The Prayers of the Righteous

James 5:13-17

The first thing I want to say about prayer is that I don’t know anything about it.  However, that is not going to prevent me from talking about for my allotted 15-20 minutes.  And the reason I’m going to talk about it even thought I don’t know anything about it is that no one really knows what prayer is or does or what happens.  There are as many ways to pray as there are people in the world.  We’re feeling out our way together.

I will talk about how I hear James describing prayer and why and when and how we should pray.  I will talk about three things that I think James says about prayer.  First, prayer is the companion of action.  When we do the work and the word of God, we need also to pray.  Prayer is one of the actions of the faithful.  Second, true prayer comes from a place of authenticity, honest, and humility.  And third, we are called to pray with and for each other.  Prayer is a communal act, not only or primarily a private one.

I noted, as I was contemplating James, that he says ‘the prayers of the righteous are powerful’ and not, ‘the prayers of the powerful are just/righteous.’  At the beginning of Chapter 5, James has totally schooled the wealthy among his readers, calling them (in the words of Eugene Peterson) the ‘arrogant rich’ ‘Like the wages you have failed to pay your workers are crying out against you.’  Those ones are not James has already told us about what it means to be just/righteous: it is the enacted faith of believers.  And it is those who do justice (as we’ve talked about earlier, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc) who’s prayer will be heard.  It is a reminder, too that those of us who are intentional about that kind of ‘doing’ work – all those good things in which we are involved – need also to companion our actions with prayer.

One of the first things I did this week as I was thinking about prayer was return to my friend Walter Wink’s chapter on prayer in Engaging the Powers.   At a certain point as he proceeds through this chapter, he writes that he can ‘see certain social activists bristling with impatience.’  And don’t we?  Don’t we sometimes get impatient with prayer?  Let’s just get this over with!  Haven’t we been praying long enough?!  Enough talk, let’s go do something about it!  Indeed.  Well, Wink goes on to say,

“Action is…no substitute for prayer.  For some, action is a cover for unbelief; they simply do not believe that God is able to act in the world.  Since God cannot change things, we must.  For others, who feel called by God to long-term struggle, prayer seems like a precious waste of time.  But long-term struggle requires constant inner renewal, else the wells of love run dry.  Social action without prayer is soulless; but prayer without action lacks integrity…Neither is valid without the other.” (p 306)

And not only does prayer renew and refill the ‘well of love’ – changes us and it can change God – “Prayer is impertinent, persistent, shameless, indecorous.  It is more like haggling in an oriental bazaar than the polite monologues of the churches.’ (p 301)  Wink site Abraham’s bargaining over the city of Sodom – how about if there are 100 righteous people, then will you save it?  What about 50?  10?

And here’s where I come to my second point.  James talks about Elijah as his example of a faithful follower of Yahweh who prayed.  And what does he say about Elijah?  Not ‘that esteemed prophet Elijah.’  Not ‘O, most holy forbear of faith.’  He says, “Elijah was just a human being like us.”  A regular guy.

Now, I’m pretty sure that many of us regular human beings have sat at a dinner table and watched our food grow cold as some uncle or grandpa prayed on and on and on.  Kids, have you ever felt like just skipping the prayer and getting right to the good stuff.  We all have.  All we wanted to do was just eat!

On the other hand, we also had a memorized dinner-time prayer.  We whipped through this prayer so fast that lines got left out as years of saying it progressed.  Some families say ‘Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, let this food to us be blest.’  Some say, ‘For what we are about to receive, may God make us truly thankful.’  After awhile you don’t think about what you’re saying – you just want to eat!  There is no real authenticity or appreciation in those prayers.

And if we look into the scriptures – those same stories that James and the early church looked to for guidance – we’ll see scores of human beings like us who persistently and shamelessly and indecorously and even irreverently, came to their God in prayer.   These people like us come to God with authenticity and honesty and from the truth of their own experience – even (and maybe especially) when thankfulness has nothing to do with what they are feeling.

The Old Testament lection for today is from Exodus.  And I loved reading this story because the people are so very like us and so very human – both those who complain to Moses and then Moses in his prayer.  I won’t read the whole thing, but it begins with the people wailing loud and long about how good they had it in Egypt, oh remember the fish, the cucumbers, the delicious meat.  Oh, woe is us!  The text says they were crying at the entrances of their tents – and I can only think it’s because they wanted to make absolutely sure that Moses was paying attention to them.  We could learn something from the way Moses prayed: (Good News Bible)

“Moses heard all the people complaining as they stood around in the entrances of their tents.  He was distressed because the Lord had become angry with them, and he said to the Lord, ‘Why have you treated me so badly? Why are you displeased with me? Why are have you given me the responsibility for all these people? I didn’t create them or bring them to birth! Why should you ask me to act like a nurse and carry them in my arms like babies all the way to the land you promised their ancestors? Where could I get enough meat for all these people?  They keep whining and asking for meat.

I can’t be responsible for all these people myself; it’s too much for me!  I you are going to treat me like this, have pity on me and kill me, so that I won’t have to endure your cruelty any longer.’”

