SCRIPTURE: JAMES 1:17-27; MARK 7:1-8



In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!


          A middle-aged woman was telling her girlfriends of her experience looking for a new dentist. She said as she waited for him to come in she noticed is credentials on the wall. Looking at them carefully she said his full name was the same as a very handsome, athletic young man she had known in high school. She had been quite fond of him in fact.

          When the dentist came in he was bald, wrinkled, and overweight. She thought to herself, “No way is this the person I knew. Being a dentist must be really hard work.” Still, after a while she asked, “What high school did you attend?” It was her high school. Then she asked, “What year did you graduate?” It was her year. With care she said, “I was there then.” At that point she told her girlfriends, “That ugly, old jerk asked, “So what did you teach?” Sometimes life and work can be hard on us, and very hard on our egos.

          Andrea enjoys working in the garden, while I prefer to get on my bad boy cutting machine and mow everything. I mowed the entire property in a short period of time, while Andrea worked for over an hour and half to get the job done. I have been married to Andrea long enough to know when she needs to stop the outside work. The amount of time that we spend working outside is nothing compared to those of you who work in the agricultural fields all day long, day after day.

          I am amazed at your endurance. Think about it, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who support our lifestyles with their manual labor every day.

          Those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition have a deep respect for work. We understand that labor is at the heart of life and creation. The very opening lines of scripture are about God laboring over creation. In the first three chapters of the Bible we are given two different views of work.

          As God works, and models for us, work is a marvelous, gifting and creative enterprise. Yet in the third chapter we see it distorted into a source of pain, a curse, a demeaning of the gift of life. To this day we still struggle with our understanding of work.

          The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday September 5, 1882 in New York City, sponsored by the Central Labor Union of New York. The first state law setting a labor holiday was passed in Oregon on February 21, 1887. It was on June 28, 1894, that Congress established the first Monday in September as a national legal holiday called Labor Day.

          The legislation stated the day was to be observed with “street parades to exhibit the strength and spirit de corps of the trade and labor organizations, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families.” For many people now, Labor Day has become the “end of summer” celebration, with not much thinking about labor other than being grateful for a long weekend of not working.

          The author of the book of James wants us to work. James is a fascinating little piece. It is in the form of an “epistle” (letter), but there are people who think it was originally a sermon. Others contend it was preached at a time of baptism. That makes a lot of sense with all its directions for living a life of faith.

          The name James is a variation on Jacob. Jacob in the Hebrew Scriptures was the one who wrestled with God. James wrestles with God here as well. It is a sermon, probably like others you have heard, that is difficult to follow. It moves in one direction and then another. It is like taking clothes out of the dryer. You have to pull them out, sort them, and fold them yourself. Martin Luther, the German Reformer said of James it was an “epistle of straw.” He felt it was about as helpful as a bundle of straw.

          One of the ideas most people remember from James is in our scripture reading for today, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” In other words, work. The commercial slogan and logo for Nike shoes is “Just Do It” and a check mark (Swoosh). Work –just do it! It sounds like your mother, or if you are in school, the teachers or principal, or your supervisor at work. Just do it! It is straight forward, practical advice.

          If the whole Bible were like the Letter of James, you really wouldn’t need preachers, for who needs a preacher to remind you of what you already know. Yet, maybe that’s the very reason the councils who determined the make-up of the bible included it. We need to be reminded of what we know. We are strong on knowing, but weak on doing.

          We put a lot of weight on knowing. We value education and learning. For many people, the web may have replaced newspapers, or the public or school libraries, but we still value knowing. We still seek convenient resources to expand our knowledge. But here in James we are told that hearing, knowing what to do, is not as important as doing what you know to do.

          The gospels do not tell us Jesus asked his hearers, “Do you agree with me?” or “Does this sound reasonable to you?” or “Are you of this school of thought?” Jesus wanted more than mere agreement. Though he was often called “Teacher,” he seems to be about much more than just the giver of knowledge. Jesus said, “Follow me.” Jesus was after discipleship, not just intellectual agreement.

          We see that clearly in Mark 7. Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem confront Jesus tha this disciples are eating without washing their hands. We know the hygienic reasons for such a practice, but the ancient Jews did it because it was the tradition of the elders, in other words, a second or third level law or custom.

          To answer them Jesus quotes Isaiah (so you see these kinds of issues have been a part of human nature for quite a while): “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Then Jesus adds his own words: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” He is accusing the Pharisees of wanting to discuss, argue, and challenge others about minor observances that only the privileged could follow.

          No manual laborer had the time or luxury to maintain ritual purity according to the many levels of the rules and regulations of the day. So there is a pattern here. In Isaiah’s day, in Jesus’ day, and in our day when all is said and done, more is said than done. Too often we view our faith as an intellectual exercise not a physical one.

          So we need to hear, “Be doers of the word not merely hearers.” We need to hear Jesus say again, “Follow me.” James gives us an illustration. He says those who only hear are like those who look in the mirror and turning away forget. He tells us, “Don’t be a hearer of the word that forgets but be a doer that acts.”

          We are to listen. We are to listen very well. We are to hear the needs of the people around us. We are to hear the call of God. We are to listen. But we deceive ourselves if we only listen and do not act. If we are hearers only, we don’t fool anyone else, but we do fool ourselves. If we are hearers only everyone else can see our duplicity. Yet we think we are doing something good when we have thought, argued, debated, and tried to defeat the thinking of someone else.

          However, to follow Jesus means work, action, doing. It means to feed the hungry, to cloth the naked, to visit the ill, to befriend the lonely, to include the children, to stand up for the widow and orphan. If we only hear, and do not act, we will miss out on all those holy occasions when the presence of God is in the relationship between two people engaged in the work of well-being. It is in doing the word that we experience God.

          Whatever our occupation or work status, our calling is to be brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to labor with joy and enthusiasm in sharing the grace of God. We end our worship today with the hymn, “For the Healing of the Nations.” It is a hymn about acting, living, and doing God’s will. It is a prayer that ends with these words: “For our growing in your likeness bring the life of Christ to mind, that by our response and service earth its destiny may find.”

          Now let’s just do it!