Cheap Faith

Heritage Presbyterian Church

September 5, 2021
Labor Day Weekend
Scripture reading: James 2: 14-26

If you claim Jesus Christ as your Savior, then you have faith.

If you believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, then you have faith.

If you go to church, confess your sins, work to improve yourself, try to make a difference in the world, give to support others, then you have faith.

If you understand and claim that you have salvation because of Jesus Christ, then you have faith.

There are many, many different facets of faith and just as many examples of how it works for each individual.  But in today’s reading you heard from James, each of us is cautioned against having faith but no good deeds to back them up.  James is NOT saying that we must have both; he is saying that having faith brings with it a responsibility to back up that faith with good deeds.  “Faith with works” is the phrase that James uses.

In the following three stories, you will hear of incredible faith, probably more than most of us possess; but I hope you will also see that each individual in these stories had multiple chances to merely lean on faith alone…and yet chose to do more.

Story #1: When Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, his country of El Salvador was broken. Many people lived in poverty, while an elite group manipulated all political and economic power. Roaming teams of death squads ensured things stayed that way.

Just three weeks after becoming Archbishop, Romero’s good friend, Father Rutilio Grande, was murdered by one of those death squads. Another five priests would be assassinated in the Archdiocese of San Salvador during the three years Romero was Pastor. 

When a military junta seized power in 1979, Archbishop Romero began broadcasting weekly sermons over the radio, openly criticized the regime and its supporters, and denouncing cases of abduction, torture, and mass murder.  It was then that he became known as “The voice of those without voice.”

In 1980, tensions erupted into a 12-year civil war which left over 75,000 people dead. Archbishop Romero set up pastoral programs to assist the victims of oppression. At the same time, he became even more outspoken, condemning human rights violations and defending the preferential option for the poor.

Archbishop Romero appealed desperately and boldly to the Salvadoran military to stop killing their own people.  He said, “No soldier is obliged to obey an order that goes against the law of God.  I beseech you. I beg you. I command you! In the name of God: Cease the repression!” It was his last radio broadcast.

At 6:30 PM, on Monday, March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero was celebrating Mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital. A car pulled up outside, and a gunman fired a single shot from the doorway straight into Oscar Romero’s heart. 

Moments earlier, Romero had been speaking about how, “Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grain of wheat that dies…”. 

Recognized as “a martyr for the faith” on October 14, 2018, in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis proclaimed Oscar Arnulfo Romero a saint. On that day, Francis chose to wear the same blood-stained belt Romero was wearing when he died. 

[From “Remembering St Oscar Romero: 40 years after his assassination,” Vatican News By Seàn-Patrick Lovett, 2017-2021, Dicasterium pro Communicatione]

Story #2: Luba Tryszynska (try-zen-ska), a Polish Jew, was sent to a Nazi death camp in southern Poland in January 1943 with her husband, Hersch, and 3-year-old-son Isaac.  At one of the lineups, her son was torn from her arms and thrown on a truck bound for the gas chambers.  “I last saw him on that truck, he was crying and so was I,” she remembered.  

Hersch was assigned to work as a carpenter at the gas chambers but was later shot.

It was on her second night in that death camp that this woman, later known as the “Angel of Belsen,” acted as any mother would when she heard children crying.  Luba opened the door of her barracks that night in the summer of 1944, and the sight and sounds stunned her.  A dump truck was unloading a group of 14 crying Dutch Jewish children into the mud and leaving them there to die.  “Those sounds I could never forget … their cries were bitter, they were unbearable,” said Luba.

She rounded up those children, none older than 14.  She coaxed kitchen workers to give her extra food for the children – and stole what she could not beg.  She kept the children busy by assigning them different chores.  She even approached the camp Kommandant to beg for blankets for the children.  She kept them inside her barracks and quiet, hoping to make them as invisible as possible to the Nazi guards.

Inmates not only faced death from the brutal guards, but from the cold, starvation, and pestilence that thrived in the camp.  One of these children, Jack Rodriguez, who now lives in Los Angeles, said, “Nobody wanted to make the decision to go ahead to shoot us,” said Rodriguez. “Luba filled the vacuum, and had she not done that, they would have shot us if we started to become a nuisance.  We were busy from morning until night trying to survive,” remembered Rodriguez, who was then one of the oldest children at age 14. “We tried to look for water, to wash and clean the other children. The rest of the time we were talking about food.  I remember being hungry the most – and the lice that were under my skin.”

