Working for the Kingdom

Sermon delivered by David Burrow September 6, 2015 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa

Click here for an audio version of this sermon. (20 MB - .mp3)

Affirmation of Faith - A Declaration of Faith

God has not taken his people out of the world, but has sent them into the world to worship him there and serve all humankind. We worship God in the world by standing before the Lord in behalf of all people. Our cries for help and our songs of praise are never for ourselves alone. Worship is no retreat from the world; it is part of our mission. We serve humankind by discerning what God is doing in the world and joining him in his work. We risk disagreement and error when we try to say what God is doing here and now. But we find guidance in God’s deeds in the past and God’s promises for the future, as they are witnessed to in Scripture. We affirm that the Lord is at work, especially in events and movements that free people by the gospel and advance justice, compassion, and peace.

First Reading – Selections from Proverbs 22

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all. Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. One who loves a pure heart and who speaks with grace will have the king for a friend. Do you see people skilled in their work? They will serve before kings; they shall not be made to stand before ordinary people.

Second Reading – Selections from James 2

 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Gospel Reading – Mark 7:24 - 37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter."

So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.

Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."


Happy holidays! I bet you weren’t expecting that start to this message. “Happy Holidays” is a greeting we’re used to hearing in December, often scorned by those who think it somehow cheapens Christmas. Really, though, “Happy holidays” is appropriate any time of year, because there’s always some sort of a holiday going on. I did a quick search for holidays while preparing this and found out that in early September we celebrate International Women’s Day, National Grandparents Day, and American Citizenship Day. There’s also International Literacy Day, National Newspaper Carriers Day, National Teddy Bear Day, Hug Your Dog Day, International Pizza Day, Beer Lovers Day, Chocolate Milkshake Day, and Vegan Food Day. Yesterday was a feast of forgiveness that precedes the Jewish New Year.

This is also a time for milestone anniversaries. For a baseball fan like me, it’s noteworthy that twenty years ago today Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record. Much more important in history, last week marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and 395 years ago this very day the Pilgrims set sail from England for America. All of those are just a small sampling of all the reasons to wish people “Happy Holidays” in September.

A month ago I happened to be up in Manitoba over a holiday. The Canadian government calls the first Monday in August “Civic Holiday”, but most Canadians just call it “August Long Weekend”. I couldn’t help but think that was the perfect name for a celebration. They don’t even pretend to have a reason for the holiday; it’s just, “Hey—it’s August! Let’s take time off work.”

That’s pretty much how we Americans think of the holiday that we’re celebrating this week: Labor Day. For most of us it’s basically September Long Weekend. We traditionally think of Labor Day as the end of summer, and we celebrate with barbecues, sports events, clearance sales, and one last trip to the lake. Where I grew up down in southeast Iowa Labor Day was a time to milk the tourists, as more than a hundred thousand people came to town for the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion. The church I went to earned almost half of our annual budget serving meals in a huge tent at the festival.

So just what are we celebrating on Labor Day? We sometimes hear people talk about the true meaning of Christmas. We’re reminded to count our blessings on Thanksgiving, and we remember those who gave us our freedom on Memorial Day and the 4th of July. It’s not often that people talk about the true meaning of Labor Day, though. If you dig deep, however, there really is a reason for the holiday that has nothing to do with eating, drinking, swimming, or shopping. Congress established Labor Day 121 years ago to “celebrate the dignity of work” and “pay tribute to the contributions workers make to the strength, well-being, and prosperity of our country”.

Labor Day began near the start of the Industrial Revolution, an era when most workers did hard physical labor. Unions had just started to be formed in the late 19th Century, and they were campaigning for fair wages and safe working conditions. In the 21st Century the exact jobs we all do have changed, but workers are still looking for just wages and fair treatment. Far too often those who make decisions about workers fail to keep in mind the message of Christ.

Well enough about the holiday. What does all of this have to do with the church? Well, there are few things tin he Bible that are valued more than work. In fact the word “work” appears in the Bible 733 times. That’s nearly as often as “love”. “Labor” comes up an additional 141 times, and there’s also words like “toil” and “struggle” that carry the same theme. Consider these verses:

From Colossians: Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.

From Proverbs: Whoever is a slacker in work is a brother of him who destroys.

From Ecclesiastes: There is nothing better for a person than that he … find enjoyment in his toil.

And from Matthew: Let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Those verses are the basis of the Protestant work ethic that guided our ancestors, and they really should continue to be a guiding force for us today. The Bible celebrates the virtues of labor, and it urges us to do our work joyfully and without complaint.

Christ himself provides many examples of hard work. One of those is in our gospel today, and in that story Jesus shows that he really is one of us. He was just trying to get away from all the crowds, and we’re told at the start of the passage that he didn’t want anyone to know he was there.

Well, imagine that you’re on vacation. You’ve just unpacked, and you’re about to head for the beach or pool. Then suddenly your cell phone rings, or maybe you get an e-mail or the hotel desk buzzes you with a message. You may have been trying to get away, but suddenly—like it or not—you’re back at work. That happened to me when I was up in Canada last month. I’m on the board of the state math teachers’ council, and I got a message about something that had to be acted on, whether I was on vacation or not.

