read Jame 2:1-17.
Where to sit at church? Who sits where? No matter what church I go to: big or small, traditional or modern, filled to the brim or more sparsely attended, it seems that who sits where is kind of a big deal. Most of the time it’s an unspoken dance that we go through where everyone who is part of the church community knows, ‘oh you don’t want to sit there because that is so and so’s pew.’ It is one of those things that we often talk about when we get together with folks from other churches at district or conference events. We even joke about it, mostly because we all know that it is true, it is part of the life of our church.
We know that it matters to us because we are creatures of habit and ritual. It matters to us because when we arrive in our sanctuary, this sacred place of prayer and worship, in this topsy-turvy world we live it, it’s comforting to sit in the pew that we’ve always sat in. It’s comforting to sit in the same pew where we celebrated the baptism of that child we always love seeing on Sunday morning, or where we mourned the death of a longtime friend, where we prayed for God’s guidance as we discerned the next step in our career, or we prayed for our kid when they were really struggling to find themselves and we heard God’s still small voice saying trust in me and trust in my love.
We have these experiences and these moments of grace that come over us as we inhabit this one particular pew in our church sanctuary and it becomes more and more our spiritual home. These are all of the good things about where we sit at church. On the other hand, there’s what to do when someone new comes to church. Where are they going to sit? Are they going to sit in MY pew?
The reason I bring this up because it relates to our scripture this morning. The passage for today talks a little bit about where people sit when they come to church. In some ways it is really comforting that the church, as it is today, is exactly the way the church has always been. It’s filled with people: beautiful, flawed, broken people. And because it is filled with people we have to deal with problems like who is going to sit where when we gather for prayer and worship.
So lets take a look at our reading from James to see exactly was going on. James is a letter written to one of the early Christian communities responding to some problems that the church was experiencing. In this passage we see one of those problems illuminated for us.
The passage begins with a scenario. What do you do when some new visitors come to your church, one who is rich and one who is poor? We can assume that this scenario was more than just a hypothetical. It was probably something that had happened, perhaps regularly or perhaps it just happened once, but nevertheless it made an impact on James. So much so that he felt compelled to address it in his letter to the congregation.
James goes on to say if you have a rich person and a poor person and you say to the rich person, come and sit next to me in my pew, the place of honor in the community and in the same breath you say to the poor person why don’t you stand in the back, or why don’t you take the pew that no one really wants to sit in, you know that pew right up front. If you do this haven’t you distinguished between the two? James says haven’t you judged which of these two persons is worthy of the best seat in God’s house and which isn’t?
Now James is pretty direct in this and pretty hard hitting. He then goes on to say did not God bless the poor and is it not the rich who oppress you? He writes “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’
You would do well if you really fulfill the law, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Most of us, even if we are new to Christianity or if we are back after some time away, know that this is part of a Christian life. Most of us know that Jesus commands us, in other words he says this isn’t optional; he commands us to love God with all we have, and to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. We know this intellectually. Many of us even have it memorized in some form from going to Sunday school or youth group or coming regularly to Sunday worship. And yet, if you are like me, we sometimes struggle to put these words into action.
The community that James is addressing is struggling to live into this commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Apparently they were doing alright in trying to love the people in their community who were rich and wealthy. The people who looked like them or dressed like them, or maybe not like them but how they’d like to look or dress. The community apparently did not have a hard time extending radical hospitality to those rich folks who happened to visit on a Sunday morning for worship.
They seemed to struggle though when it came to those who were poor, those who didn’t have enough money to buy the finest Sunday clothes, those who maybe hadn’t bathed in a little while, those who were hungry and struggling to make ends meet. The community wasn’t able to see that these folks, too, are deserving of the radical hospitality of a Christian community, that we as followers of Jesus, are called to love all our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Now I want to be clear that James is not saying that the poor are more deserving than the rich of love. Not at all. James is not condemning any person or group of people. What James is condemning is the human action of showing partiality to one group of people over the other. And usually when we show partiality it almost always favors the rich and the powerful. James is trying to instill in the community that we must not stand in judgement of other but to love all people, especially the weak and the poor. Like Mother Teresa once said, “if you judge other people then you have no time to love them.”
