Tag: Prayer

The Power of Prayer – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18B (James 5)

 

 

 

James 5:13-20 New Revised Standard Version

 

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 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. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 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.

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                James invites us to consider the power of prayer. Everything we’ve explored to this point, this word of wisdom, according to James is rooted in a relationship with God. The people of God, the church of Jesus Christ, can and should do good things in the world, but that work should be rooted in worship and prayer. James does say that faith without works is dead, but here we learn that the work we do is rooted not in our own strength, but our relationship with God. That is, the work we do is in partnership with God (but not without God). Thus, the church is not just another social service agency or advocacy group. It is a community deeply rooted in the presence of God who is love.

                In a series of questions, James invites the readers to consider various forms of prayer. Prayer is a form of speech, but in contrast to the negative forms that James spoke of in chapter 3, this is a positive form. This word about prayer comes immediately after James’ prohibition against swearing in verse 12. In that word from James, we’re told not to “swear either by heaven or by earth or by any oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” It is good to remember that James doesn’t have cussing in mind, but things like oaths of allegiance. Consider how this verse pairs with our practice of swearing on the Bible in court or to take an oath of office. What James says here is close to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:33-37). With this word in mind, in verse 13 James picks up the question of prayer. As Marsha Moore-Keish points out, “unlike the destructive power of speech to harm others and betray God, prayer offers an example of positive and powerfully upbuilding power of speech.” [James: Belief, p. 187].

                Beginning in verse 13, James picks up the question of prayer, asking first if any are suffering. If they are, then they should pray. I need to add a caveat here because in recent years we’ve heard politicians and others address all manner of suffering with the offer of “thoughts and prayers.” By this, they simply mean, we’re not going to do anything, so you’re on your own. Hopefully, God will take care of what we are not going to take care of. That may be true in the public sphere, but for us who are believers and followers of Jesus, the first step is prayer. Prayer starts with the one who suffers, as one places one’s trust in God. If, as is possible, this suffering is the result of oppression on the part of the rich, then the prayer must be accompanied by an appropriate response by the followers of Jesus. One of those responses, will be the prayer for endurance and perhaps the expectation that the oppressors will face judgment (Jms. 5:1-6). Now, James, understanding the situation, advises patience until the coming of the Lord to set things right (Jms. 5:7-11). But, as we’ve learned from James that prayer for endurance will be accompanied by some form of action since faith without works is dead (Jms.2:14).  

                James asks a second question: “Are any cheerful?” If so, they should sing songs of praise. When good things happen in our midst, it is appropriate for us to celebrate those good things. The Psalms are filled with calls to share words of praise and thanksgiving to God. Worship stands at the heart of our life together. But, as we know from James and the Psalms, worship is not just for happy moments. Worship is the foundation for the life of the community. It is worship that enables us to endure in hope.

                James asks a third question: “Are any among you sick?” Interestingly, in this case, the call is not to personal prayer, but a call to the Elders, to the leaders of the congregation, to come and pray. These leaders are to pray and to anoint with oil in the name of the Lord. With this action comes a promise, “the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” We’ll leave the question of sins, forgiveness, and confession, for a moment so we can focus on the call to the Elders.  The prayers spoken of here are intercessory. The faith that is required here is not that of the one being prayed for, but the faith of the Elders who are praying. While we often think of healing in terms of curing, that is not always the case. In fact, as Osvaldo Vena writes, “healing in this context means social restoration and not so much individual well-being. The elders, figures of authority in the community, rather than doctors (see Mark 5:26), are called to enact the healing” [Connections, p. 345]. As for the anointing with oil, it is often assumed that this is understood to be medicinal, but that is unlikely here. Remember, if the point here is social restoration, it is a sign of blessing. Now, the Gospels do record that Jesus healed persons, even raising some from the dead, as did his disciples, so might a cure be in order here? Perhaps, but healing is the broader category and might be meant here. 

                James writes that the prayer of faith will save the sick. That word “save” could have a double meaning here. It could refer to the restoration of a relationship to God and healing of the body. This is where the question of forgiveness of sins comes into play. James writes that the prayer of faith will lead to the forgiveness of sins. That is, James encourages the readers to confess their sins to one another and pray for one another. This is interesting, in that it suggests the restoration of intra-congregational restoration. By praying for one another they might be healed.

                Having spoken of three forms of prayer, James writes that the “prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” and as an example, he points to Elijah. James reminds us that Elijah is not a superhero or a demi-god. He was a human being, just like us, and yet when he “prayed fervently that it might not rain,” it didn’t rain. In fact, it didn’t rain for three and a half years. Then, when Elijah prayed for rain, the rain fell (if only that worked in the American West as it deals with horrific drought). Is not the message here “you can do this too”? This is a powerful word, but a dangerous one as well. This is a theme present in the “Prosperity Gospel.” There is power in prayer, but perhaps not the
kind of power some have read into this message. 

