One of our marks of discipleship is to pray constantly. Of course, prayer takes on different forms—from appreciating God’s creation deep within ourselves to actively participating in the liturgy of worship each week. Our entire lives are to be lived as prayer. But what to does that mean exactly? Of course, we can’t spend every waking moment on our knees, hands folded, heads bowed, praying. So, if prayer is something we are to do constantly, how do we accomplish that faithfully while going about our day-to-day lives? And at the end of the day, does it really matter if we pray? What difference does prayer make? Why is it so important? Prayer is most definitely the foundational aspect of the Christian life of discipleship. Jesus himself prayed right up to the hour of his betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane. Prayer is clearly a mark of a good relationship with God. Yet what does it ultimately mean for us to pray—particularly if our entire lives are to be ones of prayer? As we go into the sermon today, think more broadly about prayer, and in particular how comfortable you are praying. What moves you to pray to God?
Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
My life changed drastically on October 13, 1993. I probably didn’t know just how drastically it changed, but it did change drastically. I was quickly approaching my fifth birthday, and I was excited. I arrived at the hospital in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, and I went to the room where my mother was. When I got there, I got to hold my new little sister—Mariah. I can remember to this day how my father was impatient with me holding her. He bribed me, using my grandmother to take me to McDonald’s just across the street from the hospital, so he could hold his new daughter. Naturally, a five-year-old, I was excited to go to McDonald’s, and a newborn infant isn’t terribly exciting, especially for a kid as old as I was. So off to McDonald’s Grandma and I went.
Leading up to my sister’s birth, I can remember the planning that my parents put into picking a name. They couldn’t decide what name they wanted. I specifically remember one day, in the van with my mother, when she asked me which name I liked better—Carrie or Mariah. Carrie was my great grandmother’s name, and Mariah was a great aunt’s name. I remember saying I liked the name Mariah. There’s also the story that my mother tells about going in for an ultrasound when they would be able to determine the sex of the baby. My mother was impatient to know and kept bugging Dr. Solomon, a gargantuan Jamaican man—my mother kept bugging him to know the sex of the baby, but Dr. Solomon played coy. The story goes, as my mother tells it, instead of answering her pleas, Dr. Solomon turns to me and asks, “What about you, son? What do you want? A boy or a girl?” My response? “I want a goyle.” Dr. Solomon answered me, “Well, you’re going to get your goyle.”
Over the years, my sister and I have been through a lot together. We didn’t always get along—which in a lot of ways is typical of brothers and sisters. I was convinced that my sister was my father’s favorite, although I know today that’s not true. I could tell you so many stories about the trouble that both my sister and I got into. And the fights…oh, the fights. It was only after I went off to college, my sister started high school, and we both “grew up,” as it were, that we started to get along. We grew closer and closer—or perhaps we were always close, but now that we were older, we appreciated each more for who we are. As our lives diverged and went different directions, me to seminary and to my first parish in Philadelphia, she to work and to start a family of her own, we have never been closer than we are now. We talk daily, sometimes more than once. We share everything with each other. There’s arguably no one in the world that I’m closer to than my sister Mariah. She could come to me with anything, joy or concern, and I’d be there for her. And I know I can tell her anything, anything at all, and she will still love me—no matter what. Our relationship as brother and sister is that strong, that close, that intimate that we trust each other with everything with nary a second thought.
