A Completely Incomplete Sermon

My sermon yesterday needed to do two things:  1) serve the normal function of a Sunday message in terms of teaching, evoking, exhorting, and encouraging the people gathered for worship; and 2) drum up awareness of and enthusiasm for next week’s Million Meal March.

It was in a sense a teaching-oriented promotion of the centerpiece of the Food For Thought series: when the people of Good Shepherd won’t hear a sermon; they will be the sermon on March 30 as they package 250,000 meals with our partners at Stop Hunger Now

So I based the message on James 2:14-24 and called it Completely Incomplete.  It won’t take you long to figure out why:


            When I was a kid, I went to the grocery store down the street from our house with my mom and
            Which reminds me of the time in high school when I was driving in a strange town when we
            And that makes me think of the time in seminary when I organized a small group from our very small to go
            And all of that leads me to what I want to talk to you about today, which is
          Frustrated yet?  Annoyed yet?  Don’t you just want me to finish one of those sentences so you can know just what the     I’m talking about?  What good is an incomplete sentence?  None!  You don’t even have to have one of those middle school sentence diagram thingy-s to understand that, do you?  And preaching with incomplete sentences is not a way to grow a church or build a following or lead to an altar call.  Incomplete sentences are so very . . . .
            And as we move into week 2 of Food For Thought and in particular as we prepare for week 3 of it!, that’s what James says to us today:  we have some incomplete sentences running around in church-land, USA.  Now: James is a rubber meets the road kind of guy and the book that bears his name is a rubber meet road kind of sermon.  He’s less interested in the philosophy of the faith and more interested in what it looks like when you live it out.  That’s why this section of her sermon starts out in 2:14: 
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 
 Rhetorical question in which the implied answer is, “No!”  And so then James gets quite specific (which, by the way, any good sermon does!) in 2:15: 
 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.
Notice what it doesn’t say about food.  Not that he’s hungry.  Not that he’s missing dessert.  Not that he needs more protein.  Not even that he’s lacking the eight essential vitamins and iron that are in Kellog’s Raisin Bran.  Nope:  DAILY FOOD.  Basic, daily caloric intake to live.  And he is missing it not just today, but as a way of life.
            So:  suppose . . . in the church or beyond it, close to home or far away . . . someone is in this place.  Except today, in 2014, we really DON’T have to suppose, do we?  Check it out:   

