Surprising Change

Jonah 3:1-5;10; Mark 1:14-20

I’m going to start off a little different this morning. As you are able, could you please stand up.

Uncomfortable yet? Maybe you’ve whispered to the person next to you, “what’s he doing?” I could say that Jesus said to his disciples, get up and follow me! I could lead you in a conga line around the church! It’s not exactly what you expect at the beginning of a sermon, is it? I suspect some of you are probably worried about how long I’m going to make you stand there, or if I’m going to make good on that conga line. I could, but I won’t. Go ahead and sit down… but I’d like you to reach out your hands beside you and put them down beside where you are sitting.

Did you know that what you have your hands on, the pews, are one of the most recent inventions when it comes to church worship spaces? You might think that it’s video screens or lighting… that may be true to some extent, but when it comes to what we think about standard features in church architecture, many of us probably assume that the very things that we sit on goes back to the days of Jesus, and perhaps even further. But that isn’t true.

Last week, I talked about a spoon in a church that had become a part of the regular form and practice of worship at one particular point. This week, I am talking about a metaphorical spoon that all of us take for granted: the not-so-humble pew that you’re now sitting on.

Up until the 13th Century, if you went into any Christian worship space, there wouldn’t be anywhere to sit. Not because it was so crowded, but rather all worship spaces were open-floor. There were no chairs, no benches, there was no place to sit down on. Everyone stood… For. The. Entire. Service. If you wanted or needed to sit down, and could afford it, you brought your own stool. At that point it didn’t occur to anyone that one might need to sit down. Why? Because the whole point of the service of worship was to come to the table for communion, and for people to actively participate in the liturgy and the movement of God in worship.

However, in the 13th Century, benches would be added along the walls, but people largely continued to stand, or bring their own stool. Some churches moved the benches from the walls into the middle of the sanctuary, but it wouldn’t be until the Protestant reformation. In this time, the central part of worship in western churches functionally switched from communion to the sermon. In this case, instead of moving forward to receive the bread and the wine, and being ready to do so, the focus was to listen to the sermon. Protestant preachers were notably long-winded, and suddenly people began to realize that they needed to sit down! So more people started bringing stools or cushions, as space was running out on those benches around the edges. Eventually, people would then pay to have the church install a place for them to sit, and the pew, as we know it today, was born! The Roman Catholics borrowed it from the Protestants.

So the church thrived for more than a thousand years without having a place to sit… it isn’t as old as we think it is… and yet now we take it for granted.

You may be surprised to learn that in Orthodox and Coptic churches today, you are not likely to find pews like the ones you’re sitting in. They do put chairs along the walls for those who need it, but people come and stand for worship. Sometimes, for all two hours of it.

But it might surprise you to learn that for those in the orthodox traditions, they believe that pews get in the way of worship. Here’s something I found that sums up how they view pews. These words may be a bit harsh, but at the same time, maybe it’s something we need to hear to shake ourselves out our comfort zones.

Pews teach the lay people to stay in their place, which is to passively watch what’s going on up front, where the clergy perform the Liturgy on their behalf. Pews preach and teach that religion and spirituality is the job of the priest, to whom we pay a salary to be religious for us, since it is just too much trouble and just too difficult for the rest of us to be spiritual in the real world of modern North America. Pews serve the same purpose as seats in theaters and bleachers in the ball park; we perch on them (even during the Litanies which are the specific prayer of the People) to watch the professionals perform: the clergy and the professionally-trained altar servers, while the professionally-trained choir sings for our entertainment.

As I said, a bit tough, but it reveals that worship should be a joyful occasion. Further in the article it goes on to say this:

Pews fill up the open space in the middle of our temples, where the clergy and the people used to join together in a sort of sacred dance as the clergy, censing and processing, moved amidst the constantly changing configuration of the Laity.

Today this is reduced to the priest and servers marching in and marching out. How can we dance with pews on the ballroom floor? Pews transform worship for us into the merely formal and frosty affair that it has become in mainline [North] American religion.

I would hope that we can appreciate this sentiment, even if it is a bit jarring. How many of you found that when it came time to greet one another and pass the peace just before worship, of having your movement limited by the pews around you? Maybe it was too hard to shuffle past the person next to you? Use that as an insight, and maybe we can begin to understand the Orthodox point of view.

Our faith is supposed to be dynamic, engaging dance of the divine in our midst. I would say that virtually all of us have been raised in such an environment that Pews are as much a part of our memories and our raising, and yet how many of us didn’t realize that the very seats we sit on have been around for only a quarter to a third of the lifespan of our church… and is not part of the tradition to a large swath of Christianity in the world? Sometimes we need a different perspective to help us understand something about ourselves, maybe discover something that we might need to let go of in order for us to engage and grow in our faith. This different perspective can provide us with an epiphany of how we are the church, maybe that’s a good thing.

I had originally thought that I would preach on Jonah, and how the people of Nineveh responded and changed to God’s proclamation in a surprising way. While I don’t think that’s a wrong approach, I came to the surprising Epiphany in realizing how much of our faith really is based on movement, and that wonderful dance in life. Jonah moved across the city as he preached. As the story is told in Mark’s gospel, Jesus comes to ordinary people and says “follow me.” He says “follow me” to Simon and Andrew, he says “follow me” to James and John. Yet notice what they do. They don’t then sit down and listen to him, the gospel says that they put down their nets, and they follow him. They leave behind the things that have sustained them for their whole lives, that they have taken for granted, and they follow him.

Maybe we’ve learned something more about something we’ve taken for granted. My hope is that we may come to the realization that many of the things that we have come to take for granted were not part of the experience of the early church… and that we have developed practices and habits that inadvertently get in the way of Christ’s call to follow him. Pews aren’t the only thing, to be sure. They just happen to be an example! If Epiphany is about realizing and understanding God in our midst, perhaps our biggest Epiphanies, our powerful moments of learning can come out of a new understanding of things we take for granted. Perhaps we need to let go of the things that we think are the oldest and most sacred parts of our faith, that aren’t. Perhaps we need to hear Jesus and realize that at its core, God calls us to leave our nets behind, and follow.


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