The Lord Will Raise Them Up – Sermon on James 5.13-20

(Preached at Aldersgate UMC on 9/30/2012)

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.”

James, the brother of Jesus wrote to the early Christians: 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. Let us pray.

The man was dying. The sterile controlled atmosphere of the hospital room was almost beyond comprehension. Electronic devices were hung particularly from metallic arms, fluids were flowing, and the low buzz of the oxygen machine provided the only audible accompaniment. The man in the bed was dying and he knew it. His pale blue eyes rested upon mine as I sat across from him not knowing what to say. The sounds of the hospital filled the void of our conversation while his wife wept next to me and his 12 year old son sat stoically staring out the window. I was in the first week of my internship in Birmingham, Michigan and had naively volunteered to make the hospital visits that day. The Henry Ford Hospital was what the parishioners affectionately referred to as the “Cadillac of Hospitals” and it certainly felt that way. Upon entering through the magnificently large main entrance, you were greeted by an assortment of boutiques and small restaurants; there were more trees planted inside the opulent hospital than there were outside on the grounds. Everything about it screamed the opposite of hospital until you explored far enough in to find the patients in their rooms.

The man continued to stare at me from his bed; his eyes spoke more to me than anything conversation would have. I expected to see fear and anxiety in those pale blue eyes, but instead I saw peace, a peace that existed in stark contrast with the tears being spilled on the couch next to me. I had attempted to initiate small talk when I had entered the room, but it went nowhere. As I returned to the dying man’s gaze I was overwhelmed with a profound desire, one that was instigated beyond myself. I leaned forward from my chair toward his bed and though I was afraid of how he would respond, I asked, “May we pray together?”

Throughout the gospel narrative Jesus constantly finds himself in a setting where his saving touch is required. As he made his way throughout Galilee, droves of suffering human beings followed the humble rabbi and implored him to make them well. He was dragged into houses to cure fevers, followed by crawling lepers seeking his simple touch, compelled by friends of a paralytic to bring back restoration. He was confronted with people consumed by demons that were then cast out at the touch and sound of Jesus’ voice. A woman with a hemorrhage reached out just to touch the hem of his garment as he passed by. The blind and deaf were brought before him over and over again, requiring only the simplest touch from Jesus to be made well.

The God who became flesh in Jesus Christ was intimately involved in the healing business. The church, it seems then, should be decidedly emphasizing the healing power that Jesus presented in his earthly ministry. Important for us is that according to the New Testament Jesus also laid his hands on his disciples enabling them to perform similar miracles to those that he himself had accomplished. He sent out the twelve two by two in order to proclaim the Good News and “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mark 6.13) Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early church continued in this tradition and was capable of healing the crippled, casting out demons, and even restoring the dead back to life (Acts 3.1-10; 5.12-16; 9.32-43).

Written at some point in the latter half of the first century, the epistle of James has been traditionally connected with James, the younger brother of Jesus. The letter is famous for being Martin Luther’s least favorite book of the bible. Part of the letter addresses the difficult problem of wrestling between faith and work, and what really accomplishes salvation. But this morning we find ourselves at the end of the letter, and James confronts us: Are any of you suffering? You should pray. Are any of you cheerful? You should sing songs of praise. Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.

I wonder about what it really means to be healed. Its very clear in the Bible that when Jesus and the disciples pray or lay their hands on someone that they are physiologically healed from their suffering: the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. But is this the full intent of healing? What does the “prayer of faith” have to do with being made well? Do we gather every week in order to worship the God who fixes broken bones, or is there more to “healing?”

Beyond physical restoration, Jesus places significant emphasis on the power of being healed in the community. Because of the fear of weakness and sickness in the first century, many who suffered were ostracized from their families and were isolated outside of the community. The people of the New Testament were very logical: they needed to isolate the sick from those who were well. However, Jesus does not agree with the logic of the world. After most of the healing narratives, Jesus commands the newly restored to return to their family or town. Jesus inverts this prescription institutionalized on the suffering with his resounding command: “Go home to your friends.”

