The Dance of Individuals and the Community

18 Pentecost B                   

September 27, 2015

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Last Saturday was our very first celebration of the service we’re calling Celtic Communion.  We had a small but strong turnout:  15 of our fellow parishioners, young and old, came out of curiosity or convenience or a love of things Celtic.  Our liturgy is poetic and lilting.  We are reminded again and again in the liturgy’s prayers of the Celts’ reverence for creation and their ability to see God through the Created Order.

Well it wasn’t just lilting and poetic things we said and prayed last Saturday.  In the Prayers of the People we did things a little differently.  Instead of praying from a set text we invited people to write their own prayer requests for people they’re concerned about or for troubling situations that are either local or international.  I, the celebrant, read all the written requests, in no particular order, and after each one we prayed, “Lord, in your mercy,”  “Hear our prayer.”

The reaction to this presentation of prayer intentions was very positive from those who attended.  I saw that our usual inhibitions about praying out loud in church were damped down—since the celebrant read out the prayers.  It was good to hear what was on the hearts of others in the sanctuary, and good to pray for each other’s concerns.

That’s a good illustration of the teaching in today’s excerpt from the Letter of James.  Our reading comes at the end of James’ epistle, after he cajoles individuals and church leaders to better behavior.  Remember in past weeks we heard about how we should be careful with what we say.  We heard about the sin of discriminating in favor of the rich and against the poor.  

Now, today’s epistle gives us a kind of give-and-take between the prayer of individuals and the prayer of the community.  It underscores the importance of a community of faith coming together to support its members who are going through any kinds of troubles.  And it underscores the efficacy of prayer through good-hearted people.  James writes, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

And by “prayer,” I mean nothing more than simple conversation with God.

So in this letter today we’re told as individuals to pray when we suffer—when we suffer for any reason.  And that runs the gamut of suffering.  All kinds.  And so, we can pray.  We must pray.  That’s not such earthshaking news, is it?  But how often we forget to go right to God when we’re troubled.  Sometimes we get so caught up in carrying our own burdens that we forget to turn and give them to God and ask for help.  

Again, we’re told to sing songs of praise when we’re cheerful.  Or just to pray heartfelt “thank you’s” to God for all the blessings that rain down on us.  Individuals who are sick are told to call for the elders of the church and be prayed over.  Note that it’s the sick people who are supposed to call for the elders—in our case the clergy or the known pray-ers in the church.  I can say that that’s not the usual pattern—way too often.  It’s hard to hear that people are sick third hand and then have to play catch-up.  James puts the onus on the person who is ill.  

Then James goes on to link suffering with sin.  He says, “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.”  This reflects the idea that was very strong in the First Century AD that linked illness to sin.

I can tell you firsthand that it’s not uncommon even today to hear people worry that they’re being punished for something they’ve done when they get sick.  And, of course, science dissuades us from these kinds of conclusions.

And yet.  And yet:  it is true that sometimes the choices we make in our early lives can surely set us up to develop some kinds of illness later on.  Think about smoking, about drinking to excess, about sleeping around, about so many other choices we make.  So I think James isn’t entirely speaking an outdated philosophy here.  There’s sometimes a link between sin—or at least call it “mistreatment of our bodies”— and suffering.

Finally the letter concludes with James encouraging us to bring each other back to faith.  That includes, for us, the practices of seeing someone who’s not coming to church and telling them that we miss seeing them—then asking if everything is OK.  That can open up a good opportunity to encourage someone to renew their commitment to attending and to growing in Christ.  It can also produce defensiveness and even anger in the one who’s dropped out.  Oh well.

So in all these instances James is encouraging the community of faith—the church—to interact with individuals to foster prayer and healing and growth.  It’s a dance of the soul with the church and a dance of the church with the soul and it brings health.  We are interdependent—synergistic.  Individuals enrich the community.  The community enriches its individuals.

Our gospel gives us other takes on the same interplay between individuals and the community.  Today’s excerpt from Mark’s gospel is a collection of various sayings of Jesus.  They don’t present one idea; but it’s a compilation of some of the things Jesus taught and said in the course of his time with his friends.  But the emphasis on individuals and community is there.  

Individuals make up the community; the community enriches its individuals.  Jesus is talking about who’s in and who’s out—whose teaching is acceptable and whose is a problem or stumbling block for the community.  And Jesus is talking to individuals, whose choices affect the health of the community.  For those who stumble because of their choices, he says to eradicate what’s causing us to stumble.  And all the little-ones we reach will be better off if we ourselves are in a place of health.  

And so I’d like to close with an invitation for us all that follows right from our readings’ emphasis on the interdependence of individuals and communities.  Remember that James tells us to pray for each other and to hold each other up.  Here is one splendid way to do just that.  It’s our parish prayer list.  It gives us the names of many individuals who ask for prayer and also many causes around the world for which we are asking each other to pray.

I invite you to consider taking a copy of the prayer list home.  It’s in this nice cardboard box on the hallway counter.  If you have time, pray it every day.  If not, pray it when you can.  Put it on your fridge with your favorite magnet and be reminded to think about the people on the list when you’re puttering around the house or cooking.  

On the first Sunday of each month we’ll post the prayer list outside my office and invite edits.  If you know that someone can come off the list, scratch through their name.  If you want to add someone to the list, do that.  We’ll type up the new version and republish the list in time for the next week.

This is one easy way in which we can hold each other up in prayer, as James recommends: one way in which individuals and community intersect and grow healthier together.  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  So take up your place in the church and take seriously our mission to hold up the people of God.  Pray and grow.