In this little wisdom book in the guise of a New Testament letter, the author of James gives advice on taming the tongue, and on faith being dead if our actions do not live out our words, or more to the point, God’s words. James also warns us against "speaking evil or judging" others (4:11-12). And in this final section, James turns to prayer. If any are suffering, they should pray, he says. Those for whom life is going well should sing songs of praise. And, as for the sick, they should call for the elders of the church to anoint and pray for them, because "the prayer of faith will save the sick," he says (v.15). Prayer can do wonders, he tells us, with an example of Elijah praying for no rain and for rain. James refers to Elijah as "a human being like us," which he was. But Elijah was also a prophet, and the story to which James refers is a miracle story in I Kings 17 & 18, where the text tells us that God stopped the rain, and Elijah performed miracles in order to prove that God was mightier than the gods of Baal. So as an example of praying "just like us," the example is a bit of a stretch.
In the last two verses of James, the author turns to the subject of what we in church circles refer to as "backsliders." Backslider are those who have professed a faith in Christ and have joined the church, but who slack up in attending or in even living out the faith in their everyday lives. These are the ones who have "wandered from the truth" of the gospel, according to James. And the one who brings back a "backslider" is doubly blessed, he says.
And then the letter of James ends, abruptly. All of the other NT letters include a benediction of sorts, a closing blessing. But James just ends, leaving us wondering, and perhaps wanting a little bit more, or even a little less.
But in this passage, we see that, for James, prayer is very important. But more important than just prayer is the power of the prayers of the congregation. There is power in the prayers of people on behalf of another. And notice that he does not tell the elders to go pray for the sick, but empowers the sick to ask the elders to come and pray over them. And, "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective," he says (v. 16).
The text seems to tie forgiveness with healing. Jesus seemed to do that at times as well, as when four friends brought a paralytic to Jesus to be healed. They were so sure that Jesus could heal their friend that, when they found the crowd so big they could not get him near Jesus, the four climbed up on the roof with the paralytic and lowered him down for Jesus to touch. The text in Matthew says, "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’" (Matthew 9:2) It was the faith of the friends that impressed Jesus. But it is curious that, rather than tell the man he was healed, he told him he was forgiven. Those nearby did not like this, but Jesus, said "Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?" (Mt. 9:5). Jesus recognized, perhaps, the effect sins can have on us. But Jesus did not link the cause of illness or hardship to God, as punishment (which we faithful sometimes do). For instance, in John, the disciples, upon seeing a blind man, asked Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" But Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him." (John 9:2 & 3). Jesus healed to show the glory of God.
So, James told the sick to request the elders to come pray over them. Maybe the community to which James talked was isolating the sick, as so often happens. There were leper colonies in Jesus’ time, as those with leprosy were seen as unclean and could not participate with the rest of society. Women were also isolated during certain times in their cycles. This was a pre-scientific and pre-medical age, and illnesses were seen as caused by demons. Yet we still isolate those who are sick at times. When AIDS was first discovered, or highlighted, AIDS patients, though very sick and in need of care, were often ostracized because of fear of the disease as well as the alleged cause of it. Cancer can still strike fear in us, and some people do not like to visit those suffering with cancer. So we still can isolate the sick.
But James thinks that the prayers of the community have great power in the healing process. It is part of our call as community to gather around the sick and suffering and to pray for them, he says.
Yet many people have trouble praying, sometimes in their private lives, but more often they do not want to pray out loud in front of others. Such prayer is the business of pastors, some say. But James would tell us that prayer is the business of the whole church.
There can be many reasons why people do not pray. In a hectic world, they just do not make the time for it. Or they think they do not know how to pray. Or they may think God doesn’t answers prayer, or at least not their prayers. Maybe it helps to know more what prayer is.
