James 5: 13-20
So often when I was doing on-call chaplaincy work I would make rounds to all of the patients who were scheduled for surgery the following day. Some of the religious patients welcomed my visit and practically prayed for me rather than me leading the prayer. There were moderates who gently received prayer and welcomed the opportunity. Then there were others.
Some of those others were more like us in that, ‘prayer is great, but for me, it’s a private thing or I’ve got my own connection up there.’ So ok, fine I’d tell them and wish them healing blessings.
Then there were the other-others who proclaimed they weren’t religious, but sure, if I wanted to sit and chat they wouldn’t mind. Well a ‘chat with the chaplain’ is never just a chat. Eventually I’d get down to doing a reality check with them. Do you have any fears, what do you hope will change after surgery, what or who makes meaning in your life?
After a while they would built up trust in me so before I was ready to leave I’d take my chances and ask them if they’d like a prayer. ‘Well, sure, they’d say, it can’t hurt.” I would pray. And often somewhere between ‘O healing God’ and ‘Amen’, they would well up with tears. Men and women alike.
And they were right. Prayer can’t hurt. As it has been said, ‘there are no atheists in a foxhole.
Our scripture for today is from the Epistle of James from the 5th chapter. The entire epistle reads like a short little ‘go to’ book on how God’s people should live and treat others. Reading from Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’, faith means action to James,
Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.
Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with. Elijah, for instance, human just like us, prayed hard that it wouldn’t rain, and it didn’t—not a drop for three and a half years. Then he prayed that it would rain, and it did. The showers came and everything started growing again.
My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God. Amen.
While in the days of dear old James it was commonly assumed that sickness was in some way a punishment for your sins, we know better now. Sin does not cause sickness. It does not cause cancer or mental illness nor any other medical maladies. Sin is the separation of a human being from the divine provenance of God. Although sin could cause one to be alienated from her community, just like illness can separate us from the ones we love they are vastly different yet, at the same time similar.
Illness, we know, can isolate and separate a person physically. Sin can isolate a person socially. And both can cause a tremendous amount of anxiety, self-doubt and vulnerability to set in so both are in need of prayer and this is how we can understand the words of James.
It’s pretty clear in this passage. We are to pray for one another. When one is hurt, sick, or feeling on top of the world, we are to hold fast that person in prayer. When one has erred in his or her ways we need to hold that person in our personal and corporate prayers. When someone in our faith community has not been here for awhile we are to pray for them. Yeah. It’s hard sometimes. How often have you said, I’ll pray for you and then forget all about that person? Not because you didn’t mean it but because it just happens, you get busy with life. Yet prayer is foundational to our life together.
Prayer is to be a common practice among us churchy folk to confess our brokenness and pray for each other so that together we may be healed in the various ways in which healing is needed. Maybe that is why James gives us concrete things to pray for and things to do, some courses of action for a gathered community of faith to engage in.
And we are off to a good start! At the beginning of the service we pray together the prayer that Jesus taught us (the Lord’s Prayer) as a way in which our voices are one, acknowledging our common humanity and our universal needs. And then our needs are made known as we join our hearts together in the pastoral prayer, giving thanks to God and then lifting one another up in need, acknowledging our joys and our concerns.
Saying and reading aloud the names give us an opportunity to recognize those friends and family who are dear to us as individuals and to us as a community. The pastoral prayer might seem like it is a laundry list of names, but it is not. Each name that you hear is beloved to someone and for that very reason that name becomes beloved to us all. That is compassion at it’s best. We can know that when a name is read God is standing near to us and listening to our supplications.
These are two prayers that are concrete acts of our life together. But there is more. Each Wednesday a group of about twenty people receive a list of names and concerns to hold in prayer. Some of the names are what you hear on Sunday mornings and some of the names are not. It’s called the prayer line and they maintain the practice of prayer weekly. Might you be involved?
And now there is the redevelopment prayer group of five individuals who hold this church and its congregants in prayer during this special time of transition and redevelopment. They are another manifestation of the power of prayer. Here’s a radical idea. What if, just what if at 11:00 am each day you pause to thank God for this awesome community of believers? It needn’t be more than a ‘thank you God’ or a recognition of gratitude at 11:00 am. We, as a community of 620 members could make a difference.
We pray collectively and individually. Prayer is not for the faint of heart. We don’t always ‘get what we ask for’ as if asking is all there is to prayer. You might be disappointed if prayer is the vehicle for you to petition God for the particularities in your life. There have been a couple of things that I have been praying for throughout my life and I’m sorry to say it just hasn’t materialized. Does it make me question the efficacy of prayer? It does if I hold fast the idea that God is the dispensary of my every want in life. Does it shake my faith when prayers go unansered? Absolutely not! I know that if am consistent and persevere the mere voicing of my needs helps me to acknowledge the pain and loss in my life. It helps me to give voice to that which burdens me and brings me way low. And giving voice to hurt is the beginning of healing and wholeness. It also moves me to recast my vision and genuinely see the countless blessings in my life.
Prayer is so much more than asking God for things. Prayer is a way to be close to God, to open your heart before the divine one with your needs and then to wait in silent expectation for the peace that prayer provides for us, the knowing that God is with us in all circumstances, of joy, happiness, pain, sorrow, and suffering. God is there.
I am convinced that God doesn’t need our prayers. We are the ones who are in need of praying. God is omniscient, God is all knowing therefore our needs, our wants and desires are already known to our beloved God. We are the ones who are ‘standing in the need of prayer’ as the gospel hymn proclaims.
I encourage you to pray. To pray always, and to pray in all ways. Because you need it. It is cleansing for your soul. As you know I was in Colorado this past week on vacation. Whether it was serendipitous or providence I was able to attend a Yom Kippur service at the Denver Botanic Garden. There is a beautiful line in the Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for healing that says: "Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing." Even in the face of adversity we pray that there is a blessing in it and we ask God to show us the way. Prayer is a blessing. Your life is a blessing. Let your life be your prayer and in doing so be blessed.
And let us say, Amen.