            And to what James supposes and to what we SEE there – in both cases centering on food – James goes on to 2:16: 
 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?
 Haunting question – what good is it?  You know what he is stating by asking there?  What good is it if your sympathy is aroused by the video but you don’t ever act on it?  NO GOOD.  What good is it if your compassion gets stirred up but that’s where it stops?  NO GOOD.  What good is it if you have really good intentions but not concrete actions?  NO GOOD.  What good is it if you SAY SOMETHING but DO NOTHING?  NO GOOD.  No good at all.  The answer is embedded in the question:  What good?  NO GOOD!
            And look especially at the contrast built into 2:16 there: READ.  “Says” & “Does nothing.”  Say something & do nothing.  You know what a say something & do nothing person is?  An incomplete sentence!  Frustrating. Annoying.  Of no value.  And James tells us that incomplete sentences, the SAY SOMETHING & DO NOTHING types aren’t . . . really . . . Xns.  Look at 2:17: 
 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
 We should understand that language here, because there has not been a single time when we’ve invited all people into a dead religion.  But every time into a living relationship.
            Which is why James doesn’t leave us hanging there, like some kind of dangling participle.           Look at 2:20-22: 
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[a]? 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. 
 And check 2:22 again:  READ.  Faith gets made complete not by what Abraham said or believed or promised or sang but by what he DID.  He got up on his feet, picked up Isaac in his hands, and prepared to obey God’s command.  And so returning to the original suppose – remember the guy without daily food? – and the incomplete sentence that IS the religious jargon of 2:16 – the thrust of James’ sermon here becomes very clear.  Your hands complete the sentences your words start.  The only way to move from the SAY SOMETHING & DO NOTHING mentality is to drill down of 2:22:  faith was made complete by what he did.  Your hands complete the sentences your words start.  You don’t tell people to go on peace and be well fed and warm; your hands get to work ensuring that can happen.
            It’s a bit like what happened in small US town many years ago when a small boy was rescued from a house fire by a brave fire fighter who climbed up a scalding hot pipe to get into the bedroom and deliver him.  Sadly, the rest of the family died, leaving the boy an orphan.  The community rallied around, many wanted to adopt him, and so finally the authorities had a hearing to determine who would best care for the boy.  A couple of some wealthy stood up, entered their person P & L statement as evidence and said “we can provide best!”  Then a lovely, older, single woman stood and said, “I can give him the care & love that he needs.  I’ve got the time.”  And then a man stood up and instead of saying something, showed the judge his hands.  Burned, scalded, scarred hands.  And everyone, including the boy himself, knew: that’s the firefighter who didn’t wishgood things for the boy, he sacrificedhis health for him.  Didn’t have to say a word; just had to show his hands.  That’s all it took.  REFRAIN
            So here’s where we are.  Next week, you – YOU – have an unparalleled opportunity to have your hands complete the sentences your words and my words start.  This room will become an Assembly Line – actually about 30 assembly lines.  Instead of hearing a sermon you will BE the sermon.  Your hands will dig in, work out, and prepare Meals Ready Eat that we will then ship to typhoon-ravaged Philippines.  We did this in 2011 in this same room.  The church was smaller then and yet we still have over 2000 people show up.  And those 2000+ people prepared and packed 192,000 meals that were then shipped to Uganda in Africa.  Here’s what it looked like (video if have it; AV if don’t).  This year, the goal is more radical.  We’ll use not only this room but the K-Zone as well and we are part of a network of church who are shooting for a million meals together.  It’s the Million Meal March.  And GS’s commitment is . . . get this . . . 250,000 meals; ¼ of the goal. 
            Listen: your good intentions never saved a single life. Only your get-involved hands will.  Today’s message is almost like one long incomplete sentence on behalf of the whole community that next week’s experience will complete.  We’ll make it fun, we’ll make it energizing, you’ll see me in a hair net, when you’re done you’ll want to do it again next year, and you will do more with your hands in an hour than I could do in a year’s worth of sermons.
            Because there is one thing I don’t want to be guilty of: taking the Lord’s name in vain.  Huh?  Yep.  Religious jargon – Go in peace, keep warm, be well fed – that’s not backed up by concrete help takes the Lord’s name in vain.  Anything that uses God’s name to your own benefit and manipulates others with it – that’s taking the Lord’s name in vain even more than profanity.  A bit like the St. Patrick’s Day parade in NYC one year where a man who was hungry had a hat out for donations.  And as a couple strolled by him he said, “May the blessing of the Lord, which brings love & joy & wealth & a fine family, follow you all the days of your life.”  They continued walking without acknowledging and so he finished:  “And never catch up to you!”  Hey: I want that kind of blessing to catch up with me and then surpass me!  It only happens as I live the kindness my words speak.  REFRAIN
            And can I just say that historically speaking you all are the best people I’ve ever met at completing sentences?  At translating your emotion into action?  The first Sunday Hunger Games in 2011 is one example.  You showed up in droves, you brought friends, and you worked and worked and worked until the 192,000.  You were motivated by images of famine and you ACTED on it.  Then 14 months ago, your emotions were stirred when we talked about the scourge of the domestic sex trafficking industry.  But you didn’t just get mad; you didn’t just get heart-broken; you got unbelievably generous.  $400K on a single Sunday for Home.  Rescued girls are now living in safety and restoration because your hands completed the sentences your words started.  So I have every confidence that you will respond to this, you’ll invite even friends and neighbors who may not believe what we believe but still want to help fight hunger, we’ll make the 250K meals, and you’ll see me in the hair net. 
            And you know what is even a greater concern than next Sunday?  Will you move from a servant event to a servant lifestyle?  Will you allow the MMM to be a springboard into that kind of life?  I don’t mean stopping for every person holding a sign at a street corner – though there are worse things – I mean investing in the many agencies that deal with hunger & poverty on a consistent basis?  It’s why I love our own Open Arms ServeTeam (AV) which trains young women trapped in cycles of homelessness how to prepare resumes, conduct interviews, get jobs.  It’s not toxic charity; it’s empowering people.  Takes time, investment, skills, but the GS team is fabulous.  Their kindness speaks much louder than their eloquence. 
            So will you?  Will you move from event to lifestyle?  Whether church programs or simply how you treat your spouse, your kids, your parents?  Don’t fill the air with empty promises.  Fill their lives with hand-centered help.  REFRAIN.
            Because when I was a kid, I went to the grocery store down the street from our house with my mom and I’d always ask her for a Baby Ruth and she’d always say no because that money could be better spent, even on people who needed it.
            Which reminds me of the time in high school when I was driving in a strange town when we picked up a hitchhiker and gave him a ride to McDonald’s where we gave him a burger & fries.
            And that makes me think of the time in seminary when I organized a small group from our very small church to go the Salvation Army in Lexington, KY and served dinner.  The first time that little church had ever done outreach.
            And all of that leads me to what I want to talk to you about today, which is having your hands complete the sentences that your words start.