HARMON L. SMITH is professor emeritus of moral theology at the Divinity School, Duke University.

HARMON L. SMITH is professor emeritus of moral theology at the Divinity School, Duke University.

Now and then I think about whether some of our national holidays have largely deteriorated or gone completely bust.  Today, I wonder whether tomorrow (Labor Day) might be one of those. Towns and cities still celebrate Labor Day with concerts and parades and picnics and a full docket of community activities, but for many of us tomorrow’s reason for being may be consigned to the mists of history and it may be just another day off from work.

I wonder how many of us will remember that 135 years ago there was violent fermentation in the American labor movement and that workers were being challenged to organize for collective bargaining with the barons of industry. In the midst of considerable agitation and anger some of which led to injury and death Matthew Maguire, a machinist from Paterson, NJ, and Peter McGuire, a carpenter from NYC, conceived the idea of a Labor Day Parade. Workers representing many trades marched in the 1st parade in New York City on 5 September 1882. That was followed by early labor organizers, known as the Knights of Labor, who planned demonstrations and parades to emphasize workers’ rights and their families’ needs. Several states passed collective bargaining laws but it wasn’t until several workers were tragically killed by US Marshals and US Military during the Pullman strike of 1894, that with the support of a unanimous Congress, President Grover Cleveland signed the bill on 28 June 1894 that declared Labor Day a national holiday.
I also think it may be providential that our lectionary places today’s reading from James so close to Labor Day because these verses are among the favorite biblical passages for advocates of a competitive, capitalist economy. Interestingly, they have also been the rallying cry for every member canvasses, church suppers, and yard sales all of which reflect James rhetorical question: ‘what’s the use of saying you have faith and are Christian if you aren’t proving it by helping others? If you have a friend who needs of food and clothing and you say to him, ‘well, goodbye and God bless you stay warm and eat hearty’ and you don’t give him clothes or food. What good does that do?….Remember that Jesus’ message is to obey, not just to listen’.

The appointed gospel reading usually grounds my sermons but today’s epistle reading presents a challenging alternative. Martin Luther strenuously objected to James’ epistle and said it advocated salvation by works, not by grace alone and he wanted James’ entire letter excised from the Bible. He was wrong about that but he was right to say that we are not the authors of our salvation. He was also right to say that when the NT talks about ‘being born again’ of our having ‘put on Christ’ and ‘Christ being formed in us’ about our coming to ‘have the mind of Christ’ that all of this is sola gratia by grace alone. The initiative always lies with God if he doesn’t act, we can’t act. It appears that James does get the cart-before-the-horse here that he sounds very like a humanist when he speaks so energetically and aggressively about what we are expected to do as Jesus’ followers. I think James is much misunderstood and this is why.

In a few minutes we will come to the Nicene Creed and say that Jesus is the Son of God “begotten, not made”. Later, another version of the Creed says “begotten by His Father before all worlds”. Many congregations in my experience are comfortable saying that ‘before all worlds were created, Christ is begotten, not made’. But words like ‘begetting’ and ‘begotten’ are anachronistic so now and then I ask myself what do they mean if there is a difference between ‘begetting’ and ‘creating’ or ‘making’, what is it? C. S. Lewis has helped me articulate the difference. When we beget, he said, we beget something of the same kind as ourself. Persons beget human babies. Beavers beget baby beavers. Birds beget eggs that become baby birds. To beget is to become the father or mother of another like yourself. When you make when you create you make something of a different kind from yourself. A beaver builds a dam. A bird makes a nest. A person creates a telephone or perhaps a doll. If a person is skilled enough, she can make a doll that can mimic a long list of human behaviors. It can talk, move its eyes, need changing, and more because of a computer chip in its little round belly. It may look very like a human being but of course it’s not a real person it just looks like one. It’s not alive; it can’t breathe, it can’t think. To create is to make something, to fabricate, to construct. It’s just that simple.

So the distinction between begetting and creating is important. What God begets is God just as what we beget is human. But what God creates is not God just as what we create is not ourselves but something else. The world, the universe, humankind everything God has made is not God, just as everything we create is not human. A doll may have the shape of a human being or another animal but despite human attachment to it, it’s not a person.

Creating humans, however, entails a special blessing. When we think about our creation we remember that the Bible tells us that, from Adam’s first creation, we are created imago dei in the likeness of God, bearing a resemblance to him. Theologians have long struggled to say clearly what that image signifies and minimally they agree that it means dominion over the earth and the capacity to show love and compassion. But whatever else, imago means that we are the favored among all that God has made. We are not God we do not have the life that God has we are, however, like God and that is precisely what Luther was at pains to make clear. All human beings are likenesses images of God and some day we’re going to have the life of God infuse our lives. That’s when we will be ‘born again’, ‘put on Christ’, ‘have the mind of Christ’, when God is no longer merely accommodated to our lives, but when our lives will be located in the life of God. That is our Christian hope our prayer and, we believe, our destiny.