Well, that’s pretty much what happened to Jesus in today’s gospel reading. He was trying to get away and rest up, but no sooner had he arrived at his destination, than a woman came up asking him to cast a demon out of her daughter. His reaction was not exactly saintly. In fact, it’s actually one of the least holy pictures we have of Jesus in the Bible. He grumbled a bit and essentially called the woman a dog. It’s the same sort of reaction all of us would have if our vacation was interrupted by unwanted work.

The woman is persistent, though. She stands her ground and basically forces Christ to answer that old question “What would Jesus do?” And, of course, Christ does do what Jesus would do. He removes the demon from the daughter and sends the woman on her way.

Then we see Jesus doing more work on his way back from vacation. He cures a man who is deaf and mute. He tries to be modest about it, since for Christ this really is all in a day’s work. The people around can’t help passing around news of a miracle, though.

Today’s reading gives just two of dozens of miracles and good works performed by Christ. Elsewhere Jesus gets in trouble for working on the Sabbath and for helping the wrong kind of people. At times it seems Jesus was almost a workaholic. He works constantly and tirelessly, setting an ideal for which we all should strive. As Christians we believe that Jesus even continued his work through his death, which brought us forgiveness for our sins. Now I’ve gotten a few awards for my work over the years, and I know many of you have as well. It puts things into perspective, though, when you take a moment to think how even the hardest work we do compares to what God has done in the person of Jesus Christ.

God does want us to work hard at our jobs, but that’s not the only work we’re called to do. The message from James that is part of today’s Lectionary readings is just about my favorite scripture in the Bible. It tells us that faith alone is not enough. We need to put our faith into action. We are summoned as Christians to continue God’s work and to do all we can to make this world a better place. We need to work as hard as we can to bring the kingdom of God to our world.

So, how can we do that? Well, let’s look at some of the things our church is doing here in Algona. Today is food pantry Sunday. As we do every month, we’re collecting food, hygiene items, and money to help out people in our community who are in need. Next month we’ll be hosting the CROP Walk, where we invite members of other churches to join with us to help fight world hunger. We have an ongoing project to help a Native American family, we’re installing an accessible restroom to make our church more convenient to anyone who might visit, and two weeks from now we’ll be dedicating a peace pole and joining with millions of other people in praying “May peace prevail on earth”.

Of course the biggest thing we do as a church is to proclaim the gospel and to share God’s love with everyone. We share that message with those who are here each week and with a much broader audience that listens on the radio and on the internet. Our congregation has made a special commitment to doing God’s work by proclaiming that we welcome everyone, regardless of their background. Our church is God’s dwelling place, and God calls us to love, not to hate.

We’re called to do God’s work individually as well. Many of the ways we can do that are part of the “Be the church” message that the United Church of Christ has focused on recently. We have banners, note cards, coffee mugs, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and aprons that proclaim “Be the church” and follow up with specific ways we can do that:

Being the church means keeping our faith alive by putting it into action. It means truly working for the kingdom.

There are a lot of good role models we have who have spent their lives working for Christ’s kingdom. One that comes to my mind is the man who served as President back when I was in high school: Jimmy Carter. You can like or dislike President Carter as a politician—that’s really not the point here. What does matter is what a deeply committed Christian he is and how he worked to put that faith into action once he left the White House. He’s worked with Habitat for Humanity—not just as a spokesman, but doing the actual physical labor of building homes for the poor. He’s traveled the world negotiating peace treaties, seeing that elections are fair, and working for justice for everyone. Even at age 90 he taught Sunday school in his local church, and he has written numerous books in which he shares his faith with others. Most recently he’s given all of us a model of how to bring dignity to the final part of life. If each of us could do one small fraction of the work President Carter has done in his retirement, our world would definitely be a better place.

We don’t need to look to world leaders for role models, though. Last spring those of us here at First Congregational Church said goodbye to a woman who was one of the hardest working and most positive people I’ve ever met. I’m talking, of course, about Noma Buchanan, who would be celebrating her birthday today. It’s amazing just how many things Noma did for her church, her community, and her family. Most of them were little things, stuff she genuinely thought was no big deal. Those little things added up to a lot, though, and months later we’re still discovering work that Noma always did that now needs to fall on our shoulders. It’s hard to think of anyone who strived harder to do God’s work than Noma. We’d all do well to follow in her footsteps.

Tying together all the thoughts I’ve shared today are the words of another U.S. President, John Kennedy. Just five months before he was killed, President Kennedy gave the commencement address at American University in Washington. He concluded his remarks by challenging the graduates with these words:

One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.

So on Labor Day we honor those who do good honest work. We’re reminded to work hard in our jobs and be proud of the work we do. Beyond that, though, we are challenged to make a real difference in the world. We are called to be God’s hands and feet and mouths—to do God’s work in the world. Let’s take up that challenge and do our best to work for the kingdom of God.

(C) 2015