September 10, 2018
“Labor Day and Doers of the Word” ~ guest sermon by Bruce McEver
Sermon before the Congregational Church of Salisbury, CT
Sunday September 2, 2018
Labor Day and Doers of the Word?
(Based on James 1: 17-27)
What a privilege to be standing before you and asked to deliver a Labor Day message, because Rev. Diane is taking some well-deserved time off in Vermont.
Before I start, I want to give you some background on our gospel text for today – which is a letter from James. It is itself a sermon, so today’s message is double barreled!
First- Which of several James’ mentioned in the new testament is the letter from? We believe it is James, the oldest brother of Jesus who eventually became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and was one of the pillars of the early church. His work has a tone of moral authority (59 of 108 verses are imperatives! ) and is thought to be one of the earliest of the New Testament writings. . The letter is a series of moral instructions and wisdom sayings alluding both to the Hebrew Bible and the Jesus tradition (particularly of Matthew and Luke). It combines the two as it urges a courageous faith to cope with challenges toward the close of the first century, when the Jewish Christians were a distinct minority of the community. They were under pressure and scorned by their own people and the Romans.
It may have been written in two stages. The original text may have been a sermon by James shortly before his martyrdom in the mid-60s. Then it is thought someone skilled in Hellenistic rhetoric edited, expanded and distributed it in the form of a circular letter probably in the 80s or 90s, sent to Diaspora churches in disarray needing to hear an authoritative voice from Jerusalem about how to balance the Torah with their new Christian faith.
the letter form James was intended to produce heightened moral integrity and loving action, and hopefully still does that for all of us.
So, starting on page #278 in your pew bibles let’s read together starting at the 17th verse:
17 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.
18 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.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
21 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.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;
24 for they look at themselves and, ongoing away, immediately forget what they were like.
25 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.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
27 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.
Read James in its entirety some time; it is quietly inspiring.
What does the passage from James we just read exonerating us to be “Doers of the Word” have to do with Labor Day? Perhaps just the exhortation to action
Unlike the rest of the world, Labor Day in the United States is celebrated on the first Monday of September. More than 80 other countries celebrate International Worker’s Day on May 1 as their holiday dedicated to labor. (And when all those red flags are unfurled!)
Historically, It honors the American labor movement and was formally created in 1887 , following 2 key events
- the Pullman nationwide railroad strike in 1874 [that shut down the country’s rail system and saw the death of a number of workers at the hands of US marshals and military , and
- the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago on May 4, 1886, [where a disgruntled worker threw a bomb into the crowd killing 11 persons and wounding over 60.
so, President Grover Cleveland feared that commemorating Labor Day on May could become an opportunity to reenact the Haymarket bombing. So, in 1887, [a year after Haymarket,] the US declared a September holiday, not May 1, in support of the labor movement.
This is a day when we celebrate the dignity of work and the equality of labor. The gulf between the worker and the owners is ever rising despite our recent efforts to change the minimum wage. This is not only a local problem as we are now engaged in a global struggle for labor that is ever cheaper. The world is indeed flat. We raised our minimum wage and China devalues their currency to keep their labor and goods competitive with Asian, and increasingly Mexican, Latin American and African labor. We counter-devalue our currency, but our jobs continue to be exported elsewhere. This widens the gap between the rich and poor not only here, but around the world. I’m. not sure this will get any better. In the future, I’m afraid our main struggle will be against machines, our otherwise friends, computers. Almost a third of my class I teach at Georgia Tech in the spring semester in Atlanta are AI, Artificial Intelligence majors!
I am told this is the first generation of Americans that fear they won’t be as well off as their parents! This poverty and inequality is everywhere around us if we look. Albert Schweitzer who lived in Great Barrington said: “Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.”
A recent article in the New York Times said despite a falling unemployment rate, take home pay for many Americans has fallen since the beginning of the economic recovery in 2009. Workers in the lowest earning jobs have been hurt the most. This is in part due to global effects I mentioned earlier. Also, we probably feel this strongest in this part of the country with jobs fleeing to the sun- belt to more tax friendly environments. Mr. Thump was elected because he captured this dissatisfaction with a real problem economic we have. This is the root of populism going on around the world, not only here.
How would James have us act here? Well, become stronger spiritually, by being a better person.
How do we do become stronger spiritually? Well to me one way is to be open to one way is to soul enriching things. Last Sunday I went to the final Tanglewood concert featuring Beethoven’s ninth symphony. It stirs me every year as I listen to magnificent chorus sing the finale that is based on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in German. Though I was once an exchange student there in Germany, I can barely follow it today, but for me it is a religious experience.
The work premiered in 1824 in Vienna when the deaf composer was on stage beating time but could not hear the frenzied ovations behind him when it was finished. You all know the work: There is a mystical beginning and then something coalescing out of the void that is echoed again in the piece. Not only by Beethoven, but and by many famous composers that followed – Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler. After its production music critics and scholars alike thought the pinnacle had been reached Nothing else could top it. And maybe they are right.
The core piece calls for the brotherhood of man at a time when Vienna was a police state. It was an entrepreneurial venture. There was no Boston Symphony at the time. Beethoven had a patron that was the local prince, but the composer paid for the hall and the musicians and got the sell out’s profits. More importantly, he made a statement of liberty and freedom beyond his time. Only Beethoven as renowned as he was could have gotten away with that. It keeps being played for such occasions- for example It was played in Berlin after the wall came down on Nov 9, 1989.
The progress of the ninth is usually described as darkness to light, the quest for Elysium. Its secret is in the poem written in 1785 by Schiller, rewritten by Beethoven in his 20’s. The idea of the brotherhood of man appealed to him as a youthful idealist. But he never used it until the ninth symphony.
