Doing. And, Believing.

Doing. And, Believing.

September 2, 2012
Stina Pope

[pullquoteright]“Be doers of the word!”[/pullquoteright]When I was beginning to engage in theological debate at the dinner table, which happened when I was a teenager, these words were guaranteed to get someone going. The classic response was: “justification by faith alone!”

As a young person, I simply could not see what the problem was. I still don’t. Over time, I learned the history behind each statement, what the assumptions were, and why each group had come to its strong position. On the one side is the group that says: if you don’t “practice” your faith and “do” things that exhibit your belief, then what good is your belief? It doesn’t “show forth.” Now, it does not take long for this to move into the concept that as long as you are doing the “right things,” you are OK with God. On the other hand, you have the group that says, you cannot “do” anything to be right with God; rather, you have to believe, you have to have faith, and that faith is what makes you right with God.

The pendulum has swung back and forth several times. Clearly, this was already a question in the early church, or we would not see this written for us to read. A few hundred years later, the Catholic Church was obviously way off center in the “doing the right thing” mode, and the famous Martin Luther said no! We are not saved by “doing” anything! We are saved by faith alone. The Protestant revolt was on, and it was not that long until we see good Protestants engaged in the social Gospel, doing all kinds of good works out in the community, and the Anglo-Catholics calling people back to prayer and contemplation of the holy. Each side seems to call forth the challenge of relevance for its time, until, at this point, there is the question of whether the church is relevant, not just from either side, but at all.

I think the dichotomy is false. It is not either-or, it is both-and. Furthermore, the question needs to be changed.

This issue of the question is crucial. The question you ask determines the shape of the answer. Another way of putting this is: if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Last week three men came to my door with a pamphlet in their hand. They wanted to invite me to their church. I had a few minutes, and was in a mood, so I chose to engage with them instead of just closing the door. Their first question, of course, was: was I saved? When I said yes, and that I had a church, and that not only did I have a church, but I was in church every Sunday because I was a priest. But that was not enough for them. Did I, and Episcopalians in general, believe in Jesus? Well, yes, we do. Then they said something about the Bible, and I took off about understanding the context, you know how much I like talking about context in the Bible, and so I started teaching them. Their eyes were opened a little bit, but the leader was very clear about the questions he was supposed to ask. Did I believe in hell? Oh yes, I said, rather vehemently (he was a little startled), you can be in hell right here and now – which also means you can be in heaven right now. I went on to tell them that we don’t know what is going to happen in the next life. We may think we know, we may hope, but we do not KNOW! Then I said, Look, I have a kid, and if that kid gets into all kinds of trouble, and is really, really bad, will I still love him? Yes, of course. I will still love him. OK, so if I, human mother, will still love, I believe God is so much bigger and so much better than I am, therefore, I believe God will love me, no matter what.

[pullquoteleft]The question is not whether or not there is hell… No, the question is whether or not God will love me.[/pullquoteleft]The question is not whether or not there is hell, we know there is hell, anyone who has seen war or addiction has seen hell. No, the question is whether or not God will love me. Is your God big enough to love you, no matter what? I think the Bible goes over and over this question, and the answer is always a big YES! God still loves. Then the question is whether or not I want to stay in hell, or be with God, and the immediate question after that is how to be with God, rather than being in hell.

The very simple, but not easy, answer to how to be with God is this: act like God acts. And how does God act? God loves, without reserve. God loves. Period. And God gives. The stories Jesus tells about the Kingdom of God are about outrageous giving – giving a full day’s wage for one hour of work, a huge party for the prodigal coming home, reaping a full harvest in spite of a lot of weeds – and finally Jesus himself, giving everything, not holding back, letting go of even his life. And the result? More life, eternal life!


So it is never faith versus works, always faith gives birth to works. What we do reflects what we believe. Therefore, what we believe is important – absolutely! And at the same time, what we do, since it reflects what we believe, is also important. When we try to separate them, only faith, or only works, we are unbalanced.

When we look at what Jesus says in the Gospel, we find that he has been challenged by the officials that his disciples are dishonoring the law. He replies that this law that they are so very concerned about is “just works” and no faith, because their hearts are not in the right place. It is like when people oppress the poor legally.  Jesus says, it does not matter if it is legal or not – it is wrong according to God’s law! We need to pay attention to the heart, to our faith, when we consider the things that we do, and the things we don’t do.

