One of the places still on my bucket list is Halifax, Nova Scotia. With a population of approximately 400,000 people, it is the largest city on the Canadian Atlantic coast and the largest Canadian city6 east of Quebec. However, those are not the reasons I want to visit her. The reason I want to go to Halifax is trivia. Did you know Halifax is the site of the largest manmade explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons? I learned that fact on the History Channel. This is the story.
The date was December 6, 1917. A French cargo ship, the SS Mont-Blanc, loaded with wartime bombs collided with a Norwegian vessel, the SS Imo. A fire broke out on the French ship and twenty minutes later the explosion took the harbor district of the city. The explosion equaled approximately 2.9 kilotons of TNT. Approximately 2,000 people were killed in the debris, fires and collapsing buildings. Another 9,000 people were injured. I am glad that is not the end of the story.
The world was shocked by the explosion. Some tried to respond. The people of Boston did respond. The authorities in Boston learned about the explosion by telegraph. Within twelve hours a train filled with supplies and volunteers was headed toward Halifax. That train would not be the last. The people of Boston continued to respond, and a bond was forged to between those two northern cities. That bond still exists today. Annually, the city of Halifax sends the city a Boston a Christmas tree to thank them for their help over one hundred years ago.That tree is the official Christmas tree of Boston, which stands proudly in the Boston Commons. If you have ever found yourself in need then you know it is true. Responding to human need is important. That takes us to our scripture reading.
Once again, we find ourselves in the second chapter of James. It is the third week in a row we have looked at this text, so I hope this sounds familiar. I hope this paragraph sounds familiar because it is the now the third time you have heard it. We are at the end of the second chapter of James. The topic is authenticity. James reminds us how important it is for us to be genuine in our faith. We find genuine faith when we combined the right words with the right deeds. In other words, you are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus means to you. You are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus has done for you. You are supposed to be acting in a way that demonstrates to the world your appreciation for this great gift of salvation. James says simple words are not enough. After all, talk is cheap. James also says good behavior is not enough. After all, you can’t earn your salvation. James says we should respond to human needs. Words and deeds must go hand in hand. Verse 14 is key. It says it clearly, “what good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?”
This is not an isolated case in the Bible. Jesus, himself, told us we are to respond to basic human need. That is what he is saying in the parable of the sheep and the goats. You know the story. It is found in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. That chapter contains three great parables. The first is the parable of the ten virgins. The second is the parable of the talents. The third is the parable of the sheep and the goats. The thing that unites those three parables is the theme, judgment! The parable of the sheep and the goats is the most pointed. It is a scene that comes from their rural society. According to the Master the righteous and the unrighteous will be separated, like a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats. The son of man will only welcome the sheep into heaven. Who are the sheep? They are the righteous. During their lives they responded to human need. They gave food to those who were hungry. They gave drink to those who were thirsty. They welcomed the lonely. They gave clothes to those who needed them. They visited the sick and the incarcerated. These acts were not unique to them. They were part of their normal activities. They didn’t know they were really caring for Jesus. The point of the parable is clear. You don’t need an advanced degree. Human need should be one of the great preoccupations of your life. Human need should be one of the great preoccupations of our church.
The founder of the great Methodist movement John Wesley (1703-1791) saw the importance of responding to human need. Do you remember his famous quote? “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all people you can, as long as ever you can.” Wesley lived these words. As a college student, Wesley stopped getting his hair cut to save money to give to the poor. How much do you spend on your hair? How much do you give to the poor?
The history of the church is filled with Christian people responding to human need. I have no clue how many hospitals have been started by the church to help the sick and the maimed. I have no clue how many schools the church has started to educate the uneducated. I have no clue how many meals the church has prepared to feed the hungry. I have no clue how many homes the church has started to care for the aged. I have no clue how many homeless shelters the church has started to help the homeless. I have no clue how much money has been given away to help strangers. I have no clue how many prayers the church has uttered to support the down and out. This is the point. We stand in the middle of a great tradition which has always responded to human need. We have no other option because cares about the needy and the forgotten. Psalm 140:8 says, “The LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.” We must continue to respond to human need!
The problem is after all our work human need has not been eliminated. In fact, our world seems to be growing more desperate. We no longer have the option of ignoring the suffering in our world. Modern transportation and communication have made our world exceedingly small. We see the pictures and hear the stories regularly. We appear to be outnumbered and many are suggesting we do not even try. However, we must respond to the needy in our world because that is what God has called us to do. This is the question that haunts every person of faith. How much do you really care about the suffering people in our world?
In my home I have three pets, two cats and a dog. My cats are named Boris and Natasha. They are named after the old cartoon characters on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Boris is a long-haired gray and white cat. He only cares for one person in this world, my wife. He may be the world’s meanest cat! Boris wishes I would move out. If given the opportunity, Boris would take over some small Central American country. Natasha is a black cat with beautiful yellow eyes and accents. She is the only cat who has ever liked me. I get her to purr every day. The pride of the fleet is Macy, my thirteen-inch beagle. She is the world’s best dog. (Everyone should think their dog is the world’s best dog.) Macy likes everyone, except the mail man and the newspaper lady. I will admit it. She is my prized possession. I feed Macy. I walk Macy. I give her a bath and I play with Macy. Every day I tell her she is the best. She likes everyone but I am her favorite. She is always by my side, and she has a good life. No, she has a great life. When I was sick, Macy walked me every day. She played a major role in my recovery.
Years ago, Macy was sitting in my lap as I was watching the news. The human-interest story at the end of the broadcast was about a woman, who had a great passion for dogs. She was concerned about the number of stray dogs in her community, so she spent a fortune to help them. She opened a dog resort. Her guests only got the best. The problem is caring for so many dogs is expensive. The news reporter told us she sold her own jewelry to help the dogs. The estimated value of the jewelry was $10.5 million. That will buy a great deal of dog food. I petted Macy and thought that is good thing. Dogs are the best!
Then, I read the scripture lesson for today and began to wonder about my priorities. How many needy people could be helped for $10.5 million? The word is priority. While dogs are living in comfort, we have people in our world living in the cold streets. While dogs are living in comfort, we have people in our world dying because they did not get vaccinated from a variety of diseases. While we have dogs living in comfort, we have people in our world starving to death. Someone in our world dies from starvation every seven seconds. While we have dogs living in comfort, we have people searching for clean drinking water. While we have dogs living in comfort, we have people in our world who are not able to read or write. Do not get me wrong. I love dogs, but God is more concerned with people. How much money do you spend keeping your pet comfortable? How much money do you give away to eliminate human suffering? It is a question of priority. What are your priorities?
Do you remember James’s words for us today? Verses fourteen through seventeen says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 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? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” How dead is your faith?