A Sermon for Pentecost 19
September 30, 2018
The book of James offers us a vision of a caring community—of people who are committed to the practice of their faith and in doing that, are committed to one another. Because of our faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ (James 2:1), it says, we put away anger, we listen, we care for the widow and orphan in distress, we act with gentleness, we treat poor and rich alike, we love our neighbor as ourselves. He covers all that and more in the first part of this letter.
Now, he moves on to describe other practices for a caring community and these include: prayer, the singing of songs of praise, being present to one another and when healing is needed, offering the laying on of hands and anointing—administered by the elders. So this is a group of people who not only believe but live it out their belief together. They look to God for healing but they realize something significant: They, themselves, are that healing presence to one another. God is always relational and so a Christian community is centered on relationship as well.
What do you lack? James writes at the start of the letter that whatever you lack, God will provide. Turn to God in prayer, trusting that God will respond “generously and ungrudgingly” (James 1:5). That confidence is now reiterated at the end of the message. He says that prayer has the power to “save” the sick, to “raise them up,” and to offer the “forgiveness of sins” (James 5:5). To pray in this way together as a caring community is powerful. If does not offer some wistful hope of the peace in the hereafter but of a praying, healing, vibrant community that transforms people right here, right now.
What do you think about prayer? How do you pray? We often think of prayer as an individual endeavor. In your quiet time alone, you pray to God. Most people I know are not confident about praying out loud anywhere. Ever. They much prefer to have the pastor pray for them.
But that’s not how James is talking about prayer here. For him, it is not an individual thing to be done by yourself—I mean you can do it that way but it really is a communal thing. We pray together. So not only do we feel closer to God, but we feel closer to one another. We sense a deep belonging.
Maybe that’s how it was in the first century church to whom James was writing, but that’s not very *today* is it? Today we’re an individualistic culture. Got a problem? Fix it yourself. Go buy a self-help book, try a little harder, grin and bear it, make better use of the happy face emoji. Even our social media doesn’t necessarily make us more connected to one another. It can easily become a way to showcase our individual identities and brag how many “friends” or “retweeters” we have. So instead of lifting others up by our posts, we just make them feel jealous. We, as a society, feel more alone than ever.
Let’s admit it: It’s hard for us to even imagine the kind of communal life that James is talking about. He’s not holding up an individualistic lifestyle at all. He’s not telling us we have to be awesome and get others to notice us. Instead, he’s suggesting the opposite. Want to belong? Want to be in a healing, relational community? Then be vulnerable. Be yourself. And let that true self be known. It’s an imperfect self loaded with shame, regret and self-doubt but that’s okay when you’re in a caring community. In fact, you can confess your sins to one another. Seriously? Confess your sins? That’s the last thing most of us would think about doing. It’s damn scary. But it opens the doors wide for forgiveness and unity. Keep in mind that the community to which this letter was written was one that was in conflict over class discrimination. They had many squabbles and it was hard for them to be kind to one another. And yet, James advised that they risk being rejected and confess their sins to one another with radical openness.
And if that wasn’t enough, James told them to pray for one another and together. Why? Because it is effective and powerful. And it heals.
Think of a time when someone prayed for you. How did it feel to know that someone, or perhaps a whole congregation, was praying for you? And now think of a time when you prayed for someone else. What was that like? Did it cause you to feel more connected to and loving towards the recipient of your prayer? Of course it did. We may not understand the mysteries of prayer and it may not always work in the magical way we want it to but we do know that prayer is social glue. It holds us together even when that seems like a miraculous thing to do.
If we take this letter seriously, it offers an important invitation to become a caring community. Like the community to which James wrote, we’re far from perfect. Perhaps you’ve been hurt by others. Maybe you don’t quite feel like you belong or that it’s safe to be your true self here. You may well feel afraid.
That’s understandable. But think for a moment why we are here (other than the coffee). I think we’re here because we believe in God and we want help to keep that faith alive. We know that the love God has for us is limitless. In Psalm 23 it says that goodness and mercy are following us—they are actually pursuing us and will not stop because that’s how much God desire us. This love is here for us. And it is so helpful to know that we’re not alone. Right next to us in the pews are other beloved children of God who are saved by grace. God deems us all worthy and like a loving parent, wants us to get along.
If we believe this, then let’s risk living this way. Why not? Let us endeavor to love one another as God loves us. Let us sing praises of thanksgiving, let us confess our sins to one another, and let us pray for one another and with one another, trusting that the healing of God comes to us most profoundly through one another. We have the chance to be a gift to each other. A healing, marvelous gift. Open your heart and be that gift. Open your heart and be that gift.
Later in our service, we will follow this advice from James and you’ll have the chance to come forward for prayers of healing with the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. Normally, the pastor alone says the prayer but today, we’re going to try in the ancient church way and invite our church elders (in our case it will be our church council) to join in the circle or prayer for each person. May these prayers heal us and bring us closer together, closer to being the kind of caring community we are called to be through the boundary-breaking love of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
© 2018 Laura Gentry