Preached by Michael Cheuk, September 27, 2015
Taken from James 5:13-20
This morning, I conclude my “faith in action” sermon series taken from the book of James. As I’ve mentioned in the Sundays before, James is a book that is full of straightforward and practical advice on how to live a good life, a life of faith. Faith for James is not just believing in the right things. Faith is doing the right things like loving our neighbors by looking after orphans and widows, treating the poor just as well as the rich, listening before speaking, and being careful with our words. In all of this, James is dispensing wisdom that comes as we draw near to God.
So how do we draw near to God? According to James, the answer is prayer. Prayer is the way we listen carefully and speak rightly to God. In fact, ethics professor (and my old UVA classmate) Mark Douglas writes, “wise speech simply is prayer. The wise speak always as if [they are speaking] before and to God.” Can you imagine how we might change our speech if we were aware that each word is said in the presence of God?
For James, prayer and wisdom are inextricably linked. James begins his letter by stating in chapter 1 verse 5, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God (in other words, pray to God), who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” James now ends his letter by strongly encouraging Christians to pray in all circumstances. “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” Prayer takes many forms: some are spoken, some are silent, some are sung. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther once said, “When I cannot pray, I always sing.” Luther not only sang, but he also wrote thirty-seven hymns, the most famous being “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Hymns and spiritual songs have a powerful way of not only expressing our faith, but also strengthening our faith in both challenging and joyful times.
Just as authentic faith is a faith that works, and spiritual wisdom is a wisdom that works, for James, the prayer of faith is a prayer that works. “The prayer of faith will save the sick,” says James, “and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
I must confess, I struggle with these verses. This passage implies that if you have enough faith, your prayer can restore a sick person to health. I do believe that prayer can bring about healing, but if healing doesn’t occur, does that mean there wasn’t enough faith? Now, I must concede that sometimes our prayers, however sincere, may arise more from our own motives than from our submission to God’s will. This reminds me of the story of a little boy and his older sister who went to visit their grandma. As the little boy said his bedtime prayers, he was shouting at the top of his voice, “Please God, send me an iPad mini 4, and send me a Star Wars Jedi Master light saber.” His sister said, “Not so loud. For heaven’s sake, God isn’t deaf.” The little boy replied, “Yes, I know, but grandma is.”
I’ll say it again, I believe that prayers of faith can bring about healing, but I’ve also seen people of deep faith earnestly pray for a sick loved one, but physical healing does not take place. In those situations, if we were to tell a grieving person that the reason why their loved one wasn’t healed was because of their lack of faith, aren’t we just adding insult to their injury?
To make things even more challenging, this passage also seems to imply sickness is caused by sin. The ancient Hebrews definitely made a close connection between sickness and sin. Even Jesus was asked whether the man born blind was the result of his sin or the sin of his parents. However, as our medical knowledge has grown, we tend not to identify sickness with sin.
But even if various people might disagree about whether sin causes sickness, we perhaps can agree that both sin and sickness result in separation. Barbara Brown Taylor has pointed out that sickness, like sin, can separate individuals from their communities—illness by isolating a person physically from others, and wrongdoing by isolating a person socially. Sin and sickness both heighten the vulnerability of human beings. But instead of politely looking away, or separating ourselves, James is asking us to face our human vulnerabilities head on as a community.
“Are any among you sick?” asks James. “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.” I don’t know about you, when I’m sick, my first thought is not to call the church deacons and have them come and pray and perform a healing ritual over me. When I’m sick, I’m weak. I’m in need. I’m dressed in my baggy pajamas. I’m not eager for people to see me in that vulnerable condition, and I wait until I’m better and more presentable, before even asking people to come and visit me. And yet, I’m always glad when people come. As Baptists, they may not come to anoint me with oil, but they will bring over a casserole, which in my mind is a Baptist anointing!
