September 26, 2021 homily on James 5:13-20 by Pastor Galen
More than a Pat Answer
Christians are often known, for better or worse, for the pat answers that we often give in the face of pain and suffering. When someone endures unimaginable tragedy, one of the things religious folks often say is, “everything happens for a reason.” When there’s a major natural disaster in the world, we say things like, “well God is in control.” When someone is feeling lonely or discouraged, we say “You’re not alone. God is with you.”
Now while those statements may be true and can sometimes offer some measure of comfort, they often come across as insensitive rather than caring, and out of touch with the painful reality that the other person is experiencing.
And so when I first read James’s statements here in chapter 5, they sort of sounded a little bit like that to me. James asks, “Are you suffering? Pray! Are you happy? Sing songs of joy! Are you sick? Ask people to pray for you.” On the surface, James’s statements here sound overly simplistic and somewhat dismissive.
But rather than being dismissive or condescending or out of touch, I want to suggest that James is very much in touch with reality – but it is a reality that many of us often overlook or neglect. And that is the enormous power of prayer.
And James is not out of touch with the realities of pain and suffering that we experience in this life either. Earlier in chapter 5, for example, James has been talking about wealth and power, and injustice and oppression. James delivered a scathing rebuke to those who gained wealth through unjust means, saying, “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4). James was in touch with the realities and the plight of the poor and oppressed, and delivered a stark warning to those with resources.
James then turned his attention to those who were the victims of oppression and suffering, encouraging them to look to the Lord, to be patient, and to wait for God to act. God is the ultimate judge and will in time bring an end to evil and pain and injustice. And so we can look to the Lord for our strength and our hope.
James was very much in touch with the painful realities of injustice and oppression in his day, and the fact that those on the margins, and the reality that those who are the most poor in any society are also the most vulnerable to sickness and pain and tragedy. When a natural disaster strikes, those with the least resources are disproportionately affected more than those with wealth and power. When people who are poor get sick, they not only have the less access to good medical care, but their employment and wages are often less secure, and even taking a day or two off work to recover from a sickness or illness can mean that someone doesn’t have enough money to pay their bills. This is why the current COVID crisis in which we’re in has disproportionately impacted those with the least resources. This is why those of us who have access to good medical care, whose jobs are secure even when we take a day off work, need to be extra vigilant to make sure that we are doing everything within our power to look out for those who are the most vulnerable economically and at-risk medically in our society.
James knew these realities. And so when James encourages those who are suffering to pray and those who are sick to ask for the elders of the church to pray for them, this is not a non sequitur – all of this is very much connected in James’s mind. Sickness and pain and suffering are inextricably linked to issues of power and wealth and economics. James is very much attuned the physical realities of those who were suffering.
But James is also very much in touch with a spiritual reality that many of us fail to grasp – the power of prayer. In directing us to pray, James is pointing us to the most powerful resource available to us as human beings. Prayer is powerful, because the God to whom we pray is powerful. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 124:8, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” If God created the entire universe, then surely our problems are not too big for God to solve. Prayer is powerful, because the God we pray to is powerful.
More than a Last Resort
But the reality is that most of us see prayer as a last resort. We have the attitude that we will try our best, and leave the rest to God. We’ll pray if and only if all else fails. And we offer to pray for others only when we can’t think of anything better or more “useful” to offer. We look down at our feet when we can’t think of what else to say, and we say half-heartedly, “well I’ll be praying for you.” We feel ashamed and wish there was something more we could do.
But we see in Scripture that prayer is in fact one of the most important and significant things we can do, because God does indeed answer prayer. James uses the example of Elijah – a prophet sent by God – who was called to speak truth to power. When the king refused to listen, Elijah prayed to God, and it didn’t rain for 3.5 years. When the king finally agreed to listen to what God had to say, Elijah prayed again, and sure enough God sent rain to the earth.
Throughout Scripture, we see time and time again God hear and answers the prayers of those who cry out to God. In the book of Exodus, God heard the cries of the Israelites and sent Moses to free them from captivity in Egypt. God answered the prayers of Hannah, who longed to have a child. God answered the prayers of Jonah in the belly of the whale, Joseph when he was incarcerated, Esther when her people were about to be destroyed, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when they were thrown into the fiery furnace, and Ruth when she and Naomi came to Israel as widows and immigrants in need of protection and provision.
Time and time again, throughout Scripture, people prayed, and God answered. Prayer is important for another reason as well. Prayer is important not only because God answers, but because when we pray we gain necessary perspective. Prayer is not just talking to God – prayer also involves listening. When we pray, we open ourselves up to hear God’s still small voice speaking to us.