The letter of James falls completely in line with Jesus’ perspective of the way the church should stand in contrast to the world. James specifically addresses those within the community who are suffering and sick and admonishes them to call upon the elders to pray over them. James, in line with Jesus, places all of the power with the weak and the last rather than the strong and the first.

Though James’ letter is filled with many commands for Christian living, this scripture right at the very end of the letter is the first and only time that he addresses the ekklesia, the church. The church of the first century existed in sharp contradiction to the expectations of the world. Can you imagine what that community looked like, where the sick had the power to call on the elders to come visit them; a place where the weak and lonely were no longer isolated from their families and friends; an intentional way of living predicated on the practice of mutuality? Remember this: What we believe shapes how we behave.

When I asked the dying man if we could pray together, I did not know how he would respond. The tension in the room was palpable, but he held my gaze and nodded in approval. Before I reached out my hands, I asked if there were certain things I could pray for in that moment. Usually, when I’ve asked this question in hospital rooms the answer is same: “Pray for this to go away, pray for me to get better.” But that afternoon in Michigan, the dying man turned my world upside down: “I want you to pray for the church,” he said, “I want you to pray for the church so that it can take care of my wife, so that my son can have role-models to emulate. I want you to pray for the church so that my wife won’t remain lonely without me, so that my son has someone to throw a baseball with. I want you to pray for the church so that it can be a family for mine… I know I’m dying, but I’m not worried about that anymore because I have faith in our God”

That dying man’s faith is what grace is all about. He believed in something greater, more wonderful, and magnificently mysterious. He, in those simple words, spoke the truth of Gospel better than many preachers ever have. Living a life of faith is not about what you do but it’s about who you are. It’s not about signing up for every Sunday suppers or mission trips, but about believing in the goodness of God and the redemptive quality of Jesus’ death on the cross. It’s not about isolating the weak and the sick away from the healthy; it’s about making community. It’s about being the place where the dying man’s wife and son could be family. The life of faith is predicated on the grace poured out on us everyday of our lives, whether its the simple touch of a hand in a hospital room, or a young boy hugging his father when he finally comes home from work.

The dying man, James, and Jesus all show us how grace works. We are called to live in such a way that we can live up to the expectations of that dying man’s prayer. The church, this church, is the place where we can answer his prayer. We can come together in our suffering through praying and being present with one another. We can come together in our cheerfulness singing our songs of joy and praise. We can come together when we are sick and weak calling for everyone in the church to pray over one another.

How many of us our suffering? How easy it is to pretend like we’re okay when everything is falling apart around us? Have we told anyone about our suffering? Over the last month and a half I have been interning for a church in Durham, North Carolina. As the church’s congregational care intern, it is my responsibility to visit members from the church in the hospital or those who can no longer make it to church. Maybe it’s because they know I’m studying to be a pastor, but many of the people I have visited have shared with me the depth of their being: I have learned about cancers, divorces, unemployment. What I come to discover later is that I am the only one who knows about any of it. Many of these people have not shared their suffering with the best friends, or even their real pastors. Why are we so afraid to open up with on another? Have you told anyone about how you’re suffering? Listen to the command of Jesus through his brother James! We are the church James is speaking to! What would it mean for you to share your fears and failures with your brothers and sisters in Christ. How differently might we view each other when we know the depth of one another’s being?

James is showing us how we can be healed. Part of that responsibility rests on our shoulders: Are any of you sick? You should call for the church to pray over you! We are called to be a community committed to the welfare of the entire body of Christ, one where we know how we are doing, and what we can do for each other. That is our responsibility. What we believe shapes how we behave!

“The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.”

Our belief is that through God’s grace that we find our truest wellness. The grace that he gave to us without any merit of our own, the grace that was poured upon us in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, the grace that knows no bounds! Through grace, the Lord will raise us up.

Amen.