Similarly, I’ve noticed that people sometimes drop out of church or separate from others when there’s a personal or family crisis: they got divorced, someone got arrested, there’s been a moral failure or relational challenge. Oftentimes, they don’t feel like they can come to church until they’ve cleaned up their life, until they’re more morally presentable. They think church is for healthy people, for respectable people, for good people, and often times we in the church reinforce that idea, even though time and time again Jesus told us that he came for the sick and the sinners.
In our day and age, while we may have a hard time believing that sin causes sickness, we can understand how both sin and sickness cut us off from each other, and the healing God offers is a spiritual healing. I do believe that prayer of faith will save the sick. A physical cure may or may not take place, but in Christ, there will be a healing, a salvation, because the Lord will raise them up in a resurrection, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven by our merciful God. God offers this healing not just for an individual, God offers it for the community. “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed,” says James.
Rachel Held Evans says that “at its best, the church functions much like a recovery group, a safe place where a bunch of struggling, imperfect people come together to speak difficult truths to one another. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned as individuals. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned corporately, as a people. Sometimes the truth is we’re hurting because of another person’s sin or as a result of forces beyond our control. Sometimes the truth is we’re just hurting, and we’re not even sure why. The practice of confession gives us the chance to admit to one another that we’re not okay, and then to seek healing, [forgiveness] and reconciliation together, in community.”
James offers the illustration of the prophet Elijah as a model of powerful and effective prayer that took place on top of a mountain during an outward battle between Elijah versus the prophets of Baal. Perhaps for us today, a model of powerful and healing prayer may be what takes place weekly down in the basements of many churches during Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, where each participant confesses inward battles not only against sin, sickness and addiction, but also fear, doubts, injuries, trauma and pain. In this process, a healing community is created where each person no longer needs to wear a mask of goodness and respectability, but is free to show each other the places where he or she is broken and beloved.
This week, as Pope Francis visits the United States, I’m struck by how many people are drawn toward this man. But James would not be surprised, for here’s a man whose faith is shown by his actions. He isn’t polluted by the power and trappings of his position. He shows no partiality for the rich over the poor. Indeed, he looks after orphans and widows, he sneaks out at night to talk to the homeless, he embraces the handicapped and reminds the rich of our responsibility toward those on the periphery of life. He has offered words of blessing to gays and lesbians, words of forgiveness to women who have had abortions, and words of compassion to couples who are separated. As part of a Lenten tradition, he went to a jail and washed inmates feet – but for the first time, he included the feet of women and Muslims. As he did so, he publicly confessed, “Even I need to be cleansed by the Lord. And for this, pray during this Mass, so that the Lord also washes my filth also, so that I become more slave-like in the service of people as Jesus did.” Here’s a man who has shown what it is like to love our neighbor as ourselves, and he inspires and challenges me to do the same. I believe his actions and his words have brought back many who have wandered away from the faith, and he has also gained the admiration of those who have no desire to join the faith, but still see something truthful and gracious in this man.
In this passage, James does not give us a theology of prayer. He does not give us any theories about how prayer works. The wisdom and power of prayer is not about what we believe about prayer, it is about whether we pray or not. Therefore, James gives us concrete things to do to make our lives a prayer. He tells us to pray for one another in our suffering. He reminds us to sing songs to lift our spirits. He encourages us to call spiritual leaders to pray over us when we’re “sick” – weak, feeble, needy and poor. He tells us to anoint each other with oil or perform some other ritual that symbolizes love and care – like laying on of hands, or having a group hug, or bringing a casserole to someone who is sick. He reminds us to confess to one another and to forgive each other. When we do these things, we put our faith into action and have a greater chance to bring the wanderers back home. James calls us to make our lives a healing prayer.
As I end this sermon, I’d like to offer a prayer that is in keeping with the spirit of James and of Jesus. It is supposedly offered by a Christian Confederate soldier:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.
 Mark Douglas, “James 5:13-20,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “James 5:13-20,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).
 Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday, p. 67-68.