St. James A.M.E. Church (Newark, NJ) Joint Usher Board Ministry
USHERS AND NURSES GUILD SUNDAY
Sunday, June 9, 2013
Yolanda M. Norton, Guest Lectionary Commentator
2nd Year PhD student, Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN
Lection – James 2:1-4 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 1) My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? (v. 2) For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, (v. 3) and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, (v. 4) have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
Ushers’ Ministries and Nurses’ Guilds are often the primary ministries of hospitality in the church. They serve concrete needs of the guests, members of the congregation, and the clergy of the church. They are individuals who are charged with maintaining order and caring for others during the worship service. Often members of these ministries do this work while trying to go unnoticed, not only out of their sense of duty to the ministry of Jesus Christ but also to avoid being disruptive during the worship experience.
Ushers greet people when they walk in the door, welcome guests into the community of worship, and often are charged with maintaining logistical order as people move around the sanctuary. The work of the usher as a “doorkeeper” (Psalm 84) has often been misinterpreted in contemporary context as someone who keeps unwanted persons out of the sanctuary. Instead, the responsibility of an usher is to invite all people into the doors of the church not only as a tangible measure of being hospitable on behalf of the congregation but also as a symbolic measure of welcoming an individual into the presence of Jesus.
Members of the nurses’ guild are not necessarily trained nurses. More often they are individuals who are called to caregiving ministries. Nurses do have basic CPR training and are able to provide basic First Aid, but they more often serve to provide spiritual aid to members during the worship service. Nurses are called upon most often in the church as members faint as a result of being caught up in the spirit.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: James 2:1-4
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
Among the greatest problems plaguing our world today is apathy and indifference. We have become accustomed and immune to the suffering of our fellow human beings. In our voyeuristic society, we seem able and willing to bear witness to the burdens of our brothers and sisters without feeling compelled to take action on their behalf.
The author’s words in the epistle attributed to the apostle James not only draw our attention to the problem of favoritism but also to the problem of unresponsiveness to suffering and strife. The author admonishes his audience to take heed to offer those suffering more than just space in the room or a seat at the table. Our responsibility to those in need is to provide more than a cursory greeting; it’s more than offering empty words about the mission and capacity of the kingdom of God. Our greeting, our welcome on God’s behalf, must be full of meaning and purpose; it must offer emotional, physical, and spiritual healing. When we welcome people in the church/Church we owe them our best.
The impact of our best welcome should be a radical transformation of the church/Church. It should mean that churches are no longer monoliths. In an ideal world it would mean that churches are no longer divided along socio-economic lines. Instead individuals search for churches and create churches that reflect their own racial, ethnic, political, theological, ideological, and financial interests. As such, I reject the notion of welcome defined in James 2:1-4 and instead favor a notion of welcome based upon radical hospitality that welcomes all out of love, as Christ welcomes all. Such radical hospitality is clear when the entire letter of James is viewed as a whole. This hospitality concerns poverty, economics, and equity.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
The Epistle of James is a pastoral letter, not addressed to any one community, but intended for the larger diasporatic church. There is significant speculation about the identity of the author of the letter. Some suggest that the author is the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19); others believe that the author may have been one of Jesus’ two apostles—son of Zebedee (Mark 1:19) or son of Alpheus (Mark 3:18)—based largely on the author’s reference to himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). However, it is likely the case that the author is a pseudonymous writer, living in the dispersion at the end of the 1st century. A later dating of the author and the text is congruent with the sophisticated Greek used throughout the letter as well as the letter’s attention to theological and ethical issues of the church. The letter as a whole serves as a commentary on issues of poverty, economics, and equity.
One of the author’s most prominent/well-known theological statements comes later in chapter 2 with the assertion that “faith without works is dead” (2:17). Contrary to popular interpretations of the author’s statement, this comment does not stand in contrast to the apostle Paul’s clarification that “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28). For the writer’s suggestion is instead that our works are the outward manifestations of the inner workings of justification, grace, and faith.
All of this matters in our reading of James 2:1-4 because indeed James’s condemnation against favoritism and admonishing for equitable treatment of the poor is a reflection of how one’s deeds should be altered based on their relationship with Jesus Christ. While it is believed that the author is providing a hypothetical description of the event, the scenario is not without basis and merit in the lives of the evolving Christian church.
Many believe that the pseudonymous writer penned this letter from within the dispersion and would have been privy to Greco-Roman cultural norms. As such, it has been suggested that the writer of this letter may have had Greco-Roman political leaders in mind when describing the wealthy guest in the congregation. Such leaders would have been present in the congregation not because of their affinity for or interest in the Christian life. Instead, they appeared in such contexts in order to gain political presence to further their own agenda. In like manner, the poor person in the church could have represented any number of paupers present in the Greco-Roman community. These members may have come with the agenda of receiving monetary or other tangible assistance but more likely their motives were pure. Their desire was to be present for worship.
