God With Us – Homily on James 5.13-20

I was recently asked to speak to a local group of ICM Chaplains about the importance of carrying our faith into the workplace. It was an honor and a privilege to speak with such great chaplains and enjoy an evening of fellowship together. Below is the homily I preached for the occasion.

James 5.13-20

Are any song 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.

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She walked with a limp and was struggling under the oppressive humidity. Employed by the church as a custodian, the older woman largely kept to herself but you could tell that she was remarkably lonely. I had taken the time to express kind greetings throughout the summer but they never developed into a conversation. I was serving as an intern at a rural church in the deep recesses of Western North Carolina and I spent most of my days exploring the Great Smokey Mountains instead of sitting in my stuffy office reading over my sermons for Sundays.

Her loneliness was palpable enough that I finally decided to do something about it, and one Thursday morning toward the end of my time I invited her to come on hike with me along a creek right outside of town. I had been part of the church long enough to know that the building itself often casts a shadow over the lives of the people who call it home, and if you really want to get to know someone, you’ve got to go somewhere else.

She walked with a limp and was struggling under the oppressive humidity. I offered her my water bottle while we sat along the creek and let our feet cool off in the water. While sitting side by side I realized that I knew nothing about her outside of her name, but over the next thirty minutes I learned more about her than anyone else in town. Without prompting, without asking any questions, she started to spill forth details that had remained buried for a long time. I learned that she had been a writer in Chicago pursuing truth wherever possible, I learned about her desire to have children but had a husband who felt otherwise, I learned about the husband’s pension for physical punishment, I learned about the night he had one too many and beat her so bad she wound up in the hospital with a limp and brain damage, I learned about how she fled to escape his wrath to North Carolina, I learned about how she could only find work as a church custodian because of her physical problems, I learned that she felt alone, afraid, and empty.

We prayed. We prayed and prayed out in those woods. We spilt tears into the creek and we asked for God’s peace. Before we returned to town, my curiosity was too strong to not ask the question on my heart: “Why did you tell me all of that?” I asked. “Because you didn’t ask, you just listened.”

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He came to the prayer meetings but never said a word. Every Wednesday morning the family men would sit in one of the parlors at the church and pray for one another before leaving for work. 40 such men had grown to value their time spent with God and one another to help them through the day ahead. We all listened about the problems at home, the children who refused to listen, the bosses who ignored their hard work, the financial struggles, and the crises of faith. It was a time of great vulnerability for us to share our doubts and frustrations without a sense of shame or judgment.

He came to the prayer meetings but never said a word. He never shared his frustration, never offered to pray. He just sat silently in the corner, sipped on his coffee, and left silently at the end of the meeting. That was the routine until one morning when he approached me and asked if he could take me out to breakfast. 20 minutes later I found myself sitting at the Birmingham Country Club in Birmingham, MI with a man who made more in a year than I will make in my entire life. He told me he had cancer, that he had not told anyone else, and that he didn’t know what to do. We prayed together while our coffee grew cold and asked for God’s grace to rain down on us in all things. Before we returned to our cars, my curiosity was too strong to not ask the question on my heart: “Why did you tell me all of that?” I asked. “Because you’re not the pastor, and I felt I could trust you.”

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Icicles were beginning to form in my beard. The Christmas trees stood brilliantly arranged on the lawn of St. John’s UMC, with snow caught on the branches while families perused the plentiful selection of White Pines and Frasier Furs. I located one such family with two young children examining a tree near the end of the row. I offered to pull it off the line so they could examine from all angles and imagine it in their living room. We began talking about Staunton and what it means to be a true Stauntonian when they shared with me their desire to find a local church community. “We just moved here,” they said, “and we were hoping to plug in and meet some new people.”

“Well look no further than St. John’s” I began. “We’ve got services on Sundays, a wonderful Preschool, and people who are full of love. However, the pastor isn’t worth a can of beans.” They leaned in closer and asked with a whisper: “Well, then why do you come here if the pastor is so bad? “Because he is me. What makes our church wonderful are the people who attend, not the one who stands at the front.”

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ICM: Industrial Commercial Ministries. Your mission is to be a caring presence in the workplaces you serve. You bring faith to the people as a sign of God’s love and presence. I love what you do, because you are called to be just like me, which is to say, you are called to be pastoral in the places that matter most. One of the failings of the modern church is the relegation of faithful living to one hour a week on Sunday mornings. We have diminished the role of Christian discipleship to the worship of God alone, which has allowed us to forget that we have put on Christ Monday through Saturday.

In my experience the most transformative moments in Christians’ lives take place somewhere other than church. My role as a pastor is to equip the people of God to be the body of Christ for the world. As chaplains you have the distinct privilege of sitting and praying with people in the midst of terrible valleys and incredible mountaintops. You, more than pastors, are deeply entrenched in the true mission field of 21st century Christianity.

The end of James contains one of the most beautiful calls for Christians to act like Christ: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” Being a Christian is not just about coming to church. Being Christian requires a commitment to confessing our shortcomings with one another, seeking help for the struggles of life no matter where we are and no matter what we do. Being a Christian requires us to be God’s loving and forgiving presence for people who feel they had been abandoned to the cruel fates of the world.

I give God many thanks for the work that you do as chaplains. You get to sit along the creeks of life, soaking your feet in the water, while listening to people open up about their pasts in a way that can be healing and transformative. You get to pray with people who have been dealt heavy blows regarding family issues, hopeless diagnoses, and financial burdens. You get to make Christianity wonderful by being the body of Christ for the world in the world.

I believe the Holy Spirit is moving through all of you. I believe God has done some incredible things through your willingness to meet people where they are. I believe the future of Christianity will be largely dependent on people like you who make the world become flesh in the way you live your lives.

This season of advent is perfect reminder for those of us called to be chaplains. We wait for Emmanuel, God with us, so that we can share that incredible good news with others: God is with you.

Amen.

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