Potsdam United Methodist Church
Where we let Jesus shine! Where we invite, love and nurture ALL!
Sunday Worship
11:00am Service
12:00pm Fellowship
Pastor Rev. Brooke Newell
Secretary Donna McDonald
315-265-7474

Backwards

September 9th:

Call:           Proverbs 22: 1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Text:           James 2: 1-7


In the first half of the 19th century - 1800 - 1850
a time I know about because of reading and research
        not - despite the color of my beard - from personal experience,

A time that included years
        When Francis Asbury, Thomas Jefferson. and Abraham Lincoln were alive
        When Canton's Silas Wright was governor of NYS
        When Jesse Peck had neither been elected bishop or founded Syracuse University
                But did serve this congregation
                Then worshipping in the small white wood framed building
                On the SE corner of this block now hosing fire station.

Things were different in those days
Among the things that were different were church seating arrangements
        And for those arrangements,
Those years were not "The Good Old Days."

One difference was that those who could afford to,      rented pews
Pew rental was the source of much - in many cases most -
of a church's operating funds
 People paid money for the use of a particular pew.
        No one else could sit in the rented pew
without the permission of the person or family who had rented it
        It was their pew!

Some years ago, I visited the church in Braintree, Massachusetts
        Where John Quincy Adam worshipped
        I sat in the very pew that had belonged to
The man who was not only the sixth president of the US
But who was also the primary author of the Monroe Doctrine.

But as much fun as that was for me,
        The idea of renting pews offends me
For it establishes a caste system within a church

Those who rented pews
        Were accorded respect from the others
                Not because of their piety (although many were pious)
                But because of the need the church had - for their money.

Those who rented pews were aware of that
        And they "wanted something" in return
Something that shocks and amazes us.
                Something that is difficult for us to imagine
They wanted to rent pews  - toward the front!
They wanted to sit in the front pews

Is there anything they could have done          to be more unlike us?


Today we offer those forward most pews to you for free
        And yet many squirm uncomfortably at the idea of sitting in them
                And all but assert that those who do sit toward the front
                Clearly have serious mental health problems

But two centuries ago, pew renters wanted the front pews
        And they wanted them    because they wanted to be seen
For when those who rented the front pews entered for worship
        They would have to walk past the persons in the back pews
        And those past whom they walked         could not help seeing them
And thus be put on notice       of who  was "really important."

This was a silent proclamation by the renters
intended or otherwise -
that "I am more important than you are."

What do you think of that?
As a life long Methodist, I find it embarrassing
        That this practice existed in our denomination
                Even though it existed in many others as well.

Therefore,
Even though I would love to induce people to sit closer to the front
                The idea of pew rental is upsetting
and it is inconsistent with my understanding of Christians' relationships
                        With God                and             With each other

Some people back then agreed with me
        they found it embarrassing as well.
In fact, pew rental was - along with slavery -
The reason the Free Methodists broke away from the ME Church in the 1840s
        Their rallying cry was: "Free men, free pews, free grace."
                Free men:               slavery was intolerable
                Free pews:              to avoid that arrogant, unChristlike message
                Free grace:             God's remarkable and undeserved gift to us.

The ME church abolished pew rental not many years later.

It is a good thing too.  Can you imagine telling a visitor
        "You can't sit in that pew because it is the ________ pew"
and telling them this,
        Even when you know the _______s are out of town?

Just think what the worship experience must have been like for those who couldn't rent pews.

They worshipped "God of Love and God of All"

In surroundings that quietly contradicted that message
For if others were more important to the church
Didn't that mean that they were also more important to God?

But pew rental was not the only way
Not even the worst way
sanctuary seating was embarrassingly different back in those days.

In many churches, blacks and poorer people
        Were not allowed to sit in the first floor pews.
They were required to sit in the "galleries" or balconies
                To separate them from the "better people."

Conveying the same message as pew rental conveyed
        But far less subtly and far more cruelly.

Richard Allen was an African American
And a highly regarded ME preacher.

He went to worship at St. George's ME Church in Philadelphia
        A magnificent and impressive church still active today
(In fact, Walt, Sherry, Doug, and Jean
worshipped there just a few months ago)

But an usher refused to allow Allen to enter the first floor seating area
And insisted that he sit in the gallery.

Allen was furious
He walked out of St. George's
        Was joined by other African Americans
And formed the AME Church - the African Methodist Episcopal Church

What do you think of that?

As a life long Methodist, I find this more embarrassing than pew rental.

Can you imagine our ushers telling any group of people
        "I'm sorry, but you are not like - or not as good as -
the people worshipping in the first floor pews

        If you want to worship with this congregation
                You'll have to sit in the balcony."

When I think about pew rentals and seating discrimination against groups
        I not only get embarrassed              I also get puzzled.

I get puzzled as to whether anyone ever read the scriptures.

And I get puzzled as to whether those who did read them
        Thought that they were exempt from them.

We couldn't be like those people.               Not you and me!         No way!

After all,
We have heard Christ tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves;
We have heard Christ tell us to be his witnesses throughout all the world;
We have heard Christ tell the story about Lazarus and the rich man;
        where poor Lazarus, infected with disease
and eating the scraps from under the rich man's table
ended up in heaven
        while the rich man ended up in Hell;
We have heard of Christ sitting and eating with tax collectors and other sinners
                and healing and touching
those who were ritually unclean;


Too, we have heard how Paul (as related in his letter to the Galatians)
        Stood up and publicly chastised
Peter           (Yes! That Peter!)
        And     Barnabas        (Yes!  The Barnabas who was Paul's own mentor)
                        For eating only with the Jewish Christians
                And     Not also with the gentile Christians.

And we have heard how theologians have written about
God's bias in favor of the poor and the unfortunate.

You and I could never have tolerated
        Pew rental and discrimination in seating
No way! Not us!

You and I can neither participate in, nor tolerate,
a caste system within our church

And thus I ask you              And I ask myself
        "If that is truly the case,
        Why does this text from James make us squirm?"
                [James 2: 1-7 (8-9)]

Is there any chance that sometimes
even we who abhor pew rental, discriminatory seating,
and their arrogant message of   "better and inferior people"

get it backwards?

Is there?