“Love Your Neighbor” Colchester Federated Church, September 5, 2021, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (James 2:1-17)
As we continue on with the Letter of James, he offers us a scenario. Imagine that two people walk into our worship service at the same time. One has a gold ring and is wearing nice clothing. The other is poor and dressed in filthy rags. Suppose we took special notice of the one wearing the nice clothes and jewelry and said, “Here’s an excellent place to sit” and our ushers led them to a pew near the front. We all are excited that these folks are here with us to worship. Clearly, we’re the cool church where the cool people come. And suppose that to the poor person we said, “Stand over there in the back” or even, “Sit on the ground over there so you won’t disturb anybody.” And we all think to ourselves, ugh, we can’t believe that those people darkened our doors on this lovely Sunday morning. Hopefully they won’t come back next Sunday. Now, how would this behavior show our understanding of Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves?
The irony in this scenario that James presents is that in some ways this gets to how many churches in our country were set up historically when it comes to sanctuary architecture. Figuring out how to fund a local church that is not financially supported by the state or where money is filtered from the top down as far as denominations and church governance go is not a new conundrum. One of the ways that churches funded their clergy, church staff, ministries, and building expenses was by having people pay for pews. The more expensive pews were those up front close to the pulpit. Seeing as there were no microphones and sound systems, this would guarantee that one could actually hear the sermon. Considering that sermons lasted for hours in New England Congregational churches as an example from our tradition, people wanted to be up front and hear what the Minister was preaching. Remember there was no Netflix back then! The sermon was to educate, inspire, and dare I say entertain? The Puritans would have never said that though.
Perhaps the most famous American church that comes to mind with folks owning pews is the Old North Church in Boston. Remember this is the church where on April 18, 1775 Church Sexton Robert Newman and Vestryman Captain John Pulling Jr. climbed the steeple and held two lanterns up so that William Dawes and Paul Revere could begin their midnight ride to warn the people of Lexington and Concord that the British army was on the move. The two lanterns indicated that the troops were moving by sea (one if by land, two if by sea) across the Charles River. The church was built in 1723 and it’s the oldest surviving church building in Boston. It also is a church that continues to operate, the Old North Church is an Episcopal Church. If you’ve ever been or plan to go one day—look at the names on the pews. There are still doors on the pews with golden inscribed placards to indicate what family owned that particular pew. In fact, there’s a self-guided tour one can take that explores many fascinating people who sat in those pews.
At one time, our own beloved church had doors on the pews I was once told. If you look over at the outside walls of our sanctuary you will see that those were once the pew doors that somewhere along the way were removed and placed along the wall. Because Lord forbid good thrifty Yankees would ever totally get rid of something like that! We can keep in mind that those who bought pews in churches (pews that could even be passed down within families) were people of means. They were the people that James was writing about when he said that some may walk into our services with gold rings and fine clothing. Would they be shown the best seats in the house? Or more likely, would they have bought the best seats?
Pews in the back of the sanctuary were less expensive when this is how churches funded their operations. Sometimes there were even pauper pews reserved for people who couldn’t afford a pew at all, let alone one of the luxury pews up front near the pulpit. Church balconies were often reserved for the poor or even for slaves who were not allowed to sit on the main floor of a sanctuary in the first place. Some seats within church sanctuaries were intended to be as far away from the wealthy as possible. Maybe we expect this at a concert venue or a stadium for some sporting event, but that was how church was once set up! This is not an uncomplicated history. While we can marvel at the famous names we can find on the pews of many historical churches, we can also wonder about who walked through those doors to worship on a Sunday morning who we have no record of and maybe never will. Because they couldn’t afford to own a pew with their name on it.
It’s those folks that James is challenging us to think about today. Even though this more recent history comes to mind in our own country, James was getting at human nature when he may have been observing his fellow disciples showing favoritism to people based on their wealth and status. James writes, “My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him?” Then James gets to the heart of the matter. What good does it do if we say to somebody who’s naked and never has enough food to eat— “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.”
Let’s hear that wisdom saying again: “Faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.” Some people joke that ministers only have one sermon in us that we just preach over and over again until we retire. Faith without works is dead was James’ sermon. What’s the point of knowing what we believe if we don’t put those beliefs into action?
Because this is the whole point of why we gather together to worship God and be reminded about everything that Jesus taught us. This is the whole point of why we follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. To love God. To love our neighbors. And to love ourselves. If we say that we love God and we love our neighbors, but we don’t do anything to care for other people—what’s the point of being a Christian? Just so I personally can be saved and go to heaven? James writes, “Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?” He writes that sentence right before he launches into this specific example. What if we encounter somebody naked and starving? Should we just say to them hey go in peace, stay warm, hope you have a nice meal when you manage to find something to eat? No, we are called to help our neighbor. That is how we put our Christian faith into action. These sets of beliefs are not just about our individual salvation so we can get to heaven one day. It’s about how we can help God co-create heaven on earth now. Because “Faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.” Let this wisdom saying sink our hearts this day. Thanks be to God. Amen.