By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 26, 2021
This is part 3 of the Willow Creek Friends Annual Spiritual Formation retreat. The video will be posted on YouTube after the service (Sorry no live stream this week because the internet at the camp will not handle it.
James 5:13–20 (ESV)
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, 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 heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
We are all part of a story, as story that we might not think is that interesting while we are living through it, but when we pull back the layers something more is revealed. Yesterday we explored who we are, where we have been, and hopefully who walked with us along the way. Today we will explore the rest of the story.
The history of each of our families are important to who we are. As is the culture our families emerged from. These give a foundation to our experiences, they give us a framework to process our lives through. But like most things, it is not perfect. In the story of Joseph we can see that even a single tribe chosen by the Most High God is not perfect. Abraham lied about his wife, even offered her to be courted by other men. Why? Because he was afraid of what might happen to him if they knew that she was his wife. This man that scripture regards as a man of stellar faith fails sometimes.
Failure is not always bad. Failure is a reality of life. We will never get everything perfect no matter how hard we try, because we are human. We live our lives out the best we can, and often we live those lives out with incomplete knowledge. When we function with incomplete knowledge we must accept the reality that at times we might make mistakes. We might fail.
What we do with that setback is where our story takes a turn. The reason we hear the story of Abraham is because he failed but he continued to trust God through the failures. Then there are times where we were not the problem. That is Joseph. When we hear about Joseph the only real failure we see in scripture is that he was not that tactful in how he spoke early in his life.
At the age of seventeen he had a dream where he and his brothers were gathering the harvest and the eleven sheaves of wheat his brothers gathered bend down toward his sheave. Then he had another dream where there were eleven stars as well as the sun and the moon that all bend down in homage to his star. Joseph was telling the truth. He was completely honest but he failed to recognize how his words would be taken by his brothers.
This is at time our greatest failure. James, Jesus’s brother, warns us about this as well. He tells us, “we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”
Joseph was not mindful of his words, but he was an adolescent male. I do not know a single person that has not made that mistake somewhere along the line. That is not an excuse and it also does not excuse the brothers for their actions.
Sometimes the troubles of our live are enacted upon us. When this happens it is particularly difficult to move forward. And unless we have experienced the injustice we cannot fully relate. There are things that I learned about in history class. Things I have thought were far in the past. Things I thought were history. And then something triggers in my mind and I realize that it really was not that long ago. There are still people alive today that faced the problems that prompted the civil rights movement. This is not ancient history to many people. It is not the ancient foundation their stories have been built on. It is still part of what they live today. And yes it is still something the live with. There are countless veterans that served in Vietnam who still struggle with loud noises even though they have been home from the war for forty-eight years.
Our cultural history lays a foundation for our story, and our past experiences fill our stories. These thing make us who we are, but we are more than our past. We can take an active role in how we will respond when we face those struggles.
Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. That is something that would devastate me. I cannot imagine a member of my own family selling me into slavery. I cannot imagine it, and yet it still occurs even to this day. Even though our nation outlawed the practice a hundred and fifty-six years ago there are still thousands of people in the United States living in forced servitude. That was part of Joseph’s story. Did he want to be a slave in Egypt?No, he wanted to be wandering out in the countryside with his father’s sheep wearing his technicolor-ed dream coat. But that was not what happened.
What do we do about it? We look at the life of Joseph, we would know that he worked hard. He became indispensable within his master’s house to the point his master put him over everything. Effectively Joseph even while a slave, became the voice of his master. He was effectively his equal. Then something else happened. Even Joseph’s master’s wife began to see Joseph as being equal to his master. She demanded that he join her in that type of a relationship, but Joseph refused. He would not disrespect his master even though he knew that his master was exploiting him.
I want us to think about that for a bit. In the world around us we live in this community of competition. And to be honest for the most part I do not mind it. But there are places where we need to recognize it for what it really is. In this culture of competition we take advantage of situations so that we can turn a profit. I love to see this in the movie Mary Poppins. Bert the street peddler will sell roasted nuts when its nice out and as soon as it starts to rain he pulls out the umbrellas. There is nothing wrong with a little competition. Until we start to take advantage of a situation where there is not any other options. That become exploitation and exploitation is wrong. The reason it is wrong is because there is not mutual profit. One party did not benefit equally in the transaction. And when there is not an equal exchange hard feelings develop, and when these hard feelings compound we get violence.
This is what James spoke about last week. “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not as. You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people!”
When we continue the cycles of exploitation we are participating in what drives these quarrels and fights. When we do not recognize where we ourselves are participating in the exploitation we become part of the problem. We become the antagonist in someone’s story instead of a companion along the journey.
Joseph was placed in a position where no matter what he did he would be accused and convicted. He was a slave and therefore had no voice of his own. So he could not defend himself against the accusation of the wife, and if he had gone through with the incident, his master could have had him killed. The fact that Joseph was not killed actually tells us a great deal. His master knew that his wife, was most likely at fault, but what would happen to him if he took the word of his slave over the word of his own wife?
