Christ Centered Resources

Instructions for Ushers

Rev. Ed Searcy

James 2:1-17
University Hill United Church : Sun, September 7, 1997
What a week. The world dominated by preparations for a funeral. What a week for those planning the service. Will it be a private or a public event? To follow or not to follow protocal? Every tiny detail relayed instantly around the globe. By Friday the papers publish the text of the funeral. The entire service, word for word, prayers and all. Nothing, but nothing has been left out. Except for one thing. No one publishes the instructions for the ushers in Westminster Abbey. We can guess how they might read: "Reserve the front rows for the Royal family and for Diana's family. Immediately behind the Queen seat the Prime Minister of Britain. Members of the knighthood will be seated next, followed by representatives of other governments. Seat all other famous citizens at the back of the Abbey. Representatives of charities are to be seated in the adjoining Chapel." But just imagine the scene if a person emaciated by AIDS had sought out a better seat yesterday. What if an amputated victim of a land mine had rolled her wheel chair right up the long center aisle? Surely if one of London's homeless poor had upstaged her Majesty he would have been ushered out of the Abbey in no time. For all the talk of a Princess bridging the chasm that separates the gentry from the forgotten, one suspects that the gap was as wide as ever in the instructions for ushers at Westminster Abbey yesterday. Then this morning in Westminster Abbey and at University Hill we open the Bible at the same page. Once every three years in the lectionary cycle, for a month of Sundays in September, the words of James are given voice. Lo and behold, today James is giving instructions to ushers ... deriding those who give the rich and famous red carpet treatment while treating the lowly poor with disdain. So much for ethereal, spiritual, heavenly talk. This is back to basics scripture. It is the first lecture in 'Ushering 101': "Treat each guest at the door as a child of God. Ignore their clothes, their hair or how many body piercings they have. Pay no attention to whether or not they look to be carrying a large wallet or ask for offering envelopes." Everyone knows that this is the basic rule of ushering. Right. Of course ... and yet ... how easy it is for the distinctions that we learn 'out there' to creep 'in here'. Soon we become partial to those who we instinctively rank highly ... for whatever reason. And not just with real live, flesh and blood, honest to goodness people in the pews ... but also with long since dead people like James. James - the champion of impartiality in the church - who has been variously neglected, dismissed, maligned and ignored by that same church. The church gives honoured seats to the likes of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John ... and of Paul and Isaiah and Jeremiah, too. But when embarassing James shows up he is directed to stand at the back ... forgotten and unnoticed. Irony of ironies. James is a victim of the very treatment which he calls the church to avoid! There are reasons for our mistreatment of this brief letter. Notice how James doesn't know when to stop. It is not enough that he calls us to treat rich and poor, insider and outsider alike. Oh no. James goes on. He is on a roll. "You may think that you keep the law", says James, "just because you have not committed murder or adultery. But if you show partiality you commit sin and are convicted by the law." See what I mean?! This is trouble, James ... equating those who do a poor job of ushering with murderers. We've taken a lifetime to learn these distinctions ... to rest assured that we're good, upstanding, law-abiding citizens even with our partiality to those with larger incomes ... or whiter skin ... or more degrees. So we do what many others have done. We close the book on James and hope that his voice will go away. 'James is dangerous' we say. 'His kind of theology leads down the slippery slope to works righteousness ... to the worst kind of moralism ... to imagining that we earn our way into God's good graces by saving up enough good deeds points. After all, the Gospel ... the good news discovered in Jesus Christ ... is that it is God who does the work of saving the world ... not us'. It's no wonder that Martin Luther once called the letter of James a 'straw epistle'. On first reading it seems harsh, demanding ... lacking in grace. Then along comes Mother Theresa. How serendipitous that she should die in the midst of the massive preparations to mourn another woman half a world away. Theresa who gave her life to those who belonged to no one ... those whose poverty, suffering and death would otherwise go unnoticed and untouched. In a world that shows such partiality ... that treats the deaths of a few with pomp and circumstance while millions die alone ... Theresa was the letter of James written in a human life. One can almost hear the words of James springing from her lips: "What good is it my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." When the words are written in a book - even if that book is the Bible - they can be put on a shelf and ignored. But when the words are lived in the slums of Calcutta they eventually reverberate around the world. Suddenly the most practical, ordinary and basic instructions from James are seen to be, in truth, the deepest form of heavenly poetry. Here is the reason that baskets of food carried forward by the children as a weekly ritual is no trivial act but a constant reminder of who we are. And here is why the ordinary action of breaking bread and sharing drink reveals the mystery of God's presence. This is the heart of the gospel ... that God's saving power reaches out through the Body of Christ - through human flesh and blood - to feed the hungry, to save the poor, to redeem the earth. This good news calls, however, not just for a few baskets of food on a Sunday morning but for everything we have and are. "The responsible person" says Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "seeks to make his or her whole life a response to the question and call of God". We are challenged by Dietrich and by James ... by Theresa and, yes, by Diana ... to form our lives, to reform the life of the church, into a living response to the God who shows no partiality. Given courage by the Christ who calls us to follow ... given power by the Spirit of God already at work in us ... we pray that it may yet be so.