Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

First world problem, alert: one of the things I have missed during the pandemic was going to see live theater and opera. Thus, I was excited that Annie and I were able a few weeks ago to attend the Fort Findlay Playhouse’s production of Life With Father- a play about a New York family, the Days, and their experience with their irritable, domineering husband and father in the late-nineteenth century. “Father” is a stockbroker, and demands that his family’s affairs be run on a “business basis” and he is driven to distraction by what he perceives as the profligacy of his wife and sons. The central conflict of the play arises when the eldest son, Clarence Jr., falls in love with a girl named Mary Skinner whose religion is just too far afield for them to imagine the families involved consenting to a marriage. You see, the Day family is Episcopalian and the girl is (gasp) a Methodist. In trying to find a loophole in one family or the other (an Episcopalian among the Skinners or a Methodist among the Days, to set a precedent) it comes out that “Father” (Clarence, Sr.) had in fact not been baptized as a child; it had simply been an oversight on the part of his parents. Anyway, this leads “Mother” to spend the rest of the play trying to get “Father” to agree to be baptized, even if it means taking a coach uptown on a weekday morning to another parish, so nobody finds out about it. Fortunately, Mrs. Day finds an ally in the family’s Rector, who has been coming over to examine the youngest son on his catechism before presenting him to the bishop for Confirmation.

Now there is a lot I loved about this play, if you hadn’t guessed. I must admit it gave me some nostalgia for an era in the church which none of us have experienced, particularly (and this, I know I should not harbor sentimental thoughts about) the degree of deference everyone shows the rector. The child is expected to memorize his catechism (as many of us did in the olden days) and there was no sense that his parents were going to lobby the rector to let him just slide through. The Days’ maid makes certain to bring the rector’s tea promptly. And, here is the most shocking part– the parish is in the middle of a capital campaign, and the priest has determined what each family ought to contribute, and everyone just seems fine with this!

Everyone, that is, except for “Father”. And then, finally, came the line which reminded me why I should be glad that we are not the Episcopal Church of 1890. In complaining to his wife about how much the priest expected of them, “Father” says something like “by God, that’s more than we paid for our pew!” Oh yeah… it used to be common for Episcopalians to rent or buy their pew.

In some places this practice continued until shockingly recently. When I was in seminary, we had a guest lecture in one of our pastoral theology classes who had been a long-time rector of a prominent Manhattan parish; he said something about accepting the call to serve there on the condition that they abolish pew rents. I looked around and could tell all of us were doing the same math in our heads. This man had served a long time, and he was retired but he couldn’t have been that old. We figured the earliest this could have taken place would have been the mid-1970s.

So, this is all to say that we Anglican/Episcopalian Christians have an unfortunate history of doing precisely what James tells us not to do in this morning’s Epistle:

My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Thank God we no longer do things like sell or rent pews, so the wealthy literally have better seats in church than the poor. That said, I suspect we still harbor some of those old habits in our hearts which lead us to make distinctions among ourselves, if not in policy at least in practice.

This struck me during the last year-and-a-half particularly profoundly. I am not saying we never needed to do things like suspend church activities for a time; you all know I believe we were required to do so for too long, but that’s an issue on which good-faith people can have genuine disagreements. I mean, rather, that some of the assumptions which attended those decisions was shockingly out of touch with the lives of those who are not in the comfortable, connected middle class. “Everyone can join virtual offerings until we can reassemble!” Well, no; I know a lot of folks who simply cannot afford high speed internet and a device which gives them access to it. “Everyone is working from home, so we can expect them to worship from home!” Well, no; people with white collar jobs were fortunate enough to be able to do their part in protecting themselves and others when that was necessary, but the vast majority of people don’t work at those kinds of jobs. You’ve heard me question this one before: “the church hasn’t closed, it’s gone out into the world in service!” Well, what about those whose lives are so out-of-control that they had nothing to “give” but their prayerful presence within the community of the faithful? We are not, after all, the Junior League or the Rotary Club; we are a body whose primary purpose is to mediate the offering of worship to Almighty God, rich and poor alike making the one and equal oblation.

Now all that, I pray, is largely in the past, but I do think our recent experience is rather revealing, and it calls us to focus on those ways in which we might need to be a bit more sensitive going forward to how we welcome people into our midst. I think we’re pretty good at Trinity at being hospitable to all sorts and conditions, but each of us may have blind spots in this regard, whether in our church lives or our personal lives.

In the interest of full disclosure, and a bit of confession, this is an ongoing struggle for me. Do I interact with folks who are less stable and put-together and “socially acceptable” (whatever that means) primarily as beloved children of God with whom I should relate on an equal basis, or do I primarily see them as objects for charity? I try to do the former, but I know I can easily slip into the latter, and it would be a lie if I said there was not at least a tiny piece of my soul infected by a subconscious feeling of superiority which affects my approach.

All of this is to say that I think each of us needs to do some serious interior work–some prayer and meditation and discernment–about how we approach those people in our lives who have struggles which are not our own. How might this cause our relationships with them to be affected by the distinctions which the world, the flesh, and the devil use to separate us one from another? How might we interact in such a way which makes manifest the truth, which is that we are all the same in the body of Christ?

This isn’t just about being nice and egalitarian. James goes on to tell us that we miss an important spiritual teacher: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” Those old-timey Episcopalians in their private pews, seen in the places of honor, could not see their sisters and brothers in the cheap seats who may have been the most faithful of the congregation. They certainly didn’t build relationships whereby they could see the power of God working in those often stressed and hard-scrabble lives more than they in their wealth could ask or imagine. For our own sake, for our own slow growth in holiness, let’s pay attention to those whom we may otherwise dismiss. We may be surprised at how powerfully we see the grace of God in a pew in the back or on a street-corner or on the “wrong side of the tracks.”

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.