What a marvelous coincidence that the 13th Sunday after Pentecost this year comes on the eve of Labor Day, for in the lections for this Sunday, we find much ado about labor and especially laboring zeal, that is, about exulting as we put our shoulders to the proverbial wheel, as a preferred and indeed enduring way of life, in response to exhortations in word and deed in Holy Scripture (Hebrew Bible and New Testament as well), by or on behalf of the Divine.
I speak of our ideal of labor that fulfills, as joyful means of achieving the more abundant life assured us by our Savior, Jesus the Christ. Let’s take a look:
(1) In the Hebrew Bible’s Exodus 3:1-15 the central image is that of the “burning bush”; that is to say, the emphasis is on zeal, on ardor, on that very burning (“ardor” being derived from the Latin “ardere” meaning “to burn”) — eternal, unquenched burning that does not consume, and instead motivates and empowers our righteous labor on behalf of the Divine. There you have it (!), in these few verses in Exodus chapter 3: the commands, ardently summoning Moses to labor for the Divine, flowing from the mouth of God in the bush.
God says, first, acknowledge the sacred by what you do, for example, taking off your shoes before the Almighty (or bowing your head or kneeling or standing or closing your eyes), and then, with God’s help, attend to the suffering of, the Israelites in Egypt, delivering them out of bondage, and bringing them back to worship on Horeb (also called Sinai), the mount of God … ardent labor for the Lord.
(2) In the Hebrew Bible’s Jeremiah 15:15-21, we first find the prophet distinguishing himself by the misfortunes that he has had to endure — that is, by what has befallen him, and by what the prophet rightfully has not done (seemingly reflecting on proscriptive exhortations along the lines of those in Psalm 1). But the crux of the matter becomes clearer in the second half of the passage, when the righteous labor, the zealous and indeed ardent labor expected of the prophet (and of us), is laid out. What matters most, in other words, is what we must do, laboring: we must turn back; we must stand as indicated; we must utter as indicated; and of course, we must lovingly serve!
(3) The Gospel passage, Matthew 16:21-28, follows suit. Jesus is clear: our fulfillment, our abundant life, will stem from hard work — from righteous labor. Jesus instructs: deny yourself; take up your cross and follow the Master; don’t sit back, but instead, risk losing your life for Jesus’ sake — possibly another way of saying, “work yourself to death” (!) with ardent zeal for Jesus’ sake. And just in case the instruction consecrating zealous labor is not clear, Jesus states explicitly that “the Son of Man (at the end of time) … will repay us,” not for sitting back in innocent, pristine fashion (no matter how commendable the latter may be); rather, the Lord “will repay us for what we have done,” that is, for what we have labored at, not simply following and adoring him, but specifically doing the hard work, the righteous labor, that consists of taking us up our crosses and then following the Master, laboring in word and deed. (See Matthew 16:24 and 27.)
(4) Finally, the hard but joyous work of discipleship is nowhere more explicit than in this Sunday’s passage from the Great Apostle Paul’s Letter to “God’s beloved in Rome,” chapter 12, verses 9 through 21. With characteristically excited, didactic zeal, Paul spills out an epigrammatic parade of must-do’s at which we must labor.
I commend the entire list to your careful reading and reflection on this eve of and on Labor Day itself.
The list begins: “love un-hypocritically” (that is, walk the walk of faithful love, don’t just talk the talk); show that you hate evil by how you act; “hold fast to what is good,” acting right; “love one another with mutual affection,” that is, not just unconditionally, but acting like a sibling, an equal, not motivated by any sense of abasing charity, but rather, motivated out of kinship (importantly, as equally beloved children, sons and daughters, of the same heavenly Father, our Creator God); in our increasingly diverse communities, “outdo one another in showing honor (that is, genuine respect),” and specifically in how you act toward one another; “do not lag in zeal,” but instead, “be ardent (that is, be downright Pentecostal) in spirit serving the Lord (that is, in how you comport yourself).” My beloved, ecclesial “chosen frozen,” do take note! Moreover, go beyond passive patience in suffering, and even beyond perseverance in prayer. Instead, start with active, zealous, ardent, “burning bush”-like “rejoicing in hope” — that is, actually exulting out of grateful confidence that, with God in the midst, “all things (will) work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). And we are seen to be so called, when we “contribute to the needs of others in our communities,” and when we “extend hospitality to strangers.” (Romans 12:13.)
The parade of “must do’s” goes on through to the end of chapter 12. And while, with all its exhortations and expectations of ardent, fulfilling, and even redeeming labor on our part — so appropriate for Labor Day and the eve thereof — there is also, in this passage from Romans (verses 9 to 21 of chapter 12), a consoling display, in the Great Apostle’s Koiné Greek, reference to “agapé” and thereby (in verse 9) to universal, unconditional, communal love, then also reference to “philadelphia” and thereby (in verse 10) to sibling love of equals, the greater for the underpinning of admiration born of kinship, and also reference, in the same verse 10, to “philostorgoi” and thereby to even greater, virtually instinctive inclination to love because of a special relationship (perhaps of a parent and a child, or between best friends), thereby placing common kinship through the Divine on a par with close biological relationship and automatic sense of loving obligation to act, to honor, and to save, that flows therefrom.
Yes, this Labor Day eve and Labor Day itself, come, labor on. Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear! No arm so weak but may do service here: by feeblest agents may our God fulfill his righteous will. Amen.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams, Jr., K.St.J., is bishop’s sub-dean for St. Thomas & St. John and Vicar (ret.), Nazareth by the Sea Church in the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands (U.S. & U.K.) and also chairman, Chaplaincy of SRMC’s All Faith’s Chapel and Member, Dean’s Council, Washington National Cathedral.