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Noah’s Hangover – Sermon on Genesis 9.18-29

(Preached at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, Virginia on 9/2/2012)

Genesis 9.18-29: “The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God shall be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” After the flood Noah lived three hundred fifty years. All the days of Noah were nine hundred fifty years; and he died.”

The smell was unbearable. Though he had lost track of the days, Ham was still unaccustomed to the rocking of the boat and the smell of damp animals constantly bombarding his senses. As he made his way throughout the bowels of the ship, checking on his brothers and their families, feeding the animals, and plugging leaks, Ham’s tortured mind kept replaying the details of what brought him to this ship.

His father had always been a quiet man; he mostly kept to himself and lived a humble life. His daily routine was not often interrupted until the day he began gathering copious amounts of wood from the forest. Ham could not understand the change in his father’s ambitions, but he respected him enough to not question this new driving force. Over the months a ship began to form out of the collected wood and Ham, along with his brothers, helped their father by collecting two of every animal from the surrounding countryside. Ham’s unwavering faith sustained him through the trying months where a ship stood in an open field, miles from the nearest water source. When others would have doubted his father’s project, Ham remained steadfast. And then the rain began. As the days passed, and the rain continued, Ham began to understand why his father had dedicated all of his energy to the giant raft; a flood was coming.

Ducking underneath the wooden support beams Ham pondered whether or not the boat would ever again rest on solid land. Tormented by the incessant rocking, Ham went onto the deck of the ship in order to calm his system. Usually filled with noise and activity, when Ham arrived on the deck all was silent and most of his family had gathered on the side of the boat. Worried that someone had fallen overboard, Ham rushed to the edge of the boat with his eyes drawn to the water until his father, Noah, placed a hand on Ham’s shoulder and pointed to the mountaintops that pierced the edge of the horizon: their journey was coming to an end.

The months after the flood passed by without the interruption of any major catastrophic elements. Ham and his brothers were initially shocked to discover the absurd amount of devastation that had been underwater. But as time passed, they cleaned and prepared to create a new home. While Ham and his family settled back into normalcy, his father began to cultivate fields of grapes in the same manner that he built the ark – he kept to himself yet worked with profound dedication. Eventually the fields yielded their fruit and Noah began to produce an abundance of wine.

One morning Ham was distressed to discover his father missing from his usual presence in the fields and went off to find him. Upon entering his father’s tent, Ham took in the disheveled room and tried to make sense of what was before him: Noah was completely naked surrounded by a number of empty wine bottles. Ham looked upon the body of his father and felt sorry for him, for his trials and tribulations with the ark, for his drunkenness, for his nakedness, and for his shame. He left the tent in order to find his brothers Shem and Japheth and tell them what had happened.

After debating what needed to be done, Shem and Japheth found a cloak and laying it on their shoulders they walked into their father’s tent backwards to cover the nakedness of their father. Throughout the day Ham continually walked past Noah’s tent and waited patiently for his father to awake. When Noah finally awoke from his drunken stupor, news of his nakedness and drunken escapade from the night before had made its way throughout the family. Noah, usually a man of few words, angrily made his way through the camp until he stood before his sons: “Ham I have come to curse your son, my grandson, Canaan; lowest of the slaves shall he be to his brothers! My other son Shem, blessed by the Lord my God you shall be, let your nephew Canaan be your slave! Japheth, may God make space for you in the tents of your brother Shem, and let your nephew Canaan be your slave!”

… I have no idea what this passage means. I am starting my third year of seminary and I haven’t the faintest idea how this scripture made it into the canon. I have dreaded this moment over the last few months, knowing that I was invited to come in my home church, where I would stand before so many people I love and care about, people who made me into the Christian I am today, people who helped nurture my call to the ministry. I have been terrified about preaching this sermon because I simply have no idea what this scripture means.

