Sermon for St. James the Elder, Apostle, Year A
Based on I Kgs. 19:9-18; Acts 11:27-12:3a; Mk. 10:35-45
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
In all three of our lessons today, we are given brief snap-shots of what it means to be a saint. The Bible passages make it clear that saints are not perfect. They are ordinary people ~ like us. They all have moments of weakness, self-pity and self-glory ~ like us. On the other hand, they, like us, are forgiven sinners who occasionally ~ more by accident than design ~ "get it right."
With the abundance of God's grace working in them, saints are able to accomplish marvellous things for God. People like the prophet Elijah and James inspire us because they are models, exemplars, of what it means to obey and follow God. They are saints because they have "counted the cost" ~ even to the point of death for the sake of loyalty to God.
Here are three stories of other saints who continue to inspire and motivate people around the world. Saints ~ quite ordinary ~ who are able to inspire and motivate us because of their extraordinary love and faithfulness to God and their neighbour.
William White tells the following story: "There were two men who were inseparable friends from childhood. Though their love bound them together, a series of unfortunate circumstances forced them to live in separate and hostile countries. One day one of the men, a merchant, came to visit his friend. The king was informed that a stranger from an enemy country was walking the streets of his capital, and the man was arrested immediately. After a brief trial the king ordered the executioner to remove his head."
"The merchant fell to his knees and begged the king to allow him to complete his business before he was killed. "Your majesty, all my money is invested with other merchants, and we have no written documents," he cried. "If I die without clearing my financial affairs, my wife and children will be destitute. Permit me to go home and set my business in order and I will return."
"Do you take me for a fool?" the king demanded. "Who has ever heard of a prisoner returning without force?" "Your majesty," the man replied, "I have a friend in your country who will be security for me."
"The king ordered the friend to his court and asked, "Will you be security for your companion? Understand that if he does not return you will die!"
"I count it an honor to offer my life as security for my closest friend," the man replied. The king was astonished and allowed the merchant one month to finish his business. "If you do not return in 30 days we will cut off the head of your companion."
"On the last day of the month the king waited until dusk for the merchant to return. Just before the sun was to set the king ordered the executioner to remove the head of the prisoner. As the man knelt before the great wooden block, there was a shout from those assembled. "The merchant is coming!"
"As the man arrived he saw that his friend was about to be slain. Quickly he moved to the execution block and pushed his friend aside gently. "I am ready to assume my punishment," he said, kneeling."
"The other man was not easily convinced. "I am ready to die in your place," he said firmly. The two men argued for several minutes, each declaring his intention to be the one who would be executed. Meanwhile the king and his court watched the discussion with amazement."
"Finally the king ordered the sword to be removed, saying, "I have never witnessed such devotion in all my life. Both of you are pardoned!"
Such devotion reflects that of the saints.
As Dennis Fakes has observed: "Servanthood does not always sell well. James and John understood the worldly terms of power and influence, but they did not understand servanthood. Neither do we. Many in the Christian world would rather talk of mansions in heaven and how Jesus is coming to take me home. Someone once said, "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven."
"Others have understood servanthood well. Albert Schweitzer in one. Born in 1875 in Alsace, then Germany, but now a part of France; he died in September, 1965, in Gabor, Africa, in Lambarene, where he had built a hospital. For 50 years he ministered to the sick and developed his philosophy expressed as reverence of life."
"Schweitzer was a genius. He had published two scholarly books; was an expert in music; and was known by all for his multiple talent. He describes how he got to where he was: "One evening in 1904, I came upon a Paris Missionary Society report, there was a complaint that the mission had not enough workers to carry on its work in Gabon. The conclusion ran: 'Men and women who can reply simply to the Master's call, "Lord, I am coming" ~ those are the people whom the church needs.' Schweitzer then confessed: "My search was over."
On another occasion, Schweitzer underscored the importance of servanthood when he said: "I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found a way to serve."
Are you happy? Have you sought and found a way to serve our wonderful Triune God? The following story, told by James S. Hewett, stresses the high cost some people are prepared to pay for being faithful disciples of Jesus.
"At an International Youth Gathering, Professor Bruce Riggins was sharing with 3,800 attendees that he had met a very dedicated Christian working in an amazing way with the underprivileged people in London, England. He wanted to know what inspired her Christian faith and action. She shared her story of how seeing another Christian's faith converted her: She was a Jew fleeing the German Gestapo in France during World WarII. She knew she was close to being caught and she wanted to give up. She came to the home of a French Huguenot. A widow came to that home to say that it was time to flee to a new place. This Jewish woman said, "It's no use, they will find me anyway. They are so close behind." The Christian widow said, "Yes, they will find someone here, but it's time for you to leave. Go with these people to safety ~ I will take your identification and wait here."
"The Jewish woman then understood the plan; the Gestapo would come and find this Christian widow and think she was the fleeing Jew."
"As Professor Riggins listened to this story, the Christian woman of Jewish descent looked him in the eye and said, "I asked her why she was doing that and the widow responded, 'It's the least I can do; Christ has already done that and more for me.' The widow was caught and imprisoned in the Jewish woman's place, allowing time for her to escape. Within six months the Christian widow was dead in the concentration camp."
"This Jewish woman never forgot that. She too became a follower of Jesus Christ and lived her life serving others. She met God through the greatest love a person can give ~ personal self-sacrifice. In faith, an authentic Christian lives her or his life serving others, saying, "That's the least I can do considering what great sacrifices Christ has already made for me."
May we, like Elijah, listen to God's sound of sheer silence speaking to us so that we can go and serve God wherever God directs us. May we, like James the elder and apostle be prepared to suffer the consequences of our faith in the face of hostility and persecution for the cause of Christ and his gospel. May we, like James and a host of other saints down through the ages right up to the present day learn and practice that greatness and being first means serving others by being servants of all.
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