“High Impact Prayer”

James 5:13-20

Back when I was in seminary I did an internship at a small church in a suburb of Chicago. It was a terrific experience with a small congregation of very supportive people. I can’t say enough good things about them.

One of the people who attended the church was a seminary professor of mine. I really looked up to her as a mentor. I had taken classes from her my first two years of seminary and had learned quite a bit.

Most of us in the seminary knew of a situation in her family that had been grieving her for quite some time. Her granddaughter had been born with severe developmental disabilities, rendering her unable to walk or talk.

The granddaughter’s cognitive abilities and motor skills would never develop beyond that of a newborn child. She required twenty four hour care, which my professor was only happy to assist with. She was very involved in her granddaughter’s life.

She helped feed and care for and support the child. But as you might expect, her granddaughter’s needs put a great deal of strain on the family emotionally, physically and financially. My professor was worried that she would not be able to balance offering assistance to her kids with her career in teaching.

She was a highly regarded, well published American Baptist Educator. But she was clear that those concerns would take a back seat to her granddaughter’s care if push came to shove. Fortunately, the congregation I was in gave her their complete support.

One event I’ll never forget was when the pastor of the church agreed to do her granddaughter’s baptism. Think about the ramifications of that choice. We Baptists usually perform baptisms for youth and adults who, out of their own spiritual experience, want to make a public statement about their own faith.

We usually don’t baptize infants and young children because they are too young to understand the meaning of baptism and make an informed choice about their own baptism. And yet this congregation supported the parents in their choice to have their daughter baptized. Despite the fact that it was not their daughter’s choice or faith experience.

I’ll always remember the speech that the father gave during the actual baptism service. He pointed out that people who get baptized usually talk about repenting from their sin and symbolizing that repentance through baptism.

But he noted out that it wasn’t even possible for his daughter to sin. She didn’t even have the mental capacity to sin. So there wasn’t really any sin to confess or repent from. And it was clear to everyone that repentance or a personal confession of faith wasn’t the point of what took place that Sunday.

What happened as the pastor submerged that little girl in warm water at the front of the sanctuary was that a community of faith prayed for and embraced a family that had been utterly devastated by the experience of severe illness. The daughter’s sickness had isolated this couple from the community. Her care had made them unable to participate in many of the activities that they normally would have.

And many parents in that kind of situation find that even in churches, people don’t want to spend a lot of time ministering to folks who are dealing with illness. In many churches the attitude is, often unintentionally, that if you can make it to church and come to our events, great.

But if you can’t, we’re not really able to go out of our way to embrace you in your suffering. Hopefully the pastor or maybe one of the Deacons can get out to see you once in a while. But most of the time illness doesn’t just isolate you medically. It isolates you socially, spiritually, and emotionally.

I say this because the passage we read for today in the book of James challenges us as Christians to use prayer as a way to bridge the isolation that suffering people feel. The author encourages his readers to affirm and embrace, through the practice of prayer, people who are suffering.

I want to make the case this morning that prayer is not the practice of asking God to do something that God wouldn’t normally do. It is the way a faith community embraces people in their darkest moments and stands with them. That prayerful embrace is one of the most powerful tools in our toolbox as people of faith.

The Book of James is a sermon written to Jewish people who had heard the message of Jesus and had become Christians about one or two generations after Jesus’ death. Their experience of being in this new group of Jesus’ followers was an incredible experience.

They had seen lives changed. They had seen healing take place. They had experienced community and acceptance in the church. But, as I said a few weeks ago, some of their old habits, some of the ways that they had always mistreated other people before coming to faith, started to creep into the church.

James spends a lot of this sermon trying to teach people how to speak and how not to speak to one another. He tells them that if they think they are good religious people but they don’t bridle their tongues, their religion is worthless.

He compares speech to a spark in a dry forest. He refers to our tongues as a world of sin, a stain on the whole body. He talks about how humans have tamed animals, but none of us can tame our tongues.

As I was reading from James this week I kept on asking myself, “What were these people saying to each other? How much trash talk took place in that church? Could it have really been that bad?”

As a pastor I can tell you that I have seen people in churches use their words to destroy one another. Hurtful, careless, selfish words are one of the most powerful forces driving the decline of churches these days.

What you say to people in the fellowship hall, in choir practice, in your small group, in your board meeting, on the phone, in your e-mails, they all have the potential to bring great harm to others, and to this congregation as a whole.

James insists that people choose their words carefully, that they speak words of grace and love to one another, and that they use their words to not only to welcome new people, but also to affirm them. If you want visitors to return to worship here the next Sunday, use your words.

While I have seen words do great harm in churches, I can also attest that I have seen plenty of times where people used their words to bring a tremendous amount of grace to people who are hurting.

One of those ways of using words to bring grace and healing to a hurting person is through prayer. Now I’m not going to give a clinic on prayer this morning. We don’t have the time for something like that. But I want to focus on how we as a church can use prayer in a powerful way to bring healing.

James tells the people of the church that if someone is sick, they should bring the church leaders to the sick person’s home, that they should anoint the sick person with oil, and that they should pray for this sick person.

James wasn’t prescribing anything new. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Good Samaritan pours oil on the wounds of the man who was robbed. In Mark 6 Jesus sends his followers out to do the ministry they saw him do, including anointing people with oil and praying for them.

What’s different in this instance is the role the community plays in healing. In the Old Testament Jewish tradition, people who were sick had to be isolated from everyone else. It was part of God’s law. If you got near them or touched them, you became unclean, and you had to be isolated too until you could purify yourself.

