Can you believe it’s almost Labor Day again? Labor Day traditionally signifies the end of summer, although, according to the calendar, we still have a couple of weeks of summer left. For many students, school has started again – or will start after this weekend. Good-bye to the carelessness of summer, hello again to work and learning.
Now I know we have some teachers – or former teachers – among us. (Dorothy, David, Andreas) Let me ask you a question: as school starts again, can you assume that the students still remember everything they were taught before summer break? No – the first weeks of school usually are dedicated to repetition of stuff the students already learned. The longer the break, the tougher it is to pick up the pieces again and to move forward. If you don’t use it, you lose it, right?
That’s especially true for all subjects matters students are not particularly interested in.
Let me ask all of you: do you remember everything you ever learned in school?
I don’t. I learned a lot of stuff in my lifetime, back in school, in seminary and beyond, but I have retained but a fraction of all that.
However, those things I do remember from my studies I remember well. Either because I had a passion for them all along, or because I needed the skills in life or in my profession and kept on honing and practicing them. For example, I always had a talent for languages, which came in handy when I moved to the U.S. and had to communicate almost exclusively in English, and even preach in English. And languages in general just fascinate me. But I suck at a lot of other things.
Which is okay, for we all have different gifts and different interests and different passions, and when we throw our skills together, community works, right? That’s the body with its different parts and functions the Apostle Paul talks about repeatedly, the body we all are part of with our particular gifts and talents. And this is also something we remember and celebrate this weekend. Labor Day , and now I’m quoting from Wikipedia, ‘honors the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, laws and well-being of the country.’ Everyone contributes, with their particular skills and labor, and that should be honored.
But back to the concept of learning: I bet each and every one in this room remembers but a fraction of all the things they’ve ever been taught in their lifetime. But everyone took some lessons to heart and, through practice and continued learning, became good at something, maybe even really good. Raw talent and passion is a good start; but we can’t rely on just that, but have to continuously hone our skills to succeed. We have to internalize the lessons we learn, so that they truly become a part of us, and so that we can use them. No knowledge is any good if we can’t – or don’t – somehow apply it.
You can tell someone over and over how to ride a bicycle – but if they don’t get on that bike and actually do it, all the knowledge is in vain. But once they do it, they will remember it for the rest of their lives. And that applies to many other things as well.
The lesson from the letter of James we heard today picks up on exactly that issue. For James, it’s all about God’s word; we have to listen to God’s word, of course. But what good is it if we merely hear God’s word – but don’t absorb it, internalize it, and practice it? In a sense, just hearing God’s word is like going through a lesson just before summer break and forgetting about it over the course of the summer. Or, as James puts it, it’s like looking in the mirror and, as we turn away, we forget what we look like.
So for James, it is important that we do something with what we hear and what we learn, otherwise we lose it. That’s why he urges, ‘Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.’ The things we learned in school or throughout our lives for that matter have stuck with us mainly because we applied them and because we practiced them. In a very similar way, God’s word sticks with us when we apply it, practice it, do it.
Martin Luther may have disliked and even rejected the letter of James because he thought James talks too much about doing things and that it’s our deeds that save us – this is known as work righteousness in theological jargon – and that James doesn’t emphasize enough that only the grace of Christ can save us. But even Luther admitted that you recognize someone’s faith by how they live – good deeds are the fruit of our faith and should come automatically, he said. James and Luther actually agree that, ‘they’ll know we are Christians by our love’, as a classic church song from the 60s says.
Now what does it mean to be a doer of the word, according to James? Today’s lesson named a few things: be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. We are to ‘bridle our tongue’, be careful what we say or write or tweet. For James, God’s word is about communication and community – and he realizes that we can only live in community when we listen to each other and communicate respectfully with each other, and that our communication is at the heart of all we do as followers of Christ in this world. And since this doesn’t come easy to most human beings, as we currently see right now in this country and all over the world, this certainly needs to be practiced, over and over, until it becomes a part of us.
And it’s not only James who stresses that it’s important to internalize God’s word and teachings and to practice them: in today’s gospel, Jesus says the same thing. Except that Jesus focuses on the negative aspects of maybe hearing God’s word but not taking it to heart and not letting it change our hearts. And so if we don’t let love determine our actions and if we don’t let respect determine our communication, there is fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and folly instead – things that defile us and consequently defile our life together as community, as a society, as a country. Right now we especially see how deceit, avarice, which is a fancier word for greed, envy, folly and pride affect to many areas of our life in society.
Are we saved by grace? Absolutely. However, and this is what today’s lessons point out, that can’t be an excuse to hear the word of God but not act on it. That would be ‘cheap grace’, as German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer so famously said. A gift that we receive and end up not honoring, not using for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor. We will never be perfect, but that’s alright – for, again, ideally community with all its strengths has a way to make up for our individual shortcomings and failings. And: God forgives us all our shortcomings, our sins, if we admit to them and ask for forgiveness. That’s the saving grace.
But eternal life in the kingdom of God starts here and now. Christ has a vision for our life as community: a vision that includes loving God, our neighbor, and even our enemy. And love is not some idealistic abstract concept, it is a verb – it’s what we do. That’s the most important lesson of our life. And we get better at it when we practice it – each and every day of our lives.
Picture by Ricardo Mancia on unsplash.com