Sermon: PENTECOST 15, September 2nd, 2018
In the Name...
Three men appeared at the Pearly Gates and St. Peter asked what each of them had done as a profession. The first said he had been a surgeon. “Welcome to Heaven and eternal bliss”, Peter replied. The second said he had been a teacher. “Welcome to Heaven and eternal bliss”, Peter replied. The third said he had been an HMO administrator. “Welcome to Heaven”, Peter replied, “You can stay for two days.”
Now, in our scripture this morning we heard the injunction from St. James, "be doers of the word and not merely hearers", and if there is one thing which is unique about the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, one thing that sets it apart from other world religions, it is that injunction to "do". To work, to act, to effect, to execute, to accomplish, to produce, to achieve. To do.
Since we live in a do-oriented society, this fits right in with our perspective on life. That is, we seem compelled to be busy, active, in motion, doing something. No matter our age, doing seems to give us purpose and meaning. It's the primary way we identify ourselves. Isn't that the first question we often ask a stranger, "What do you do?" It's obsessive. I usually tell people I do fire insurance. Even when we do nothing we feel we have to call it something. And that's how the world is. It's funny, though, this is one of those all too rare cases where it's because the Church has influenced the world, not vice versa.
Most world religions see humans as the playthings or victims of the gods - pawns in the game of Fate. Man knows nothing and can do nothing. Everything has been written, as it were, in the stars. The Bible, on the other hand, speaks of a very different world, a world in which humans have a place of dignity and power, where Man and God can and do relate to each other, a world in which life has meaning and purpose. where a man may change his stars. On the whole, a much more positive statement, an optimistic, healthier outlook, and one which calls for action. For work.
Now, at this point it might be apropos to say a few words about how "doing the word" of God means leading upright, decent, moral lives. Or, perhaps, I could say something about how "doing the word" means attending worship or participating in charitable activity. And these would be in keeping with the meaning and context of this text. But, there is another work which has a Biblical context which we might not have considered before and that is "work" itself.
The Bible begins with work. God's life-giving work of creation. The Genesis story tells of a God who is very busy, but after he's made this brave new world and all its amazing creatures, he's not content to just sit back and watch his Garden of Eden grow. No, there's one last thing he does and that is create a junior partner - Man. Man is created, first and foremost, to be God's viceroy with dominion over plants and animals, to give names to things and thus to control them. Even after Sin enters the picture and the intended harmony is disturbed, this order of things is not entirely undone. Man is still to be the moulder of his environment, using his energy, effort, and skill to serve God, the world, and his fellow human beings. It is through work that each person contributes to the general well-being of the community, but, more than that, work is part of the covenant.
In Deuteronomy, after receiving the Ten Commandments, Moses tells the people, "Take care to follow the Laws I give you", and one would expect a prophet to say that, but, here's the reason they should obey, "for the Lord is bringing you into a good land where bread will not be scare and you will lack nothing", sounds good to me, "a land where you can dig copper out of the hills."
Hold on. Dig copper? Mining? That's not exactly a life of leisure. What happened to the milk and honey? Well, it's there, but, we have to milk the cows and tend the bees. The Promised Land is a place to be free to work for yourself and prosper accordingly.
The rabbis always insisted that young scholars needed to learn a trade before embarking on their studies, not to demean study but to enhance it. Idleness was not condemned just as a bad habit, but, because it amounted to disobeying God, to opting out of the covenant. The earning of money, the acquisition of goods, of surplus, was seen as necessary to fulfil the commandments to support the widow, the orphan, the sick - the people who could not work.
When the prophets condemned the rich, it wasn't because the rich were rich. On the contrary, wealth was seen as a sign of God's blessing. No, when the prophets condemned it was because the rich were not sharing. They were spending on themselves. They were, as the prophets Malachi and Haggai said, living in fine panelled houses while the Temple, the Lord's house, had a leaky roof. The work of the priests and Levites was suffering because the tithes weren't coming in. Jesus even told a parable about a rich man who went to Hell because he neglected the beggars. He didn't abuse or mistreat them. He just ignored them and that lack of care for his fellow man was what earned him his place in the after-life.
When we hear in Scripture that faith without works is dead, works, in this context, doesn't just mean religious things. Those are important, but, everything from computer programming to lawn care, from nursing to auto repair, everything is a spiritual activity. And if we do these works without a theology, without understanding that we do them for a higher purpose than personal food, clothing, and shelter, then, however much we may enjoy them or however much money we may make, they profit us nothing.
I know a person, by the way, with a good white-collar job, who never drives past anybody working outdoors, a garbage truck, road crew, or building site, without saying a short prayer for the workers and asking a blessing on their families.
The power to work is a God-given power for the service of God and neighbour, enhancing creation and society. But, it is also a power that can be corrupted and distorted so that man can set himself against God and neighbour, destroy creation, and create a society of strife and greed. That's why the Christian bears a special responsibility to live and act with God in all aspects of life and that includes how and when we do our jobs.
In the Gospels, we hear that people said of Jesus, "He has done all things well." That's really quite a statement. As we look at our own lives are we doing all things well? Or, are we just doing all things? To do anything well means to do it for the honour of God as part of the covenant relationship.
So, be "doers of the word and not merely hearers" in every work you do, and all the rest will fall into place.
In the Name…