Pentecost +15B - Doers of the word
Every 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. In 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.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore 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.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But 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.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion 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.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
“So what do you do?”
It’s the question that us pastors dread being asked when we meet new people at dinner parties.
“Actually, I’m a pastor.” I always use the word “actually.” To soften the blow a little bit. To apologize in advance for the next few moments of awkward conversation.
Most people respond by telling me what church they attend, or what church they would be attending if they went to church regularly. A lot of people make apologetic remarks about how they should go to church more. Some people in town “confess” to me that they go to Decorah Lutheran, as if that were something that needed to be confessed.
Many people apologize for swearing in front of me earlier in the evening. Or they give me apologetic looks with every pop culture, entertainment, or sports reference, as if being a pastor means I have, at best, zero contact with and, at worst, nothing but contempt for the secular world.
Often, people think that they should only talk to me about spiritual things, or about church things, or about the weird new age stuff that their sister-in-law is all into these days.
Sometimes, when people learn that I’m a pastor, they start telling every church or clergy related joke they know. And sometimes, people are very careful not to tell any of them.
More often than you’d think, they tease, “I’ll bet it’s nice to have a job where you only work one day a week! (Wink, wink, nudge nudge).” As if they are the first person every to come up with that joke. And the thing is, even though they are joking, I can always tell that they secretly suspect it might be true.
“So what do you do?”
It’s a reliable, if tired, conversation starter. And even if many of us have our own reasons for dreading the question, we still keep asking it, because you can learn or infer a lot about somebody very quickly by learning what they do.
This is, of course, what we are celebrating this Labor Day weekend: the things that we do in the world, and the ways that our diverse gifts, talents, and labors are signs of the abundance and blessing of God.
Some of us find great fulfillment in our work; others of us are tolerating our current work but waiting for something better to come along. Some of us view work as just a way to pay the bills; some of us view our work as a way to bear our interests and passions into the world. Some of us hate our jobs. Some of us aren’t able to work, and that feels like grief. Some of us are unemployed or underemployed beyond our will. Some of us choose not to work, in the traditional sense of the word, so that we can focus our energy on raising families or caring for loved ones or caring for our health. Some of us have served a career faithfully and are now retired.
What we do in the world says something about our values, what is important to us. What we do in the world says something about the income that we receive, and the sort of lifestyle we are able or unable to sustain. What we do in the world says something about our education and our training, about our family history, about which skills we have and which skills we don’t. Our work reveals both our gifts and our vulnerabilities, and most of us feel defined, in one way or another, by the work we that do or the work we wish we were doing.
That’s why the question, “So what do you do?” can be such a loaded one.
And that’s why we might, today, look to James for a new answer to that question.
James tells us that, whatever else we do in the world, we should first and foremost be doers of God’s word.
This means two things:
First, that we should remember that our most fundamental identities are not grounded in our jobs or our families or our geography. They are grounded in the good news of God’s love shown to us and to the world in the life, death, and redeeming resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Second, that once we recognize God’s claim on our lives, we prioritize works of faith above all other works that we do in the world. We live out the love, compassion, forgiveness, and generosity that we ourselves have first received from God.
This is the problem with the religious leaders in today’s gospel. They are doing their job of teaching and tending the law just fine, maybe even a little too well. But they have forgotten to be doers of God’s love and justice and compassion and mercy, which should be their first and highest calling.
I mean...it’s not like washing your produce before you eat it is a bad thing. And it’s fine to run the dishwasher. And washing your hands before you eat is actually a really good practice, even though it’s kind of your own business if you don’t. It’s just that none of these things particularly matter to God in an eternal sense. These cleanliness laws were God’s way of helping the people live with health and wholeness and flourishing. But these laws were a sign of love, not a way to earn brownie points.
Jesus cares more about the hearts of the religious leaders than the work they are doing to preserve the law. So also does Jesus care far more about you and your heart and your acts of faith and compassion than he does about the job you do or do not have.
Because before you dreamed of being an astronaut when you were five year old, and before you had a first summer job mowing lawns, before high school biology class showed you that you needed to rethink your plans to be a doctor, before you apprenticed as an electrician or completed a first degree in math education or a graduate degree in theology, before any of this, God is love. God is grace. God belongs to you and you belong to God. Before any of your career goals or career disappointments, you are God’s beloved child, redeemed by Christ’s cross, claimed in baptism, covered in mercy, created with eternal and infinite worth in God’s eyes and heart.
God loves you the same whether you dig in the dirt or work with computers or teach children or make music or browse the classifieds or meet other retired friends for coffee.
Whatever it is you do, God calls you to show Christ’s light as you do it.
This is what we call “vocation.” (Not vacation. Vocation.)
Vocation is this idea that you have a calling and a purpose; Luther believed that each of us, in this lifetime between baptism and resurrection, has a calling to serve God and to bear God’s creative and redeeming work in the world. We bear this call into all areas of our life: our studies, our careers, our family life, our community life. We are, at all points in life, first and foremost doers of the word.
But let’s be clear. The way that you live your vocation is not by only wearing T-shirts with Christian slogans, or by making sure you add a Bible verse to your email signature, or by surreptitiously replacing all the magazines in the reception area of your office with faith-based publications. I mean, you can do those things. But the way that you most faithfully live out your calling to be a doer of the word is simply by living out the values of your faith in each area of your life; by letting the love of God that has been shown to you in Christ spill out in all of your words and your actions and your reactions. This is calling that faith baptism have on our lives. This is the calling into which we invite and encourage Matilda today as we celebrate her baptism.
To be doers of God’s word. For the sake of the world.
So the next time you’re at a dinner party, and that dreaded question comes your way yet again, “So, what is it that you do?”
Perhaps you try on a new response:
“I am a doer of God’s word.”
And see where the conversation goes.