Sunday, September 1, 2019

Phil Kniss: With steady hearts

Labors of Love
Psalms 112; John 6:25-34; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

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That psalm we read a few minutes ago sounded pretty confident.
“Happy are those who fear the Lord . . .
They are not afraid of evil tidings;
their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord.
Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid.”

Steady? Our hearts are shaken.
We are afraid of evil tidings,
and there are evil tidings aplenty.
Just this week . . . the battle over Brexit blowing up in Britain,
nuclear troubles in North Korea and Iran,
rainforests ablaze in the Amazon,
U.S. and China trying to out-tariff each other,
hurricane bearing down on the east coast,
violent clashes in Hong Kong, Venezuela, Europe,
meanwhile, the meltdown of American politics
that gets more shameful and cringe-worthy every day,
and emboldens angry people who hate
and are heavily-armed.
It’s enough to make steady hearts quiver.

It’s enough to.
But it doesn’t have to if we believe the psalmist—
“Happy are those who fear the Lord.”

We people of the Book,
who put our trust in God the Creator,
are encouraged, urged, even commanded,
to stand firm, stay focused, to
“rise in the darkness as a light for the upright.”

To quote more of that psalm,
They who put their confidence in the Lord
“are gracious, merciful, and righteous.”
They embody the justice of God in their daily lives.
They “deal generously and lend . . .
conduct their affairs with justice.”
They “distribute their resources freely, they give to the poor . . .
The wicked see it and are angry;
they gnash their teeth and melt away;
the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.”

While the world around us is shaken to its foundation,
and others are spiraling downward into darkness,
we who trust God are rising up, as a burning candle.
Or . . . so says the psalmist.

But who would like to claim
that is actually happening these days?
Who would say that in our current cultural context,
the church is widely regarded by the public,
as a light in the darkness,
as a people who exude kindness and compassion for all people,
especially the most vulnerable and marginalized?
Who would say the culture sees in us, people of faith,
a shining example of how to live above the fray,
of how to live in hope and joy and lightness of being,
in these mean-spirited, dark, heavy, and polarized times?

No, if you listen to the word on the street,
if you pay attention to the portrayal of Christians
in the news or entertainment media,
or if you read the polling data,
you will see that a different kind of reputation precedes us.

We might want to lay the blame at the feet of white evangelicals,
say it’s their fault Christians have a bad rap,
what with their hard-right politics,
their strong anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, anti-gay voices.
We might be tempted to wag our fingers
at several prominent white leaders of Christian institutions,
and say they are giving us all a bad name.

But who among us would say that, as a whole,
the rest of the Christian world has sounded a clarion call
of peace in the middle of the storm,
of hope in the deep darkness,
of joy in a time of strife,
of reasoned conversation amid all the shouting?
And who would say that the rest of us Christians
have been humble about our own failings—
abuse of power,
sexual abuse?
Who would say most churches readily repent
when these sins are brought to light,
instead of denying, deflecting, and covering up.

Sisters and brothers,
we Christians are in the world, and often, of it.
So let’s all exhibit some humility and honesty—
character traits that are in short supply these days.

But now . . . what does this have to do with Labor Day?
Don’t we usually take this Labor Day Sunday service,
and celebrate our work?
and bless each other in our vocation?
Why this focus on the public reputation of Christians?

A couple reasons.

First, let’s recall why Labor Day even exists.
We know it’s not a day in the church calendar.
It’s a national holiday brought about in the late 1880s
to call attention to the plight of the American worker.
At the height of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S.,
as many people moved from farming into manufacturing,
many workers had 12-hour days and seven-day weeks,
just to make a basic living.
Children as young as 5 or 6—
despite some state laws against it—
worked in mills, factories, and mines across the country,
earning a fraction of adult wages.
The poorest workers, especially recent immigrants,
suffered the most,
facing extremely unsafe working conditions—
such as lack of fresh air, sanitary facilities, and rest-breaks.

So labor unions grew more prominent and vocal,
protesting poor conditions
and compelling employers to renegotiate hours and pay.

A lot has changed in the last 130 years.
Public opinion of labor unions has shifted.
There’s a more business-friendly social climate.
Thankfully, workplaces are generally safer.
But we should never forget the justice-driven origin of this day.
Labor Day was not a holiday to celebrate the end of summer,
and wax nostalgic about our vocational callings
that have us mostly sitting at desks in front of computers.
Labor Day came about
in a time of great political unrest and turmoil in our land
because people of faith and compassion
saw the poor and the immigrant
getting squashed by the rich and powerful.
Sound vaguely familiar?
Yes, I believe it’s right for those of us in the upper tier
economically and socially—
and that’s most of us,
when we compare ourselves globally—
it’s right to be humble and compassionate,
and ponder the plight of those today
who object to mistreatment—
immigrants at our borders,
refugees and asylum-seekers,
religious minorities,
racial-ethnic minorities,
sexual minorities,
the working poor who cannot afford health-care,
those whose bodies and souls are being trafficked,
and others being pushed out and away
from the safe-zone we have created around us.

