Current Live Weather

Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Faith of Prayer

A sermon based on James 5: 13-20

By Charles J. Tomlin, DMin;

November 21th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Book of James, 12/12


James 5:13 (NRSV):  Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise

14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.

 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.

 16 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.

 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.

 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

 19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another,

 20 you 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. (Jas. 5:13-20 NRS)


Today, we come to our final message from the book of James.   As we have seen, James is a different kind of writing.  It is not like Paul's letters which dominate the New Testament.  Much of Paul’s writings are deep and theological, carefully explaining and expounding the faith.   Sometimes Paul wrote about things not so easy to understand.  It was told that after one of novelist Gertrude Stein's lectures, a friend traveling with her turned to the someone nearby and said, "Dearie has said some things tonight that will take even her years to understand."

In contrast to the deep theological, intellectual, and philosophical challenge of Paul’s letters, James single letter, written much later,  is much easier to understand but is also challenging on an entirely different level.  James challenges believers in practical ways through out his right down to the very last word.  Today, James still challenges us to live out the faith we say we believe and do the right thing   As James says it best,, ‘be doers of the word, and not hearers only.’

They Should Pray

James concludes addressing the different needs of three different kinds of people in the church; those who are suffering, those who are sick, and those who are struggling with sin.  What these all have in common is the need of prayer.   If you are suffering, James says, then pray. If there are sick among you, you should pray for them.  If there is someone who has sinned, if they are willing to confess their sin to you, you pray for them.


James is right.  Prayer is the most practical, consistent , and constant work the church must do.   But our prayer life always needs encouragement, doesn’t it?  So let’s consider (following Mark Trotter) how James gives two most basic reasons prayer is our most important work as Christians, no matter what our current life situation.  Whether we suffer, or know someone who is; whether we are sick or know a sick person, or whether we know someone who is struggling with sin, or we are struggling ourselves, we should pray.



Why should we pray?  What good does it do?  Well, in the middle of this passage James says that the prayer of a righteous person can do a lot.   That’s a very simple interpretation of his much quoted beautiful line from the King James Version; ‘The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much’ (NKJV).  That’s quite a statement, isn’t it?  A more current way of  expressing this to say that ‘the sincere prayers of a righteous person have great power.’   In other words, James says, we should pray because we know what prayer will do.  What does prayer do?  Well, most importantly,  when we pray prayer changes us.


Think about it this way.  Think about those people who are considered saints and are spiritually beautiful to us. Why are they beautiful?  Isn’t there something about their life, their quality of living, and their depth of being—-an inner peace, an ability to approach situations with love and compassion that aren’t just inward, but also flow outward toward other people most freely?    It is as if they had something in their lives that is missing in many people, but is available to us, if we were just as devoted.


When Mother Teresa's died  back in 1997, it called attention to how she lived her life.  Most heard wonderful stories about her sacrificial service to the most abject and pitiful creatures on earth, the poor and the dying in Calcutta.  How could she do that? We tend to look upon misery and run away from it.  She looked upon misery and moved toward it.  How could she do that? The answer is prayer.

As a nun she devoted her life to a life of prayer. What prayer did was to empty or cleanse her of all distractions, all that is superfluous, all that is debilitating, and prayer filled her life with a transcendent power.  

What was seen in that tiny, fragile, frail woman, was an apparently inexhaustible and power to love.  She loved God and others day in and day out, year after year, and through her love, she made a difference in this world.   What we didn't see was that tiny, little, frail woman on her knees, at morning, mid-day, evening, and at night, keeping the office of prayer, opening her life to God, inviting God to come and live through her.

Richard Rohr, another Catholic Christian, runs a Catholic retreat center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has a wonderful word for this spiritual quality that comes comes through prayer:  He calls it "holy spaciousness."  That's what prayer does, he says, it creates space for the holy in our lives.  Prayer does this, not by adding something to our burdens or busy schedules, but prayer removes what distracts us from doing the good we can do with our lives.   Prayer is like cleaning the yard in fall.  It removes the debris that accumulates which we carry around with us day after day and sometimes year after year.  Prayer creates a "holy space."

Then, as Richard Rohr continues, if you want God to come into your life, you have to make room for God.  Prayer is the way you make room for God. The reason that God does not come into our lives is that our lives are so cluttered. There is too often no room for anything but ourselves and our preoccupations. Prayer empties our lives of that which is distracting. Prayer is a form of remodeling, making room for God.  Prayer is also a form of hospitality, preparing for someone to visit.  Prayer creates "holy spaciousness." This is what what prayer will do. It makes room in our lives  for God, and for other people too.

Henri Nouwen was a Christian monk who was once the most popular Christian writer in Christian spirituality.  He spent most of his career in the secular world, teaching at universities, at Yale and at Harvard, then going to South America living as a village priest among the poor.  In the last years of his life, he spent in Toronto, at a home for the most developmentally disabled people, called L'Arch.

Right after he died there were lots of testimonies written about his life. They all tell the same story, really. They celebrate his writing, which is vast, and which will be lasting. They talk about his academic contributions, his career in the university.  But mostly, these testimonies speak about how he gave himself in humble service to the poor and to the least among us.

Most interestingly, more than one person wrote, about how after an evening lecture, someone would introduced themselves to Henri Nouwen, and how Nouwen would say to them, "Let me walk you to your car."

That's what happens when you make room in your life for God, God will lead you to invite other people to join you and God there.  When you make room in your life for God, God will use you to send out invitations to other people, because you now have room in your life for all those whom God loves.

