(a sermon for February 19, 2017, the 7th Sunday after Epiphany, based on James 5:13-20)
Her name was Clarice, and as she introduced herself to me that first day, she said, “I’m the weirdo that everybody’s going to be telling you about!”
Understand, I’d just been voted in as the pastor of the church I would be serving for the next several years, and I was in the midst of a receiving line of all these people who were about to become my new congregation; so with that in mind, how was I supposed to respond to something like that? “Oh, no… weirdo? Of course not!” But… I soon found out that Clarice was absolutely right about what she’d said: there were several folks in that congregation who made a point of telling me about Clarice; in fact, a few felt moved to even warn me about her!
Clarice, you see, was what I came to refer to as “our resident charismatic.” By that I mean that this woman had a very strong belief in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the gifts that Spirit would bestow. She’d been known, for instance, to “speak in tongues” from time to time, both during worship and at Deacons’ meetings; she was a fervent believer and, as she described it to me, a first-hand witness of the miracle of spiritual healing; and she was also one of those people who spoke with God in the same manner and with the same immediacy that you and I would talk to each other (many was the morning over those years that Clarice would call me and say, “God spoke to me this morning and told me that I should call you and let you know such and such…!”).
I’ll be honest with you; pastorally speaking, at times Clarice could be really… well, let’s just go with challenging. There was, for instance, that one Halloween when the kids were little, and we’d hung this flag out in front of our house that had on it a picture of a witch on a broom; Clarice promptly came to read me the riot act for displaying Satanic symbols at the parsonage! Then, in a perhaps not unrelated incident, she got it into her head that she was being led to come into our home and pray prayers of cleansing at the parsonage; which she did, and in the process managed to absolutely terrify our daughter, who was about four or five years old at the time! And she spoke her mind, whatever the setting: I can also tell you that whenever Clarice raised her hand during prayer concerns in worship, the whole congregation would collectively stop breathing for a moment or two, because you literally had no idea what was going to happen next!
But along with being one of our more active members, she was also one of the kindest, sweetest and certainly one of the most genuinely caring people in our congregation; so we tended to overlook a few of the so-called “weirdo” parts of her personality; in fact, we came to see it as a great blessing. Because I’ll tell you something else: I’ve rarely met anyone as committed to a discipline of prayer as was Clarice. Every single morning, like clockwork, she’d go to her reading room to pray; she had this lengthy prayer list (on which Lisa, the children and I were all included, along with so many others), and she would pray for every person on that list by name. And so often, when she’d turn up at my door, it was either to ask me if I would I would pray with her for someone in need, or more often than not, to pray for me (even, at times, to anoint me with oil). And here’s the thing; whether she knew it or not (and in all actuality, there were plenty of reasons for her not to know!), Clarice always managed somehow to show up to pray with me and for me at exactly the right time.
It was truly prayer that was “powerful and effective,” and I came to understand that it was a gift of God’s grace bestowed in the workings of a faithful and righteous heart. Even all these years later, I am still very grateful for that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Clarice this week, especially as I’ve been reflecting on our text this morning from the Epistle of James. James is one of those parts of scripture in which there are very few grey areas: the prevailing theme that resonates throughout all five chapters of this epistle is of the need for Christians to live with authenticity; for you and I to be real about our faith as we make our way through life! Now truth be told, there’s not a whole lot of hard-core theology to be found in this particular epistle (which is why James has been the source of so much debate over the centuries; even Martin Luther dismissed it as being “an Epistle of Straw,” for its apparent lack of theological depth); but from matters of perseverance and patience in faith, to the need for us to connect what it is we believe with what it is we do, this Epistle offers short, swift and very decisive answers to “faith’s persistent questions,” and has a way of striking right at the heart of who we are – and what we aspire to be – as disciples of Jesus Christ.
There’s a lot to be found in this Epistle; but here’s what very interesting to me: that at the end of all this practical admonition of faithful living comes this one last imperative, dare I say, requirement of us; one that is as great as it is so utterly simple… it is to PRAY.
Prayer: it is the first sign of our authenticity as Christians; and it represents the beginning steps of our walk along the pathway of wisdom and righteousness! And understand, as James sets it forth for us, it amounts to far more than simply being careful to say our table graces or to bow our heads appropriately on Sunday mornings. James is referring here to the practice of prayer; prayer as a way of life, as a true function of who we are as God’s people!
