09.27.15 Sermon (September 27, 2015)

posted Jul 5, 2016, 3:14 PM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: James 5:13–20,
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, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, 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. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 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. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another,20you 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.

Sermon: "The Prayer of Faith" Rev. David Hawkins 

Wow, it only seems like a month ago that I was standing under a pavilion at McKenzie Park down in Lubbock saying that we’d be starting a sermon series on James, and here we are barely 5 weeks later, in the 5th chapter, getting ready to wrap it up. Where did the time go?

Of course, the lectionary doesn’t let cover every single word in the book of James. For instance, today, instead of a nice juicy rant about rich people that I could have really wrapped my hands around, we have a trickier passage about the healing power of prayer.

But I have come to appreciate James for this very reason: it makes us consider things about our faith that may not be convenient, or easy, or that fit into our own personal theology. James is kind of a one-man minority report in the middle of a New Testament dominated by the Apostle Paul, and I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to take a closer look at him over the last few weeks.

When we first got into James a month ago, he was talking to us about anger, especially the allure of a righteous anger that we mistake for truth, a righteous anger that presumes that God is on our side. James warns us that that this kind of anger is seductive -- it feels good, but it is ultimately destructive, unpredictable, and it can blaze out of control.

He then gives us some tips on how not to give in to this kind of anger, namely, to watch what we say, watch what others say, and keep things in perspective. In other words, to remember that God is in control, we are not. He also reminds us that anger management is part of being an ethical Christian, that it preserves friendships, and that it promotes peace - all good things to remember.

The following week, we jumped out of James into Mark, because I had preached on James before. If I had preached on James, it would have been on the part where he talks about not just being hearers, but also doers of the word. I think I might come back to that part later on today in this sermon.

After skipping out of James for a week, we came back and talked about how important it is to not act on or pass on rumors that you hear without checking them out. There are a lot of folks who, for whatever reason, are bent on peddling fear and paranoia, especially as we enter the crazy season of electoral politics, and it’s best to really do some research before passing certain emails along, if you know what I mean. Again, the website to use, if you are unsure about the veracity of some of the wilder claims you might hear, is snopes.com.

And then last week, we discussed the wisdom of knowing when to yield. Remember, James isn’t saying that being a Christian doesn’t just mean giving in. But he does say that it means being willing to yield, that Christian wisdom means knowing, as Kenny Rogers so wisely said, “When to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Who knew that “The Gambler” was just an extended paraphrase of James 3:17?

All through the book of James, we’ve seen his exploration of what it means to live as a Christian. Not simply to be someone who professes faith in Christ, but live as someone for whom faith in Christ makes a difference. Or as James might put it, to be doers, and not just hearers of the word. See, I told you I might come back to it.

It’s almost as if James is in a long distance theological debate with the Apostle Paul, like they are having an indirect back and forth discussion about what it means to be a Christian.

For Paul, it’s all about faith, it’s all about grace, it’s all about Jesus, and for James, well, he says, sure, but what about the way we live? What about the things we say? What about the thoughts we think? What about the poor and the hungry we meet on the street? Are all these things nothing? Didn’t Jesus talk about these things? Is our religion truly just about faith and forgiveness and grace, or is there more than that to being a Christian?

And these questions aren’t the sorts of the things that got sorted out two thousand years ago. This last weekend we hosted Presbytery, and as happens at Presbytery, I got into a debate with a fellow pastor, and James was on my mind. We were arguing about what it meant to have a core identity, and what it might mean to have our core identity change.

Now, let me just say that I think that she was right, and that I think that I was right, and I also think that we ended up friends by lunchtime.

Anyway, her point was that we spend too much time associating our core identity with what we do, and how we do things, and not enough time thinking about our core identity in terms of our relationship with God. In other words, for her, our core identity is defined by the fact that we are children of God, forgiven and redeemed by Christ, bound to him for all eternity by the power of the holy spirit.

And I agree with all that. That is a very pure, theological, Pauline, Trinitarian, Presbyterian, reformed, definition of our core identity. It’s very hard to argue with that.

But I couldn’t help but channel James a little bit, and wonder, if that’s really all there is to it. Aren’t we more than just what we say we are? Aren’t we also, at least a little bit, what we do? In other words, it’s all good and fine to say, ‘this is who we are’. But if we are not doing anything that supports that statement, is that really who we are? If I say that I am a pianist, but I never play the piano, am I really a pianist? If I say that I am a vegetarian, but I eat meat for every single meal, am I really a vegetarian? Doesn’t the way we live out our identity have something to say about our identity?

See, this is what James makes us think about. Paul might say, “Only by faith!” but James comes along and says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

Paul might say, “Just believe in one God,” but James comes along and says, “You believe that God is one, but even the demons believe -- and they shudder.”

