“Our Real Employment”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Our Job Description: Change the World”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
September 2, 2018
17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;
24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up? Adults always used to ask children that question, right? I know that at times I wanted to be a cowboy, an astronaut, a football player, and before I felt called to enter the ministry I tried out for the Army band. I had a short stint as a cowboy but that is a story for another day. Suffice to say I spent more time on a John Deere than I did on “Silver,” and blue suede boots on a ranch don’t last long. None of that other stuff worked out, and the ministry part, well, I’m still hoping to make a go of that! Interesting that “what we want to be when we grow up” always gets interpreted as a career question, isn’t it? This morning I want to invite us to think about “what we want to be” as about more than the work we do to earn a living. I want to challenge us to think about what we want to be in terms of something far more than 9 to 5 and a paycheck.
This morning is the day before Labor Day, a day set aside to honor workers. President Cleveland designated Labor Day as a holiday after worker strikes against the Pullman Railroad car company became violent. The economy had turned bad and Pullman had cut wages but didn’t cut rent on the company housing employees had to live in or prices in the company store workers had to shop in. Things escalated and the federal government sent in soldiers. There were riots and clashes and ultimately people died. Some say the President Cleveland initiated Labor Day to try to win back favor with workers after his actions were part of what led to the violence.
Whatever the reason, the purpose of Labor Day was to honor the value of work and of workers. As Christians we value labor, we give thanks to God for the abilities and opportunities we have to work, to make a living. We honor all those who work and we should seek fair and just wages and conditions and dignity for all workers, from the poorest immigrant farm workers who these days are being used a political pawns by some, to those whose work is white-collar, executive and who are benefitting from the a capitalist, free-market system that has made them wealthy. But more than that I want to invite us to reflect on that work we are called to do as Christians.
I believe our work as Christians ought to be a higher priority than any other work we do. As one worker put it, “I repair shoes to pay bills, my life’s work is to bless others in the name of Christ.” I believe that the work of the Christian life is not something we retire from or turn away from no matter where or how we worship. Our life’s work, our Life Job Description as Christians is to change the world. Our vision for the world should be summed up in the line from the Lord’s Prayer: “on earth as it is in heaven.”
What is it that we are to work at to make things “on earth” the way God intends? Our text this morning is from what we call the Letter of James. The part we read seems to jump around topic to topic. It goes from saying every act of giving is “from above,” to saying we are a “kind of first fruits” of God. It then turns to urging us to be quick to listen but slow to speak or give in to anger. At the heart of it he urges us to be doers and not just hearers of the word. This is the central point of a living faith. He goes on to say that doers will be blessed in their doing, and finally he defines “pure religion” as caring for orphans and widows.
James words balance out our tendency to take the Apostle Paul’s words to the extreme. Paul reminds us that our salvation is a gift and we do not do anything to earn it. Paul was writing this to say our religious rituals are not what save us, nor our religious beliefs. He was never meaning we get saved and then never do another thing. He often urged his congregations to minister to one another and to the world. But some have taken his words to the extreme and tried to say that the church should have nothing to do with political things or with the world, misjudging both as being different from attending to spiritual matters.
James balances that false assumption with his words. When the faith community divides the spiritual world from the material world, and divides faith from works it makes false divisions. We know these things aren’t true, and we don’t give in to them. We know our work is spiritual but it is in the world. We know our calling is to live out our faith by working for a better world. Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim the good news that God’s reign –w hat he called the Kingdom of God – was at hand. He wasn’t just talking about heaven as a far off place we get to after we die. He was talking about living by a different set of values here in this world, living and working to make this world a loving and just place for all people. Because when you get down to it that is as good a definition of heaven as there is: a loving, and just place for all people. We are called to be laborers in that vineyard.
This morning I want to commend you laborers in the vineyard and call others to join in who may not fully understand what your life’s work is. I want to commend you laborers who bring in food for those who are physically hungry, both those we feed through Arlington Community Services, and the children we feed through Micah’s Backpack. I want to commend you laborers in the vineyard who help provide a place of sanctuary and hope through our ministry with homeless families through Family Promise. I want to challenge those of you who have not ever spent the night to volunteer for that this coming October when we host the families again. Get to meet and know these folks and your spirit will grow in ways you never imagined as you see the dignity of their quest to move from a nomadic life to one of stability and hope.
I want to commend those of you who invest in the work not only of mercy, but of justice. Our mercy ministries like Arlington Community Services help for short term immediate needs. Our justice ministries help change systems so that people can have new hope for life. If you haven’t had a chance to attend a Neighborhood Accountability Board I want to challenge you to sit in on one. You will see this is not a “slap on the wrist” to violent young thugs. This is truly a way for them to take accountability for their actions and their attitudes, to change them in a positive way with the support and guidance of a community that cares about their future. The ridiculously unjust “for-profit prison system” provides neither accountability from those sent there or from those who are getting rich off of those who are often unjustly accused, convicted and sentenced for petty crimes. The NABs are truly a way to transform lives for the better. In the same way our work to increase the funding for services to those being released from prison through the Jacksonville Reentry Center isn’t coddling unworthy gangsters. It is about helping them get what they need as brothers and sisters of ours in Christ. It is about helping them get and keep jobs, have housing to live in short term until they can get settled permanently. It is about getting ongoing mental health care to prevent a return or a continuation in addictions that drove them to crime in the first place. These are the ways we are doers of the word.
We are about to begin our fall house meetings as the first step in our Biblical Justice process. I challenge all of you to make a commitment to attend one of these as your Christian work. I don’t believe saying “that’s not my cup of tea,” or that’s not my thing, is what we would say to our boss if she told us to do something at work and we didn’t want to do it. As you have heard me say over and over, the Bible is clear on our work. The Prophet Micah tells us God says, this is what I require of you, O mortal: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” That is our job description and there isn’t an “or” in there. It is our calling to do all three. Come learn how to grow spiritually by doing something new, something that challenges your false assumptions, and your limited faith.
When we celebrate communion it brings all of this together. It reminds us we are connected with one another and with God by the love of Christ. It reminds us we share the food and drink that sustains body and soul by the grace of God. It invites us to enter into community with all people who hunger and thirst physically and spiritually and to find satisfaction in a community that serves one another. It invites us to imagine a different world, a world where everyone is fed, blessed, loved, treated justly and know that they have a place in God’s creation. This is the world that communion invites us to imagine and envision and work for.
Whatever you wanted to be when you grew up, whatever career you may have chosen or may have retired from, God’s work is still calling. Let us be doers of the word, not just hearers or believers. Last week I talked about how the love of God changes the world and how we are called to go out into the world with that love and keep working to change the world. I want to talk more about that in the coming weeks.
For now I want to commend you laborers who know your real career is doing Christ’s work. I want to uplift those of you who are seeking ways to find more meaning in your life of faith. I want to challenge those of you who are only believers to become doers of the word. Don’t be afraid. God will sustain and supply everything you need to do this work. Don’t worry about your time or wages, your reward is the infinite, unending, all powerful love of God and the knowledge that God will speak the word to you the Master speaks to the good and faithful one who serves: “Well done, well done, well done!” AMEN.