Now if you have a branch of a tree or a plant that’s unhealthy, and you’re trying to get it to grow, you cut off the bad branch so that it isn’t needlessly taking nutrients from healthy branches.

If you have livestock and some of them are sick, you isolate the sick animals and keep them away from the healthy ones. You don’t hope that the healthy ones will somehow assist in the healing of the sick ones.

The reason why eggs have been so expensive this summer is because chicken farmers had to destroy millions of chickens that contracted a virus. It’s kind of like the whole “survival of the fittest” thing. Get rid of the sick ones to protect the ones who are healthy.

But James says the opposite is true when it comes to us. When someone is at their deepest, darkest point in life, when they are unhealthy, they are likely to feel alone, isolated, cut off from everyone else. And that just makes their illness all the more insufferable.

It is at our very darkest moments that we need people in the church to come and be with us and pray for us and listen to whatever we need to share. James tells people in this situation to confess their sins to one another. He’s not saying this because God will heal you if you fess up.

He’s saying this because sharing your pain and your frustration and fears with someone from the church who has a listening ear is an important part of the healing process. Part of the reason why some people are sick is because they feel they have no one to share their pain with. They can’t talk to anyone. And it makes them sick.

How many times have you come to church and felt like you didn’t want everyone to know what was really going on with you? How many times have you come here and felt like you had to keep up the appearance that everything is great at home, even when it isn’t?

I think we do that because we are embarrassed to show others our faults and vulnerabilities. We think of the church as the most moral group in the community. And what are the people at church going to think of us if we let them know this is going on or that’s going on in our lives?

People stop attending church because they don’t consider themselves good enough to be here. Or because they think the people at church don’t consider them good enough to be here.

James is telling us to look at it from the other point of view: instead of the church functioning as a moral yardstick by which everyone else in the community is measured, James says the church should be the medicine through which the community’s worst wounds are healed.

As I said before, the prayer of a church is one of the most powerful resources we have for all kinds of healing, physical, mental and emotional. I remember going to the hospital recently to visit one of the folks from our church. In the course of the visit I mentioned that the people at church were praying for her.

She said to me, “I know they are. Tell them to keep it up. When they pray for me I can feel it.” Now I’m not making a medical statement about whether or not prayer brings a statistically measurable change in this illness or that illness.

I’m saying that when sick people know that their church has got their back, when they know that prayers are going up for them, the solidarity, the support they get from their church in and of itself is a powerful agent for healing.

Visiting someone in the hospital, visiting someone in the nursing home, visiting someone who is sick at home, visiting someone who can no longer get out of their home, being with those people is one of the most powerful things you can do for them.

A prayer offered up for them in that kind of situation has more healing power than you can even imagine. More than I can explain. I want you to take a moment and think of just one person right now who you could contact this week.

Someone who’s suffering, maybe someone who’s sick, someone who just lost a loved one, maybe someone who’s struggling with a teenage son or daughter that they just can’t get on the same page with; maybe someone who just lost a job or is worried about losing a job. Write that person’s name on a piece of paper.

I want you to ask God this morning whether or not God would want you to either call or arrange to get together with that person this week just to pray for him or her. Your conversation doesn’t have to be anything more than listening to their story and praying for them at the end.

It’s best to do it in person, but you could do it over the phone if you have to. You might say to me, “Well Pastor Jim I’m not really good at praying. I don’t know what to say.” All you have to say is “God be with this person during this difficult time of their life. Amen.” Even that act of caring will have a profound effect on them. God will use it to heal them in ways you won’t even understand.

I want to close by sharing a story, appropriately enough, about Garland. When I began here two years ago Garland made a point to help me start meeting some of the folks who could no longer make it out to church because of their physical condition.

It’s always easier to introduce yourself as the new pastor to someone if they have a familiar face to go along with you. As you might imagine, Garland took me over to Lutheran Hillside Village because I would have a chance to meet quite a few folks that attend here, as well as some who can’t.

I’ll never forget going with him into the Alzheimer’s unit that day. I got to meet Cindy Huddle and Rosemary Walk and Martha Nibbelin. None of them knew who we were even though they all used to know Garland. They were nice enough about talking to us two strangers.

When I was a resident hospital chaplain I remember getting some training on how to care for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Garland did exactly what my supervisors taught me to do. He simply sat there with these folks, made eye contact, and listened to what they had to say.

Even when what they had to say made no sense, Garland treated them as though he was having the most profound conversation with them. Because, in a way, from their perspective, he was.

But what I want you to take away from this story is the healing effect of what he did that day. Nothing that happens to us in our lives is more isolating than Alzheimer’s or dementia. If you’re sick, you can usually still communicate in one way or another with your family and friends.

But if you suffer from one of those diseases, you don’t even know if you have any family or friends. Most of those significant relationships are gone. All those folks can hope for is that someone comes to see them and treats with the God-given dignity they still have.

Garland’s presence with them, the attention he paid, the prayers we prayed with them, were powerful, healing experiences even for people who had no idea who they were or where they were. Just imagine how powerful that experience is for someone who does!

James tells us that prayer is powerful and effective. It’s not a tool we use to manipulate God into giving us something we want, even if it’s something we really think we need. Prayer, as James describes it, is a way that we as a congregation can participate with God in the process of healing someone who’s sick, someone who’s hurting, someone who’s isolated.

It is God’s embrace for people who wonder why God allowed some terrible thing to happen to them. It is God’s reassurance that we are loved, accepted and affirmed as valuable people in this community. It is God’s own guarantee that he will never leave us or forsake us.

Make that call this week to the person whose name you wrote down. As James says, you’ll be surprised at home much your prayer will raise them up.