October 9, 2011
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
IDoers. As in “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Doers. D-o-e-r-s. It’s a biblical term, albeit, not a very common, not used all that often in scripture. Doers. As in “if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” Doers. It’s a Jamesion term. A biblical word translated as “doers” in the vast majority of English translation. But a word found almost exclusively here in the Letter of James. Doers. As in “being not hearers who forget but doers who act.” Doers. The only other place I can find it in scripture is in Romans when Paul is building his argument for justification by faith. Romans 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Other than that, it’s all James. Only James. Doers. When you hear the word “doers” and it is coming from scripture, then you have to think James. “Be doers of the word.”
When you hear the word “doer”, there must be a face or name that comes to mind. For me it is Frank. In my first congregation, Frank was the one everyone called when they needed something. Not just the church, the whole town, everyone called Frank. He was of the World War II generation but for some health reason he was never allowed to serve. During the war, he took care of all the women and families in town whose husbands and fathers were overseas. He did that for the next fifty years or so. He was the driver, the fixer, the deliverer, the yard man, the errand guy. He did it all. Cathy and I have the mailbox Frank made for us that he put up outside the manse the week we moved in. It’s hanging inside our garage. All the folks in Blackwood, would say Frank was a “doer.” But a doer in James isn’t just the best handyman in town.
You can imagine parents arriving for the first teacher conference of the year anxious to hear how their 1st grade daughter is doing in school. The homework, the written comments, her attitude, her friendships, it has all been so good. But you always want to hear the news from the teacher just to be sure. Sitting there in those little chairs, across the table from the teacher. The teacher cuts right to it, even before the sample folder of homework is shared. “Melissa is my little doer. Her class participation is wonderful. She always volunteers. She will tackle any chore. She likes to be the first one done, the first in line, the first to help.. I really have to work at not calling on her all the time.” And the parents take a breath mixed with pride and relief. Melissa the little doer. But a doer in James isn’t simply the one with the most enthusiasm, the one to always raise a hand.
The Contemporary English Translation of the Bible leaves little question as to its understanding of a doer. Be doers of the word…James 2:22….is translated “Obey God’s message”. The noun doer is replaced with the verb obey. The phrase “being not hearers who forget but doers who act” becomes “listen and obey, and don’t just hear and forget.” A doer is one who obeys. But John Calvin in his commentary on James argues that the interpretation of a doer is not simply one who “satisfies the Law of God and fulfills it” in every way – one who obeys. Rather, a doer is the one “who embraces God’s Word from the heart”. When the Word of God takes root in someone so as to bring on its fruit, there, according to Calvin, you have a doer. If the doing is just about obeying, there wouldn’t be a doer in the bunch. For we know that all of us are sinners, falling short of the glory of God. Even for James, with that refrain of faith without works is dead, even for James, a doer can’t be just the one who obeys.
A doer. It can’t be reduced to keeping busy, or being overly eager, or toeing the line. Martha wasn’t a doer when she was distracted by many things. Peter wasn’t a doer when he bubbled over as Jesus was washing his feet “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” The rich ruler who wanted to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life? He wasn’t a doer when he told Jesus that actually, he had kept all the commandments since his youth. Jesus told him to sell everything, give the money to the poor, then come and “follow me”. Doers of the word. Doers who act.
There is one other time in the New Testament where this same Greek word for doer occurs. In addition to here in James and the reference to Romans I mentioned, the word comes up in Acts. But the translation is very different. In Acts 17, when Paul stood in front of the Aeropagus and proclaimed, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” That’s the sermon where Paul mentions the altar with the inscription to an unknown God, and he says that God does not live in shrines made by human hands, and that God made all nations so that they would “search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God, for God is not far from each one of us.” And then Paul puts a quote in his sermon there before the Aeropagus. “ For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ as even some of your own poets have said.” Your own poets. Poets. It’s the same word as doer. As some of your doers have said. The Greek word for doer; poietes—one who carries out, one who produces. Yes one who obeys or fulfills, but also, author, performer, poet. Be doers of the word. Doers. The Greek word, at the very least, bears the connotation of doer as artist, or discerner, or one with vision. Or to pick up on Calvin, not just one who embraces God’s word, but one who seeks to embody it, to bear fruit. Doers. Poets. Being not hearers who forget, but doers who act, poets who speak, sculptors who shape, potters who spin, painters who brush, visionaries who dream, followers who live.
Doer as poet. It’s a deeper, thicker, more complex, more vibrant approach to bearing, living, acting God’s word. Because frankly, between you and me, there’s nothing easy about being a doer. Preachers who want to make it all sound so simple, and tell you what to do, and how to do, and what we need to do…those preachers forget that part of being a doer is that each and every one of us has to discern gifts, and seek God’s Spirit, and observe the world, and respond to needs, and pretty much decide each morning what being baptized is going to look like today. Being doers of the word and not merely hearers; that’s pretty much an every day, living, breathing, some days up, some days down, joy-filled, gut wrenching, creating, responding encounter with the Risen Christ who calls us, the Living God who give us life, the Holy Spirit who sustains us. Doers-poets, people of the Word, a gathering of those seeking to discern how to live the faith and empower each one’s doing, rather than coming to hear one rise up and tell all the rest what to do.
Being a doer of the word. It requires imagination and a willingness to find your place in the kingdom of God. It requires self-knowledge and self-awareness and longing to lead a life of service. Doers of the word; they pray and reflect and grow and adapt and with their lives write new poems in service to the kingdom. If there are varieties of gifts and grace has been given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift, and if Christ gave the gifts to prepare God’s people for service (Ephesians 4), well, then, the doers in this room alone, the doers represent a rich collage of the embodied Word of God.
Preparing God’s people for service. The sending of the people of God into the world in service. God’s people carrying out the mission of God, not in here, but out there. Feasting on the promises of God here through Word and Sacrament, knowing ourselves to be the Body of Christ here, so that we might be the Body of Christ for the world. A congregation gathers only to be sent. The church is called out of the world only to be sent back into the world. What is true for our collective identity as the people of God is then true for you as a follower of Christ.
Called by the Holy Spirit to be here among us. Your life rooted and grounded here in praise and worship; afterall, you were created as an instrument of praise. Here in this community, you are nurtured in your own faith and love of God. Here in this community; praying for others and expecting others to pray for you. And here in this community of faith, discerning what it means for you to be a servant of the kingdom, how you are going to live into your baptism. Here in this community of faith; where we blow on the embers of your sacred imagination, and we place the canvas of a kingdom vision before you so that you can start to paint, and we wait on the Holy Spirit to break through the writer’s block of servanthood. The life and witness of Nassau Presbyterian Church in this community and in the world is less about our mission budget and way more about you being a doer.
My friend and colleague Brad Smith is the pastor of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. 22 years ago he was a seminary intern serving another congregation there in Columbia. On Super Bowl Sunday he was leading the prayers of the people. In that prayer, he said, “ Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us to be mmindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat.” A few members of the high school youth group in worship that morning were struck by that image of a soup bowl and the Super Bowl. They talked about it some more at youth group during the game. They prayed. They dreamed. An idea came up to collect an offering for hunger the next year on Super Bowl Sunday. The kids didn’t forget. A year later on Sunday morning they stood with soup bowls and asked for a dollar from folks leaving worship. They invited other youth groups around the city to join them in their effort and they raised $5,700 to fight hunger on Super Bowl Sunday in 1990. Since 1990, youth groups around the country have collected $81 million for hunger relief. Last year on that Sunday, a quarter million young people participated in all 50 states with a 100% of the cash and food collected going to local hunger relief agencies. It was $9.5 million dollars. And it all started with a couple poets in the youth group, a couple doers.
Over the years I have often thought how inaccurate the mission budget numbers are here at the church. Inaccurate only because we never know how many more dollars go to places like the Crisis Ministry, the Trenton Children’s Chorus, Centurion Ministries, from folks in our congregation. Of course, when you think beyond finances, how could we ever quantify the collective service in this room, in this congregation, quantify the kingdom work that goes out from here exponentially with your lives. Folks who write about the sending of the church are rightly asking for new metrics to measure the effectiveness of congregations. Talking about worship attendance, membership rolls, and budgets may help preserve a sense of Christendom and fan the flames of all the conversation about the end of the mainline church. But if we’re all about “preparing God’s people for service” then, they argue, we’re counting the wrong thing. We have to figure out a way to count and to celebrate and to talk about the doers.
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