Today we remember St. James, the Brother of Our Lord. He is sometimes called James the Just because he was considered by the early Christians to be exceedingly virtuous. He is remembered as the first bishop of Jerusalem, although calling someone bishop at that time meant something very different than what it means today. When James was bishop of Jerusalem, Christians were still largely a band of sectarian Jews, ostracized from the larger Jewish community because they confessed Jesus as Messiah, the anointed one. James is said to have mediated the gathering between Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, and he’s the one who ultimately issued the “opinion” that determined that circumcision not be required in order to confess Jesus as Lord. In many ways, while Paul was the chief proponent of ministry to the uncircumcised Gentiles, James was the one who opened the way to Christianity by foregoing the very fundamental Jewish requirement of circumcision. The sign of the covenant, that which makes one Jewish, was—according to James’ blessing—not necessary in order to live in community with the followers of Jesus. James opened the gate to the expansion of Christianity beyond Judaism to the ends of the earth—just as his brother commanded the apostles in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel—“Go therefore and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Because of James and his decision at that gathering with Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, his brother’s Great Commission took off—first in the Mediterranean, then Africa, Southwest Asian and India, Europe, and eventually to northern Asia, North and South America, and ultimately Australia and New Zealand.
Sometimes, some Christians—particularly Lutherans—don’t want to give James his due. Particularly because of the book in the New Testament attributed to him. There’s a lot of historical reasons for that, to say nothing of the politics of the early church, but the chief reason that many want to discount James, and his letter in the New Testament, is because in that letter he contends, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” and only a few sentences later, “for just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” Out of context, these words are damning, but when read within the scope of James’ letter, and what he is saying, we can’t argue with them. Even Paul in his letter to the Galatians challenges the faithful to produce the fruits of the Spirit. In short, a faithful follower of Jesus, one who is alive in Christ, doing the will of God the Father in heaven, will produce fruit, will do good works—sacrificial acts of mercy and love. How can we call ourselves alive to God in Christ if we by our lives do not do the will of our Father in heaven? Relationship with God in Jesus is meaningless if we don’t live it out. It’s in living our faith that it benefits us. A faithful Christian can no less do good works than a living body breathe in air.
James would’ve known Jesus better than any of the other disciples. He was his brother. We can imagine that he had his moments with his brother growing up. Just like any brothers, they probably had their fights. But as they grew older, as his brother grew into his role as rabbi and it became clearer and clearer who he was—not merely a rabbi, but the anointed Son of God, the eternal promise of God made flesh, full of grace and truth—James would’ve known intimately what it meant to be in relationship with Jesus. Jesus was his brother. And we can image that he came to Jesus with anything, joy or concern, and Jesus would’ve been there for him. And knew he could tell him anything, anything at all, and he’d still love him—no matter what. Their relationship as brothers was strong, that close, that intimate that they trusted each other with everything with nary a second thought.
And so, in today’s passage from the end of James’ letter to the faithful, we have James encouraging us to pray. Quite literally, James is encouraging us to talk to God. As I said before and I’ll say again—prayer is simply the special name we give for the conversation we have with God. And what’s more, James encourages us to talk to God as we would talk to a brother or a sister—because, after all, that’s who Jesus is. Like James, we call Jesus our brother. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are—born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humanity, but of God. We who are baptized into Christ, we share with him intimately in all things—from birth to death. He knows what it is to celebrate with us, to work with us, to suffer with us, to laugh with us, to eat with us, and even to die with us. And so, as part of him, we are members of the family of God, we are his brothers and sister. When we come to him in prayer, we come in faith—in a relationship made possible by the grace of God.
When we talk to God, when we pray to God, we pray as ones made righteous for Jesus’ sake, and the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Not in a magical, manipulative sort of way, but in a deep, heartfelt sort of way. Our conversations with God are meaningful because they’re rooted in a trust that no matter what, anything and everything we bring to God, be it joy or concern, praise or shame, thanks or regret—no matter what, God still loves us because of the relationship we have with him in Jesus. The relationship we have with God because of Jesus our brother is that strong, that close, that intimate that we trust in him that our prayers, silent or aloud, are heard and he’ll be there for us.
And so, James, the brother of Jesus, challenges us to pray. He challenges us to talk to God as one in a close, brotherly or sisterly relationship. Because that is what we have—we have that relationship because of Jesus, God with us who loves us like a brother, a brother who we can trust with everything and anything with nary a second thought.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.