- First Reading Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
- Psalm 124:1-8
- Second Reading James 5:13-20
- Gospel Mark 9:38-50
Earlier this week, when we were talking about our text from James in the Tuesday Bible study, someone asked for a definition of sin, and I called back to an old definition of sin as “disordered desire.” The text from James talks about confession and so I will confess: I incorrectly attributed that definition to Aquinas. It was Augustine. Someone else talked referred to the Greek and defined sin as “missing the mark,” while another talked about “falling short.” We agreed that sin is more than petty vice. We agreed that we sin not just in things we do, but that sin is also in the things we leave undone, a phrase that periodically comes up in our prayers of confession in worship. We also sin in the people we choose to view as less than human, or at least as less than ourselves, or less than our friends and family. We sin when we look at someone and think “why bother?”
Another confession: I live, almost entirely, in my head. I think, I plan, I dream, I imagine all in my head. When I do not like something that is happening, I retreat into my mind. When I want to procrastinate, I retreat into my mind, when I just want to avoid something, I retreat into my mind, dreaming of a past when a current problem did not exist or a future where I can more effectively insulate myself.
I also make things into academic problems, especially scripture. I read and I think about the historical context, about authorial intent, about who would have been reading or, more likely, hearing those words originally, and trying to connect what I know about those people to how they might have heard or responded to something. I try to think about what other people hear so that I can avoid letting the text speak to me.
James’ letter has been particularly cutting to me this year. I have struggled to put James’ letter at that distance, perhaps because unlike so many of Paul’s letters, James’ letter is not addressed to a particular church or community, but was more of a circular, meant to be read by a wide and varied audience across many churches in different cities and towns…and there I go again, trying to avoid the Holy Spirit. This year, as I read this letter, the Spirit has seized me with these words. Much as we might talk about the timelessness of scripture, about the validity and value of these words across time, James’ words feel, to me, to be particularly written for now.
Another confession, this frightens me.
Today’s passage from James’ letter begins with verse 13: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray”
Yes, oh God. Yes, we are suffering.
We are sick. We are tired. We are lonely. We are frustrated. We are angry.
We are suffering with more than a year and a half of disruptions to our routines, to our schedules, to our ways of doing and being together with our families, our classmates, our jobs, our friends, our neighbors.
We are suffering from the loss of far, far, too many in the past 18 months. More than 650,000 across this country have died from covid, in addition to those who have passed from other causes, but for whom we have been unable to gather for the typical funerals and meals that usually bring us comfort and closure after a loved one’s passing.
We are suffering from living in increasingly divergent realities, from encountering people who are just as convinced we are wrong as we are certain they are. We are suffering from the gnawing, growing realization that if nothing has changed their mind by now, maybe nothing human will and we will just have to sit in it and wait for God.
Another confession: more and more often, and on ever more things, I wonder, “why bother?”
And so, I pray. I pray that I might find ways to help. I pray that I might understand. I pray that we all might have some relief.
And then James finishes that thirteenth verse: “Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.”
Well, we’re not supposed to sing here. It is, sadly enough, among the most high-risk things we could do, at least from a covid perspective. But I hope at least some of us can sing on our own, or in our heads.
Are we cheerful here? I just ran through a litany of suffering, but we have it better than many. We have a community here that has stayed together through disease, through constant changes, through a transition to phone and online worship back to most of us being together indoors. We are a congregation that models working together, even when we think each other are wrong, or crazy. We will get the rest of the new sound system installed and we will again be able to see and hear those of you joining us via Zoom…someday. All in God’s time. Speaking of God’s time, it might have taken us four years to replace the kitchen door, but we got that kitchen door fixed. Praise be to God.
We have welcomed newcomers into our community and one new member. We have celebrated a wedding and a baptism just in the last few months. We have set the Christmas Food Box program on new footing to help it to grow stronger in the future. We are living and growing and changing. Praise be to God!
James continues in verse 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.”
So many of us are sick, in so many different ways, and we have cared for each other. We might not bring oil, we may not visit in person, but we can visit in other ways, over phone or video, through letters and cards. I know so many of you have been making a more concerted effort over the last year and a half to check in on each other. Visitation is not just a ministry for the pastor, but also for the elders, and we know that here. We call ourselves Presbyterians because of the Greek word James uses here for “elder.”
Verse 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.”
Raise has a double meaning. Prayer, James promises, will be effective: for some, it will be effective now and among those who are sick, some will get up from their sick beds and return to health. Others will be raised into the new life, the life eternal, where their sins will be forgiven. We pray not just for ourselves, not just for our own suffering and not just in praise for our own joy, as in verse 13, but for each other. We pray for our family, for our friends, for our church, for our country, for our planet, for our siblings in Christ, whether they worship with us or not, whether they worship like us or not, we remember that we are all created in the image of God as we pray for all people and as people we may have never met, may have never even heard of pray also for us.
Verse 16 reads: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
We know that we all sin. We know that we all fall short, miss the mark. We know that our desires are disordered. I have talked about my sin already, my retreats into my mind, my desire to escape, to hide, to avoid. We confess together each Sunday, both aloud and silently.
James’ letter has called us to pray in our suffering and to praise in our joy. It has called us to seek aid when we suffer from physical illness, and now it brings us to the great “therefore,” always a sign that someone is getting to a point.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
I have peppered this sermon with confessions because we are healed when we confess. Sin is our disordered desire to blend in, to fit in, to cover our mistakes, to hide our failings, to hope that no one else sees them or catches us. Sin is our desire to redirect, to blame another, to minimize our faults and magnify others’. Sin convinces us that our intent is more important than a bad result, but that someone else’s bad result is more important than their intent. Sin is the lie that draws us ever deeper until we can no longer keep it straight but find ourselves enmeshed in an ever-growing web of deceit.
Confession frees us from that web. Confession brings what is hidden into view and often shows us that we are all failing and struggling in much the same way. Confession lets us ask for help from those who have more capacity and frees us from struggling beneath burdens too great to bear.
Confession lets us come together and gives us the opportunity to see and be seen as we truly are. Our sin wants to convince us that we are alone, that no one else has done, said, thought what we have done, said, or thought. Confession lets us see that we are not alone, and that repentance does not begin with hiding the truth but with facing it. We will not always like it, whether we are looking at what we or someone else has done, but only with confession can we truly pray for each other. Only with confession can others truly pray for us. Verse 16 concludes with a promise: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
We may not see those effects right away, we may not see them at all, but we continue to pray for ourselves, for each other, for countless others we have never met or heard of, because when we confess, when we pray for each other, when we allow others to pray for ourselves, to see how we have failed, fallen short, missed the mark, or become disordered, we can receive help from God and from each other. Praise be to God.