17th Sunday After Pentecost
27 September 2009
We have spent the last four weeks preaching from the Letter of James, an epistle that speaks in the strongest and most basic terms about how to live the Christian life, about how faith must express itself through how we live. You are familiar with some of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament – the Book of Job, the book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the book of Psalms, the Song of Songs. Wisdom Literature concerns itself with morality, ethics, the practical wisdom of right behavior. These writings attempt to offer insight into human nature, and into the nature of reality, so that hearers and readers might live more responsibly, more ethically, and more faithfully. The book of James is a kind of Wisdom Literature.
I have always loved the letter of James; it is so practical and so radical, laying out in undeniable and concrete terms what it means to live a faithful Christian life. Out of 108 verses in the whole book, 59 of them are moral imperatives. Martin Luther famously disliked this book, believing that it contradicted the Apostle Paul’s central teaching that a person is justified not through works but by grace through faith. But James does not contradict Paul; he is simply aiming to hold up what it means for the grace that saves us to find actual expression in our daily lives. James writes in very direct, very bare terms. There is no wriggling out of what he means. And what he means is for us to live what we say we believe.
James writes exclusively towards an intentional community gathered by a shared faith in Jesus Christ. His is not a book to be read alone, in the privacy of one’s home, as if he meant to teach us about a private faith and a personal morality. Like the rest of the New Testament writers, he does not believe that the Christian life is to be lived in isolation. James is meant to be read here, together, as a church, as a community that intends to work out our faith together and to live in radical contrast to the values of competition, acquisition, and envy.
We started a month ago, with his injunction to listen first and then to act. From there we moved into his teaching about how we treat each other, including how we do not judge or show favoritism, but instead show love consistently. After listening, and action, and love, we then considered speech, how our words are also actions and the importance of using them wisely and well. And then last week, we looked at the destructive nature of envy, and the power of recognizing we have enough.
And so we come today to the end of his short letter. He has written so far against so many behaviors. Don’t be like this. Don’t speak like that. Don’t treat people like this. Now his words turn in a more positive direction. How might we become a community that lives in the reality of friendship with God and with each other? How will that friendship shape how we speak and how we act toward one another? Fundamentally, how will we learn to trust each other, and be trustworthy? It is this sense of purposeful trust that has the power to transform us from just a loose collection of individuals trying to make our own way, into a solid community of believers working out our faith in action together.
Again, James focuses on speech, and the relationship between speech and action. Let your “yes” be “yes,” and let your “no,” be “no,” he writes. Truthful, simple speech lays the foundation for truthful right action. Both truthful speech and truthful action lay the foundation for trust within the community. Say what you mean. Do what you say.
This does not seem like particularly radical instruction, or even particularly Christian instruction. Who wouldn’t agree with the wisdom of consistency and truth in speech and action? But what he writes next, in the passage I read a few moments ago, is what distinguishes him from other moral philosophers.
“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them…. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (5:13-16)
We often think of prayer as the opposite of action. You can sit around praying and fretting about something, or you can get out and do something about it. At most, we tend to see prayer as a precursor to action, not as action itself. It certainly doesn’t strike us as the most practical response to any given situation.
But here is James, the most pragmatic of Christian thinkers, offering prayer as the first response. Are any of you suffering? Pray! Are any cheerful? Pray! Are any sick? Pray! I believe he would answer the same to any given situation. Are any depressed? Pray! Are any angry? Pray! Are any out of work? Pray! Are any confused? Trying to make a decision? Dealing with disappointment? Celebrating good news? Pray! Pray! Pray!
In a way, this is his most practical word. He writes consistently of the importance of true and trustworthy speech. He writes of the need to be slow to speak, and when you do speak, to be careful with how you use your words, and to mean what you say. He writes of the need for your actions to match your words. Here, he strips language back to its most fundamental – the words we speak not to one another, but to God. And with one another, to God. And on behalf of one another, to God. Prayer is primal speech. It is primal action.
