Nothing Great is Done Without Prayer
Sunday, September 30, 2018 - 11:00 to 12:00
There was a fascinating article in Harvard Business Review not long ago that talked about the power of what is known in business as ‘disruption’. Disruption is one of those words like branding; it has become part of the business vocabulary, and everything is disrupting and disruptive, and it’s seen as a good thing. The essay put the whole notion of disruption in proper context, because it has been misunderstood over time. For those of you involved in business, you would know what I’m talking about. It was a term coined by Clayton Christensen in 1997.
It’s not disruption in the way that, say, a demonstration disrupts an event. It’s not disruption like what happens with Rogers and Bell and others, when you can’t get on the internet. Disruption is actually about innovation. The essay goes on to say, Uber, for example, is not disruptive, it just provides an alternate way of doing something. But Netflix is disruptive. It introduced a whole new way of doing things, a whole new way of seeing movies and television shows – just ask Blockbuster. It’s something new, something that challenges the way things have been done, and when something is disruptive, it is innovative, new, pushing the boundaries.
In many ways today’s passage from the Book of James is disruptive. What he is talking about is prayer. For James, prayer is disruptive. He was writing to a group of Christians who, in their earliest days, were facing persecution. They were being blamed for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. And the new Christian community was being looked upon with suspicion. In the midst of all of this, James starts talking about the power of prayer, saying that the prayers of the righteous are effective and powerful.
When you really think about it, prayer is disruptive. It introduces something new into our lives, and brings something that we simply can’t get anywhere else, when God is both the object and the subject of our prayers. It displaces old ways of doing things and replaces them with new. It puts God into the centre of our lives and our thinking. If anything is radical, is anything is disruptive, it is prayer. Prayer is something that God has given us from time immemorial, to disrupt the way we live our lives.
Look for example at how it disrupts the status quo. For James, prayer is for all times in life, for moments when you’re disconsolate and downhearted, when you have a celebration and a joy, when you have suffering or sickness. He gives the example of sickness, and says that if anyone is sick, the congregation should come together as a community and pray for them. And pray in a way that they are praying for their healing, for their transformation. The status quo might be sickness, but what you’re praying for is God’s disruptive power in the midst of that sickness. In some ways, he is thinking like a rabbi. He is thinking in classic Jewish terms. Even before the time of Jesus, if someone was sick, they would go to their rabbi first, and then they would go to their doctor. They’d go to their rabbi first, then their doctor. This was a radical concept because we think the exact opposite; we go to our doctor and then if things aren’t working out, we want someone to pray for us. In other words, when medicine fails, maybe God will then step in.
I don’t know how many people come to clergy and say, “As a last resort, Reverend, I’m here to see you.” (Really makes you feel great, by the way, just so you know.) As a last resort, when everything else has failed, talk to your minister, their prayers are powerful. But don’t we all do that? Don’t we have God as a sort of a back-up, not the status quo?
James, and indeed for those within the Jewish community, you pray first and then you go and seek medical guidance, having already committed it to God. It’s not a last resort, it’s the first thing, and the first thing that paves the way for other things to happen. For James, the Christian community is a praying community for the sick. It lifts them up, and in the very earliest church, this notion of praying for the needs of others was central.
The great St. Clement of Alexandria, who was a magnificent scholar of Greek philosophy and converted to Christianity in the latter part of the second century, says that there are three things that all churches should do and be. The first is that they should be praying for the sick. The second, they should be lifting up the afflicted; and third, they should be giving confidence to the broken-hearted. As far as he was concerned – and this was central to the whole notion of being a Christian – you place the needs and the concerns of the world around you first, and then, then you embrace all the other things that God gives us.
So prayer is disruption. It becomes the first thing that we do, and as a Christian community, we must be a praying community, a praying community that put God at the centre of things first, before anything else. James also feels it’s disruptive to the pattern of the way that we human beings do things. The normal pattern in life is that when something is wrong, when something is seen as a crime, we find a place for punishment. It’s natural justice. And natural justice is right. Crime and punishment are how we operate. But he introduces a whole new disruptive element into this. He talks about confession and forgiveness. He talks about the Christian community being a place where people can confess, and then he talks about the forgiveness.
This was central to his whole notion of the redemptive power of the Christian community. Nobody grasps this better, I don’t think, than Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov was one of those figures who had committed the awful crime of murder, and had no sense of redemption. Only by grace, by the redeeming power of God, and by prayer, could there be any redemption for someone who has done something as heinous as murder. It doesn’t mean there is no punishment, it means that there is redemption. James saw the Christian church as a redemptive community, as a group of people who save and restore.