The author reminds the readers that they are to treat these in a similar manner as Jesus would have—with a preference for the poor. The epistle of James would hearken the reader back to the many times that Jesus forsook those of means and status in order to care for the destitute who called on him faithfully. From the blind man Bartimaeus (Mark 20:29-34) on the side of the road, to his blessing of the poor (Luke 6:20-21), and his rejection of the rich man (Matthew 19:23-24), Jesus was clear that it was those who were poor and/or those cared for the poor who reflected the principles of the kingdom of God. There too, he suggested that those who reveled in their wealth and status on Earth were not fit for the kingdom of God. Consider also Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31-46 about treatment of the poor being a reflection of one’s treatment of him. All of these sentiments are reflected in James’s challenge to the church of the dispersion.
This challenge is ably carried out by ushers and nurses guild members each Sunday in churches around the country. The typically well-trained and servant-minded individuals stand at doors, shoulders back, heads up, hearts and hands open, welcoming “who so ever will” into the Church. Ushers and nurses guild members who understand true hospitality are not concerned with the social station of people or their appearance. Instead, their concern is that people be made to feel welcome. They begin to usher visitors and church members alike into the presence of the Lord, with open arms and ever-ready smiles. They beckon, Come on in; we’re glad you came or came back.
Ushers are often the “first face” of the church. They are they the ones who greet and seat people as they enter into the sanctuary. Often before the first song is sung or before the preacher preaches, the ushers have ministered to both guests and members alike. Similarly, nurses are the caregivers of the congregation. They serve not only the pulpit but also the congregation in times of need. Nurses are there to tend to the physical and emotional needs of the congregation during the worship experience.
We give thanks for those who have a heart to serve and nurture the congregation as ushers and nurses. We lift up praises to them for they carry out the discerning and cultivating ministry of Jesus Christ every Sunday. We are humbled by their model and witness because they serve, often will little or no appreciation for their sacrifice as they are often the most unheralded servants of the church.
The descriptive details in this passage include:
Sights: the “fine” or extravagant garments and jewelry of the ones who are accepted wholeheartedly in the assembly versus the “dirty,” worn clothes of the one who is subtly rejected or shamed (v. 2);
Smells: the smell of perfume on people with financial means and the odor that might permeate from people wearing dirty clothes (v. 2).
III. Two Reflections That Preachers and Others Can Use
There was once a town drunk who gave his heart to Jesus Christ. He immediately stopped drinking and began to look for a church and had purposed in his heart that he would attend the first church he found. Determined to turn his life around he found a church and went in. He was met at the door by a couple of ushers and they told the man, “Please go home and clean up, take a bath, cut your hair, shave your beard and then you can come back to church.” The man left and did what they asked and came back to the same church the next week. Once again, he was met at the door by the ushers. The former drunk said, “I have done what you asked, I am clean, my hair cut and combed, I am clean-shaven and I am ready to come to church.” The ushers said to the man, “That is good but your clothes are dirty and torn up. Go get a suit so that you will look nice for church.” A little sad, the man decided to do what they asked, after all this was the church he felt he was supposed to attend. So he went out and bought a nice suit, determined that this time they would let him in so he could worship God.
The next Sunday the former drunk returned to that same church but this time the man was met by the two ushers and the senior pastor. Together, the three of them explained to the man that he could not come into the church because of his past. How would it look if the town drunk came to their church? The man walked out of the church totally dejected because he desired to worship God in a house of worship with the men and women of God. He sat down on the steps in front of the church and put his head in his hands and began to cry. As he sat there, he felt the hand of someone touch his shoulder. Before he could look up he heard a voice say, “Don’t worry my friend, I have been trying to get into that church for years and they won’t let me in either.” The former drunk looked up and saw a man dressed in a white robe with nail-pierced hands. Jesus wanted in that church too.
||—Rev. Greg Carr; August 10, 2011
CBS has a show, Undercover Boss, in which high-level executives go undercover, pretending to be entry-level employees to gain perspective on the inner workings of their company. Over the course of the show, these executives are exposed to the problems and issues that their employees face and they are made aware of how policies determined at a higher level have negative impact on their employees on the ground. Some have had to address problems of how middle management treats entry-level employees. Some have been inspired by the work, skill, and temperament of their own employees. What if the people we disregard because of the way that they look when they walk in the church are really God’s high-level executives sent on an undercover mission?