“Are any among you suffering?” James asks. “They should pray.” Is anyone happy amongst you? Then they should “sing songs of praise,” letting their prayers come forth in melody and harmony. How about those of you who are sick? Then, says James, “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 point is that whether things are going wonderfully or badly, whether we are sick or well, whether we have sinned and stand in the need of mercy and forgiveness, or whether we are very much aware of others in need; the first and best thing we can do and need to do is to pray. Or, as one preacher by the name of J.D. Hoke has written, “you pray when you’ve been bruised, you pray when you’ve been broken, you pray when it’s clear you are ‘backslidden.’” Because the act and attitude of prayer, friends, is our avenue to a life-changing relationship with the living God who walks with us on the way and leads us to true wisdom.
One of the things that I love about this passage is how it makes it clear that prayer was never meant to be an action of last resort; you know, the old scenario of there being “no atheists in foxholes.” Yes, of course, prayer is important in moments of crisis and indecision; but prayer is also meant to the mitigating factor when things are going smoothly and well, and when the way ahead is clear for us. In other words, asking for the presence and affirmation of God in the normal and ordinary times of life is at least as important as seeking that in the inevitable times of trouble!
Over the years, whenever I’ve had the opportunity to fly somewhere, I’ve always had this little habit as the plane leaves the runway to silently pray for a safe flight. Now, I’m really not all that nervous about flying at all; but I figure, hey, it can’t hurt! But I have to confess that somewhere along the line it occurred to me that every time I do this, once the plane has reached its desired altitude and has leveled off, I inevitably breathe this small sigh of relief and forget all about what I’ve just prayed; as though God were merely my personal air traffic controller!
And I found myself wondering, why am I not praying for this journey to have some spiritual value and edification? Why didn’t I ask God to bless all those family members and friends who are back home worrying about me? And what about all these people who are jammed into the seats around me on this plane; shouldn’t I say a prayer for them? Maybe there’s someone on this flight who is literally paralyzed with fear and needs the sense of calm that only the Holy Spirit can give. And just maybe there’s somebody here for whom this flight represents a major life change; so why haven’t I said a prayer for them?
Do you see what happens here? I get so caught up in my little prayer of that moment that I might, however unwittingly, underestimate not only the power and the scope of prayer, but also the presence and God in all the moments and movements of life! Now I realize I’m overstating all this, but the point is that if I am willing to trust that God will keep me safe in a flight out of the Manchester airport, can I not also trust him to help me through all the day to day challenges I face? Can I not also have faith that God will lead me in what needs to be said at the right moment; or to have the courage to do things rightly and lovingly, and with the patience and the courage of a true disciple of Jesus Christ? Don’t I have the assurance that when the time comes, God will be there to help me to live in accordance with his purposes? This, you see, is the kind of awareness that grows in the midst of our relationship with God; a relationship nurtured in a discipline of prayer.
“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” says James, giving as an example the Old Testament prophet Elijah, “a human being just like us,” who “prayed fervently;” first that it might not rain (which it did not for three years), and then prayed later that it would rain, and “the heaven gave rain, and the earth yielded its harvest.” And this wasn’t because Elijah had great powers or some special “in” with the almighty; he simply believed God had spoken, and even when he wasn’t sure of what he was hearing (or not sure he’d heard anything at all!), Elijah went to God again in prayer, bringing to God all of his thanks, all of his praise, and yes, even all of his uncertainties and fears. Elijah had faith in God’s promises for the world and of God’s purpose for his life; even in those moments when there was little or no empirical evidence to back it up! But rather than giving up, or wandering away from what is right Elijah stayed true to his faith in God; and that faith was nurtured in prayer.
And so it is for us, friends; we are nurtured and guided forth in our prayerful relationship to God, brought forth into harmony with God’s purposes for our lives… and might I add, for the world. And truly, that makes it prayer that is to be reckoned with.
Prayer, you see, is not only our great imperative as believers, it is our gift. It’s not, as some would claim in this cynical age, “whistling in the dark,” just another kind of deluded wishful thinking. Nor is it, as others would say, some special power extended only to a very privileged few. Prayer is no less than the sacred privilege of speaking with God; it is our conversation, yours and mine, with the living God of the cosmos, the Almighty one who has both the power and the will to save, to raise up, to heal, and to bring peace. And even more than this, it is walking and talking with our closest friend!
I believe, dear friends, that prayer strengthens us; that prayer emboldens us; that prayer changes hearts it changes lives, both on a personal and global scale. I also believe, with all my heart, if each one of us would simply take the time to purposefully and personally pray to the Lord our God, there is no telling what amazing things God will do with us and our world.
So… in all things and in every way we can, let us pray.
And as we do, may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry