Wouldn’t it be great if, when you came to church, you could always sit in your favorite spot?
I mean, most of us do have a favorite spot. The one we prefer, the one we sit in if nobody gets there first. Wouldn’t it be great if that seat were always reserved for you, ready and waiting? If you could leave your stuff in it from week to week – your Bible, your reading glasses, your package of Tic-Tacs, and know that they would be there waiting, roped off or even locked up? Wouldn’t that be great?
Well, I have a message from your Stewardship Committee: we can make that happen. How much is it worth to you?
I’m kidding, of course. That’s not how we do it. But that is how it used to be done.
Not in the beginning, of course. For the first fifteen centuries or so, there really were no church-pews. Most people stood or knelt for the service. There might be a few benches along the wall or lined up at the back, for the ill and arthritic. A chair for the bishop to preach from, because he was usually old. But nobody ever said, “Hey, let’s build some permanent seating.” Not for fifteen hundred years.
Then they did – permanent benches, which soon developed little walls and even gates. These were called pews, and for the next few centuries, people rented them for a certain cost per year. You got a deed and everything. Of course, some pews were more desirable than others, and therefore more costly. This was real estate! So it was location, location, location. In a Lutheran church, you could surely tell the richest family in town, because their name was on the back pew.
So … why am I talking about church pews? That’s the question you should be asking yourself right now. It’s a funny little bit of church history, but who really cares? We live in a world with serious problems. Racism. War. Child molestation. Human trafficking. Liars and bullies in high places. We live in a world full of trouble, a world crying out for comfort, for care, for moral guidance. Why am I wasting your time talking about who sits where in church?
Two reasons. First, because the Bible does. And second, because, in a strange way, it actually matters. The Biblical question opens up a window onto what it means to be a human being before God – and through that window, it touches on all those evils I just mentioned.
“If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly,” St James asks in his letter (2:1-17); “and if a person in dirty clothes comes in,” do you treat them differently? Do you say to one, “Oh, hey, sit right down here sir, we have a pew with your name on it”? And to the other, “Eh, you can sit wherever, or stand, or if there’s no room you can come back later”?
Making those distinctions between each other, James goes on to say – that is wrong. Not just because the guy in shabby clothes might be an internet billionaire (which of course he might); not just because God chose poor people be Christ’s apostles; not just because it is rich people — Wall Street bankers and shady real-estate developers — who brought about the great financial crisis of our times, and crushed the dreams of a generation.
No; James calls us out on our favoritism because Jesus has already called us to love our neighbors as ourselves. All of our neighbors. Rich and poor. Nice and nasty. Faithful and idolatrous.
Look at Jesus. These two stories we just heard – on is an exorcism, a spiritual cleansing. The other is a healing – a physical cure. They are bookends, pressed together by St. Mark (7:24-37) to show us that the Lord has power over our souls and our bodies.
But they show us something else as well. Because the first takes place in the region of Tyre, up north in what today we call Lebanon. The woman Jesus trades smart-aleck remarks with is not a Jew; she is a Gentile, a pagan. An unbeliever. He pretends for a moment that he is only an Israelite Messiah, sent to the children of Israel. Yet in fact, as they both know, he has gone to her, to her nation, to her neighbor’s home, so that he can set her child free from the Devil. Why? Because he is not just the liberator of one people, but the liberator of all people.
And the second story, the man who cannot hear or speak properly, lives in the Ten Cities, region of Jordan and Syria settled by Greeks and Romans. Filled with temples, not to the God of Israel but to the false gods Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Artemis. Another pagan. He is a worshiper of false gods. Healed by a Lord who does not ask him to convert, to change, to become something he is not – healed by a Lord who loves him as he is, and wants only to make him better. To make him whole.
Because this is what it means to be saved by Jesus Christ. To be equal in depravity and equal in grace; equally sinful and equally saved. Equal with each other in our own weakness, and in God’s almighty love.
Here, then, is why we do not make distinctions of nation or class – because God does not. To God, we are all captives who must be set free, cripples who must be made whole, sinners who must be forgiven.
Here then is the source of our human rights. Those rights are not a human invention; don’t be fooled, as some people are, into thinking that Thomas Jefferson and John Locke spent a long weekend drinking wine and invented the idea. Human rights are a Biblical idea, rooted in the Bible’s recognition of our radical equality before God.
Here then is why I started out talking about who sits where in church: because in God’s Kingdom, all seats are equal. There is no best or worst, first or last, not even back or front.
And the more we get this equality, the more we get this idea of universal human dignity, the less we will harm each other. When we see each other as God sees us – broken, yes, but beloved; and precious, all of us – then there will be no more oppression based on race or class or ancestry; no more exploitation of the weak by the strong or poor by the rich or women by men; no. Then there will only be what God offers us, over and over again.
There will be peace.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This sermon was preached by Pastor Michael Church on Sunday, 9 September 2018. It is based on James 2:1-17 and St Mark 7:24-37. It is dedicated to the memory of the Rev. John Mason Neale.