For perhaps too many weeks now, maybe too many months, our scripture lessons have been pointing out the things that are not right within the church. They have been pointing out the sins of the church. They spoke about disciples being ashamed of the gospel: ashamed of the extravagant grace and unrestricted love of the gospel. They pointed out the hatred, bigotry and racism that is present in society, but also in the church. They talked about the temptation to do what is popular instead of what is holy. They spoke about the dangers of following the laws of culture instead of the supreme law of God to love our neighbors as ourselves. And last week, the scriptures said to be a consecrated church, to be a blessed church, we need to stop worrying about how to be the greatest and start worrying about the least, the poor, and the marginalized.
Well, today, it appears that we may finally be off the hook, as our scripture lesson this morning focuses on some things that I believe are very right within the church.
“Are any among you suffering?” James asks. “Then you should pray.”
Hallelujah, we got that, James!
For this is one thing that we are actually pretty good at doing! We will certainly pray for one another, especially if we hear that another among us is suffering.
One of the comments that I hear frequently from church people who have experienced some form of suffering is: “I just don’t know how people who do not have a church family make it in this world.”
You say that, because you truly mean that. You say that, because when you needed your church the most, people in the church prayed for you. People in the church cared for you. When you suffered, people in the church came to your side and suffered alongside you, offering you mercy and compassion, love and grace.
As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer” (1 Cor 12:26).
James continues: “Are there any among you cheerful? Then sing songs of praise.”
Amen, brother James! We got that too!
This past Wednesday night, when we heard Ann Byrd and Myrtle Sugg had turned another year older, we cheerfully put our voices together and sang “Happy Birthday!”
For as Paul also said, “When one part of the body rejoices, we all rejoice!”
James goes on: “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.”
Oh, we are quite good at that too, brother James!
One of the first things we do when we hear someone has been hospitalized, has become ill, has lost a loved one, or has been bitten by a dog, is to email the Elders.
Then, although we may not use olive oil like it was used in the first century, we do participate in other acts of “personal touch,” other forms of “laying on of hands,” to bring healing, to foster wholeness and peace. And we do it the name of the Lord.
As most of you know, we have a wonderful prayer quilt ministry here. We have a group that meets monthly to make the quilts that we pass around to the entire congregation, so each member of the church can prayerfully lay their hands on each quilt, before we present it to the person who is suffering. It is a truly wonderful ministry.
Then, James reminds us that prayer works. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes people. Prayer brings healing; sometimes physical; always, always spiritual. Prayer, says James, helps us to forgive one another. Prayer “saves.” And the Greek word translated “save” here, is sozo, the same word that we use when we talk about “salvation.”
And then James tells a story to back it up, a wonderful story about Elijah and the power of prayer.
James, we are with you 100 percent! Preach it brother! For we also have our stories.
Just last Sunday afternoon, I visited an elderly widower in his home. He shared his joys with me. I shared mine. Then, the shared some of his sorrows. He shared his sufferings. He talked about his failing health and his frail body. He talked about a new medication that the doctors were trying. Dr. Barrow, we laughed together, when he said, “You know doctors, though. They only practice medicine.” I said, “Just like preachers: “we only practice faith.” Then he got serious, as he said, “So, only God knows if I am going to get any better.”
After we talked a little more, we joined hands, we bowed our heads, and we prayed together. After we prayed, he took out a handkerchief, removed his glasses, and wiped tears from his face.
Then, with a grin that emitted pure joy, he said, “I know I am going to be fine. I am going to be fine. I am going to be fine one way or another. Whether I get better, or whether I go to be where my wife is. God knows, either way, I am going to be fine.”
Prayer works. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes people. Prayer raises people up. Prayer saves people. Sometimes physically; always, and most importantly, spiritually.
And, all of us inside the church have countless stories to back it up.
So, Amen again brother James! Preach it! As Bobby Jr. says, “You got that right!”
But brother James…oh, he’s not finished with us yet.
Listen to how biblical scholar, Eugene Peterson, puts it:
My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God. (James 5:19-20 MSG).
Hmmm, not only does prayer work, prayer is work!
So, maybe, we are not so much off the hook this week after all. For we would all confess that this is an area that is not always right within the church.
Most churches are pretty good about being a community of care of concern. We are good about praying for one another and rejoicing with one another. The bad news is: we are also good about sometimes writing people off. Where we sometimes struggle is working to bring others into our community.
For churches generally have programs and ministries that are geared to meet the needs of primarily whom?
They have shepherding programs, prayer shawl or prayer quilt ministries, prayer meetings, Bible studies, hospital visitation teams, homebound ministries, bereavement care, youth and children’s programs for whom?
For folks outside of the church?
Or for folks inside of the church?
Do you remember one of the first things that I led us to do as the pastor of this church? I said that we really needed to fix our stained glass windows as soon as possible. The Plexiglass that protected our beautiful stained glass windows depicting the good news of Christ were tarnished so badly on the outside, that our windows could only be seen by those of us on the inside the church.
I said, “aesthetically speaking,” it was “horrendous;” but “theologically speaking,” it was a “disaster.” I said that we needed to make sure that we were always working to share the good news of Christ with those who are on the outside of the church.
Do you remember what one of the first things we heard from folks who questioned us having a community garden?
Someone asked: “What if someone who doesn’t belong to the church comes by and steals your tomatoes?”
And we responded, “Isn’t that the whole point?”
One thing that I love about our church, and one of the reasons that I believe we continue to grow, is that we are moving well past a ministry model that focuses on the needs of the membership and moving toward a ministry model that focuses on the needs of the community.
The good news is: when I ask for a prayer quilt, no one asks me: “Well, pastor, is this for a member of the church?”
The good news is: when we get a request to build a handicap ramp, no one asks, “Is this for someone we know?”
The good news is: when I ask the outreach ministry team for some money to pay someone’s utilities, no one questions: “Does this person really deserve our help?”
The good news is: when I ask you to pray for someone, no one asks: “What church do they belong to?”
The good news is: no one here batted an eye when the town wanted to have a meeting in the fellowship hall to discuss Pitt Community College coming to Farmville. And, as far as I know, no one even raised an eyebrow when they asked us to serve them a meal.
The good news is: I know of no one who got upset when the Methodist church in town borrowed our van to go on a mission trip. And no one even flinched when money was allotted to send a mission team from our church back to West Virginia.
And, the good news is: I know of no one who criticizes me for spending time ministering to those outside of our church, like the elderly widower with whom I spent part of last Sunday afternoon.
Because you get it.
Prayer works. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes people. Prayer heals. Prayer raises people up, and prayer saves.
And we have stories to prove it.
And, as James reminds us, prayer is not just for us.
Prayer is for all.
And all means all.
Prayer works, and prayer creates work. Prayer generates selfless and sacrificial efforts. Prayer fosters acts of extravagant grace and unrestricted love. Prayer encourages generous mercy and boundless compassion. Prayer creates risk. Prayer creates responsibility. Prayer creates a church with wide open doors and a wide open table.
Yes, you are right. I don’t know how people who do not have a church family make it in this world.
So, let’s keep praying and let’s keep working. Let’s keep sacrificing. Let’s keep giving, and let’s keep risking to invite and to welcome them into our church family, showing them by our extravagant grace and unrestrictive love, through our generous mercy and boundless compassion, that prayer works.
Prayer works, indeed.