Calling for the elders

Message preached October 1, 2000
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon James 5:13-20

            Weíve been traveling with brother James this past month in worship, trying on his "blue jeans" theology as we walk. Tell me, those of you who have been with us for some or all of this journey, how has the fit been? Have you felt comfortable with his down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is approach? Or on the other hand, has the material had a bit of a discomforting scratch to it, at times itching like heaven? Have you found it to be meddling at places, causing you to think about the things you say, as well as the things you do, wondering if the two walk hand-in-hand? If so, good. I think brother James accomplished some of his purpose, then, in writing this letter.

            Of course, we come to the end of the page and we wonder if this is, indeed, a letter. After all, it doesnít really have an ending. No "Love, James" or any final greeting. No benediction, long or short. No "amen." It just sort of ends, as if the kids just got on the school bus late before we had a chance to say "goodbye, have a good day." Or, like at night when we climb into bed next to a snoring spouse, and havenít had a sense of closure between us... Oh, well, the sun will rise tomorrow and weíll get up and start another day together. Or the children will come home and weíll take up where we left off. Life goes on.

            Indeed, this way of ending is fitting, for brother James is just talking as we walk, following Jesus, step by step, day by day. I think thatís why many of us like his words so much. This last passage reminds me of my wife after she makes sure the kids are tucked in at bedtime. "Did you lock the doors? Is the dishwasher started? Were the fish fed?" Brother James, in a like manner, asks - "Are any of you suffering? Are any cheerful? Are any sick? Have you paid attention to the back door of your fellowship?" These are everyday questions, with everyday answers: "pray, sing, anoint, confess, reach out ..." care.

            By saying these are everyday questions and answers, I donít mean to imply that they are somehow less important than others. I think that sometimes, when it comes to matters of faith, we have a tendency to place the extraordinary in a different category from the everyday. Truly "spiritual" stuff happens, we believe, only once in a blue moon and to people "not like us." After all, doesnít the earth have to move for faith to be significant? To be honest, earthquakes are few and far between (maybe we should thank God for this!). The mundane, the ordinary, the everyday - in other words, my life - is somehow not so important.

            Tell me, how do you hear the following statement from brother James? "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." (5:16b) As you hear it, does that sentence include you, or is it only about somebody else? Of course, "humility" (which is a virtue according to James) might lead us to downplay our righteousness. After all, as James himself said, "all of us make many mistakes" (3:2a). Furthermore, "who among us is truly wise and understanding?" (3:13a) But does this mean that the word "righteous" refers to someone else? The end result of thinking in this way is the failure to pray for somebody because our prayers wonít do any good - weíre not good enough. Weíre not "righteous." Why would God listen to us?

            This attitude lies at the heart of the great reformer Martin Lutherís complaint against this letter of James. After struggling long and hard with not feeling "good enough" to be a follower of Christ, Luther came to the point of saying, "itís not what I do that gets me anywhere with God. Itís what God has done through Jesus. In dying, Jesus made right my relationship with God. I am justified by faith in him, by faith alone - not by my works." We need to hear our brother Martinís confession of faith, and allow it to color how we hear these words of brother James. After all, we have been given a virtual library in the Bible, which includes James, as well as Lutherís beloved apostle Paul. These words are in living conversation with one another, and together they are Godís Word.

            So, let me return to that statement from brother James, "the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." When we hear that, we are tempted to wonder - why would God listen to us when we pray, given that we all make so many mistakes, and often behave like fools? The simple truth is, however, God does listen - and not just to the extraordinary people. In reality, itís the ordinary folks who make a difference in this world. If anything (and brother James has made this very clear, sometimes too clear for comfort), the people we think count for nothing in this world actually count for a great deal more in Godís eyes. "Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?" Thatís what James said (2:5). Jesus put it this way, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3)

            When your children come to you with a heartfelt request, do you listen to them only through the ears of what they have or have not done? Is that love? Or does love lead you at times, regardless of whether theyíve been good or bad, to move mountains for them, just because of that bond between you? Do you think Godís love is less than your love? No, it goes beyond our wildest imagination. With God, "interesting" things happen.

            Now, Brethren have loved this passage of James, and have turned to it often for guidance. Out of it has come the down-to-earth practice of anointing. I could tell you story after story of persons who have requested to be anointed, and what happened. "Is anyone sick," brother James instructs, "let them call for the elders." When I hear those words, I donít plug in a hierarchy of righteousness, as if my prayers (as a pastor) or the prayers of some elder or deacon will be more powerful and effective than everybody elseís. A thousand times, "No!" I hear those words as I believe James intended. This is a practical step - reaching out, asking others to care for you - folks who care about you.

            Think of that gospel story where a sick manís friends cared enough about this fellow to carry him to Jesus. And when the crowds got in the way, they literally dug a hole in the roof where our Lord was, in order to lower their sick friend before Jesus. Thatís what James means when he says, "call for the elders" - reach out to those who care about you in Christ. If the Spirit has poured upon anyone, as the good news says it has upon all of us, then these words of Jesus become their calling card, "love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12) "Pray," instructs James, "anoint with oil in the name of the Lord." Nothing magic, just tangible, down-to-earth.

            Think of the woman, who remains nameless in the gospel - in some quarters hardly considered a righteous person, who came to Jesus and anointed his feet with her tears. Those tears, he said, prepared him for his next steps, as he walked toward the cross and lived out the title everyone wondered about, "was he the Messiah, the Christ?" And what does "Messiah" in Hebrew or "Christ" in Greek mean? "Anointed one."

            When Christians (anointed ones) gather around a sick brother or sister to pray, "interesting" things happen. Someone who may feel untouchable because of their condition is touched. And oil, which in the Old Testament was used to commission kings for their royal tasks, which was also poured out as an act of hospitality extended to a stranger upon welcoming them into your home - even someone going through dark valley times (Psalm 23:4-5); oil is something tangible with which we touch them as we pray. It serves as a reminder of who we are in Christ - we are royalty (heirs of the kingdom of God), even when we feel anything but royal amid our hurt. The oil also reminds us of Godís hospitality ("you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows"). A hospital room, or wherever we are, becomes Godís house. And Godís people gathered in prayer around this person provide a felt touch which becomes (in part) the hands of the living God.

            Mind you, however, these are not extraordinary people who are somehow more righteous because of some superior virtue on their part. I trust thatís not how you see me, because I canít fit that bill. No one can, but the One who has called us all into a right relationship with God. And speaking of a right relationship, brother James brings up "confession." That word, "confession," can be a loaded term, especially for those of us who come from a Catholic background.

            In his memoir, Angelaís Ashes, Frank McCourt tells of growing up in Ireland where the priests ruled with an iron fist. Confession was hardly a redemptive activity. Instead of being a gift from heaven, it was administered with the fire of hell. Needing to release the garbage from his tumultuous adolescence, Frank found no comfort in the church. He didnít, that is, until his sixteenth birthday, when he found himself alone in church crying his heart out before a statue of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. Amid his tears, something "interesting" happens.

            "There is an arm around my shoulders, a brown robe, click of black rosary beads, a Franciscan priest. My child, my child, my child. Iím a child and I lean against him, little Frankie on his fatherís lap... My child, sit here with me. Tell me what troubles you. Only if you want to. I am Father Gregory." And there and then, that priest became the hands of God, helping young Frank to let go of a lot of "junk" he had been carrying for too long - a healing scene. (p. 342)

            Confession walks hand-in-hand with healing, because so often, in order to receive from God what God wishes to give, we need to let go of the heavy burdens we carry. Our arms are too full to hold one more thing, even if that one more thing is the very thing we need above all else. True confession is a releasing of what gets between us and God. Now, as Protestants we believe that we can go directly to God in confession. We donít need a "priest" to stand in the way. But, you know, it really helps to have that human touch, to allow another to be "as Christ to us." As brother Peter the disciple wrote, we are all "a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9), those of us who love the Lord and who are called by him to "love one another as I have loved you."

            "Are any of you suffering?" brother James simply asks. "Are any cheerful? Are any sick? Have you paid attention to the back door of your fellowship?" Everyday questions, with everyday answers: "pray, sing, anoint, confess, reach out ..." care.

            As we sing verses 1 & 3 of "Anoint us, Lord" (#631 in your hymnal), would all those who have responded to Godís call to "pray for one another" through the ministry of our congregationís Prayer Chain please come forward. Bring your hymnal with you.

Dedication of the Prayer Chain

            You have responded to an awesome calling of God, some of you for one more year, others for the first time. As brother James wrote, "the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective," strengths and weaknesses alike. Your ministry undergirds much of what we do as a church. As one minister among many here - set aside to the specific ministry of being your pastor, I count on your ministry of prayer. When, for instance, I and some deacons or others are asked to anoint someone, and we are able to send this through the chain, you widen the circle of Godís care through us, you amplify both our concern to God and Godís loving-kindness to us, even after the fact. Your prayer matters!

            I challenge you to be faithful in this calling, to carry each request to God. I admonish you not to use this chain as a form of gossip, passing on to others news entrusted into your hands only. Remember these persons in your heart throughout the day. If need be, anoint them with your own tears. Do not grow disheartened by discouraging news in follow-up, but believe that "all things (somehow, in some way that we may not comprehend) work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)

            In consecrating ourselves to this ministry of prayer, I invite you to turn in your hymnal to #733, a familiar prayer by St. Francis of Assisi. As the words can apply to us all, the rest of the congregation is likewise invited to stand and pray it with us. Shall we join our hearts and our voices in unison?

      make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
      where there is injury, pardon;
      where there is doubt, faith;
      where there is despair, hope;
      where there is darkness, light;
      where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master,
      grant that I may not so much seek
            to be consoled ,as to console;
            to be understood, as to understand;
            to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
      it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
      it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. AMEN

Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, 13th c.

Closing Hymn     "Thou true Vine, that heals"      #373

©2000 Peter L. Haynes

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