Prayer is an expression of the truth. Speaking the truth first to God helps keep us honest. If we are suffering, we say that. We do not pretend otherwise. If we are cheerful, we take note, we pay attention, we celebrate by singing our praise to God. Whatever you are dealing with, James says, be honest. Pray.
There is nothing we go through that we cannot speak directly with God about. There is nothing we deal with that God does not care about. There is nothing we face that God will not face with us. No human emotion is foreign to God. We can be brutally honest. We can whisper our most desperate hopes. We can cry our pain. We can sing our joy. We can beg for what we want. We can shout our anger, ugly as it feels. We can bring it. And we can bring it all.
In the movie The Apostle, Robert DuVall plays a Pentecostal preacher named Sonny, who has just discovered his wife is having an affair. Sonny is a temperamental man who flies into a terrifying and violent rage that has life-changing consequences. But in the midst of that, he does not hide anything from God. In one of the movie’s greatest scenes, he paces the floor in his mother’s attic, muttering his prayers. He gets louder and louder until he throws his hands up in the air and he is shouting at the top of his voice, “If you won’t give me back my wife, give me peace. Give me peace! I’ve always called you Jesus and you’ve always called me Sonny.”
This is a man, who, even in the midst of anguish, knows he can trust his truth to the God who knows him so well, and calls him by name. A neighbor calls to complain and Sonny’s mother answers. She explains, “Sometimes he talks to the Lord. Sometimes he yells at the Lord.”
Do we believe in such a relationship? Do we know that we have, or can have, that kind of real relationship with God? Do we know how to tell our truth?
“Is any among you suffering? They should pray. Is any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them.”
And of course none of this is meant solely for the individual, but for the community. Ultimately, we don’t only pray alone in our attics – whether it’s shouting, crying, or celebrating. We pray together. We pray for each other. We pray with each other. We pray in solidarity with one another.
And that is part of what makes this teaching from James so practical and so radical. This is fundamentally what makes us something other than a social club or an activist organization or a charity. We are people who pray. We are people who pray together. Those prayers put us in solidarity with one another, and remind us that we are one people, belonging to one God, a God who has a relationship with us. Those prayers also keep us honest. And they should keep us attentive. They should keep us faithful to God and to each other.
Week after week, we come together on Sunday mornings and we pray for Elizabeth Lee, and Bill Kerr, and Bonnie Jensen, and Marge Shannon, and a host of others who suffer. And we pray for our Vespers ministry. And we pray for our sister church in Nicaragua. And these prayers are not just words, they are actions – they act to pull us together in solidarity with those in our midst who suffer, and in solidarity with those beyond our walls who need our care. Our prayers act to bind our hearts with each other’s, and with God’s. And these prayers should bleed out into our daily lives, acting to prompt even more attention and action. Prayer is not just saying words, it is uniting our intentions with God’s intention. That’s what shapes a life. That’s what shapes our life together.
Are you a person of prayer? Are we people of prayer? Maybe you don’t feel like you’re very “good” at prayer. Maybe you struggle to find the time. Maybe you don’t feel it’s worth the time. Maybe you struggle to believe that it means anything, or does anything, or changes anything. Say that to God. It’s as good a starting place as any. If you want to be more faithful, if you want this church to be more faithful, more vital, more vibrant, then the most practical thing to do is to say our prayers, and to say them together, and to keep on saying them.
In about ninety seconds, I’m going to sit down, and we’re going to have a moment of silent reflection, as we do every Sunday. This isn’t just a pause in the action. It isn’t a moment for finding our offering money or checking the time. This is a moment of quiet solidarity as we sit together before a God who listens. This is time for prayer, together. Just because it’s done in silence, doesn’t mean it isn’t real, or that it isn’t done as a part of community. Silent prayer can still be shared prayer. You don’t have to know any fancy words. You don’t have to say the right things. Just say what is true. Like: “Thank you.” Or, “I hope.” Or, “I need.” Or, “Hallelujah.”
We just keep doing this, apart and together, speaking our truth, holding up our hearts, holding up each other, uniting our voices, uniting our intentions to God’s, and allowing our prayers to take hold of our lives and our church and every action that flows out of them.
Now. Let us pray.