                Having spoken here of prayer, James closes with a call to restore members of the community who have wandered from the truth. This is a fitting close to a “letter” that focuses on “pure and undefiled religion” (Jms. 1:27). James has written this letter to guide the community back to the right path so that their religion is reflective of God’s wisdom. The good news for those who work to restore sinners who have taken the wrong path is that they will have helped save the sinner from death (spiritual?) and then cover a multitude of sins. James reminds us that the path of faith is not an individual journey, but rather is a communal one. In seeking out those who wander and restoring them to the flock, we do so in partnership with God who is always seeking us out. So, as we go on this journey together, lifting each up in prayer, we participate in the work of God in the world. In this, we join together in a form of religion that is pure and undefiled before God. Or, as Marsha Moore-Keish writes, quoting from Dale Allison’s commentary on James, “James seeks to empower his brothers and sisters to see out the wanders and bring them home. They (and we) are the main actors. ‘God is not named, and there is not even a divine passive here. So James concludes characteristically by emphasizing the importance of human beings doing what is right.’ God, the giver of all good gifts has ‘given us birth by the word of truth’ (1:18); now we are to bear fruit through rescuing, saving, forgiving” [James, p. 203]

                The message James has delivered here is an important one. He has been speaking throughout the “letter” about broken relationships. That is the message here as  well. It might involve interpersonal ones. It could even involve the relationship of mind and body. It certainly involves the divine-human relationship. Whatever it is, James offers us a path to healing that brokenness through prayer and worship. This is the foundation for all that we do as the people of God. So, let us pray for ourselves and one another, that we might know wholeness in Christ.

 

               Image Attribution: Dürer, Albrecht, 1471-1528. Praying Hands, or Study of the Hands of an Apostle, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57523 [retrieved September 19, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Praying_Hands_-_Albrecht_Durer.png.

Bloom Where You’re Planted — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18C (Jeremiah 29)

Amsterdam
 

29 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

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                The Word of the Lord was delivered by letter to the exiles living in Babylon. The mediator of this word was the prophet Jeremiah, who remained, at the time, in Jerusalem. Verse 2 tells us that this letter was written to the first wave of exiles, who were taken by the Babylonians along with King Jeconiah and the queen mother. It was before the revolt under Zedekiah led to the razing of the city, along with the Temple, but this word is a reminder to the exiles that they would be living in their new locale for a very long time. So, as the slogan that dates back to the 1960s declares: “Bloom where you are planted.”

                You can imagine how these exiled might have felt as they took up residence in a foreign land. They might have been wondering if their God had traveled with them. Did Yahweh dwell only in Judea and Israel? Were they in foreign territory, where different gods had control? Yes, this could be and probably was a rather depressing situation for the exiles. It’s good to remember that in the ancient world “church and state” were inextricably linked. So, had their god been overthrown? So, how might the exiles have heard Jeremiah’s word to them?

                I can imagine some of them hearing this word as permission to blend into the culture. When in Rome, does as the Romans do. Right? Now that they were in Babylon, why not simply become one of the Babylonians? If they worshiped Yahweh in Jerusalem, might they want to go to services at the Temple of Marduk? I don’t think this is what Jeremiah has in mind. The words we hear about settling in for the long haul by building houses, getting married, and having kids, doesn’t involve abandoning their calling as children of Abraham, Moses, and David. The monarchy might be teetering on the edge of collapse (remember that Zedekiah was simply a vassal placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar’s regime). For all intents and purposes, the monarchy had come to an end. 

 

                Blooming where you’re planted could involve blending into the surrounding culture. It is an enticement that is readily available in every generation, including the one we are inhabiting. The lure of power and influence, on one hand, can be intoxicating, of course, but so can the cultural benefits of blending in. Why not eat, drink, and be merry like everyone else? Could there be another way?

                The word of the Lord as delivered by Jeremiah seems to offer that third way. In counseling them to settle in by building homes, getting married, and having kids, Jeremiah is telling the exiles not to get depressed by their situation. Don’t despair. Make the best of things, but most of all remain faithful to their covenant relationship with God. While they may have once put their faith in a royal ideology centered on the monarchy, that was gone. So, a new vision is required for their engagement with the future. As Song Mi Suzie Park notes, “in the face of this religious upheaval, Jeremiah encourages the community to continue to have faith in God’s larger plan—a plan that seems utterly impossible, but which Jeremiah hints is possible for God. They are to hope and know that God can and will bring God’s promises to pass” [Connections, p. 377]. At this point, the Temple still stands, but soon that will be gone as well. Things have changed. There is need for a new covenant, and in time Jeremiah will reveal that covenant (Jeremiah 31). I should note that it is the promise of a new covenant that will give birth to the Christian movement. That is, in Christ we will be drawn into the covenant work of God that is no longer (if ever it was) tethered to the monarchy.

