Harry Houdini (1874-1926) He was one of those great characters in American history, yet his story began in Hungary. He was born in Budapest in 1874. The family moved to America when Harry was young. At first, his father was the Rabbi in Appleton, Wisconsin. A few years later, the family moved again to New York City. It was in the Big Apple that Harry tried show business. At first, he tried being a professional magician, with little success. Then, he tried escape acts. We know his name because of those acts. For a twenty-year period, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He freed himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in sight of street audiences.
His most famous stunt came on July 7, 1912. Houdini was taken to the middle of New York’s East River. Once in position, he was locked in handcuffs and leg-irons, then nailed into the crate which was roped and weighed down with two hundred pounds of lead. The crate was then lowered into the water. Houdini escaped in fifty-seven seconds. When the crate was pulled to the surface it was found still to be intact, with the manacles inside. It is a mystery to me. Can I ask you a question? Would anyone here consider doing that stunt? (I don’t even want to get into New York’s East River!) Harry Houdini was a daredevil. Do the people in your life consider you a daredevil? Do the people in your life consider you a risk taker? Do the people in your life consider you a coward? That takes us the scripture lesson for today.
We find ourselves at the end of the second chapter of James, verses fourteen through twenty-six. The topic for today is authenticity. He reminds us how important it is to be genuine in our faith. True discipleship must contain both words and the 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 says simple good behavior is not enough. After all, you cannot earn your salvation. Words and deeds must go hand in hand. They are in perfect balance. Verse 14 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?
To underscore this single point, James gives us three examples. The first is as contemporary as this morning’s newspaper. Authentic Christianity can’t ignore basic human need, clothes and food. That is why we participate in food drives. We must respond. We must respond.The second example comes from the twenty-second chapter of Genesis. After a lifetime of waiting for a son, Abraham is in position to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at God’s request. It is not a story about child abuse. However, it is a story about having the right priorities. Let there be no doubt about it. Abraham’s top priority was God. The third example is Rahab. Do you remember her story?
It comes from the second chapter of Joshua. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for forty years. During that time, they experienced the very best and the absolute worst. Their lives were in a constant state of flux, and only three things remained constant. The first was God, their spiritual leader. The second was Moses, their earthly leader. The third was this great promise of a future home, the Promised Land. Then the unthinkable happened – Moses died. I find it to be one of the cruelest things in the Bible. God did not permit Moses to enter the Promised Land. He only saw it from the distance from the top of Mount Nebo.
With Moses gone, the mantle of responsibility was placed on a new leader, Joshua. Change is not easy. It would be his job to lead the people into the Promised Land. That was not as easy as it sounds. The land was occupied by other people, and they didn’t want leave. It would take a military action. Joshua seemed to be the perfect leader for them. He was as much a warrior as a priest. Being a wise military man, he desires information about his enemy. So, he sends two spies into this foreign land. They are to report back to him when they return. It sounds kind of funny, but it is Bible. As soon as the spies get into the Promised Land, they enter the house of a prostitute, Rahab. (I will let you fill in the blanks.) God has always used the oddest people to do his work. When the authorities come to arrest the spies, Rahab risks everything. She hides the spies and sends the authorities off in another direction. (Joshua 2:1-7) She could have been executed for either one of those things. History is such a funny thing. We downplay the fact the hero in the story was a prostitute. We remember Rahab as a hero. The people of Jericho remember her as a traitor. It is safe to say, Rahab saved the invasion. She risked everything for God. How big of a risk are you willing to take for God?
Years ago, a ship-wrecked off the New England coast. A young member of the coast guard rescue crew said, “We can’t go out. We’ll never get back.” The grizzled old captain replied, “We have to go out. We don’t have to come back.” Most of us can relate to that story because we are simply afraid to go. Fear often paralyzes us. How you ever noticed how many cowards there are in our world?
Several weeks ago, I was talking to a man during the coldest day of this cold winter. The temperature was well below zero, and he longed for the warmth of Florida. I said, “I wish, I could get on a plane and fly south.” He said, “Not me! Those jets come down faster than they go up! I would drive.” I said, “You know you are in more danger driving to Florida then flying to Florida.” He said, “I know. That is why I am staying home.” Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid to fly? Have you ever noticed how many cowards there are in society?