In English the last lines are:
Be embraced, ye Millions
This kiss to the whole world!
Brothers – beyond the canopy of the stars
Surely a loving Father dwells.
Joy, beauteous , godly spark.
Daughter of Elysium!
Joy, beauteous , godly spark.
This was also Beethoven’s theological statement- . Beethoven being a doer, just as James urged. James tells us every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, is from above its coming down from the father of lights, it is constant light, there is no variation or shadow due to change.
He is saying this is the same godly spark, the unwavering and mysterious power source behind the universe that religions orbit about and mystics seek. Put your trust in it.
At the time James wrote his Letter, there was a debate about all those gentiles learning about the nascent Jesus movement who wanted to be Christians. James thought they must just follow the Jewish practices, but Paul realized this wasn’t good marketing… for one thing, there was the sensitive matter of circumcision. Paul ignored/ waived this requirement for becoming a Christian and changed the world. James believes in works and Paul in faith as a justification of religion. James’ point is that it is our theological integrity, our wholehearted devotion requires a particular life and character.
Coming back to the text, as we heard, in James, God is called the “Father of the Lights”, scion of the heavenly luminaries, i.e. stars, sun, moon he created but unlike orbs moving from nadir to zenith he never changes. Just as Beethoven and Schiller echo “God must surely dwell beyond the canopy of stars.”
From these cosmic premises, James then says: the acceptance of the gospel message, the word of truth (Remember John 1:1- In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God.) makes the recipient one of the first fruits. What is the significance of this? In ancient times among the agricultural cults the earliest grains symbolized the beginning of an abundant harvest of new creation (I. Cor. 15:20). These were ritually burned, so that the smoke of these would please the beneficent god that had bestowed it. This symbolizes new creation, individuality and as a community, congregation or church as well.
As one commentator I found researching this passage said: “ If we crowd our weedy lives with rank growth of anger, foul language, insult, and falsehood, we make our souls an inhospitable field for cultivating the word that is implanted in us by virtue of our alignment with God and Truth. Our mercurial emotions and self-importance align us with the mortal, earthly power of sin and death;” That’s a little fire and brimstone for you today, but does that remind you of anyone you know? Continuing our commentary. “By patient humility, we make room for God’s own saving word to come to expression in us. James is doing nothing else but urging us to live in alignment with our cosmic origins in God and his truth.”
In 1:19-25 James call for us to be quick to hear the gospel and to accept its reality.
Also, to act in conformity with it, removing from one’s soul whatever is opposed to it, so it may take root and effect salvation – be slow to anger, he counsels. That’s great wisdom. My mother use to advise me – never sleep on anger. Because speech is so easy, so immediate it is very hard to control. You cannot casually insult your neighbor and not suffer the consequences. What goes around comes around eventually.
[in our parallel reading today, Mark quotes Jesus as saying, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can define, but the things that come out are what define.”
Finally, James concludes we should put our good works into action. for this early Jewish Christian audience orphans and widows were classic examples of the defenseless and oppressed, today these are the marginalized in our society and in our community and congregation. James is asking we reliably provide for the needy and live in a way that bespeaks unwavering allegiance to God that exemplifies your celestial father.
The key passage for me is to act on the word. How foolish to listen to the gospel message but not to practice it. This is failure to improve oneself, James emphasizes. Three years ago, I heard pastor Diane preach about the letter from James. I was so impressed, reflecting on a subsequent bike ride along the Salmon Kill, I wrote a poem about our predecessors in Salisbury, who I believe were people of action and had the courage to free themselves from the British tyranny they lived with. Our neighbor, Tom Schactman, has been writing so eloquently on the subject of our Founding Fathers and colonial America. I recommend you read his work to gain an appreciation of what they went through. Here are some of the last lines of Along the Salmon Kill, that is an insert in your bulletin:
I think of the impossibility
of language capturing the color
and flare of the maples in this valley,
lined up like gaudy guard soldiers
for farm sugar bushes. Farms,
still demarcated by stonewalls
keeping cattle wandering green pastures,
dumbfounded by a cyclist, and slobbering
from drinking the same cold waters.
It hastens on by tumbled furnace ruins,
once stoked steel melt hot
by bellows turned by the branch,
spilling into a silver sheet
over a colonial constructed dam.
These townsfolk took action,
feared God, but not foreign overlords
who forbade their steel making.
They poured cannon, then rails that took their works
to Hartford and west to war.
Doers, not hearers leave stone walls.
This text has come full circle for me today and hopefully for you. It is a “wisdom text” or an exoneration of short aphorisms that we can act on. It is telling us to trust in our creator, get in line with his program, even imitate Christ, take care of those less fortunate around us and be the best person we can be.
In researching my sermon, I found some echoes in what some others writing in the wisdom tradition have said on this subject:
Ralph Wadlo Emerson – 19th Century
He kept journals his whole life and some think are more valuable as literature than his poetry and famous essays:
“Go put your creed into your deed”
“What you do speaks so loud I cannot hear what you say.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Early 2nd Century
He kept a journal of Stoic philosophy, aphorisms and practiced them regularly – the first real philosopher king.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
Mother Teresa, 20th Century
“Keep in mind that our community is not composed of those who are already saints, but those who are trying to be extremely patient with each other’s fault and failures.”
John O’ Donohue, Book of Blessings, 20th Century
“Each of us is an artist of our days, the greater our integrity and awareness, the more original and creative our time will be.”
Let us reflect briefly and pray:
 Commentary by A.K.M. Adam, Working Preacher, RCL Narrative