Uniform lesson for February 19, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: James 2:1-12
While our lessons have repeatedly surprised us with the exceptional nature of God’s choice, often God’s choosing of the least expected, this week’s lesson has to do with exceptions of another kind. Most Presbyterian sanctuaries, truth be told, have a seating order, whether stated or not. Any visitor runs the risk of inadvertently sitting in ‘someone else’s pew.’ But watch what happens if a VIP shows up one Sunday, entering at the last minute with her entourage. The ushers may ask some regulars to shift their seats or clear out an entire pew. Then watch what happens when a solitary figure drifts in, clutching old newspapers and mumbling to himself. Not only may no seats be cleared, but this visitor may be quietly directed to an exit. Some things change, some things remain the same, no matter how many centuries separate us. How should God’s exceptional choice influence our seating charts, in the sanctuary and out?
Preference for the rich
James is a resolutely practical book. It trumpets no elaborate Christology, nor proposes any original theology. It maintains a razor-sharp focus on how our beliefs are or are not made tangible in practice — by the ways we share our food, arrange our seating, and employ our tongues. Not only is faith without works dead; faith without good works can be deadly. The writer of this letter cannot and will not abide it.
Yes, it’s understandable how a volunteer-led, membership-funded organization like the church might tilt toward the affluent. Especially in the early days of the church when it was a struggling minority faith, with no support or encouragement from the surrounding culture, the entry of a rich person into its house-fellowship must have caused a stir. To quote a disciple named Judas, just think of all the hot meals and house subsidies that might be made possible by the pledge of a wealthy member (John 12)!
But wealthy members often bring other costs along with their assets. They may expect proper deference in the seating and on the session. They may designate their gifts in ways that fail to align with the congregation’s mission. They may look down on members who are unable to access the clubs, neighborhoods and schools to which their money admits them. We aren’t prone to call such consequences, but any true cost/benefit analysis, then or now, would point out the problematic nature of such a reaction.
But James, though practical, has far more than practical consequences in mind. Note how he argues that such favoritism calls into question our belief in Jesus Christ (v. 1). Listen to the way he links our treatment of our neighbors to what he calls “the royal law according to scripture” (v. 8).
Mark the way he moves from the sin of pew preferences to the sins of adultery and murder. To quote The Study Catechism, Question 108: “Murder or injury can be done not only by direct violence but also by an angry word or a clever plan” — such as a seating arrangement. We break covenant with one another, tear down the lives of our neighbors and bear false witness against God’s self when we become a community of partiality. Throughout scripture, one witness regarding God is consistent: God shows no partiality (Leviticus 19:15; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11). Should not a community that seeks to bear true witness to such a God do the same?
Preference for the poor
Indeed, James takes the argument one step further. If the church should show any partiality in its practice, it should flow in the opposite direction. “For has not God,” quoting James, “chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?” (v. 5). Sounds a little like “blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20) This also seems to reflect the grand sweep of our series, where God constantly chooses the least expected candidates to do the most extraordinary things. Why? Remember? So that if and when we boast, we “boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31). Any congregation that has practiced mission work, lost its congregation to fire, or attempted something they knew they could not do on their own, has lived this wisdom. If we are going to have a seating arrangement, shouldn’t it reflect this kind of order?
Is there a seating order in your sanctuary, your community, your world?