Now don’t get me wrong, my last two years at Duke Divinity School have been amazing. I have garnered a significant theological education, unrivaled in the United States. My professors have taken me through amazing lectures on a myriad of subjects. I have learned how to appropriately pronounce words like eschatology, pericope, pneumatology, hermeneutics, dogmatic apologetics, latitudarianism, curvatis, kerygma, infralapsarianism, and sometimes I even know what those words mean. I have served churches in North Carolina and Michigan. I have participated in funerals and comforted grieving families. I have celebrated with parents as the brought their infant forward to be baptized into the body of Christ. I have committed myself to the call that God placed on my life so many years ago, but I still don’t know what to do with Noah’s hangover.

To begin, everyone here already knows the real story about Noah and the Ark, it’s the one your children watch on Veggie Tales, and the one your grandmother told you when you were growing up – Noah, a man of God, is the only righteous human being left; God commands him to build an ark and procure two of every animal in order to repopulate the earth after the flood; the flood comes and desolates the land, but Noah’s faith in God’s calling sustains him and his family; after the water recedes God creates a rainbow in the sky signifying the new covenant… However, this is not the end of the story.

Over the last few years I have come to appreciate the fact that the bible is full of mysterious, confusing, and seemingly un-preachable, stories. Over the last month Jason Micheli has taken this church through some of the more bizarre collections of the Word of God: You have heard about: Isaiah’s unwavering faith in the Lord to the point of remaining naked for three years; David collecting 100 Philistine foreskins in order to marry Saul’s daughter; Paul literally preaching and boring a young man to death; and God jumping out in the middle of the night in an attempt to kill Moses.

Jason has skillfully and articulately brought these stories to life, he has connected them with the modern world and brought forth a message applicable for today. Moreover, he has done what every preacher is called to do: make the Word become flesh and dwell among us.

Unlike Jason Micheli, I do not have a particular story that reflects the scripture for the day. I’m sure if Jason were preaching this morning he would tell us about getting a call one morning at his last church to visit a family within the community. Upon arriving Jason would have discovered the father passed out naked in the living room after a night of binge drinking. Jason’s description of the room would be so vivid and adjectival that we, the congregation, could smell the burnt bacon emanating from the kitchen and feel the tapioca colored carpet under our feet. At that point he would take the time to describe with absurd detail the feeling of a bead of sweat developing on his temple and slowly running down to his collar. He would then tell us about the fight that happened between the drunken man and his son, and then give us a wonderful sermonic twist by emphasizing the grace of God and then end with a witty sentence that we would carry with us the rest of the day. Unlike Jason Micheli, I do not have a story about meeting a drunk, naked man asleep on the floor.

I do not know what to do with our story today.

Most of us have never even heard it; we are content with the Veggie-Tales version that ends with the wonderful rainbow in the sky. But, if we end the story with the Rainbow we are left to wrestle with one of the bible’s most troubling theological questions: If God destroyed the world with a flood in order to destroy sin, why is the world still so messed up today?

Genesis 9.18-29 is full of problems: theological, historical, and logical:

Noah, who “found favor in the sight of the Lord” (Genesis 6.8) and who “did all that God commanded him” (6.22) was set apart from this rest of retched humanity in order to survive God’s destruction. After the flood God blesses Noah and commands him to be fruitful and multiply three times, insuring him and his family that God would never again “curse the ground because of humankind.” And how does Noah react? He builds a vineyard, gets drunk, and falls asleep naked in his tent. This doesn’t make any sense. Why would the one human, the only one God chose to save, ruin this blessed opportunity of life on drink and nudity? Why would he so defile the earth that God just saved? Why would he blatantly ignore the covenantal rainbow in the sky for a night of debauchery? It doesn’t make any sense.

But the passage isn’t over yet: Ham, the faithful son of Noah, the one who stood by his father through the ark’s construction and the great flood, Ham discovers his father’s naked body. Ham, like any good son, tells his brothers in order that they might cover up their father’s mistakes, his nakedness and drunken behavior. And how does Noah reward his faithful son? He curses his own kin! It doesn’t make any sense.

But then things get worse: Noah doesn’t single out Ham for discovering his sin. Instead of reacting harshly against his own son, he curses the family of Ham’s son Canaan, Noah’s own grandson. He demands that Canaan remain in subjugation to his uncles Shem and Japheth. Noah’s tirade in the thick of his hangover sets a dark tone over his progeny and sets in motion a familial schism that has frightening biblical consequences.

