we have to be servants to all.  To make his point clearer, he called a little child to be among them and said, "Whoever welcomes one such as this welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."  (Mark 9)

Children were not seen as precious gifts from heaven in the ancient world as they are today in North America.  They were seen as a burden and responsibility, one more mouth to feed, until they were old enough to contribute and help out with growing the crops necessary for all to be fed.  So, welcoming a child was an act of courage and acceptance because they represented a cost to the family who had a new child.

We like to think that we welcome all persons whom we meet but all of us have suspicions or fears or prejudices that we brought to adulthood with us from our childhood.  We learned to fear or mistrust others based upon ideas or characteristics about them.  Perhaps our feelings about them have to do with the color of their skin, their country of origin, their religion, their language, or their sexual orientation.  We may judge persons immediately based upon these and other factors without getting to know them first.  Welcoming the stranger who is different may be challenging for us but it should not be considered impossible if we truly want to act on Christ's behalf to others.

Persons who have rarely ever been a stranger or newcomer have a hard time relating to the feelings of others who are different.  Perhaps one has always lived in the same community or area where one was born and grew up and finds it hard to know how persons may feel who are new to an area or country.  Perhaps some have never been friends with others who are different.

I grew up in a town that was all white and never knew a person of color until I went to college.  I was taught to be wary of persons who were not of my same race.  When I went to college I wanted to be friends with all persons so I began to get acquainted with others and soon had many friends who were African-American.  As I worked in many places, I got to know persons who were different from me in many ways and soon found that all of us have the same needs and desires in life.  We all want to be happy, to be loved, to be safe and secure.  We all want a good future for ourselves and for our children.

Think about times when you have received a genuine welcome from others?  What did they do that conveyed sincere welcome to you?  How did they treat you to make you feel included and welcome?  How do we translate the welcome we have felt into a welcome that we offer others across all the distinctions that often separate us?  How do we make persons to feel welcome in our personal space and in our churches?

As we ask God to open our eyes to others around us and to see their needs, God will direct us into how we can expand our welcome so that we will truly be a welcoming and inclusive church as well as individuals who strive to show God's love to all in our world, even those who are much different than we are.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Believing or Doing or Both?

We are reading passages from the book of James each week during worship in the month of September.  James was written to the first century church to guide them in how the life of faith is to be acted out in daily life.  Paul wrote to other churches and stressed belief in Jesus Christ ("saved through faith, not works, lest anyone should boast").  James stresses works as an important part of the life of faith ("faith without works is dead").  The tension between these two views were not apparent at the time of their writings because they were written to different groups of Christians and each did not have both to compare.  We modern Christians have both writings and more that inform us of how the life of faith works in daily life.  We wonder if belief is the most important component or is what we do for others is more important than what we believe or does it take both to make a Christian a complete person?

James is adamant about religion containing works of piety and mercy.  Last week we read one of the key verses of the book of James---"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."  (1:27)  This week we continue with what James teaches and will hear--"You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (2:8)  The concern of chapter two, however, is not to judge others based on criteria that one may set for oneself but to love others without being judgmental.

James is concerned that some in the early church were favoring the wealthy over the poor when they attended worship.  He went as far as to call it a sin to show partiality to some based on criteria we set for ourselves. (2:9)  He compares it to other sins that we consider to be serious and are named in the Ten Commandments.  He urges mercy for all, for "mercy triumphs over judgement."  (2:12)

So, we are left with the instruction to love all and to show mercy and to not judge, something that even Paul would agree with James about.  So, what does that have to do with belief?  If one believes in Jesus as savior, then does the Christian life consist strictly of believing and professing one's belief to others OR are acts of mercy and piety necessary to the Christian life in order for one to truly be Christian?

I think Jesus own' teachings help to answer that question and the passage quoted most often in regard to this topic is from Matthew 25 where Jesus describes the great judgment where people are separated as sheep are from goats.  The judge who separates the people sits on the throne and the criteria used to decide whether one goes to everlasting peace or eternal punishment has to do with works.  The judge does not ask if one believed in Jesus as one's savior.  The judge asks those who stand before him...did you feed the hungry?...did you give drink to the thirsty?...did you welcome the stranger?...did you give clothes to the naked?...did you take care of the sick?...did you visit those in prison? (Matt. 25:31-46).  The answer given determined the fate of those being judged.

Jesus' parable about the judgment did not have the judge ask one time what one believed.  The outcome was based solely on works.  That leads me and others to conclude that the complete Christian life must include acts of mercy and piety and charity.  Saying what one believes is not enough to satisfy God.  Showing what one believes through what we do for others demonstrates our belief.  When it comes down to it, it really does not matter what we believe about God or Jesus or social issues if our lives do not demonstrate a life of love toward others in the way we treat them and in what we do to help them in their distress.

Paul was a great man and a great theologian and his own life demonstrated love for others in the way he lived among First Century persons.  He acted out his beliefs through his life of love and sacrifice resulting in his death for what he believed and taught.  He most likely would have agreed with James if they would have discussed their views together.  There is no writing saying they ever did this but both men's writings guide our thinking today as they struggled to reflect the teachings of Jesus to those of their day, both in what they said and in how they lived.