“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, ... The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” [James 5:14-15, 16]
If you have ever prayed for something and it happened, raise your hand.
If you have ever prayed for something and it didn’t happen, raise your hand.
This is a really difficult text. It raises all kinds of questions about the nature of prayer, and more importantly, about the nature of God. Does God really favour the prayers of those who are righteous and faithful over those who aren’t? What exactly is a “prayer of faith”? Who exactly are the “righteous” whose prayers are powerful and effective? If our prayers aren’t answered, does that mean we are not righteous? Or that our prayer is not one of faith? I could say, like Garth Brooks, that “some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers,” but that really doesn’t help when you’re praying for a loved one not to die. I could say that this is one of the great mysteries of God, and then my sermon would be done, but––sorry––I’m a “faith seeking understanding” kind of person. So let’s wade, faithfully and righteously, into the complexity of praying for God to intercede.
I say complexity because it’s complicated praying for God to intervene in our lives, not the least because we don’t live in isolation. The effects of what we ask for in our prayers extend far beyond ourselves, sometimes even around the globe.
Take, for example, the thousands if not millions of prayers that went up during a national election in Germany in 1919. Faithful, well-meaning, and yes, righteous people of all political affiliations prayed fervently and earnestly that their candidate for the Weimar Republic’s National Assembly would win. These people truly believed that their candidate would be best for the country, and that God would bless the world through their candidate, and so they prayed for them to win. I really believe that those prayers, from all sides, were rooted in a deeply held faith and that those who prayed them really were honestly wanting God’s will to take place.
But if there were ever more far-reaching and devastating consequences than the ones that resulted from those elections and those prayers, I do not know what they would be.The chain of events after that election resulted in the eventual appointment of Adolph Hitler as the Chancellor of the Nazi Party and the subsequent establishment of death camps that killed more than six million Jews, along with gays and lesbians, Roma, and political dissidents. The world was plunged into World War II, and it ended only with the horrific atomic bombings in Japan that vaporized children in the streets.
So, shall we say that God answered the prayers of these faithful people, most of them Lutheran, on that fateful day almost 100 years ago? What are the implications of the prayers we pray today?
Take our simple prayers that God send rain, or sun, or whatever weather would be desirable for us. Even without getting into the complication that our climate system is globally connected and that rain in one place can mean drought in another, there is the simple reality that even in Alberta, weather that is good for some people is destructive for others. I might pray something so simple as rain to settle the dust and relieve my allergies, but that rain is devastating for farmers trying to harvest their grain. So should my prayer be powerful and effective? I’m pretty faithful and righteous. Some of those farmers don’t even go to church. And yet...
I could go on with lots more examples of prayer - the prayer for an organ transplant for a loved one who is dying is, at heart, a prayer for the death of the one who will donate that organ. The prayer for an ambulance to rush to the door is a prayer for it not to go to someone else’s. Our prayers for God to intervene in the events of the world are always prayers that have implications for others. Just imagine if the disciples’ truly faithful and truly righteous prayers that Jesus not be crucified had been answered. Sadly, when we pray for God to intervene in our favour, we are often unwittingly asking God to play favourites––to consider our prayers more faithful and righteous than someone else’s. Which really isn’t righteous at all.
So then how are we to pray? Because I know it’s not our intention to pray against others, or wish ill-fortune on others, or wish God to bring evil upon others. And we do believe that God hears our prayers and does respond to them. I’m certainly not advocating that we stop praying, or that we stop asking God to intercede in our lives. So how can we pray prayers that are righteous?
For me, the most faithful and righteous prayers are not the ones in which we ask God to change our circumstances so we can endure them, but ones in which we ask God to change us to endure our circumstances. I want to suggest to you that the most faithful prayers we can raise are ones in which we ask God to work in us, not in the world. Where we ask God for strength and patience and resilience and tenacity and whatever else we need to get us through the things we are facing. That righteous prayers are not ones where we ask God to act in the world, but where we ask God to act in us.
This hit home for me in June, when I as at our Synod Assembly. And this isn’t a very awe-inspiring story, and it won’t send chills up your spine or goose-bumps on your arm, but here it is. So, at the Synod Convention, I was asked to be the Parliamentarian, which means to be the person who knows all the rules of order for speaking on the floor and voting and all the Constitutional requirements for how to get things done at Synod Assembly. And on the Saturday, we were scheduled to have a big discussion and vote on the new Synod Constitution and the By-laws and all the things about how delegates get elected to National Convention. We were expecting there to be a lot of heated debate about it, and my job was to keep things fair and proper so that “good order” would prevail. In the midst of what could potentially be a vigorous family argument, I was going to have to be the mom.
And about half an hour before we were to start that section of the meeting, I got a terrible migraine. I felt it coming, and it was there before I knew it. And I was in a panic. How was I going to be fair and impartial with this stabbing pain through the top of my head. So, in a state of panic, I found my way over to the other side of the hall, to Dr. Faith Nostbaaken, a Diaconal Minister who is called to be a rostered minister of Spiritual Direction in this Synod. If there is anyone who is an elder in this church and a powerful channel for effective prayer, it’s her. And so I told her the situation, and I asked her please, Would she pray for me, right now? And of course, she led me to the side of the hall, and she put her hands on my head, and she prayed. And here’s what she prayed. She prayed that God would be with me. Check. She prayed that I would have strength for the rest of the morning. Check. And she prayed that my fear over not being able to fulfill my responsibilities would disappear. She prayed that I would put my trust in God, knowing that God was with me. She never, not once, prayed for God to take my headache away. But her prayer was powerful and effective. It worked. My anxiety evaporated, my heart unclenched, and I went up on the stage, headache still there, and God gave me focus and strength and resilience. I did my job.
I have no doubt that if Dr. Nostbaaken had prayed God to get rid of my headache, it would have worked. She has a gift of prayer. But my headaches are driven by pressure changes that are the result of weather shifts, and praying for my headache to be gone would have meant either praying for my body to rewire itself or praying for the weather to change, which would have impacted hundreds of thousands of people in that part of Alberta. Instead, what Dr. Nostbaaken prayed for was for God to change me. To change my heart, and my mind, not to change the weather system. To get me through my migraine. And her prayer was a prayer of faith, and the Lord raised me up.
Shifting from asking God to change our circumstances to asking God to change us is hard. I still pray, God, please don’t let that car hit me on the road. I still pray, God, please keep my children safe on the way to school. And I am sure you have your own prayers asking God to intercede in the circumstances of our life. The prayers that we pray on Sunday morning, written by people in the larger church for our use are frequently these kinds of payers. These are still faithful prayers - any time we turn to God, we are turning in faith, and in hope. And sometimes things happen that seem to be answer to these prayers, and sometimes things don’t. But I would offer to you this morning that the prayers that God always and unequivocally and unreservedly answers are those prayers inviting God to work in us, to get us through. God always comes when we invite God into our hearts, and God always gets us through the worst of our circumstances, even if they’re as serious as death. Sometimes it seems like God works in the world, and sometimes it seems like God doesn’t. But always we know that God works in our hearts, raising us up, and getting us through. Thanks be to God. Amen.