This brings us up to today, to our Labor Day Weekend. We celebrate our work by taking a day of vacation, that’s a little ironic, don’t you think? Furthermore, because it is such a big day for sales, many workers end up working longer hours on this weekend. Labor Day is a totally secular holiday, organized originally to honor workers. But in the same way that the secular world feels very free to appropriate religious holidays, I feel very free to appropriate this secular holiday, and suggest that there are some very important things for us to consider.

[pullquoteright]Ours is a God who works, who creates, and who tends that creation.[/pullquoteright]Ours is a God who works, who creates, and who tends that creation. The whole notion of sabbath is based on the idea that the rest of the time one is working. We, as part of this created order, also work – and I am not talking about working for pay, but rather that we do things. I remember a picture of Jackie Kennedy Onassis in her later years, and the caption was: why does this woman work?  Her answer to that was: What is sad for women of my generation is that they weren’t supposed to work if they had families. What were they going to do when the children are grown – watch the raindrops coming down the window pane? It was no accident that at the same time that middle-class women were told they should not work, should not be creative and productive, that women started having what was then called hysteria, and now would be called depression.

We need to work, we need to create, we need to care for something. There is a movement now to have animals in nursing homes. It is brilliant. They found that sometimes when there was an animal in the room, that people who had given up and were unresponsive, wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t talk, suddenly got out of bed to take care of the animal. It’s amazing, and not surprising at all when we think about people who have been told to do nothing. It is no accident that so many men die soon after retirement. Women have had to deal with identity issues apart from paid work.

So what about when we are retired? If retirement is the time when you get to work on the things that you really care about, then there is no problem. In India, the last part of life is seen as the time when you have the time to devote to spiritual work, and it is not seen as crazy for an old man to sign over his wealth to his son, and like St Francis, put on a beggar’s robe and go searching for enlightenment. Of course, this is a segregated society, and the women are not expected to leave the family – their work does not end like the man’s has, and her spirituality is not valued in the same way, which is unfortunate. But we have seen this happen, where someone has been able to retire, and now is able to engage in their true vocation. My own great-uncle worked many years for PG&E, and painted a little on the side. When he retired, then he could, and did, paint all the time – a joy to him and to the rest of us.

And when we become more and more limited physically, the call to the spiritual life becomes louder. We need strong pray-ers. When I needed extra prayer support this week for a particular situation, I had people I could call. These are people who are regular pray-ers, who visit the spiritual gym every day, whose prayer muscles are well developed. Are you one of these people?

[pullquoteleft]Do we see our work as participating in God’s work somehow? What work has God called me to do? How will I create with God?[/pullquoteleft]The other issue about work that I want to raise up is that how we see our work, and again, this does not matter whether it is paid or not. Do we see our work as participating in God’s work somehow? Are we engaged in hospitality, for example? I’m not talking about being in the hospitality industry. A receptionist could see himself being engaged in God’s work of hospitality, seeing everyone walking through the door as someone needing God’s love as heard through his voice, treating everyone as a beloved child of God – even if that child is misbehaving at the moment.

A woman who likes to have tea parties realized that two old friends were isolated, gathered tea things into a box, and drove one of them to the other friend’s house. Her gifts of attention, care, and time were so appreciated – and she had a great time too.

At a party a man asked a woman what she did. After a minute she said quietly: “I bring hope to those who are hurting.” After a little more digging, he got the answer he originally expected – she was a clerk in a grocery store. But she didn’t see her job as simply a job. It was also a way for her to use the gifts of hospitality and love God had given her to help make the world a better place. So she paid special attention to the people who looked sad or careworn, and intentionally offered them a simple word of kindness. “I think it makes a difference,” she said. The man, a seminary dean, realized that he needed to rethink his work, to see what he does in terms of gifts. He has a gift of administration and teaching to help people prepare for ministry and build up the kingdom of God. It does not make the to-do list any shorter, but it does make it more compelling.

This Labor Day, why not ask yourself: What work has God called me to do? Then look for it. It may be seeing things differently right where you are, or it may be using your gifts in a new way. How will you create with God?


Today’s Readings

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