O, that crafty Lectionary! It’s Labor Day weekend and in God’s sense of humor the Lectionary is poking today at how we conceive of our labors, our good works. After the Reformation, for largely misunderstood or misrepresented reasons, works became a dirty word for some among the Protestant faithful. Justification by faith, good. Justification by works, bad. Oh, they probably couldn’t hurt, works. But it’s bad to say they help. And so we Protestants learned to work hard, but never to admit to our enjoying it. Or something like that. In any case, over against this ambivalent relationship to our labors, our good works, on Labor Day weekend no less, the Lectionary knocks on the door of our souls and asks us to open our minds to our labors, to reconsider, reexamine, how we relate to them, and how God relates to us through them.
The opening collect kicks us off, asking God to bring forth in us the fruit of good works. Simple. Bold. Daring. Deuteronomy follows with Moses charging Israel to diligently observe all of the commands of the Lord their God. (Here the word “observe” presumably means more than “stare at” or "monitor the movements of"; Israel is to practice, embody the commandments of God.) This thematic chorus reaches its crescendo in James - James, in which Jesus’s name appears only twice and the sum of religion is summarized as care for the widow and orphan; an emphasis on works so strong that it made Luther queasy - but with it a necessary caution against the self-deceptive quality of so much of our speech, the dangerous seduction of empty words. And all of this coming as precursor to Jesus’ blistering indictment of the scribes and Pharisees for lack of obedience to the commandments of God: they polish the kettles, but fail to honor the mother, the father. The specific content of Jesus’s critique of the Pharisees resembles that memorable line from the Great Thanksgiving of our Prayer Book in which we pray “that we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives.” Embodiment again: not just with our lips, in our lives. Because labor, our works, are integral to how we relate to God.
At this point, I’m mindful that the mantra “less with the lips, more with the lives,” is a precarious mantra for a preacher in the middle of a sermon. There’s a reason that Jesus targets the preachers today. But while I won’t argue the critique that I have lots of room to grow toward showing forth God’s praise in my life, I’m not going to sit down just yet. Here’s the real question: how can our lips and our lives move together?
That beliefs belong just on lips, or locked in heads, and not in lives lived is not just an extension of a misrepresented justification-by-faith doctrine; the silencing of lives is also, says theologian Stanley Hauerwas, something encouraged by - cultivated by - a liberal democratic society in which the unnamed, functional byproduct of faith is culturally acceptable only as an accident, that is, when its substance and foundations go unnamed; religious beliefs in post-Enlightenment thinking are essentially private, without public, material expression. Beliefs, in this thinking, are abstract propositions to which one mentally assents in the head. Not surprisingly, Hauerwas rejects this definition. Says Hauerwas,
Religious belief is not just some kind of primitive metaphysics, but in fact it is a performance just like you’d perform Lear. What people think Christianity is, is that it’s like the text of Lear, rather than the actual production of Lear. It has to be performed for you to understand what Lear is — a drama. You can read it, but unfortunately Christians so often want to make Christianity a text rather than a performance.
All of this is extremely challenging and interesting to me. If my lived life was taken as the lived performance of a creed, what would it profess? Better put, given the corporate nature of the Body of Christ into which I was initiated at my baptism, if our common life were taken as the performance of a creed, what would our performance profess? Would one discern from our performance of the faith the centrality of the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead? And what does a community that performs belief in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit look like, anyway? Would one find in our footsteps, for example, the plantings of forgiveness, given and received? Would one recognize in our lives the fingerprints of the liturgy and the shaping of the Spirit in our midst? Would they find in our dealings with one another and strangers a generosity in imitation of Christ poured out for us? Would one encounter the lived fruit of the Spirit, in regular practice: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, even in an election year. Putting all of these questions together, I wonder if a good prayer for our community wouldn’t be that the performance of our lives would make no sense - would be unintelligible - apart from the Good News of Jesus crucified and risen.
What can it mean to embody, practice, perform resurrection? And is this what James is on to when he talks about the law of freedom - the mysterious gift by which the way of obedience, the way of the cross, that becomes for us none other than the way of life and peace?
I think all of this is why I cherish the lives of the saints. The above conversation is not always running in my head, but I am called back to it, stopped short, every time I see a life so authentically performed. Not perfect lives, certainly, but broken lives performed in ways and places that point to God. I bet you can call some to mind.
I remember meeting a retired priest who told great stories. He had been a JAG officer, he told me, when was younger. He had also been mayor of his small Texas town. Lots of travels. Now he was coming up on 40 years in the priesthood. I did the math. He had been ordained sometime in his forties, I figured, relatively late for the church at that time. I asked him why the change.
He told me about a man, a cattle rancher, he met while serving as a JAG officer, post-WWII, overseas in Japan. The man had given nearly all of the cattle he raised away, to peasants mostly, with the stipulation that they also give any offspring cattle they raised to others. My friend asked the man why he did this. The man filled and broke my friend’s heart with his slightly garbled answer, something about abundant life.
My wife pulled me from the bedtime routine two nights ago to share the magazine story of Katie Davis, twenty-two, living in Uganda, founder of a child sponsorship program, local feeding program, and self-sustaining vocational program - empowering local women to make and sell bead necklaces. Oh, and she is mother to thirteen of the children, whom she’s adopted. Says Katie, "People tell me I am brave. People tell me I am strong. People tell me good job. Well here is the truth of it. I am really not that brave, I am not really that strong, and I am not doing anything spectacular. I am just doing what God called me to do as a follower of Him. Feed His sheep, do unto the least of His people."
Not perfect lives; but lives that have fallen for Jesus in ways that leave marks on the body; lips and lives moving together.
And when you look at what they do, when considering their example, their works, the labor of their lives, you must assume that they’ve either lost it or found it. Traveling with a group of youth to the monastery at Taize, France, a small group gathered together for conversation, a teenager asking an almost inappropriate question of one of the brothers. “How did you do it?” he said. “Do you even know what you walked away from? No offense, you have no real job. No family. I know my parents’ hopes, their dreams for me, how disappointed they’d be...what on earth led you to let all that go?”
Of course it isn't always so extreme. I overheard someone say recently that Christians don’t struggle to sacrifice everything; we struggle to sacrifice anything. Maybe that's true. But of course we will sacrifice some (significant) things if we are performing the creed of Jesus.
Our patron saint, St Francis, is once purported to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” Full disclosure: St Francis preached sermons to birds, so it is fair to wonder what exactly he meant by that. More helpfully, Francis also said, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” And on Labor Day weekend, our working as our preaching. Our believing in and through our being. Showing forth our praise, not only on our lips, but in our lives.
Lips and lives together.
Preached at SFH, September 2, 2012.