James 5:13-20 CEB
If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing. If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. Elijah was a person just like us. When he earnestly prayed that it wouldn’t rain, no rain fell for three and a half years. He prayed again, God sent rain, and the earth produced its fruit.
My brothers and sisters, if any of you wander from the truth and someone turns back the wanderer, recognize that whoever brings a sinner back from the wrong path will save them from death and will bring about the forgiveness of many sins.
How do we pray? What is prayer? These questions especially matter when looking at this final bit of scripture at the end of James’s epistle. James has been repeatedly concerned about whether we as faithful people actively live out our faith and live into God’s reality. This is no less true of prayer, as even our prayer lives are to be active and faithful. Like with all things in the kingdom of heaven, we are not active in isolation but in community with one another and with the wider world. We should pray constantly and in all the situations of life we happen to find ourselves. Knowing what our prayer and prayer lives should look like seems to be an important part of being a Christian and living in Christian community in more than just appearance and convenience. Our prayers not only happen in community but help us be a community by overcoming the isolation brought on by sickness and sin. This produces the kind of healthy and expansive community that allows for the Holy Spirit and God to move in powerful ways in our midst.
Prayer has power, and so it carries with it a kind of intimidating air. It is the act through which we communicate with our God, one who is not only compassionate but also powerfully acts within our own world and in our lives. It makes sense that we are at times not sure how to talk to a God like this! At times, we may seek to dress up our prayer, citing beautifully worded scripture, framing prayer in formal language which seems fitting when trying to capture our awe and God’s magnificence. Certainly, when we look at the Bible, the Psalms and other scripture use such language to address God as well. James this morning reminds us that prayer is so much more than this though. James encourages us to pray in sickness and in health, in sorrow and in gladness, and that we should offer up praises as well as laments. Our scripture reading reminds us that all aspects of our life deserve and require prayer, and this prayer involves so much more than just words! You see, out of curiosity and in preparation for today’s sermon, I decided to look up prayer in my Bible dictionary to see what Greek and Hebrew words get translated as prayer and see if that offered any new insights. What I found surprised me in a good way! It started off with saying that while there are Greek and Hebrew words that are generally translated as to pray or prayer, those aren't the only words that get translated this way! Many acts and rituals in scripture are understood to be a part of and translated as prayer. Prayer itself seems to encompass all our words, our actions, and our rituals that are all part of the way we talk to and before God! There is no single way to pray. Perhaps the more important part of our attempts to communicate with our God is our own authenticity rather than the exact way we go about prayer.
In my own faith development and discipleship, I have often looked to German Lutheran theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and one of his works talks about this kind of authenticity in our prayer lives. He writes about the community he formed with his seminary students back in the late 1930s. First, he says that the prayers in this group are communal, that we should pray together and pray for the needs of our given community. Our prayers do not need to be confident and well prepared, our weakest prayers, if they are in our own words, are better than empty pretty speech! Bonhoeffer frames this by saying, “As helpful as the church’s tradition of prayer is for learning how to pray, nevertheless it cannot take the place of the prayer that I owe to my God today. Here the poorest stammering can be better than the best-phrased prayer.” Our prayers each day are to address our needs, our praises, our thanksgiving, and the hopes of our community at this moment. This weakness he mentions comes from our own vulnerability, sharing the things close to the heart and praying while in the midst of daily struggles.
It takes vulnerability to be authentic, to offer up in our own words, confident or broken, the little pieces of ourselves that we lift up before our community of faith and our God. Both Bonhoeffer and James agree that all of our prayer activities, like any of our actions, do not happen in a vacuum, we are offered a powerful reminder in today’s scripture that prayer is not private. Prayer is a communal activity. Here in the midst of our scripture reading, we have an example of leaders of the church being called to the side of the sick to anoint and to pray over them. Here in our church, we have a reminder of this every Sunday when we lift up the prayer requests from the congregation in our services. This takes authentic vulnerability to say where we are weak, to call others to our side when we are not at our best and not looking our best. Who wants to invite others to be in our company when we are down and out? We might still be in our pajamas, the house may still be messy, and we may be disheveled in our appearance and composure. I once heard a speaker say that we do not parade our problems in front of others, we parade our children, all dressed up and ready to be seen. We show what we want to show instead of what is happening in our hidden vulnerable places. We have been taught self-reliance and to be tough. Many of us have been hurt or shamed in the past for our weakness, those sins and illnesses that haunt us all. Can we be the kind of community that can be vulnerable with one another? Are we only a prayerful community when we are at our best, or is it precisely when we are at our weakest and our most exposed that we need prayer?