Job’s prayers were similar – a bargaining, complaining, impassioned exchange.  I talked before about the nuance of justice/righteousness in that phrase ‘the prayers of the righteous are powerful.  Righteousness also has a sense of ‘right-ness’ – rightness in our relationship with our community, and just action with our neighbors.  But it also has the sense of right-ness with God.  Moses, Job, Jonah – or women like Sarah or Hagar – they hide nothing from God, they offer a wholeness of self.  God responds to the prayers of those OT leaders.  In Moses’ case, he doesn’t do as Moses asks and ‘kill him’ nor does he remove Moses from leadership or take the responsibility away.  Instead he puts people around Moses who can help and judge with him, a community of people to share the task of leadership so that the burden is not so great.

James makes clear when he writes his letter to the churches, that prayer is supposed to be done in community.  The elders should be called together, the burden should be shared.  “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.”  “Make this a common practice,” The Message version of this text says, “confess your sins to each other!”  I thought it was funny that the Message version of this text says also ‘you should rub oil on them and pray for them.’  Well, it sounds  a little funny when you describe anointing that way.  But I think that it is the physical connection with another human being that is the important thing.  The community holds – physically and emotionally and spiritually – the burden of illness.  The body is acknowledged and blessed with the physically touch.  The oil is not magic, or have power in itself, but symbol and ritual does have power.

On a couple of occasions I have had the powerfully blessed experience of being present with someone in serious illness.  When I lived in Elkhart, a woman in my congregation was diagnosed with breast cancer and I was a part of her small group and also a pastoral intern.  After she had shared her diagnosis with the church, she called her small group together, and much like we laid hands on and prayed for God’s Spirit on the life of our Mennonite Voluntary Service workers earlier in this service, we laid hands on her and prayed for her.  Later, in the hospital before her surgery, I anointed her chest above where the incisions would be made and in the name of the Lord, invited healing, wholeness and for God’s hands to be with the hands of the surgeons.  As far as I know, Arlene is still alive and vital and doing ministry of her own.

When Carole Marnet, from our congregation, was diagnosed with cancer – now almost five years ago – she also called together her ‘elders’ (although she was probably the elder among us) the special ones to her in the congregation – and in the prayer room we laid hands on her and prayed with her.  And later, in the hospital, when she was weak, I anointed her forehead and prayed for God’s presence to infuse her body and fight her cancer.  And not long after that I officiated as Carole’s funeral.

I think this is the trickiest part in thinking about prayer – the idea that we expect and hope for a cure when we pray.  It is hard not to present to God an expectation of a body that is cured of illness, disease and injury when we imagine what it means to be healed.  Whether our own or someone of else – we see suffering and we want desperately for it to be gone.  James makes it seems so obvious when he says, ‘The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.’  At least I thought so.  But then I thought about what it means to be saved…saved means restoration and wholeness, but not always physically.  The woman in Mark 4 who touched Jesus cloak was ‘saved’ and although that meant physical healing it also meant restoration and relationship and invitation into wholeness beyond the body.  I also wondered about ‘raising up’ and the possibility that there is a connotation of being brought into the presence of the Lord, not a physical raising up.  I think the possibilities are there for both.

Is it a cop out to say that the Lord is mysterious?  I said at the beginning that  don’t really know anything about prayer.  But I don’t think we could pray to a God who was not full of mystery.  God is not a customer service agent to whom we bring our list of complaints to be attended to, although we often treat God that way.  God is more creative, more expansive, more wise that we can imagine.  God does not work with linear, narrow lists.  How could our God be captured within that?  Miracles do happen, I think.  I also think that God’s answers to prayer happen in unexpected ways, especially when we are praying humbly and authentically for wholeness, rather than for a cure.  “Not my will, but yours” Jesus teaches us.  The prayers of those whose relationship with right with God, are powerful.

We have talked about prayer, but rarely do we really get a chance to pray with and for each other.  I know you all hate being put on the spot.  But…in the absence of Wednesday night prayer group we, right here on Sunday mornings, are all we have.  These Sunday mornings are the times we hear from each other.  But the things we’d like prayer for often feel too trivial or too personal or too ridiculous or just too public. I’d like you to think of something you have to pray for  – this could be as general as ‘world peace,’ as specific as a confession of regret or wrong, as distant as the person you saw on the news, as intimate as personal illness or injury.   It could be a celebration, something for which you are grateful.  After all, if you are cheerful, James says, sing for joy! It could be something which you’ve already shared publicly, it could be for someone else or for yourself.

In a minute I will ask you to turn to the person next to you and tell your prayer request.  The person to whom you tell it can hold that in prayer as we pray the prayers of the people together.  We are blessed to have had members of our congregation who in their time of listening prayer, heard God call them into a ministry of prayer for members and for each other.  Pat is going to say something more about prayer that is offered here and available to anyone who needs it at whatever level.  They have prayed for me.  And I am grateful to say that I believe that those prayers have been answered, in fact in a deeper way than I could have thought possible!

Before Pat shares, I invite you to turn to the person next to you (preferably not someone in your family). And tell your prayers.  May God do more than we could ever ask or imagine!