Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Best We Can Do

James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-41
September 27, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

The letter of James is one of the most practical portions of Scripture. There are several “James” in the New Testament, including, of course, Jesus‘ brother. We have no direct indication of which James is behind the letter, or whether someone is writing under James’ name and in his style of thought! We do know that it is written in beautiful Greek, and that James was felt to be so well known in the Church that he needed no introduction. In this letter, the early Christians are invited to rely on and help each other, with the conviction that prayer will make a difference. Let us listen to his advice and encouragement, in James 5:13-20:

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.
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up;
and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
Therefore confess your sins to one another,
and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.
The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
Elijah was a human being like us,
and he prayed fervently that it might not rain,
and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.
Then he prayed again,
and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
My brothers and sisters,
if anyone among you wanders from the truth
and is brought back by another,
you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering
will save the sinner’s soul from death
and will cover a multitude of sins.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus rebukes the disciples, whose sense of exclusivity has prompted them to try to correct someone who was acting in Jesus’ name. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Mark 9: 38-41

John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us."
But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

There is something about prayer, something that both inspires and intimidates us.

When something terrible happens, the grim diagnosis, the wildfire, the tsunami, whether literal or figurative, we often say, “The best we can do right now is pray.”

When we are faced with a difficult decision, and we don’t have all the facts; when we are in conflict and there seems to be no resolution, someone says, “The best we can do right now is pray.”

Even people who do not profess any faith, people for whom prayer seems difficult, if not silly, will find themselves cornered by life, stymied by a problem, and they, too, will say, “The best we can do right now is pray.”

Listen to this personal story of how prayer came into one man’s life:

I stumbled through my month in treatment much as I had done the first time, just ticking off the days, hoping that something would change in me without me having to do much about it. Then one day, as my visit was drawing to an end, a panic hit me, and I realized that in fact nothing had changed in me, and that I was going back out into the world again completely unprotected.

The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time. It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair. At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room, I begged for help. I had no idea who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with.

Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and getting down on my knees, I surrendered.

Within a few days I realized that something had happened for me. An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that’s true, but there was much more to it than that. I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in.

From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night to express my gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray and with my ego, this is the most I can do. If you are asking me why I do all of this, I will tell you … because it works, as simple as that.

In all this time that I have been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. …. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.[1]

Sometimes, the best we can do is pray.
So we pray.
Mostly we pray in silence.
Sometimes we pray out loud.

You know, often I share something in sermons about research or studies or psychology, something about real life application of scripture. On the subject of prayer, I have some very good new research, from Wednesday’s Bible study. It appears from my research that about 75-80% of all Presbyterians when asked to pray out loud, break into a cold sweat.

Most of us, apparently, are pretty certain that if we attempted to pray out loud, we would faint dead away on the spot. We also have some kind of belief that when we pray aloud, those who are present might be critiquing our prayer.

Maybe we are like those disciples in the verses from Mark, who ran across someone who was speaking and acting in the name of Jesus, but not doing it the way they thought it should be done. You know, implicit in that story is the disciples’ sense of superiority, the sense that they’ve got it right, and these other people don’t. So maybe we tend to look at others and think, “You’re not doing it right!” And because we do that, we assume that others are thinking the same thing about us! “You’re not doing it right!”

Perhaps there is just an inner critic living in each of our heads who says that to us – “You’re not doing it right.” And so we keep our prayers to ourselves, as if sharing them out loud would be the end of us. Some people are so reticent about their prayer concerns that they won’t even say them out loud – at some churches there are cards, or a book, that you write your prayer concerns in. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is something about prayer, the prayers we offer together, out loud, that strengthens our faith. That’s why we share our joys and concerns most weeks, and that’s why we respond in unison –“thanks be to God” or “Lord, hear our prayer.”

Often, the prayers we make out loud become encouragement to those who hear us.
Always, God hears our prayers, whether they are spoken, or offered up in silence.

This passage on prayer from the book of James is particularly about petitions – the prayers we make for ourselves, and intercessions– the prayers that we make on behalf of others. The cover of your bulletin today is an example of what author Sybil MacBeth calls “praying in color” – a kind of doodle that focuses thoughts into a prayer. This particular image is for intercessory prayer –MacBeth suggests by starting with your name for God written on one of the leaves, then writing the names of those for whom you pray on the other leaves. You can also use it for your own prayers, today and any day.

Praying in color template

Of course, there is no requirement that you pray with a crayon in your hand. But there is a Biblical commandment that we should pray. Jesus instructs us to pray or talks about prayer more than 40 times in the four gospels. In the rest of the New Testament, praying and prayer is mentioned over 100 times. Jesus gave us a model for prayer in “The Lord’s Prayer” which we pray together often. Thousands of books have been written on the subject of prayer - how to do it, and when and what to pray for.

But I really think that we can’t do it wrong.
When we lift up our voices in prayer to God,
we speak aloud the hopes of many hearts.

When we sing praise to God,
we offer up the joyful adoration of all of creation.

When we confess our failures and ask for forgiveness,
we join all our brothers and sisters in acknowledging our brokenness.

When we plead for healing on behalf of our beloved family and friends,
our words echo in the universe and reverberate with goodness.

When we speak to God the desires of our hearts,
we open ourselves to peace, to grace, and to joy.

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

Prayer is powerful.
Prayer is effective.

It is, indeed, the best we can do.

Thanks be to God.



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