                The key to this passage is found in verse 7. It’s a verse that I find powerfully relevant for today, especially for those of us who live in large urban/suburban metroplexes. Jeremiah counsels the exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Here is where blooming where you’re planted comes in. This is not a call for separatism? This is not a call for the people to go out into the desert and plant a colony that is faithful to God but not infected by engagement with the surrounding culture. No, this is a call to engage the community, without letting the ways of the world determining the nature of that work. This engagement can come in a variety of ways. I will admit to finding the idea of God transforming culture attractive. I have engaged in community activism. For instance, I’m a police chaplain, and in that guise and simply as a pastor I’ve offered prayers at community events. I’ve tried to call on our better angels and call for doing what is right and not simply blessing the status quo, but I’m sure some might hope for a more “patriotic” form of prayer, while others might question why I participate in such events. In seeking the welfare of the city, we might want to make use of our rights as citizens (if we are citizens) to register and vote not only in national elections but local ones. We might even go further in that, but it is important to keep watch on our motives. There are other ways in which we might engage. Faith-based community organizing is an important contributor to the welfare of the city (and other spaces/places). The same could be said of faith-based community renewal organizations. My congregation supports two such entities, one in Detroit and another in nearby Pontiac. These entities have their roots in the faith community, but they are making the welfare of the community as a whole their primary purpose.

The promise here is that if we pursue the welfare of the city—the place where we have been planted—then we will be blessed as well. In fact, our welfare is tied in with the welfare of the larger community. The point is not engagement, but the form that this engagement takes. Is it defined by notions of worldly power or by the power of faith? Are we engaged in this work because we believe it is of God, or because we desire power?

We might want to sing Eric Routley’s hymn “All Who Love and Serve Your City” as we contemplate Jeremiah’s words, the second verse of which offers us a word of invitation: “In your day of loss and sorrow, in your day of helpless strife, honor, peace and love retreating, seek the Lord, who is your life.” We might feel as if this is a time of sorrow and strife and wonder if God is present in the midst of this moment. The counsel of the hymn, and I think Jeremiah, is to seek the Lord, “who is your life.” Regarding the city in specifics, the hymn ends with this word of promise:

 
Risen Lord! Shall yet the city be the city of despair?
Come today, our Joy, our Glory: be its name, “the Lord is here.”   

“The Lord is here.” Even in Babylon. That is good news. It doesn’t relieve us of responsibility for the city. Instead, it reminds us that we are not alone in this work, and the way we engage in this work out to reflect the relationship we have with the Living God who is present not only in Jerusalem but also in Babylon and beyond.

             This word is sent to exiles, refugees (perhaps?). From a North American Christian perspective, I have tended to read this as a word to how I should engage the city/culture around me. That is, I identify with the exiles. But, what if I’m not part of the exile community? What if I’m a citizen of the land in which the exiles are sent? What if this word is sent to exiles/refugees/immigrants who have made a home in my backyard? What if my welfare is entangled with their welfare? It is good to remember as Miguel De La Torre notes, Jeremiah isn’t asking the exiles to forsake their identity or heritage or their God. This isn’t a counsel of assimilation.

Jeremiah does not call the exiles to stop being Jewish or worshipping their God. Rather, as foreigners, we are to work for the common good of all who also inhabit the land where we find ourselves. Foreigners should be willing to learn from the land’s inhabitants, in the same way that the natives of the land can learn from the stranger in their midst. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, pp. 427-428].

                I have tended to read the passage from the perspective of the exiles, but what if I’m the host? Can we be both guest and host at the same time, and thus be equally blessed?    

 

A Soul Poured Out -Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 26B (1 Samuel 1)

1 Samuel 1:4-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” 
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

 

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. 