Prayer Is 2-Way Communication
3 year ago when I was asked to become the pastor of Hampden UMC, I was excited about the opportunity. Many of you know that I had been doing campus ministry for 13 years prior to that and had felt God calling me to church ministry. And so in many ways this felt like an answer to prayer, but there was something holding me back. The district superintendent encouraged me to take 48 hours to pray on it.
During that time I walked around the neighborhood, and I cried out to God. I laid out all my worries and fears and concerns to the Lord, and as I walked and prayed and cried I felt God beginning to give me new eyes to see the community in a way that I had never seen it before. I had been to Hampden on several occasions. I’d seen the Christmas lights on 34th Street, I had been to some of the eateries on the avenue, and I knew some people who came to the skatepark. But I had never asked God to give me eyes to see how God saw the neighborhood.
As I walked around the neighborhood I began to see the neighborhood through a whole new lens. I passed by people that reminded me of the many college students I had worked with over the years – people who said that they were interested in spirituality but not in organized religion. I began to see people who were obviously facing addictions and struggles and hard times. I saw people who were in need of encouragement and love, people who needed to know that God loves them.
I still wasn’t feeling quite settled and so I began to pray some more, and I began to realize that what was holding me back was fear. Fear that I wouldn’t be able to succeed, fear that I would make mistakes, fear that me and my family wouldn’t be welcomed and accepted. God began to reorient my heart and perspective away from myself and towards God. And God began to impress upon my heart that I needed to trust in God’s faithfulness and goodness and power. That I needed to open myself up to do what God was calling me to do, and that if I did that, God would take care of the rest. And so eventually I said yes.
And so rather than defining prayer as “talking to God” – I’d like to encourage us to think of prayer as “talking things out with God.” Say whatever is on your heart, but then take time to listen for what God might have to say to you. Allow God to change your heart and mind. Prayer is an essential and powerful tool – not only because God acts in response to our prayers, but also because when we connect with God in prayer we become more aligned with God’s will.
But James does provide some qualifiers here regarding prayer”
- First, in verse 15, James refers to “the prayer of faith.” Faith is not just intellectual belief. The root of faith is faithfulness, and it entails loyalty and commitment. It involves submitting ourselves completely to the Lordship and sovereign reign of God.
- Secondly, we are to pray “in the name of the Lord.” This is significant, because it matters who we pray to. I had a student tell me he prays, but he doesn’t believe in God. I asked who he prays to, and he said he just sort of looks within himself. Now while I believe that that sort of meditation can be beneficial and may yield positive psychological benefits, the type of prayer that James is talking about here is a two-way communication with God – the creator of the universe.
- James points out here in verse 16 the importance of confession, and repentance. James says that we should confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that we may be healed. This is not to say that sickness is a direct result of unconfessed sin, as some might believe. But there is a way in which physical and spiritual healing go hand in hand. Unconfessed sin, and bitterness, and envy, and even worry, can indeed tear us up on the inside. Many of the scars that we carry are not on the outside, but rather on the inside. All of us have hurt others, and we’ve all been hurt by others. And so James encourages us to confess our sins to one another, and to pray for one another, so that we may be healed.
- And lastly, James talks about the prayer of “the righteous person” being powerful and effective. Remember that righteousness and justice are the same word. In James 4:3, James said, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” James is suggesting that sometimes we do not get what we pray for because our motives are wrong. Our prayers are self-centered rather than God-centered. We want our will to be done, rather than God’s will, and so we pray for the wrong things. This is not the type of prayer that God honors.
Prayer is indeed a powerful and effective tool if and when it is wielded by someone who has fully given themselves to Christ, who is seeking to align themself with God’s will, who has confessed their sins to God and to one another, and who is truly open to God’s guidance and direction in their lives.
The reality is that none of us are perfect. We all struggle with wrong motivations and often we have wrong intentions. But James encourages us to go to God in prayer first and foremost – before seeking to act on our own – because when we do so, we give God the opportunity to redirect our steps – to help us get back on the right path, to go in the right direction. When we pray first – rather than as a last resort – we save ourselves and others a lot of pain and sorrow and suffering.
And so rather than being a pat answer, James’s statement that we should pray and praise and ask others to pray for us is a pattern and template that is very much in touch with the pain and reality of the world, and also helps us tap into the immense and enormous power of God.
Prayer – when it comes from someone who is seeking to live a life of righteousness and justice, is a powerful tool in the fight to end oppression and violence and injustice. Prayer, when it comes from someone who has fully submitted themselves to God, is the most powerful tool we can wield. Prayer does not excuse us from work. Prayer and work go hand in hand. But prayer is not a last resort – it is indeed our first line of defense, and the most necessary and critical thing we can do if we want to be people who make a difference in this world and in the lives of one another. Amen.