See James reminds us that God’s love in Jesus Christ shows no partiality, God’s love is nonjudgmental, God’s love is indiscriminate and unconditional. The challenge for us in all of this is that we are called to live into this love, to allow it to wash over us and make us whole, and to grow in this love for others at all times. But the challenge for me, and maybe you are like me in this, my love tends to be far too conditional. In other words I find it pretty easy to extend love to others if they are able to meet all the various conditions I have set for them. I am always willing to love others if they are willing to be created in my image of them.
So the question for us from James then is how are we to grow as followers of Jesus in unconditional love within our own hearts? How are we to learn how to truly love all our neighbors as we love ourselves? For James this is pretty simple, put love into action. At the end of the passage this morning is this beautiful and challenging set of verses. James writes:
14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. It’s one of those verses that gives me goosebumps because it is so filled with truth the kind of truth that sets you free. Faith without works is dead. As Christians we are called to be people of faith and also people of action. We are called to live out our faith in this world. Not that we will be perfect people, not that we will always do or say or feel the right thing. We are called to put our faith into action because we are called to grow in the way of Jesus.
For us as United Methodists this makes a lot of sense. This is part of our heritage and our tradition as a denomination. Our founder John Wesley believed that we were called to a deep personal holiness: a life of prayer, reflection, scripture study but that we were also required to have a social holiness: a life where we advocate for the poor, where we reach out in loving relationship to all who are weak and vulnerable, a life where we live our Christian love in a public way.
John Wesley believed this because during his day there were a lot of people who were saying they were Christians but they weren’t acting very Christian. The church was filled with folks who said all the right things, they went to church every Sunday, believed all the right things, and had a deep faith in Jesus, but that faith never changed the way they lived in the world.
And so Wesley started these small groups of Christians who would get together and talk about the ways they were struggling to live their faith in the world. They started to be in ministry and solidarity with those in their community who were neglected and ignored. They started to try to come along side them, to be in relationship with them, to learn their name and their story and to try to lighten the burden of their load.
These folks who were part of this movement were really, really intentional about how they lived their faith. They scheduled time in their days and their weeks for being in relationship and service with the poor. They were methodical in their following of Jesus, which is where we got the name “methodist.”
And the crazy thing about all of this is that John Wesley believed that as we did these things, as we reached out in intentional ways to grow in love for our neighbors, especially our neighbors who don’t think like us, don’t look like us, or who normally might be someone we shouldn’t associate with, as we put this faith into action, we would feel, understand and experience the presence of our loving God in this world in new and profound ways.
So as people who have gathered here today, longing in some way to grow in our faith, what are some ways we can put our faith into action this week? How can you be of service to someone in your life our this world? How can we as a community serve the poor and vulnerable in our neighborhood? Well one of the ways we can put our faith into action this week is our pancake breakfast coming up on Saturday. This is one tangible thing we can do as a community of faith to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
I learned about the pancake breakfast as I was preparing for my introductory interview before starting here as your pastor. As I was praying about this appointment, I thought to myself, what a blessing and honor to be the pastor of a church that loves poor folks, loves people who are lonely and yearning for community enough, to cook them breakfast once a month. The pancakes, the breakfast meats, they satisfy that physical need, but the relationship building, the way in which the Holy Spirit brings us together in believed community, this provides us all the spiritual nurture we need to continue along in our journey.
We can all participate, if you can’t cook, come and share your listening ear, if you love people but sometimes get a little nervous talking to someone new come and offer your loving presence, if you can’t be here because you’ve got another obligation, pray, pray that God’s loving spirit will enfold our fellowship, will bless the pancakes, the syrup, the sausages and the love we share, pray that the kingdom of God will be realized in out time together, opening us up more to the movement of God’s unconditional love known in Jesus Christ, for you, for me, for the person who is the most like you in every single way imaginable, and for the one who couldn’t be more different from you. May we always remember this ruth but and importantly may we live it out in this world especially when it’s hard. Thanks be to God, amen.