Do you see how the cycle continues. It will always continue until someone takes the risk to put an end to it. This brings us back to our story. You know where you are from, you know your roots. If you do not know your roots find out about your roots it might explain a great deal as to why you are in the place you are. We also know our experience up to this point. This is where you are from and who you are in your story. But there is more to be written. Our lives are not predetermined. You are not fated to the position you are in. When we take that look on life we are not being bold, we are not being brave. When we look at our lives and decide that this is our fate, we have given up. We have made a choice that it is not worth the work. We have decided that my story and the story of everyone around me does not matter.
I want us to consider that for a moment. Abraham was one man living in the wilderness of Palestine. He was an old man without a family. Sure he was secure in his income but when God said he was going to be a father of a nation that would be the light to the world, imagine the laughter he must have felt. He was barely a family let alone a nation. Yet his story is important because God made it important. That one man did become a father of a people, and that people became the light to the nations. And from that nation came the restoration of all creation through Jesus Christ. One person’s story is important. If it is lived in a manner that will break the cycles of sin and exploitation.
James tells us is, “anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.”
I mentioned a few weeks ago that James was one of the first letters written but one of the last to be accepted within the cannon of scripture. We know it is one of the first to be written because often when James speaks of the church he uses the term for synagogue instead of ekklesia. The term synagogue implies that the church is still connected the traditional roots from which our faith emerged. Jesus was Jewish, our God is the the God of Israel. But when James comes to the close of this letter, he does something interesting. He begins to speak about breaking the cycles. In verse 13, he encourages us to pray while we are in the midst of suffering. When we are in a place of cheerfulness we should express our joy through praise to God. This is in keeping with tradition. But then in verse 14, he begins to speak about the sick. This is where things begin to change. I am not saying that the Jewish people by in large did not help the sick, that would be a gross misrepresentation of the truth and a twisting of scripture. But there were some illnesses that required isolation. If we take for instance leprosy, when a person was determined to have this disease they were essentially regarded as dead. They could not associate with the community and were required to live outside civilization. James challenges those that are sick to engage the community again. He empowers them to call for the elders of the church. And in this case he uses the term ekklesia.
James is empowering the sick, and he is challenging those of us that have health to look beyond the wisdom of our cultural and our society. He is challenging us to take the action we need to take to become the change we want to see in our community.
I want us to think of this in the context of our story. We have the power through Christ to break away from tradition to restore the honor and dignity of the individuals around us. Each of us were created to bear God’s image. Every person that we meet was also created to do the same. Do we recognize and respect that in the people around us. The church is called to go to the sick, and the sick are empowered to make that call. Will we take that chance?
This is part of our story. The foundation of our lives, those things that happened before our birth are the preface. The things that set the scene. Our past, those struggles we have faced and overcome are scenes and subplots that bring out our character. Those struggles are the spices seasoning our lives, but even those things are not our complete story. We still have the power to change the course. Will we let the forces outside ourselves dictate who we are? Or will take a different path.
We at every moment have a choice to make, we can stay the course or we can look for a different path. But at times we cannot see. Our vision is so clouded and distracted that we cannot even tell which side is up or down. We are seemingly trapped in the clouds of unknowing, and our souls are shrouded in a dark night. The sick are not always physically sick. There is mental and even spiritual illness that can hold us in a place of desolation. This is why we need the church, and trusted friends willing to listen and help you along your journey.
This is the power of the story, the power of your story. When we get to a place where we can share who we are honestly, when we can share what is bothering us and challenging us, We give our community an opportunity to join us in our journey. And I want us to think of just how important this is. Sin. We often think of sin as a transgression or crime against God. That is true, but it is not the complete truth.
Sin is those things in our life that keep us from our proper relationships. We can be doing everything right and still be in sin, because our proper relationship is to be in communion with God and our community. Our jobs can become sinful if it keeps us from our family, just as much as an affair with a coworker can be sin. When our relationships become fractured, any relationship it places a wedge deeper into our lives, causing more desolation within our lives. The cycle continues to drive the wedge deeper, until something stops the cycle.
James tells us to confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. This is how we stop the cycles that drive us away from God. This is how we stop the cycles of exploitation even within our communities. We talk and we listen and we pray. When we begin to tell our story, when we begin to listen to the stories of others, we begin to see the areas we can anoint with various oils and areas we can meet needs and encourage others. What is the next phase of your story? For someone like Joseph the next phase was not allowing the ways of the world to continue, he chose a different path, what was intended for evil, God used for good. The next phase is right around you. It is not focusing on our own struggles but instead helping others find God in their own story and helping them out of their dark nights. The next phase of the life and story you want comes when we turn from ourselves and toward others.
Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? What is your story? And how will your story be told?