Maybe there’s something for all of us to learn from the First Nations’ healing circles – I think there is. I think there’s something profoundly Christian about that. I think there’s something profoundly in keeping with the prayer life of James. If you see something that is wrong, you wish to restore it, to bring it back, redeemed and forgiven. After all, look at the ministry of Jesus: at no time did Jesus ever say sin was not sin. At no time did he ever say there is no punishment. But, every time he held out the opportunity for forgiveness. It doesn’t matter whether it was those who had him hanging on a cross between two thieves, or a woman caught in adultery, about to be stoned, it mattered not. Jesus’ life was one of prayer, and the prayer was for the restoration of people, not the bringing down of people.
There’s also something disruptive about prayer for the people who pray. It changes us. James says it’s the prayer of a righteous person that is powerful and effective, and by righteous he doesn’t mean that you have your entire act together. He doesn’t mean righteous in the sense of a self-righteousness, or a righteousness that is based on moral perfection. He is talking about a righteousness that comes from confessing and bringing everything to Almighty God. The example he used was Elijah, who, for three and a half years, prayed that there would be no rain, and there was no rain, and then he prayed again for three and a half years and there was rain. Elijah is held up as a person of faith, sincere in convictions and beliefs.
It’s that sincerity of prayer that is so powerful. What happens to even the most devout Christians after a while, is that prayer becomes one of two things: it either becomes a formal thing that we do as a practice within our own lives. We say it at night, or in the morning, in church, and it becomes rote, a ritual. It really has no passion and no power, and we are not changed in the process of our prayers. Or, as I said before, it becomes an emergency door at the end when everything else has failed. I think if we’re honest, that’s the moment when prayer does change us, because we’re changing and we are imploring God from the depths of our needs.
But that’s not what James is on about here. James is on about a life of prayer that is, in fact a life. It’s about a walk with God, a daily communion with God, having God at the centre as the first thing, not the last thing. Not a matter of simple words on a page, or things that have been written down and transcribed, or an appeal in desperation, but part of your life. If that is what prayer is, and if that is what’s at the heart of prayer, then prayer disrupts everything, it changes our lives as we pray. It changes our lives when we pray for others. It’s a powerful thing to say to somebody, “I’m praying for you.”
That might be something that you say because you really don’t know what else to say. Have you done that? I haven’t got the foggiest idea what to say, so I’ll just say that I’m praying for you. That’s nice and convenient, but trust me, when you really do pray, you’re changed. I’m not sure how many of the prayers I have made for others have had an effect. When I have prayed for someone or something – and I do it all the time – I have no idea the impact. What I do know is that when people have prayed for me, I have experienced its power, and I have been changed by it. So we might not always know or understand the impact of our prayers, but when it is sincere, it is righteous, then it is effective and powerful. You just have to believe that.
Finally, I think prayer is disruptive of worship. I think it changes the way that we worship. A very good friend of mine, who’s a fine clergy person, had a member of her congregation come to her once and say, “You know, I have a problem with our church, we don’t pray enough in the worship services.” My friend pointed out that there were prayers and confessions and pastoral prayers and opening prayers and silent prayers. This wasn’t enough though, for this person, there needs to be more prayer. So my friend, in her wisdom, said, “Well, do you sing the hymns and the songs?”
They responded, “Yes, yes, always.”
My friend says, “Well, isn’t that praying, but to music? Aren’t the words that you sing an offering to God? Doesn’t God speak through the hymns that we sing?”
If God doesn’t, why are we doing it? If in fact the power of music does not actually augment the prayer, then the music is simply something that stands on its own. But when it is joined with the words, and the two are together, it becomes a prayer.
You know who thought of that? The psalmist. The psalmist had prayers, but then put them to music, and it was these that expressed the deepest ideas of the soul. Sometimes, like Jim Croce, you have to say you love somebody through a song. Sometimes you have to express to God your compassion and your concern through a hymn.
She said to this person, “Isn’t that prayer?” And they agreed with her.
And so, our whole notion of worship changes when we see worship itself as an act of prayer. James says this, he says that if you’re happy, then you should be singing. You should be praying for the sick, you should be lifting up the weak, you should be helping those in need. This is what James was talking about. Is that not what worship is?
In a few moments’ time, when you receive the bread and the wine, I invite you to pray like you’ve never prayed before. As you receive the bread, I invite you to pray for others and the needs of the world. As you receive the cup, that you pray for yourself, that in the prayers of the communion, you deeply commune with God, because the prayer of a righteous person is effective and powerful. Are you ready to be disrupted by it? Amen.