The Nature of Faith
James 2: 1-17
6 September 2009, Wesley Memorial UMC
I never thought much about the Dead Sea before our first trip to Israel and Palestine a few years ago. Poetic name. Strange fact of geography. Way “over there.” That was about the extent of my thought on the matter before we traveled there.
Like some other things, the Dead Sea starts in a place that is far removed from the lifeless, salty water where it eventually gathers, stagnates, and then evaporates. It’s like the Indigo Girls sing: “…the Mississippi’s mighty but it starts in Minnesota at a place that you could walk across with five steps down (“Ghost,” Rites of Passage, Sony 1992).
The waters that eventually form the Dead Sea begin in the regions north of the Sea, beyond the boundaries of present day Israel. The Jordan River pours into Israel just before it feeds the Sea of Galilee, in the region called The Galilee. On both trips we’ve taken now, this is the region that gave my eyes a rest from the brown, dry, desert sands of most of the rest of Israel and Palestine. I welcomed the green trees and lush vegetation, the moisture in the air, the breeze from the water. Visiting there, it is easy to see why it’s such a popular weekend spot and why many tourist groups spend all of their time in that region.
They say “the Jordan River is chilly and wide” but our first glimpse was maybe a car length or two wide at most. It may have been chilly. It was raining that day and cool. But we hopped off the bus in our rain jackets long enough to walk to the middle of a pedestrian bridge and stare down at the patterns the rain drops were marking into the gray Jordan waters.
From that gray and somewhat inauspicious, not-too-wide beginning of our association with the Jordan River, it streams into the Sea of Galilee, mixing in with more rain water and the rest of what’s there. The Sea of Galilee still provides a living for fishermen, in addition to the kibbutzim and the tourists. As I said, it’s gorgeous, with green hills and small towns hugging the shores.
Down south on the other side of the Sea, the Jordan pushes its way out again, following a narrower channel all the way down to the Dead Sea. As it travels south, the mountains of Syria and Jordan line its eastern banks. To the west Israel and the West Bank begin to brown and dry out. By the time the Jordan reaches the Dead Sea, it’s at the end of its journey.
There’s a beauty to the Dead Sea. On a sunny day, the light on the surface can appear like millions of diamonds. There are a few resorts here, mainly for folks to appreciate floating like a cork or to partake of the mineral rich mud and salt gleaned from the evaporating waters. We traveled a long way on a deserted stretch of road, without many towns or houses, in order to reach the place.
But there is no vegetation brushing the shores of this sea. No one fishing. The Dead Sea is so dead, that it continues to die. We could easily see how it had shrunk in the last few decades when our guides pointed out its earlier shores to us, now uncovered and baking in the sun with the rest of the land.
After that we kept going south along the same route, the mountains still on the east and those of the Negeb rising in the west. But we didn’t see water again until we reached the Red Sea, just as Israel and Egypt meet.
What strikes me about the Dead Sea is that it has no outlet. It receives its waters from the most fertile region in the region — waters that carry fine silt and nutrients and life all the way down through the valley. But it just sits there. Nothing happens to all that the Jordan contributes to the Dead Sea. It doesn’t go anywhere. It just sits and gets more and more saline, and less and less watery. At the point where the Jordan pours in, the Dead Sea is all potential – it could be another Galilee! But it just sits and holds all that water. It has no outlet for all that it has received and so it stagnates and evaporates and dies right there in plain view.
Why am I telling you all this? Because it reminds me of our passage from James. We’ve had a lot of fights in the church about “faith” and “works” and if that’s the fight you’re looking for from James here, you are not going to get it. Unlike Paul’s idea of “works” as obeying commandments and the law, James speaks of works as the deeds of charity and mercy that are required of Christians – and that necessarily flow from a life of faith (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 2175). He isn’t pitting faith against works. To paraphrase him, he’s saying that without works your faith is as lifeless as the Dead Sea.
No matter that your faith involves weekly worship, tithing, singing hymns “lustily” in the Wesleyan tradition. No matter that you have your beliefs all in order and you can argue your understanding with anyone who will take you on. No matter that you have Christ “in your heart” and the two of you are getting along splendidly. None of that matters if your faith does not overflow the confines of your own mind and body and spirit and life – overflow into the service of others for God in the world. Without the “overflow” you’re a Dead Sea awaiting evaporation, your boundaries shrinking a little each day.
Sometimes we’re more comfortable with closer boundaries. It’s easier to keep other people where they belong that way. Easier that way to keep family and church and people like me right here and avoid people I would rather not deal with by keeping them there. But if what I worship is the “faith” I have inside this little box, James promises that eventually that little box of death is all I’ll have. Like the Dead Sea, who stores up the gifts it receives from the Jordan rather than letting them flow through and on toward another region.
This really isn’t abstract stuff here. James writes explicitly not to show favoritism to the rich and the powerful, not to make distinctions like that in God’s house (New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume V, p. 195). The problem is how we let the world’s definitions define our life in the church and our envisioned boundaries of the kingdom, like a lake consuming poisonous runoff that then kills the life it holds.
James – and Jesus – defines our neighbors broadly. There isn’t anyone left out of that definition, no matter what census reports, school districts, or railroad tracks designate. We don’t operate with those definitions. We are commanded to love ourselves and our neighbors as God does. We are urged to make neighbors out of strangers and enemies. We are called to become brothers and sisters with people we’ve never met and don’t particularly want to know.
Faith isn’t faith if it stagnates and dies. Faith isn’t faith if it’s only something we think with our heads – if it never seeps out into the whole of our lives. The faith we proclaim in Jesus Christ is the sort of world-altering, kingdom-making faith that changes us so completely that we can’t help but overflow our banks and our shores with embodied love that transforms every corner of the world.
We could try to hold onto all this. Not share it. Claim that we are the bearers of tradition and faith. We could. We could do a Dead Sea imitation.
But we’re called to more. If we really believe all this, we can’t help but be more than that. Like the rushing waters after a storm, spilling out over the banks, recalling us to our baptism, calling us out to our neighbors…chilly and wide, with a home on the other side.
Thanks be to God!
©2009 Deborah E. Lewis