So on Labor Day,
let us clearly, vocally, and with compassion,
stand with those who are being stood against,
in the name of God our Creator and Jesus our Redeemer,
who has bestowed the divine image on them all, and
who has poured out unconditional love on them all.
And let us do that, while opening declaring, with the psalmist,
that our worship of God in Christ is our prime motivator.
Then perhaps, other loud voices in our Christian family
will not be the only voices heard and quoted.

Another reason to use Labor Day
to reclaim our work of representing God’s justice and compassion,
is because that work is the core of our identity
as the people of God.

We cannot call ourselves God’s people,
and take a pass on representing God’s values
to the world around us.
If true evangelical faith consisted only
of choosing the right doctrinal formula to sign on to,
or choosing the right group to be loyal to,
or being on the right side of every theological argument,
then I might not be overly worried about the state of affairs
in the Christian world.
I might just say, okay, go at it!
And may the best doctrine win!

But that’s not the definition of evangelical faith.
As Menno Simons famously said, in part,
“True evangelical faith . . . cannot lie dormant,
but spreads itself out
in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love;
it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul;
it clothes the naked;
it feeds the hungry;
it comforts the sorrowful;
it shelters the destitute;
it aids and consoles the sad.”

Crushing the competition is not the vocation of Christians.
We are not called to win the most theological arguments,
or get the most members in the door,
or gain the most influence in the halls of power.

We are called to represent God to the world—
to reflect God’s love, and goodness, and holiness, and justice.
To use N.T. Wright’s analogy,
we are to hold an angled mirror to the world,
so that when the world looks at us,
they see God’s character;
they get a glimpse of the divine image.
The angled mirror reflects the glory of the living God
to all humanity and creation,
and it reflects back to God the worship and praise of God,
from all humanity and creation.
That is our vocation.
That is our work.
That is our labor, born out of our love for God and others.

That is what the apostle Paul referred to
in his letter to the church of the Thessalonians,
which we heard a few minutes ago.
Paul gave thanks to God for the Thessalonians’
“labor of love and steadfastness of hope”
in the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the face of severe persecution,
when times were hard,
they did not resort to attacking their persecutors
or back-stabbing each other.
They loved God and others so well
that the message of the Gospel was being proclaimed
not in word only,
but in their lives.
To the point that Paul said,
their character and kindness was widely known.
And “we have no need to speak about it.”

And our Gospel reading today came from John 6,
right after the miraculous feeding of 5,000 with fish and bread.
The crowd catches up to Jesus on the other side of the lake,
and Jesus warns them soberly.
“You followed me over here just because of the bread.
You ate your fill and wanted more.
Don’t be like that.
Don’t work for food that spoils.
Do the work of God that will feed you for eternity.”
“What is that work?” they asked him.
“It is to put your trust in the one God has sent.”
In other words, “Follow me.
Do as I do.
Along with me, reflect the character and image of God.”

That is the vocation of everyone of us here
who call ourselves followers of Jesus.
So we have a ritual of response that includes all of you
on this Labor Day.
Not just those who are currently in the workforce.
We are all called to offer our labors of love,
to the project that God is all about—
the healing, saving, reconciling of humanity and creation.
We each have different gifts to offer,
` and each one matters.
Together, they will build a new world,
when placed in God’s hands.

Each of you was given a stone as you arrived for worship today.
That represents your labor of love,
your capacity to contribute something, however small,
to God’s shalom project.

If you are willing to publicly offer it to God’s work,
come to the front and lay it on one of these two platters
on the front table.
Children, young people, adults of all ages.
Everyone has something that contributes to the whole.
You don’t have to come up in any order; come as you feel led.
There won’t be ushers directing the traffic flow.
But it might help things if you walk like you drive,
always walk on the right side of the aisle,
so traffic moving in the opposite direction has a clear path.
If you need to be cautious walking in a crowd,
just come up after the service and place your stone.

While this is happening, there will be music playing,
and at the conclusion, we will move right into singing.
Follow along in your bulletin.

When we finish there will be a couple nice stone monuments up here.
It represents our collective willingness
to give to God and to God’s project
our labors of love.
May God give us strength.

—Phil Kniss, September 1, 2019

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