Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

We’ve been considering what makes for strong community. In sum, it is wisdom. Indeed, wisdom is the art of living well together.

Now wisdom, as we’ve already learned, manifests itself in speech. The wise person knows what to say and when to say it. He also knows when it’s good not to say anything at all. The wise person knows how to build up and encourage, correct and even warn people with well-chosen words.

But wisdom also manifests itself in mutual submission. The wise person knows when to step aside to make room for another. The wise person knows when to yield to another so that that one will have a chance too. In a community of wise persons, each one defers to the other. If one defers to another now, he can expect the other to defer to him later. This reciprocity ensures that each may appreciate the gifts the other has to offer. This is what it means to be gracious to one another. In sum, wisdom consists in taking turns.

On reflection, these are good practices for any community to follow. Whether we are talking about a scout troop, a book club, or an AA meeting, these practices, when observed, will make for strong community. Whatever we have said applies to the church certainly applies also to these communities.

But the church is different. It’s distinguished from these communities in one important respect. In the church there is not only a horizontal dimension. There is also a vertical dimension. We look across at one another. That is the horizontal. But we also look up to God together. That is the vertical. 

God is a part of the community, the wise community, which is the church. Indeed, he created it and is ready and willing to make it wise. Earlier James writes that God chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created (2:18). This helps explain why the Reformed tradition, in which the Presbyterian churches stand, has defined the church as creation of the word. In the church we can expect to encounter God’s living Word. About no other community can we say the same thing. James exhorts us to get rid of all the moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word implanted in us, which can save us (2:21). 

So God is at the very origin of the community. But we are not to imagine somehow that once God created the community, he withdraws from it. On the contrary, by his grace, by his infinite patience, God is with us, and will never leave us, even when we give him good reason to. God wants to be actively involved in the community. He really wants to be a part of the lives of each one of us. God has access to our lives when we open them up to him in prayer.

James is convinced that God wants to be involved in the whole of our lives, during both the good as well as the bad times, both when we are up and when we are down. “Is anyone of you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone of you happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (5:13).

In our liturgy we have a time where we are invited to “share our joys and concerns.” When I was preparing this message, I wondered if those responsible for creating this moment in the liturgy were inspired by this verse in James. We share not only those successes and joys for which we want to give praise to God. We share also those miseries and hardships about which we feel a deep need to pray to God. For James both are right and appropriate in the church, as those who first introduced “sharing our joys and concerns” into the liturgy were well aware. 

Prayer is that activity of the community that is directed towards God. That is obvious. But prayer is also an activity that we do with and for one another. Prayer in this sense is an activity motivated by love for one another.

When do we need the love and support of the community? James speaks of those who are sick as well as those who are burdened by a guilty conscience. We tend to distinguish these two classes of people. But recent advances in biomedical research have given us deeper insight into the sensitive interface between mind and body, the interdependence between emotional and physical health. We know better how the stress that we bear in our bodies can literally make us sick.

Can it be that we are making ourselves sick when we keep to ourselves that which we should confess to God and to one another? The Psalmist declares that when he remained silent, his bones wasted away and his strength was sapped, as in the heat of the summer. Then he confessed his transgression to God, and God forgave the guilt of his sin (Psalm 32).

As the wise community, the church is careful to avoid two extremes with respect to sin among its members. On the one hand, it is not pollyannish about sin. It does not pretend it does not exist. It does not turn a blind eye to it or sweep it under the rug. It has a realistic enough view of things to know that its own members fall into sin, many of them repeatedly. On the other hand, it is not punitive. It does not stand there ready to condemn the one who falls into sin. Rather, it always desires the repentance and restoration of that one. Indeed, James assumes that the members of the church will care enough about each other to go after those who are straying. They should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Therefore, James calls them to confess their sins to one another, so that they may be healed. Can we imagine a church in which people feel free to confess to another what they have done, how they have lived, without fear of betrayal or condemnation, without risk of rejection? Then the members become channels to each other of God’s grace, of God’s forgiving and reconciling love. 

Of course, we know that not all sickness is due to sin. But James does not distinguish between sinners and saints when he invites those who are sick to call the elders of the church who will pray over them and anoint them with oil.

