Ordinary Saints

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

There are, it seems, at least two choices before us on this Sunday.

First, we can enter back into our pilgrimage through Mark. If so, enter with care, as the lectionary draws us back into Mark’s narrative by slicing and dicing one of the more complex passages in the second Gospel. Most good commentaries, including those on this site, help guide us through the various issues of Mark’s audience, first-century Jewish law, and food and purity traditions that run throughout this passage. But, as they also make clear, such discussions can quickly prove mind-numbing. If you are going to go with Mark, I’d suggest focusing on sin. Why? Because if there is one thing that both many Christians and non-Christians alike are confused about, it’s sin. And while this passage doesn’t have the last word on sin, it does offer us some helpful insights. Again, consult the commentaries.

If, however, you are open to postponing our re-entrance into Mark by just a week, then I’d suggest as a second possibility looking to the passage from James. I say that fully aware of James’ suspect reputation, as everyone from Eusebius in the fourth century to Luther in the sixteenth was dubious at best about its value to the Christian canon. But there are some sterling passages hidden among the straw, and this is one of them, especially in light of the U.S. celebration of Labor Day.

Why do I find James — at least in this instance — so attractive? Because it reminds us of two incredibly important things: 1) faithfulness does not need to be heroic; 2) Sunday is not the most important day of the Christian week.

As to the first, notice the startling claim James makes in the opening verse of this passage: “every generous act of giving…comes from above.” Every generous act of giving. Not some generous acts. Not only Christian acts of giving (whatever those might be). But all generous acts of giving. And to that we might add all acts of mercy, or advocacy, or support, or friendship. All we do that is good comes from God. Which means that faithfulness is available to all of us: in our homes, places of work or volunteering, our schools and communities and more. Wherever you find yourself — or, more to the point, wherever our people find themselves — God is at work for the health of this world God loves so much.

James later makes his recommendations more specific by including behaviors to avoid — being slow to listen, quick to anger, engaged in sordidness, etc. — as well as behaviors to cultivate — being quick to listen, slow to speak, and eager to care for those most vulnerable. All of these things are within our reach. What parent doesn’t want to be slower to anger with his or her children? What friend doesn’t want to be a better listener? Aren’t all of us in a position to offer help and support to those in need? James encourages us not just to think the faith, but to do it. And as countless research studies have recently asserted, there’s never been a generation more eager to move from faith as a head-trip to the faith as a way-of-life than the emerging generation.

But notice also — and this brings us to the second point — that none of these activities is restricted to Sunday. In fact, being more patient with co-workers, friends, family members, or working hard to listen better, or voting for candidates who support caring for the most vulnerable — all of these things are done outside of Sunday, during our Monday-through-Saturday lives in the world.

Which helps orient us to the possibility — I’d actually say reality but for most of our folks I suspect it’s barely even a possibility at this point — that Sunday is not the pinnacle of the Christian week but actually was intended to serve and support our Christian lives the rest of the week. Sunday, that is, is the day we are immersed again in the word, have our sins forgiven, receive guidance and encouragement in our Christian lives, hear again the good news of God’s goodness and mercy, and are called, commissioned, and sent once more into the world to work with God for the health of the people God has put all around us.

All of this puts tremendous importance on our daily lives and activities and actually hallows the everyday routines and responsibilities we often take for granted. So perhaps on this day, Working Preacher, we could invite people to write down one place they will be in the coming week where God could use them to listen, to be patient, or to care for those in need. Or maybe we could have folks stand and actually commission them as God’s co-workers and partners in making this world a more trustworthy, safe, and healthy place.

Whatever you do, know that you are not only lending people a vision of the sanctity and value of their everyday lives, but also giving them a clear rationale for their participation in your congregation. Because if we can turn our congregations into “vocational counseling centers” — that is, places where we find our calling clarified and our sent back into our “ordinary” lives more aware of God’s presence and extraordinary work through us in the world — then we might find ourselves more eager to come to church so that we might be forgiven, blessed, called, and sent once more into lives of meaning and purpose.

Thanks for your good work and faithful ministry, Working Preacher, as you proclaim the word to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

Yours in Christ,