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

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                The Revised Common Lectionary takes us from the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman, who would be ancestor to King David (and by Christian extension ancestor of Jesus) to the story of Samuel, who would anoint Saul and then David as kings of Israel, after serving a lifetime as priest and judge in Israel. One story line that runs through Scripture is that God has a special concern for the one who is for whatever reason marginalized. That includes women who are unable to conceive in cultures that prize a woman’s ability to bear children. To be barren was considered cursed, or at very least a subject of shame. We see this with Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. Moving into the New Testament there is Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. In each of these stories, God intervenes, and takes away a woman’s “shame” as a child is born who will be used by God to further the biblical story.  But what about those women who do not share in this relief?
                Here in 1 Samuel 1, we encounter Hannah, the second wife of Elkanah (remember that there is no one biblical marriage pattern and that polygamy was common), who is beloved of her husband, but who suffers the ignominy of experiencing the reality that in the words of Scripture, “the Lord closed her womb.” Despite her husband providing her a double portion of his Temple offerings during their annual pilgrimage to the Temple at Shiloh, because he loved her, that doesn’t seem enough. This is due in part to the fact that Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, would constantly provoke her, causing Hannah great irritation, and no doubt deep pain, reminding her of her shame as one who was considered barren. While Hannah’s story might differ from many modern versions of infertility, it might resonate with those who struggle with difficulties conceiving. As Rich Voelz notes in his book Tending the Tree of Life, a book on preaching emerging out of the struggles he and his wife had at conceiving a child, the church often struggles to provide words of comfort and encouragement in the face of infertility and reproductive loss. In his book he seeks to break up “the silences and unhelpful practices that make people like me feel as if we are the shadows of faith communities, and to begin moving individuals, families, and communities of faith toward better understanding, healing, wholeness, and faithfulness” [Voelz, p. 8.].  
 
                In our day, a couple might go to stead of going to a fertility specialist, but Hannah goes to the Temple at Shiloh to pray. We’re told that “she was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.” Note that she not only cried out to God in prayer, but her prayers were accompanied by bitterness. There is frustration inherent in this prayer. There is a feeling of injustice. She wants vindication. That vindication, in her mind, involves conceiving and bearing a son who would redeem her in the eyes of her rival and perhaps her husband (even though he professes his deepest love, she is not ready to accept this reassurance). Here is her prayer:

“O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” (1 Sam. 1:11).

If God will remember her, she will offer her son up to God as a nazirite; as one who is wholly committed to God. He will not drink intoxicating beverages and he won’t cut his hair. Paul once took a vow like this, but only for a time, not for a life. Hannah promises that her son would take such a vow over a lifetime. I know parents like to live out their dreams through their children, but this might be taking things a bit too far, but her prayers are heard and affirmed.
                As she prays in the temple, Eli the priest overhears her prayers, but he thinks she’s drunk. Remember she’s crying out to God bitterly. So, what’s he to do with this hysterical woman. But she’s not hysterical, she’s in the midst of negotiating with God. She wants to make a deal with God. If God will answer her prayer, she’ll bring her son to the temple to be raised (I expect she made this promise before checking with Eli). It is a great sacrifice on her part, but in her mind her shame would be removed. As we see, her prayer is answered. Eli assures her, once he understands the situation, that she has been heard and that she will receive what she has asked for. The narrator tells us: “Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.” Yes, she went home, had a party with her husband, and she moved from sadness and bitterness to joy.
Once she returns home, we’re told that Elkanah knew his wife, which means they had sex. One thing leads to another, and she conceives. Why? Because God remembered. Yes, God kept God’s side of the bargain. As for Hannah, she names her child Samuel, which means “I have asked him of the Lord.”  The lectionary reading ends there, but the lectionary writers have assumed that we know that if God kept God’s side of the bargain, Hannah would do the same, and she does.  
 
As to what happens next, Rich Voelz notes:

The relationship between Hannah, Samuel, and Eli might be called a type of “open adoption.” Hannah is never fully out of contact with Samuel, bringing him a handmade robe every year when she returned to Shiloh to offer her yearly sacrifice (1 Samuel 2: 19). Samuel becomes the one who is the mouthpiece of God for Israel and the one who oversees the establishment of Israel’s monarchy.  [Richard Voelz, Tending the Tree of Life, p. 80.]

Samuel will prove to be an important figure in the life of the people of Israel, thus the prayer of Hannah was fortuitous. While this birth will prove to be a blessing to Israel, we should not forget the challenge in life faced by Hannah, whose infertility placed a stigma on her. Having that stigma removed was important.
                As we ponder this passage, it is worth noting that the stigma can still be present in our day.  How might we as church break the hold of silence, so that persons, couples, families, who face infertility or reproductive loss know that God hears and responds? Eli was insensitive at first, and might not have been the greatest parent, but he does ultimately provide true pastoral care for Hannah.

Picture attribution: Malnazar and Aghap’ir. Hannah before Eli the High Priest, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56672 [retrieved November 12, 2018]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malnazar_-_Hannah_before_Eli_the_High_Priest_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg. 

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.