James 1: 17 – 27 Making a Living, or Making a Life? September 5, 2021


Making a Living, or Making a Life?

James 1: 17 – 27


(preached on September 5, 2021)


This weekend we celebrate the holiday of Labor Day.  Labor Day is a holiday to honor work and workers.  You know, it’s always seemed a little strange to me that the way we honor work is by taking a day off.  But Labor Day can give us an opportunity to take a break from our everyday routines and reflect on work.  It’s a chance to appreciate those who work hard at jobs that need to be done, difficult jobs that many of us wouldn’t want to do.


Labor Day also invites us to reflect on the role of work in our society and how that role has changed over time.  I’ve always been interested in the way work changed in this country, as we moved from an agricultural way of life to an industrial one.  When the industrial revolution happened, all sorts of things could be produced much faster than ever before.  There was no longer a need for constant physical labor to produce what was needed for life.  People were free from that constant physical labor.


But all was not sunshine and roses in this new industrial age.  The twentieth century philosopher Erich Fromm has written that this new freedom from constant physical labor was very unsettling for people.  It was even frightening for some.  He notes that people needed to “subdue their doubts and fears by developing a feverish activity.”  Work was no longer a source of satisfaction.  Instead, it became “a duty and an obsession” (Fromm, The Sane Society, New York: Henry Holt, 1955, p. 179).


If we think Erich Fromm is still on the mark: that men and women today work because they’re anxious and fearful, it looks like we’ve gotten more anxious and fearful in the last fifty years.  The way we work today is full of feverish activity.  Sometimes I think we’re working more just so we can buy more.  At the same time, our quality of life hasn’t improved all that much.


One pastor sees this in his congregation.  He says, “I think the major problem in my congregation is that people are working too hard and too much.  Mom and Dad virtually abandon the family in order to work for all the stuff they think they need.  Teenagers neglect their studies with after school and weekend jobs. Overwork has become our biggest sin” (Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 31, No. 3, p. 38).


That may be a bit of an overstatement.  And if you’ve just lost your job it can be hard to hear that overwork is a problem. But people who study these things report that overwork has become a huge problem in the last few decades.  Beginning in the 1940s, the number of hours we work has increased each decade.  If you add all those numbers up, the average American worked a month longer every year in the 1990s than in the 1970s.


In Europe, most jobs include at least four weeks’ vacation every year.  But here in the States we have 40 per cent less free time than in the 1970s.  We are sleeping less, spending less time with our families, spending less time on other activities.  In some cases what used to be a lunch hour is down to 37 minutes.  It’s true that our production of material goods has more than doubled since the 1940s, but at what price?


The business of making a living is leaving a lot of us exhausted.  And many of us do feel anxious about work.  But I’m not convinced that it’s the long hours that make us anxious.  I don’t think working long and hard, in itself, is the problem.  As long as we make time to be with the people we love, long, hard work isn’t what makes people anxious.  People are anxious because they feel as if their work doesn’t have any lasting value.  For a lot of folks, there’s no connection between their work and anything significant.


But things can be different for you and me.  We can see from the letter of James that, as followers of Jesus, we are called to a kind of work that is significant.  We’re called to work that’s more than making a living.  The work we’re called to is the work of sharing the word of God: the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ.


In his letter, James urges us not just to listen to God’s word, but to live it out in our daily lives.  He says, “Be doers of the word, not hearers only.”  God’s word, the good news that has come in Jesus, is not to be just something playing in the background while we do what we have to do to make a living.  God’s word is front and center, something for us to live out actively.  As we live out that good news, in acts of caring and compassion, we are truly making a life.


As people of faith, we find a connection between our work and the purposes of God.  Whatever kind of work we do, our primary work is being doers of the word.  God calls us to be women and men committed to God’s ways of compassion.  That might be, as James puts it, looking after orphans and widows, or working in our chosen fields, whatever they might be.


Being doers of the word might be as simple as participating in things here at church so we can continue to be the vibrant community of faith we hope to be.  It might be volunteering at a food program.  It might be lending a listening ear to a friend who’s going through a tough time.


A few years ago, I read about some helpful listening that’s going on amid the hustle and bustle of Logan Airport in Boston.  The listening is happening in an unusual spot:  a shoeshine stand.  Sylvia Hill arrives there every morning at 5:00.  She spends the day shining shoes and listening to the fears, worries, and joys of her customers.  She’s not an ordained minister, but she carries a Bible and a notebook along with her brushes, rags, and polish.  The Bible is for her own use.  She says she would never force her religious views on anyone.  The notebook is for jotting down prayer requests.  The pages are filled with people’s names and a problem they’re facing:  a marital crisis, illness, trouble at work.  Sylvia Hill doesn’t have to shine shoes to make a living.  She has a degree in counseling.  But she thrives on the contact she has at that shoeshine stand; contact with all kinds of people.  She’s convinced that God wants her at that shoeshine stand.  She says, “I’m able to share the gospel unfettered.  And I know that it makes a difference” (Boston Globe, April 10, 1999).


Sylvia Hill is a doer of the word.  You and I are also called to be doers of the word.  The work we do, whatever kind of work it may be, is more than making a living.  Our work is sharing the good news of God’s love in acts of caring and compassion.  In our work, with God’s help, we are making a life: a life that shines forth with God’s love in Christ.




















Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Pentecost 15