I think that is the first point of todays’ lections that God has created us imago dei an imperfect likeness to himself. The second, equally important point is that the God who initiates our salvation will be satisfied with nothing less than our perfection. Nothing less than perfection! Imago dei embeds this desire in the human condition. If you are a parent, can you remember how ‘perfection’ was inchoate in your delight at your baby’s first feeble attempts to walk? Barring an insurmountable incapacity, no parent would ever by satisfied with anything less than the ‘perfection’ that’s signified by their child’s bipedal mobility. George McDonald once said that “God is easy to please but hard to satisfy” and that sounds very like the point James makes when he asks rhetorically: ‘What good is it, my friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it? If faith does not lead to action, it is by itself a lifeless thing. Show me this faith you speak of with no actions to prove it, and I by my actions will prove to you my faith. Be sure that you act on Jesus’ message, and don’t merely listen and thereby deceive yourselves’.

I think we make a similar point when we say there is a fundamental difference between ‘merely listening’ and hearing. Listening is passive hearing is active. ‘Now hear this’ is the imperative that summons sailors over the ship’s intercom and when the officer of the day gets the attention of the ship’s company, the day’s agenda gets laid out. Similarly, when we want someone to pay serious attention, we say ‘listen hear this’! That’s not a request it’s a command and if you hear you are expected to act to do whatever you need to do to show that you heard. So James says, be doers of the word you hear, and not mere listeners. Interestingly, the great 20th c. theologian, Karl Barth, defended the doctrine of virgin birth along similar lines when he argued that Mary’s organ of conception was her ear. She heard the Word of the Lord and she acted on it. She was not a passive listener. She became obedient to the Word she heard she said yes she was a doer she was theotokos the bearer of the Son of God.

But hearing, as all of us know, isn’t always easy. My NT koine Greek was virtually useless in modern Athens and my schoolboy French and German are seriously challenged when I listen to native speakers. That was personally and painfully underscored when I was the US representative at a UNESCO sponsored conference held in a seaside resort on the Black Sea at Varna, Bulgaria. Our agenda was the human implications of the science of genetics for biology and ethics and the president of the conference was a scientist who was also head of the Bulgarian Communist Party.

Kyril Bratanov was his name, and he was the keynote speaker. He was ca. 5’5″ and needed a booster platform at the podium when he spoke about his laboratory and experiments with ovarian and testicular transplantation, embryo transfer, genetic interventions of various sorts, and other studies that offered, he said, ‘careful and useful scientific improvement’ for humanity. He gave his speech in his native Bulgarian simultaneously translated in English, Russian, and French. I listened mostly in French because I was going on to Paris and wanted to resuscitate my limited French. When he finished his address he received tepid applause and because I had been elected a vice president of the conference, I thought it my duty to initiate a response.

I stood to thank my distinguished colleague for his very interesting but in some ways problematic remarks. I said there are scientists in my country who would very much like to conduct experiments like the ones he described, testicular and ovarian transplants, embryo transfers, genetic interventions, but that they are prohibited by stringent stipulations for what we regard as valid informed consent by subjects of scientific investigations.  They are requirements that are simply too rigorous for studies like his to be permitted. Then I said, ‘So I want to ask you, my distinguished colleague, did you have any problem gaining valid consents from the subjects in your studies?’ At that he literally fell off his platform, convulsed in laughter and then, after composing himself he said, ‘Thank you, my distinguished colleague Prof. Dr. Smith, but perhaps you did not understand that I am a veterinarian’.

What Jesus says to the man in today’s gospel who is deaf and mute is ephphatha an Aramaic word that Mark transliterated into Greek. It means, ‘be opened’ exactly what I needed to be opened and able to hear. Earlier in Mark, Jesus said that he came with a message for those who had ears to hear and today he not only delivers that message but creates the ability to hear it. The gospel is not about supernatural events but about a people so formed and conditioned to God’s speech that they can hear it and having heard it, do it, perform it, embrace it as their identity and the purpose in their lives. So we’re back to square one to James’s insistence that we must do the Word when we hear it.
I sincerely believe that’s what we are about here. Tomorrow we will celebrate American workers. That’s fine. The emphasis will be on people who make things. But now hear this we are created imago dei so that we can hear God’s Word and, in hearing it, have our life acclimated to God’s life. Today’s lessons from James and Mark are reminders that hearing is absolutely essential if we mean to do God’s work in the world. So I bid you join me in thanking God for this always unsettling but exciting and awesome gift.

#Duke #DukeDivinity #DukeMedicine #Mark #James #DoingtheWord #UNESCO #Hear

The Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology, Duke Divinity School and Emeritus Professor of Community and Family Medicine, Duke University. He is an author, Episcopal priest, and avid golfer.