A Sermon for Proper 21, Year B
“The simple path: silence is prayer, prayer is faith, faith is love, love is service, the fruit of service is peace.” ― Mother Teresa
Earlier this month I marked my one year anniversary serving the beloved community of St. Patrick’s Church in Incline Village, Nevada. And friends, what a year it has been: filled with so much abundance. There has been an abundance of food: from Thanksgiving Suppers, to carefully crafted coffee hours, to beach-side potluck Bible studies. It has been year filled with an abundance of fellowship & formation: from mountaintop moments at Diamond Peak, to sharing in vulnerability during the Sunday forum, to seasonal “Silence for the Soul” retreats. It has been a year filled with an abundance of joyful worship: from a Christmas and Easter with overflow seating in the balcony, to an inspiring installation, Confirmation, and Reception, to a Lake Tahoe style baptism, dunking three boys in that chilly water. My sisters and brothers in Christ, praise God, it has been a year filled with abundance.
Yet it has also been a difficult year, a devastating year, a year full of prayer for all of those tragedies present within our broken world. Praying with St. Francis that God make us instruments of peace that Sunday after the massacre in Las Vegas. Praying on Ash Wednesday for the sins of our country, as children in Parkland, Florida, were gunned down in their school. Praying for the victims of numerous natural disasters: from volcanic eruptions in Hawaii, to wildfires in California, to the recent earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia. Praying for the state of our union, for our nation’s elected leaders. In the words of our own Mark Wangsness, “may political positions be debated and not degraded.”
This is the prayer that especially has been on my heart this week as I read news headlines and glimpsed friends’ Facebook status’. Prayer is so central to who we are as church; who we are as the Body of Christ; who we are as disciples of Jesus. Prayer is both an individual and communal commitment of the Christian way of life.
In today’s Epistle James urges us to pray always: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 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” (5:13-14). Every occasion in life (every high and low, every intercession and thanksgiving, every moment of suffering and cheer) warrants a prayer-filled response. Prayer is the foundation of all that we are (and all that we do) as disciples of Christ.
Yet it has frustrated me that of late our society has speculated that prayer is a passive endeavor. There have been numerous occasions when people have posted on social media how they are praying for the victims of both human made and natural disasters, and they are met with backlash: that prayer is not enough; that prayer does nothing; that prayer is for weak people sitting on the sidelines. I believe this is a limited perspective of the power of prayer.
For in my experience and in the lives of the holy people past and present, prayer is anything but passive. Instead prayer is living and active. Prayer has agency. Prayer has influence. Prayer has the ability to transform our lives. For prayer is what makes the path we have chosen, this life of faith, so counter-cultural, so different from what society has spoon fed us since infancy about how the world should work. For prayer reorients our hearts to see the world as God would want it to be. Prayer allows us the space to consider our stereotypes and biases. Prayer encourages us to see the image of the Divine on the faces of those whom we would rather despise. As Jesus reminds us, “pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Prayer has the ability to change us and through us to change the world, if we will let it.
In fact James’ prayerful passage is saturated with activity. The elders of the church go to those who are sick, pray for them and anoint them. And those who have sinned seek out a fellow disciple of Christ and admit to the wrong committed. And brothers and sisters in this life of faith find those who are wandering and invite the lost sheep back into the fold. For James, prayer is far from passive. Instead it encourages us to heal the wounds of this world, to repent of individual and systemic sin, to invite all to experience God’s love.
And if we have done our homework (as Reverend Clare invited us to the first week of September when she preached on the introduction to James’ letter), we would find that over and over again this brother and disciple of Jesus, reminds us that the life of faith is a life of action. As he infamously writes James 2:26, “Faith without works is dead.” Therefore, I believe James has a purpose in concluding his letter with prayer. For today’s passage is in fact the very end of his epistle. I believe James is encouraging us to consider prayer as the starting point of the life of service, as the introduction to Christian action, as the commencement of cultivating God’s kingdom here on earth.
For friends, “The prayer of the righteous is [indeed] powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Not because our prayers are more important than anyone else’s, but it is powerful and effective, because through prayer we are empowered for the work ahead, and our actions effect the fate of this world.
So as we continue to struggle with our country’s current situation, as we become more and more frustrated by the bipartisan politics of this nation, let us as disciples of Christ, let us turn to prayer. Let us pray for Republicans and Democrats alike. Let us pray for those in power and for those who abuse their power. Let us pray for the victims of sexual violence—women, and men, and children too. Let us pray for all the young people being brought up in a society where demeaning behavior and language is somehow acceptable. Let us pray for every child of God, so we may see in each of them the face of the Divine staring back at us. And then let us go out and heal these wounds. Then let us go out and model vulnerability and repent of our sins from today, last month, and even years ago. Then let us go out and draw the wandering back into the fold, those who are so in need of God’s loving embrace.
Let us pray. And let this prayer work on us and through us, so that we can be empowered as effective agents of change in this broken yet beautiful world.