In the ancient world, olive oil was believed to have medicinal properties. In the Bible, it can be also seen as a symbol of God’s unceasing interest in his people during times of distress. It is still used in some churches to this day in special services dedicated to healing. In any case, it is the prayer offered in faith that makes the sick person well.

Evidently James is confident that this prayer for healing will deliver. That is, the sick person will recover from his illness as a result. But it is clear that not all sick people prayed for in this way will recover.

This becomes a painful pastoral problem for ministers who find themselves in the rather unenviable position of having to say something meaningful to a parishioner who comes to them with the anguished question: “why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” or “Why isn’t God healing this person I have been praying for?”

Under these circumstances theological speculation can be less than helpful. More helpful is to follow James’ lead and focus on what can happen when God’s people pray. James does this with the help of an example. He refers to the prophet Elijah.

Elijah lived during the time of Ahab, an evil king who ruled over the northern tribes of Israel in the 9th century BC. Elijah prophesied that a drought would come. Later, in a contest with the prophets of Baal, a rival god in the kingdom of Israel, Elijah prayed for rain. God answered his prayer and proved that Israel’s God has the power to do what Baal could not do, because Baal is not a living god.

Now James anticipates an objection that we are all ready to raise. “But I’m not Elijah. I’m not a powerful prophet set apart by God for a special mission. I do not have a direct line to God.” To this objection James responds: But Elijah was a human being just like us. It follows that if God listened to Elijah’s prayer, then why wouldn’t he listen to ours? The prayer of a righteous person has great power in its effects. The power does not reside in the person praying. James makes this point clear by telling us that there is no essential difference between us and Elijah. Nor does this power reside in the act of praying itself. Rather, the power is displayed in its effects. When God answers prayer, it is God’s power that is revealed and displayed.

This is meant to encourage those of us who experience frustration over unanswered prayer. It gets the focus off ourselves and onto God, with whom all things are possible.

This sense of possibility was certainly experienced during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, as the opening verses of our Gospel lesson for this morning show. Even those outside the circle of Jesus’ disciples were participating in the power of Jesus’ name. This power was revealed and displayed in its effects. The demon-possessed to whom they went and ministered experienced release in Jesus’ name from what once bound them.

This is not to say that the frustration of unanswered prayer is alleviated here. But perhaps reflecting for a moment on the phrase “participating in the power of Jesus’ name” can help us grapple with prayer.

To follow Jesus is to participate in what God is doing in the world. Are we sensitive to what is God is doing around us? If we are, that will give direction to our prayers. Are we sensitive to what God is doing in us, in our loved ones? If we are, that will give direction to our prayers.

But to develop this sensitivity, we have to spend time with God. We have to wait on God. That means, among other things, that in our prayer time we have to listen as much as we talk to God. As we do this, we get attuned to what God wants for us, and begin to ask him accordingly.

What exactly do we mean here? The following illustration may help. A man went to a counselor because of problems in his marriage. The man was frustrated with his wife, because she never complied with his wishes. In the course of the next several sessions, the counselor helped the man to learn to be present to his wife. By this the counselor meant spending undistracted time with her, to listen to her actively. The counselor explained that in making a habit of these things, the man would learn to attune himself to her wishes, and respond accordingly. Feeling understood and loved, the wife would then relax and open up and be more willing to comply with his wishes. 

This analogy is not perfect, and so we should not press it too far. Nevertheless, the principle of spending undistracted time with God so that we know what to request of him applies.

Let me conclude with a practical challenge. The author of an article on prayer writes that we should set apart one hour at the end of our day for prayer. Now an hour may seem like a long time, but this is how he suggested to fill it: Review all the good and bad things that happened during your day and bring them before God. If there was a conflict or a dilemma, ask him for wisdom to resolve it. If there was moral failure, ask him for forgiveness and grace to turn away from it. If there was success or joy, give him thanks and praise for it. In addition, the author then suggests reading between one and three Psalms. This will fill the hour. 

James has taught us about prayer. Let us then do what he has taught us better and with more confidence. Amen.        

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