James asks this of us as well when talking not only about sickness but sin within our communities of faith. Illness and sin directly threaten the community’s health and wholeness. There is an isolation that comes with sickness and sin. Will a community of faith choose to enforce the separation or answer the threat with solidarity and support? We as a people can become uncomfortable when our neighbors are not healthy physically and spiritually, so we often turn away. Both sickness and sin carry a stigma, a shame, for not being well in mind, body and soul. We may be tempted to stand apart, pray for another’s recovery and then welcome our neighbor back only when they have recovered. However, this is not the vision offered by James. Our prayers should stand in opposition to this. Our prayers, especially as they are communal, mean that we must actively be aware of those that would normally be isolated due to a sickness in their bodies or the shame that comes along with sin. In fact, looking at James this morning, those needing care are empowered to ask for prayer and have the community come along and pray together with them. I strongly believe that overcoming the boundaries that divide the well and the unwell is what brings the healing mentioned in scripture. You see, in the ancient world their understanding of illness is very different from our own. They did know about germs or all the natural causes of disease, so they thought that one’s spiritual health directly impacted someone's physical health. You can see now why James mentions sickness and sin in the same bit of scripture. To confess sin and offer prayer over someone’s failing health are both steps to help the person recover because it brings us into contact with them. According to James, you cannot truly pray for another and leave them isolated.
This recovery was not simply the restoration of health, it was something more important, their reconnection to community. Every time Jesus heals someone in the gospels this reconnection to community is often at the heart of the healing. Blindness, leprosy, and the inability to walk were the excuses the larger society used to keep folks at an arm's length, and Jesus healing them was removing the cause of their isolation. This restored them to life in the community and restored their connection. Jesus does this as well when he dines with tax collectors and spends time with prostitutes. Sickness and sin bring shame and separation, so Jesus overcomes those barriers. James encourages prayer and mutual confession to help us overcome those same barriers. When we keep our prayer life and confession separate and individual, we cut up our communities and our churches. We’ve talked before about being the body, and what do you think keeps the body connected and functioning? In our human bodies, it is our blood vessels, our nerves, and all the channels that keep us interconnected and moving and acting. The body of Christ has a connecting force as well, the Holy Spirit. When you cut off a piece of the body, the channel gets cut as well, and there are less places for the Spirit to flow and move through. When you reconnect and have the whole body, the Spirit moves and flows and empowers this universal body of Christ to do amazing things! Prayer helps us stay connected and reconnect those severed pieces, and it keeps the Spirit moving powerfully through our communities of faith.
Just last week we talked about how the world pushes us into false competition and into valuing ourselves over others, and this directly impacts our views of sickness and sin. We see them as forms of weakness, things to be eliminated from our midst to make sure there are more resources for the rest of us: “So what if the sick die? They were weak and were rightly left behind.” These are not just hypothetical statements either, for I have heard them during the midst of the COVID pandemic: “COVID is just killing the old and the weak, so what? If everyone catches it and just those 2% die, at least we’ll be over it.” Sickness is a threat to the healthy so we look to cut it off and isolate the weaker parts, however, in doing so we have cut up the body of Christ, the human community made in the image of God. Each of us is stamped with the divine visage making each of us too valuable to lose through callousness and cruel separation. To be whole is to be vulnerable, to be willing to reach out when those weak and sick parts of the body call out for prayer and anointing! If we refuse their call, can we call ourselves the community of Christ? Can we call ourselves a community that prays? Our prayers connect us to a God whose compassion reaches out to the sick, the lonely, the lost, and the sinful just as our Lord, Jesus Christ, did so long ago. Look at the ways we are already connecting to overcome these barriers! We have right here in Thermopolis and through our Community Federated Church the Food Pantry, Meals on Wheels volunteers, People to People teams, Doorstep Ministries, and so much more besides! These are forms of prayer as well! When we see those who are isolated and alone, how can we actively come alongside them in prayer and surround them with our presence in new and creative ways? My friends, just being able to pray together as a community and confess our sins and come alongside each other in sickness and joy shows a kind of solidarity not seen in this world. Where are we being called to pray this week? Where are we being called to tear down barriers and join together in all the ways we communicate with our God? Amen.
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Pastor Paul Grossman