Sermon: "Just Like Everybody Else," September 26, 2015 Rev. Ryan Slifka

James 5:12-20

The service is centered on James 5:12-20. The book of James is traditionally attributed to James, the brother of Jesus. It is a letter that encourages the practice of responsible ethical action amid the complex realities of daily life. Empowered by wisdom as God's "implanted word," Christians are called to be not merely "hearers" but "doers" who show forth their faith in specific and practical acts of love and mercy that shape and sustain community. Throughout the letter, James has emphasized that God’s wisdom has the ability to shape that community in practical acts of love and mercy. Now, at the book's conclusion, the importance and the power of prayer is emphasized as the bond that creates, sustains, and restores community.

 


"Just Like Everybody Else"
James 5:12-20
by Rev. Ryan Slifka

So this week, we come to the end of the book of James. This week we are at the very end of the book. Last week, if you remember, we hosted the middle section.

This part of the letter is pretty nice, actually, considering the rest of it. It’s all very nice. Here, James has really shifted to a tone of encouragement. Which is a great way to end any letter, really. Building his people up.

Which is interesting, because for most of the letter before this he’s spent his time sketching out what’s wrong with the world. And warns against the things that have the potential to destroy the community of faith.

He cautions against following conventional wisdom. He rails against cozying up to the rich and powerful for the church to gain power and cultural prestige. He warns against hypocrisy—with his people using their mouths to lie, to falsely accuse and curse their neighbors with the same mouths they use to praise God. And he blasts the wickedness of self-centered ambition. He kind of sounds like Pope Francis.

But this bad stuff isn’t all happening outside somewhere. He sees all these problems emerging in his struggling community of faith. Some in the community are being deliberately deceitful with each other. Some are jockeying for power in the community as a way enrich themselves and influence others. Some are languishing in despair because they live with pains both physical and spiritual to the point. Some are in need of forgiveness for the pains they have afflicted on others.

James is fed up with what he sees as the wickedness of the world. And how all this stuff seems to be oozing its way inside his community of faith. Everything he sees wrong with the world, he sees in the church. The people in the church are behaving just like everybody else.

Which is kind of surprising, if you think about it. Sometimes I think people have this impression that churches, that faith communities are made up of the holy people. The upright people who are good and who have their stuff together. Or at least the people who think of themselves as holy and upright. I couldn’t count the number of times that I have heard people’s reservations about church. I know one of the first people I spoke to at the soup kitchen last year when I started took the occasion to tear a strip off me and Christians in general. They think they’re better than everyone, he said. You’re all just so smug about how holy you are. You think you’re better than everyone else. But, “you know what,” he said, there’s nothing different about you. There are just as many liars, cheaters and stealers inside these walls as there are outside of them. You’re just like everyone else.”

I’ll admit it, I was pretty irritated at this guy. The whole time he was sounding off, I was thinking up clever comebacks. Like the irony of using a soup kitchen then attacking the character of those who serve. And other zingers to teach him a lesson. I mean, how dare he say we are just like everyone else, when he’s the one being the jerk. And the church is the one serving him a meal?

But then, you know, I realized something. I realized that the guy was right. He was right. When he said “You’re just like everyone else,” he was right. I was reminded about this story this week when I was reading James, because James recognizes that the same problems of the world wiggle their way in to the church. A faith community is not like the Bubble Boy, safely behind hermetically sealed doors that keep the ills of the world from getting inside. Ironically, in being upset that this guy saying church people think they are better than everyone else, my first inclination was to prove that I was better than him. In a way, I think the Spirit was speaking through this cranky guy from the soup kitchen. Like James, reminding me that the afflictions of the world are the afflictions of the community of faith. And vice-versa. That we, too, come with our own brokenness, our own struggles, afflictions and troubles. That people who follow Jesus really are just like everyone else.

That might be a bit disheartening, for some of us to hear. Because if anyone should have things together it should be followers of Jesus. Because he really had things together. So we should, too. If you think about it that way it seems kind of disappointing. It seems like bad news. But you know, the more I think about it, the more I think might actually be good news for us. Not only does it give us a sense of humility—we aren’t better or holier than others. That’s a good thing. But it also reminds us who we are, and what we are as a community of faith.

Here at the end of the letter James provides us with a vision of an alternative community. One where the wounded and the spiritually afflicted are made whole again.

“Are any among you suffering?” he asks.  “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.”

Prayer. Anointing. Confession and forgiveness. Healing.  James knows what the troubles of the world are. And he has no illusions that his faith communities are ideal or perfect. People know sickness, brokenness, and are wounded. But through their spiritual practices and life as a community they are becoming conduits for the divine, for God’s healing and mending work in the world. They are being made whole again, physically, emotionally, spiritually. In community. To be a healing presence to others and the world. By the power of God. They know they are just like everyone else. But they know God’s healing. And God’s hope.

A pastor in Seattle tells a story of a man named Harry who walked through the doors of the church one rainy September day. Harry was middle aged. He was baptized Catholic but hadn’t practiced since childhood. A few weeks before Harry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And his doctor suggested he get his life in order. He had six months left, at best.

Harry had struggled all of his life. He was divorced twice. Had an on and off struggle with alcoholism. Harry had made it big in real estate, but in the process he’d alienated both of his ex-wives, and his children had cut themselves out of his life for good. They couldn’t trust him anymore. If anyone embodied the problems of the world that James rails against, it’s this guy.

But something happened. Over the next year (he had more time than he thought), Harry was welcomed into that community as one of their own. He went through their membership process. All along the way he discovered a family that accepted him and loved him in ways that he’d never known before.  He stood in front of the congregation and professed his faith, and confirmed the vows that we made for him in baptism. Members of the congregation laid hands on him. The pastor anointed him with oil, echoing the words of the Apostle Paul:  “you have died with Christ we believe, so you will also live with Christ.” Only a month later would church elders found themselves in a hospital room, laying their hands on him. Anointing him with oil, and praying for his healing. And a week after that, the congregation would find itself gathered around his grave, for a funeral.

Harry came just like everybody else to a community of people just like everybody else. With a life full of brokenness, heartache, pain and fear. Harry found forgiveness. Harry died, but the prayer of faith raised him up in new life. He’d found healing for his soul. And not only did Harry find healing, those who walked with him found Christ in him, those who suffered with him found renewal, hope, and strength in his witness. Harry came to the community just like everybody else, but through their spiritual practices as community, he discovered himself welcome, he met mercy, and experienced grace. He came just like everybody else. But there found himself named and claimed. As a beloved child of God.

This, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, is what James intends for Christian community. And this what God in Christ intends for us. God is shaping us in to a community where we experience, and others experience the transformative love of God in our spiritual practices and our life together. Like James we know what the problems of the world are. We know that they find their way in to our lives and into our communities. We know brokenness. We have hurt others and we’ve been hurt ourselves. We know shame. We know pain and rejection. We are just like everyone else. The only difference is that we know the power of God to make all things new.

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.”

Forgiveness for our sins. The mending of our wounds. And healing for our bodies, minds, our souls, and healing for the world God so loves. For this, thanks be to God. AMEN.