Somehow, for James, there’s more to it than just saying that we have faith, or that we believe. There’s also the doing of it. This is the great tension in the New Testament, the great tension that has not been resolved, and which has been the cause of church conflict ever since. Paul has his focus, his emphasis, and James has his. They are both right, and they both can lead to bad logical conclusions, if you build a theology that lifts one up and excludes the other. We need both Paul and James for a complete faith.

And today’s passage is no different. When we read Paul’s letters to his churches, especially when we read them as modern day reformed Presbyterians, we tend to read them through the lens of God’s sovereignty, that God is in control, that God is the prime mover, the first, the last, the in-between. We tend to do theology from the point of view that whatever is going to happen is going to happen because God wants it to happen.

And James isn’t necessarily saying that’s wrong. But, it’s almost as though he is anticipating the kind of response that happens if we follow that line of thinking to its very end: Well, if God’s in control, then why should we even care? If God’s in control, why should we even pray? If God’s decided what’s going to happen, how are we even involved in anything that going on anyway?

If you think about it, a faith that only focuses on God, without ever considering the human response or participation in it is a theology that can become passive, apathetic, and complacent. Passive, because God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do; apathetic, because there’s nothing I can do about it; and complacent, because God’s in charge, therefore I don’t have to do anything.

And to be fair, this has been a critique of reformed theology. That when we place ultimate authority and sovereignty on God, we have a tendency to absolve ourselves of any sort of responsibly. 

And that’s why I say thank God for the Book of James. Because James doesn’t have any time for that sort of religion. He doesn’t have any use for a faith that doesn’t include active participation in what God is doing, for who God is healing, for where God is working.

For James, faith is a verb, not a noun, it is something that is put into practice, not simply proclaimed, and it means things, and that includes prayer.

As so, to end his book, James wraps up his whole theses on the idea of a lived out faith by tying it to prayer. In the same way that that he connects helping the poor to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian, he connects prayer to faith. In the same way that he connects keeping a civil tongue in our heads to ethical living, he connects confession to healing. In the same way he connects watching our temper and being willing to yield to what it means to live humbly and wisely, he connects prayer and singing to a Christian life.

He connects them, because for James, this is what you do. We pray because we’re faithful. We pray because we’re sick. We pray because we’re joyful. We pray because we’re sad.

Now, theologically, this is challenging, because some folks have taken this text out of context, and turned it into a test of faith. That if you have enough faith, or the right kind of faith, you can pray for whatever you want. And of course, if you don’t get what you want, that if you stay sick, you don’t have enough faith, you are a deficient Christian.

Some folks have misinterpreted this text to mean that, in the right hands, prayer can be wielded like some kind of parlor trick, an on-demand service performed in front of thousands on live TV. This is as far from James as it possibly could get.

Because this was never supposed to be about traveling faith healers, or being slain in the spirit at a tent-revival. This text was written to churches, to people who know each other, who love each other, who live in community with each other. It is written to people like you, and to me. It’s written to remind you, that when you are sick, to pick up the phone and call me and let me know. Don’t assume that I’ll find out through the grapevine. And not just me. James says make sure that all the elders know. Let people know that you’re not doing well. We want to pray for you. We need to pray for you. It is part of who we are. It is part of who you are.

It was written to remind you that when you are down, sad, come to church, and let us bear you up. And when you are on top of the world, come to church, and share your joy, worship and sing on behalf of those who simply cannot.

This is all about relationships, not some sort of magical text about a paranormal kind of healing. This is all about everyday people praying for everyday people. Not because it’s supernatural. But because we are people of faith, and that’s what we do, naturally.

We sing when we’re joyful. We mourn when we’re sad. We pray for ourselves, and for our friends. This is what people of faith do. And as James reminds us, the prayers of the faithful are heard by a loving and compassionate God, the God of the widow, the orphan, the poor, the hungry, the outcast, the lame, the lonely, the forgotten.

This is our last week of James. If nothing else, I’d like us to remember one thing about him, and that is that he’s all about a basic workmanlike faith. I think that is what I appreciate most about him. I grew up on a farm in western Colorado, and I appreciate simple things. Meat and potatoes, beer and BBQ, a tractor, a field, hay, cows. Nothing too complicated.

Now, of course, I also like the Apostle Paul, and I love getting into the tangled sort of theological debates that I found in seminary and at presbytery yesterday. But sometimes, the basic stuff about thinking about what to say, about who to help, about when to pray, is food for the soul, and that’s just exactly what James is all about. Meat and potatoes theology. Beer and BBQ faith.

Don’t lose your temper. Watch your tongue. Be gentle, willing to compromise, help the poor. This is what it means to be a Christian. It’s not complicated.

And especially, here at the end of his book, James reminds us that God hears our prayers. Not because we are supernatural pray-ers, or because we’ve got some sort of magical power. Not because we are charismatic healers on a stage in flowing white robes slapping people on the forehead, shouting, “you’re healed!”

God hears our prayers because we are people of faith who love each other, and this is what we do.

Now to the Holy One
who is at work within us,
accomplishing far more than we could ever ask or imagine,
now and forever. Amen.