Last month, I did something that I hadn’t been able to do for a long time. I did a little reading-up on my family’s story, going back a few generations. I only mention this because I suspect that my family’s background was probably a lot like yours. Knowing your family’s story can help explain why you turned out the way you did! In my mind, I have this imaginary conversation with my great-grandfather. “Abner (that was his name), could you tell me why…” He’d give an answer and I’d say, “That explains a lot.” Where did your family come from? Do you know why?
I think there are a few basic immigration stories that many of us share.
- In this church, I think it’s safe to say that most of our families came here on boats to escape something that was going on in Europe; maybe it was to escape war or persecution. Coming to America may have provided a way to escape poverty. Then younger families often moved west because that’s where the farming land was. They took a chance on coming to a new place, but with few exceptions, nobody changes countries (or states) because they like to travel. They sought refuge. They were refugees.
- People generally had a lot of kids. Survival wasn’t a promise. Sometimes people died in tragic ways that could have been prevented today, especially children. One of the children in that photo died in a fall from a barn roof. In every family, there are times of pain and suffering. Every family has a unique story of trouble.
Last week, we started a brief series on prayer and focused on the Book of James. If you’ve never read James, I’d like to encourage you to open it up and see what it has to say. James isn’t a very long book; strong words concentrated into a small space. Warning – reading through James, you might find yourself sometimes “cut to the heart,” to use a New Testament expression.
There are a couple of things that make James a little different from the rest of the New Testament. Many people think that James was the half-brother of Jesus, so James didn’t just know Jesus, he was related! To me, it means he “gets” Jesus in a different way.
Maybe it’s because he has had that unique relationship with Jesus that he expresses the meaning of faith in a blunt, undecorated way. Lately, I’ve been hearing that some people appreciate it when certain political candidates “tell it like it is.” If you’ve thought that, maybe you’ll like what James has to say.
The quick take-away from James is: God uses your faith, our faith together, to make a practical difference in other people’s lives, or, what’s the point? Faith needs to play out beyond your relationship with God. Let your faith express itself in the good things you do for people.
The first words of James are:
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. (James 1:1)
He is writing to people who are refugees. The “twelve tribes” is just a code word for “believers.” They are mostly Jewish Christians and they are dispersed; many of them are refugees from their original homes in Palestine. When they received this letter from James, these believers were strangers in the places where they were living.
They were also fulfilling the command of Jesus, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Sometimes, the church spread because people were forced to move.
There might have been some point in your life when God took you to a place you never thought you would go. And you have found yourself saying, “God, you are awesome, and I thank you for everything you’ve done for us, but I never thought I/we would end up here.”
You might understand why James says…
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance… (James 1:2-3)
Endurance. Strength for the long haul, for people who are struggling. And it all stands on prayer. The doing of prayer can be many things, but the core meaning of prayer (from last week) is simply “paying attention to God.”
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are 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. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore 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. 17Elijah 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. 18Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
All of the words of the Bible were written for a reason. Different reasons, depending on the writer, the audience, and the situation. James felt the need to write his letter to people who were stressed (just one reason). He understands that in any group of people, there’s a mix of things going on. There’s a mix of things going on in this room right now.
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. (James 5:13)
It’s true that stress and suffering probably generate more prayer than anything else. One thing might be a good tool for that time of suffering is simply to open up the Book of Psalms and use those as your words. Let’s say this psalm together; I don’t think you’ll need your Bible…
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long. (Psalm 23)
Did it help to say that? Whatever it is that you’re going through, you don’t have to do it alone. The sun will come up again tomorrow…
Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. (James 5:13)
It’s easy to forget that Jesus commands us to have joy, to experience love, and to give those things to each other. Maybe even when we don’t feel like it.
Do these people balance each other? Or annoy each other? Both things are possible, but both are focused on communicating with God. And with God’s Spirit working in them, they will help each other.
Just a few other things to point out from that scripture:
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. (James 5:14)
Sickness brings its own kind of stress, but now the church is involved. God works through the church in a powerful way then they are involved in the prayer. Notice that it isn’t just the pastor who does this ministry. At St. Paul’s we have a Called to Care ministry who can get to many more folks than the pastor can. The church prays over folks; it’s what we do.
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. (James 5:15)
Now, James knows that not every sick person will be healed because of prayer, and that’s not what he’s saying. But he does want the people who are praying to remember one thing he said at the beginning of the letter: When you pray… “ask in faith, never doubting…” (James 1:6) Do you remember that James said that last week? The point is not so much to be sure that God will give us what we want, but that we are trusting God with our lives no matter how things go.
You can tell James has spent time with Jesus by those last few words: “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. (James 5:16)
This isn’t some formal religious exercise that James is talking about here. When we confess to each other how we blow it in our relationships, and when we allow God to be present in those relationships through prayer, that’s when we are healed. The “prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” when? In confessing our sins and praying for each other. When we pray to God, “God, I really made a problem for so-and-so. Please forgive me.” I think you can imagine God’s response. “Okay, but you won’t be healed until you go fix it (confess your sin) with them.” Sometimes, that isn’t possible, but I think you get what I mean. On behalf of God, the church is a place that communicates and gives away the forgiveness we all need.
Prayer is good for you. Do you believe that?
Maybe you remember the anti-drug abuse campaign from a few years ago. “This is your brain on drugs.” And there would be an image of fried eggs.
I’ve often thought of prayer as God’s natural high and it turns out that might be more than just a concept.
*Dr. Andrew Newberg of the Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia has been studying the effect of prayer on the brain for more than 20 years. He injects radioactive dye into people, and then looks for changes in their heads when they pray. He does not claim that prayer is a cure-all, but he believes that it can be every bit as important as science in helping people to heal.
[Using this kind of image] to show brain activity, Newberg said to NBC News (December 24, 2014), “You can see it’s all red here when the person is just at rest, but you see it turns into these yellow colors when she’s actually doing prayer.”
Without prayer, your brain is red — a hot and inflammatory color — and with prayer, your brain is yellow. Well, that’s not such a great color, either. You’d think that the praying brain would display a color that’s quiet and calming, like a light blue or teal. Kidding.
These changes help Newberg to believe that prayer has the power to heal. He thinks that “by doing these practices, you can cause a lot of different changes all the way throughout the body, which could have a healing effect.”
So let’s re-imagine the old anti-drug commercial. “This is your brain,” says the man. “This is prayer.” Put the two together, and what you have is not a fried egg. Instead, it’s a person who is healed and made whole. Saved, raised and forgiven.
*based on an article in www.Homileticsonline.com (September 27, 2015)
In prayer, we invite God to work in our lives, changing us into the people we need to be.
God, we have been reminded this week once again that the events of our world make the future less than certain. We hear about out-of-control fires and terrorism. We hear about wars and rumors of wars, conflict in politics, business and church, and we worry about what we’ll read in the papers next.
So, come and give us peace. When we are frightened, hold us tight. When we are angry, calm us down, soothe our spirits. Teach us to give our futures to you, and we will have faith to step in the direction you will lead us. Amen.