Thanks to her personal crusade to keep them alive, 44 out of 46 children survived until the Bergen-Belsen camp in northern Germany was liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945.

On the 50th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, 31 of those surviving children thanked her at an Amsterdam synagogue ceremony coinciding with the Jewish Passover.  

The city’s deputy mayor presented her with the Silver Medal of Honor for Humanitarian Deeds on behalf of Dutch Queen Beatrix.

“I gave them my love because I had lost my own child,” Luba said after the presentation. “I always wondered why God let me live, why I was saved…it was to love these children.”

After the war, Luba moved to Sweden, where she met her second husband, Saul Frederick, also an Auschwitz survivor. She had two children – a son and a daughter – from her second marriage. Luba and her husband now live in Miami.

“I think the children gave me life,” Luba said. “My own child was taken away and I had no feeling for life, and I had no purpose. Then I found these children.”

[From “Angel Of Belsen Death Camp Survivors Honor The Woman Who Came To The Aid Of Children,” Sunday, April 16, 1995, Jenifer Chao, Associated Press]

Story #3: Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into an aristocratic family: his mother was daughter of the preacher at the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his father was a prominent neurologist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin.

All eight children were raised in a liberal, nominally religious environment and were encouraged to dabble in great literature and the fine arts. Bonhoeffer’s skill at the piano led his family to believe he was headed for a career in music. When Dietrich announced at age 14 that he intended to become a minister and theologian, his family was not pleased.

Bonhoeffer graduated from the University of Berlin in 1927, at age 21, and then spent some months in Spain as an assistant pastor to a German congregation. Then it was back to Germany to write a dissertation, which would grant him the right to a university appointment. He then spent a year in America, at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, before returning to the post of lecturer at the University of Berlin.

In January 1933, Hitler rose to power, becoming chancellor of Germany.  Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions intensified – as did his opposition, which included theologian Karl Barth, pastor Martin Niemoller, and young Bonhoeffer. Together with other pastors and theologians, they organized the Confessing Church, which announced publicly in its Barmen Declaration (1934) its allegiance first to Jesus Christ: “We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and must recognize yet other happenings and powers, personalities and truths as divine revelation alongside this one Word of God… “

In 1937, Bonhoeffer wrote “The Cost of Discipleship,” a call to more faithful and radical obedience to Christ and a severe rebuke of comfortable Christianity; he wrote, “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

During this time, Bonhoeffer was teaching pastors in an underground seminary because the government had banned him from teaching openly. After the seminary was discovered and closed, the Confessing Church became reluctant to speak out against Hitler, and moral opposition proved increasingly ineffective.  So, Bonhoeffer changed his strategy. 

To this point he had been a pacifist who tried to oppose the Nazis through religious action and moral persuasion.  Now Bonhoeffer signed up with the German secret service to serve as a double agent.  While traveling to conferences throughout Europe, he was supposed to be collecting information about the places he visited; instead, he was helping Jews escape the Nazis. He also became a part of a plot to overthrow, and later to assassinate, Hitler.

As his tactics were changing, he went to America to become a guest lecturer. But he couldn’t shake a feeling of responsibility for his country. Within months of his arrival, he realized, “I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

After his return to Germany, his resistance efforts were discovered.  In April 1943, two men arrived in a black car, put Bonhoeffer in the back, and drove him to Tegel Prison where he spent the next two years corresponding with family and friends, pastoring fellow prisoners, and reflecting on the meaning of “Jesus Christ for today.” As the months progressed, he began outlining a new theology, penning lines that were inspired by his reflections on the nature of Christian action in history.

Eventually, Bonhoeffer was transferred to Buchenwald and then to the extermination camp at Flossenbürg. On April 9, 1945, just one month before Germany surrendered, he was hanged with six other resisters.

A decade later, a camp doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s hanging described the scene: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

[From “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Christian Theologian and Resister,” Christianity Today magazine, September 2021]

What is it to live the full life of a believer who doesn’t take grace or love or faith for granted?

What is it to live as if your works mattered in the sight of the One who loves you the most?

What is it to live a life completely free of cheap faith?

It’s everything, believers…absolutely everything.