Maybe you already know this, but I was surprised to discover that this is the only time in the bible that Noah actually speaks. He has patiently obeyed his Lord to the point of building a giant ship and never once opened his mouth. Only now, only after his alcohol induced nakedness does Noah say anything. Our only recorded words from one of the Old Testament’s greatest heroes are the rejection and curse of his own family.

This frightens me. I feel like the happy cartoonish version of Noah and the Ark has been ripped away from me, and I am only left with a sad old man embarrassed about his sin. I can remember learning about Noah from my own grandmother as a child, I remembered thinking about how lucky he was to survive, how smart he must have been to build that giant boat. And now I am frightened. I put a lot of faith in Noah and I’m afraid that he’s just not that special.

But you know what frightens me the most? More than Noah getting drunk, and more than the fact that he curses his grandson, the thing that frightens me most is that God is no longer at the center of the story. As I was preparing the sermon for this Sunday I reread the first chapters of Genesis up until the flood and I realized that our scripture today is the first time in the bible where God does not appear directly.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the cosmos, the galaxies, the universe and everything in it. God created them and understood them to be good, full of order and life, running over and full of abundance. And then God, in the greatest act of love, gave it all to us, the ones created in his image, calling us to care for and keep God’s creation in order that we might enjoy its beauty. Humanity was created to be the faithful stewards of God’s universe, accountable to his lordship and wonderful guidance.

Yet we human beings do not like to be servants to anyone, especially not to God. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, rebelled against the goodness of God by disobeying his command. But God did not abandon us. He made for humanity life abundant and stood by at civilization developed. He remained faithful to us, when we were least faithful to him. Humanity continued to act wickedly, we let evil and strife rest on our hearts, and for some reason God stood by his creation. He picked one man, Noah, to remain in the wake of his destruction. God actively chose to give humanity another chance through Noah and his family, yet Noah ignores the grace of God.

God has been intrinsically active from the beginning of existence up until the aftermath of the flood. Genesis 1-9 have been centrally focused on creation event, and God’s relationship with his creation. And now God is no longer at the center of the story. Instead of rejoicing in the good God that saved him and his family from certain destruction, he drinks the wine from his vineyard, falls asleep naked, and curses his grandson.

God is no longer at the center of Noah’s story.

Where is God in your story?

I am in divinity school, and ironically enough it is one of the most difficult places to find God. We spend so much time talking around God, and through God, below God, and about God, that we forget to talk to God. I have become consumed with thoughts about my own ordination process, and what kind of church will the conference assign me to at the end of the year if they commission me, when instead I should be thinking about how can I make God’s kingdom come on earth.

Maybe some of you are like Noah and me, where God is sometimes no longer at the center of your story. Some of you might be lonely and miss the companionship of a friend or spouse when we as a church could be working to reflect the goodness of God’s communal creation by reaching out to those in out pews who need relationship the most.

Perhaps some of you are consumed by your own sin, afraid of the damage it has caused and will continue to cause when you could be contemplating the forgiveness Christ proclaimed from the cross toward his accusers and torturers – no one is beyond the loving embrace of God.

Maybe some of you are unemployed and are worried about the responsibility resting on your shoulders when this church could be reflecting the church instituted by the God who became flesh in Christ that cared for one another through giving to any who had need.

Perhaps you are afraid to die, you’ve come face to face with your own mortality and you can’t stand the sight of it when we could all readily recognize that one day we all will die, but just as God became flesh in Jesus Christ and mounted the cross, Jesus was resurrected from beyond the grave; God has called each of us to something greater than our own mortality.

I don’t know what to do with Noah’s story. I don’t know what brought you to church this morning. I don’t know if you’re afraid, or if you’re lonely, or if you’re tired, or just complacent. But one thing I am sure of, with every fiber of my being, is that God is supposed to be the center of our story.