Several years ago, I was at the Canfield Post Office. I was standing in line to buy my stamps. It is not a large lobby, so I could hear the clerk waiting on the person ahead of me. The man was charged $25 to overnight a package to downtown Youngstown. When the man left, I walked up to the clerk and said, “Did you charge that man $25 to take the package downtown? For $20, I would have driven that package downtown.” The clerk responded, “It happens all the time. People are afraid to go into Youngstown.” Bad things can happen anywhere, even the suburbs. Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid to travel downtown? Have you ever noticed how many cowards there are in the life of the church?
The church is part of our society, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find fear within our walls. I know it is true because fear has paralyzed me. One of my few regrets in life is, I never got a D. Min., a Doctor of Ministry. It would not have helped me in my career. However, it would have filled a void in my life. My seminary years were hard, and I feel like I missed so much. There was an academic itch that needs to be scratched. There was a time I really toyed with going back to school. There was always had an excuse. I didn’t have the money. I didn’t have the time. Something was always happening here or at home. My dyslectic eyes would make it impossible. Now my excuse is, I am too old. Can I be honest with you? The reason I never got a D. Min. was fear. I know I am not the smartest person on the planet, and I was afraid I would fail. I did not want to tell you I failed. I really did not want to tell my children I failed. I was afraid of failure, so I never tried. Have you ever been paralyzed by fear? How many churches do you know that are paralyzed by fear?
I see it all the time. Every Sunday morning, I am looking out for visitors. They never sit up with me in the chancel area. They sit out with you! Sometimes they sit next to you. Later, I will talk to long-time worshippers and ask, “Did you talk to the person next to you?” Most of the time, people say, “No!” I ask, “Why?” “Because I didn’t know them. I didn’t know if they were new or not. I didn’t want to welcome him or her and find out they had been here for years. I didn’t want to look foolish, so I said nothing at all.” Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid to talk to some you do not know?
Annually, on Good Friday, we go to Green Haven cemetery to observe the death of Christ. It is a natural place to be because it pounds home the point that Jesus really did die. As the service gets closer, I talk to people to promote the service. Every year, I get the same response. “No way!” Some tell me they are afraid of ghosts. For others, the fear is much more personal. One guy said it clearly, “Someday I am going to spend every day in that cemetery. I don’t want to go early, because I don’t want to be reminded of my own death.” Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid of death?
For over a decade my wife, Kathryn led volunteer in mission’s trips to Eastern Europe. We have been to Russia countless times. We have been to Ukraine several times. We have been to Belarus and Estonia. I have no clue how many trips. I have no clue how many people she has taken. I have no clue how many smiles she produced on the faces of those forgotten orphans. I have no clue how many have discouraged us from going through the years. I had one man say to me, “If she was my life, I would not let her go.” I responded, “That fine because she would have married you anyway.” One of the frustrations of the pandemic is we cannot travel to Eastern Europe. Would you like to go with us? Have you ever been paralyzed by fear?
Our world has no shortage of human need. I don’t need to read you a list; you know the list. God expects us to do something to help. The problem is, we are afraid. That is why we are more comfortable with charity than we are with missions. Charity involves collecting things for strangers. Missions involves getting personally involved with people. The chances of getting the needy of this world to come to our little piece of property is slim. That is why we must go, and that will take a certain amount of risk. Are you willing to risk your personal security? Fear has a way of paralyzing us. Faith lets us free. That is why the story of Rahab is so amazing. She risked it all for God. How much are you willing to risk? That is what makes James 2:14 so disturbing. Verse 14 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? Real Christians risk.
How many of you remember Evel Knievel? He is remembered as an American Daredevil. In his career he knew many highs and many lows. (He broke 37 bones.) His stunts grabbed national attention. He got into being a daredevil for one reason, money. He was not making enough money as a motocross racer, so he decided to promote his motorcycle stunts. His first stunt was to jump over a box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. That stunt got him a sponsor. Soon, Knievel was regularly jumping his Harley Davidson over rows of cars, trucks, and even the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. His most famous stunt came in 1974, when he attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-propelled motorcycle called the X-1. A malfunction caused the bike’s parachute to prematurely open and ruined the jump, but the media storm surrounding the event had already cemented Knievel’s reputation as the king of all daredevils. Would you ever jump over a box of rattlesnakes? Do you consider yourself a daredevil? In authentic Christianity, there is a certain amount of risk taking. How big of a risk are you willing to take for God? Real Christians risk!