James says the Church ought to be characterized by prayer, because we know what will happen if we pray.  Prayer changes us.  Prayer will create a "holy spaciousness" in our lives so God can enter your life and you will invite others into our lives too.

Folks, we live in a divisive and argumentative world today,  but it’s always been that way.  It may seem sharper and meaner because we have many more ways to express ourselves.   The question is how do we overcome this divide?  I know only one way.  We have to learn to pray for each other more than to attack each other.  Could we resolve do that?  Could we at least pray for each other as much as we debate and argue with other?

We should pray first of all, because we know what will happen when we pray.  We will change.  If we pray we may not always change the other person, or win the argument, or change the situation, but we will change.   Both as individuals, and as a people, we will change.  We will be renewed as individuals, and as a church.  This means, just like James says, that prayer will save us from who we are and who we were.



The second reason we should pray, James implies, is because we don't know what will happen.   More specifically, we don’t know exactly what prayer will do.  Which might lead you to say, "Well, Dearie said things this morning that is going to take years to understand."  It’s can, so don’t you think it’s time to  get started.

The example of not knowing what prayer will do comes from the part of this text that lifts up Elijah, praying for rain, as an example.

Elijah was just like us.  Elijah was just an ordinary man. Elijah the prophet, going up against a Queen and the priests of Baal.  Baal was a nature god, so worshiping Baal was supposed to bring a practical and positive effect to farming.  It was to bring rain when we need rain, stop the rain when we don't want the rain. What's the point of worshiping  if you can't something practical and substantial out of it.   

That’s still how people see religion and worship.  If you can’t get get something immediate or practical out of it, then it’s useless. So you leave the invisible and impractical God for your own god you can manipulate and get something from.  That’s what Israel did.  It’s what people still do.  What good is praying to God we can’t get results from?

Elijah, however, believed His people should stay true to the true God—-results or not.  So, to respond to the false priests of Baal, Elijah prayed that there would be a drought, and there was a drought.  Later he prayed to God that there would be rain. The rain came.  What James doesn't mention is that not only did he get rain, he also got hell to pay from Queen Jezebel. But the point is, that surprising things will happen when you pray.  Elijah was just an ordinary man, like you and me.  Elijah prayed and look  what happened.

That is the most dangerous part in any discussion about prayer, is make prayer something like magic, with us trying to use and manipulate God—-to get God to do what we think God ought to do.  The Bible doesn't look very kindly upon that, and neither does Science.  The Bible and sophisticated people object to this kind of prayer because it is superstition to think that we can manipulate God or the forces of nature. Everything that happens must have a natural or rational explanation.

But the trend now in the natural sciences not just to look for the predictability but for the surprises in the inter-relatedness of all things.  Quantum theory, as presents a more organic and wholistic, rather than mechanical or Independent view of the world.  It better understood by sciences today that what happens in one part of the world or universe can affect what happens in another part, far, far away.  It other words, we and everything is interconnected.  What affects on part can and eventually will have and an effect on another.  

This realization has given rise to ecology.  Ecology is how we document this organic interconnected understanding of life, like in our recent struggle with the coronavirus and our growing understanding of climate change.  What we do or don’t do, effects many things, both directly and indirectly, both good and bad.  In fact,  in both science and religion, we have neglected this truth of ‘what we do always has an effect’ to our peril, some of which we are already paying for in consequences  right now.

So maybe the Medieval Christian poet, John Donne had it right. No person is an island.  No one stands alone.  We are all part of the whole.  What you do affects me, and what I do affects you. So, as my Catholic doctor often says to me when I leave his office, please pray for me.  And please know, that I pray for you.  We pray and who knows what might happen.   Life isn’t always predictable, and that surprise can also be a good thing, not just a bad one.

I told you this story recently, but it bears telling again in this context.  It’s about a young pastor visiting a very old and very sick woman in the hospital. At the conclusion of the visit he asked her, "Is there anything special that you would like me to pray for?" With all the strength that she had left, she said, "Of course. I want you to pray for me to be healed."

Now he was an educated pastor, been to seminary, all that. He knows how to pray an intellectually acceptable prayer. So his prayer went like this. "Lord, if it be thy will, we pray that this sick sister might to healed. On the other hand, if it not be thy will, we pray that she might be given a positive attitude and a willingness to accept her situation. Amen."

As soon as he finished the prayer, the woman opened her eyes, threw back the covers, put her feet over the side of the bed, stood up, and said, "I'm well! I'm well!" She bounded out the door of the room, went down the corridor of the hospital, dancing, saying, "Look at me! I'm well! I'm healed!"

Dumbfounded by this, the young pastor left the room, went to the parking garage, stood by his car for a moment, looked up into heaven, and said, "God, Don't you ever do that to me again." 

According to James, the Church ought to be praying for two reasons. First, because we know what will happen.  If we pray, we'll change. We'll be renewed. And secondly, we ought to pray because we actually have no idea at all what might happen. 

Again, in conclusion to this great biblical book, let’s get this right.  If we are are suffering something right now, if you aren’t already, pray.  If you or someone you love is sick, again pray.  Pray for healing and pray for strength, both physical and emotional.  Then finally, if you are struggling or someone you know and love is struggling with some known or unknown moral weakness, pray for them.  Keep praying in all things and in every situation, because not only do you not know exactly what will happen, when you pray something always happens.  Prayer will always either impact the situation or it will at the very least, which can still be much, because prayer will always change us.  Amen

No comments :