Joyce Rupp, a nun, author, and retreat leader, and one referred to as a "spiritual midwife," says:
"Prayer is ethereal, baffling, uncertain, and impossible to explain. On the other hand, methods of prayer are specific, practical, definable, understandable, and evident. Prayer can mean many things to many people. The framework is either personal (alone) or communal (joining with others). In Christian prayer, we pray anytime we deliberately choose to relate to God." (Rupp, p.13)
We can pray with or without words, with music, with images, and with or without thoughts. We can pray out of gratitude or out of despair. We can pray when we are grieving or angry, and when we are ecstatic and celebrating. But the more we pray, the more it becomes a part of our lives.
The greatest struggle with prayer may be the answers we get or do not get. When we pray specifically for something, whether it is to get an interview for a job we really want, or for someone to get well, we truly want the prayer to come true. And when it does not come true just as we prayed, we blame God. And sometimes we just quit praying.
Many years ago, my husband Steve, also a pastor, was diagnosed with cancer soon after we began serving a church. The church prayed for him, as they did for anyone who was sick. But the cancer kept coming back. One family came to him in the midst of the third round of treatment to tell him they were leaving the church, but it was not because of him. "We cannot stay in a church that cannot pray you well," they told him. In their eyes, the community’s prayers for Steve were never answered. But from our perspective, we saw the times when Steve got better, for a while, despite what the doctors said. We saw many, little miracles, and we felt the support of the community as they prayed for us. In the end, the cancer claimed his life. But that does not mean that God did not hear our prayers.
So maybe we quit praying because we do not get what we asked for, or we think we are praying wrong. But maybe the real issues is that we really are not listening.
The Seekers study group is reading a book on prayer this year by Kate Braestrup, who is a widow, a mother, a chaplain for the Maine Park Service. In the book, Beginning Grace: Bringing Prayer Into Your Life, she says:
"I won’t claim that prayer can get you a new car or find the lover of your dreams. It won’t help you gain status, assert your dominance, or otherwise please your ego. It won’t even make life easier. What it can do – what prayer, at its best and at our best has always done – is to help us love consciously, honorably, and compassionately. Because I am not stronger, more self-sufficient, smarter, braver, or any less mortal than my forebears or my neighbors, I need this help. As long as prayer helps me to be more loving, then I need prayer. As long as prayer serves as a potent means of sharing my love with others, I need prayer." (Braestrup, p. 8-9)
I believe that God wants us to pray for one another, as well as for ourselves, in good and bad times. After all, there are many, many prayers in the Bible, and Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer as a guide to prayer. And I believe that God does answer prayers, but that we need to learn how to listen. God’s answers may not come just as we ask, perhaps because God knows more than we do. Continuing to pray and to listen will teach us to trust God.
I can give you another real example of how prayer may work from the experience of a family in this church as a family member was dying of cancer. With permission from the family, I share their story. The husband and wife were separated, and had been for several years. But he got cancer, and eventually came to Duke for what might be the last possible treatment. The family, children and grandchildren, had been estranged from him. But when he came, the wife took him into her home, drove him to treatment until there was no more treatment that would help, and then cared for him in her home until he died. And the whole family surrounded around him with love. This congregation, the church from where he came, his patients and many more prayed fervently for healing. Yet he died of the cancer. But his family was healed, as they all gathered around him with deep love and care. The prayers of the people were indeed answered, but perhaps not in the way that they were envisioned.
So, it seems, we need to listen, and to be open, to God’s active presence in our lives. When we look, we see God present in the deepest tragedies. Fred Rogers said to look for the helpers in tragedies, and that is where we often see God, in the helpers. And they are always there -after 9/11, after Katrina, as refugees flee Syria to other countries, as people pick up their lives again after tornadoes, fires, floods, and other natural disasters. God is present, always. Our task is to pray, and to listen, and, also according to James, to do good works on behalf of God.
So, friends, maybe, as we reflect on wisdom writings in the Bible, like James, we should no longer ask "Does God answer prayers?" James would tell us to first ask, "Are we praying for one another?" But we also need to consider this question: "Are we listening for the many ways in which God answers us when we pray?" Are we open? Are we truly listening?
All praise be to God. Amen.