“I’ll pray for you.”
Have you ever said that? I have. Have you ever then congratulated yourself; you said the right thing! You have the right intentions! And then you walk away. Mission accomplished.
I’ll pray for you.
There is something a little… insulting… about this phrase. I mean, it’s said with the best of intentions and wishes… but… what would it mean if I said, “I’ll pray with you.”
Suddenly, we’re now partners. Suddenly, I’m no longer doing from a distance but in the middle of the issue. Now I’m with you.
… and what if I added, “Would you like me to pray with you now?” We’re taking some action together now. Working together now. Not putting off to tomorrow… to Tuesday… or most likely never… that good intention to pray together.
So often, far too often, “I’ll pray for you.” is a dismissal.
Sometimes, it even is intended as an insult.
I remember my mother telling a friend she was reading this fantasy book series aloud to my brother and I. The friend patted my mom’s hand, “I’ll pray for you.”
It was an insult – it was telling my mother her friend thought what she was doing was misguided and sinful.
This wasn’t about prayer at all.
How is the excellent name invoked over us blasphemed — how is Jesus— made a fool of? When we use religion in hurtful ways.
James sets up a scenario we see all the time. He says picture a church – and men and women, old and young, boys and girls, rich and poor, black and white, and all people come into it. Now, the town mayor is surrounded with people wanting to shake his hand. “Oh thank you for coming to our little church!” People gossip, “Did you see the newspaper is here? They’re taking photos of the mayor. We’re going to be in the news! Maybe the publicity will make us grow!”
Meanwhile, one of those “undesirables” comes in. This woman hasn’t bathed in days, she stinks big time. She’s missing some teeth, her clothing is all full of holes and doesn’t fit. Would it kill her to wear a bra? Is she drunk? She surely smells of cigarettes and BO. What other negative stereotypes can we throw on her?
Anyways, someone comes up to her and says, “Macy, the mayor’s here today, so we can’t have you scaring him off. Go help yourself to some food in the kitchen and then go home.”
Macy shuffles off and walks between the photographer and the mayor, who is bent down talking to the cutest two little kids. Everyone gets upset because she ruins the picture perfect shot. The adults all start getting angry, the kids think the adults are angry with them and so start crying. Now the shot will never happen.
Macy is told to go! Go away! Go sit over there in the corner, go disappear into the kitchen, go back into the parking lot, go somewhere where we can’t see you. Go home. Go away!
The first church goer says, “I’m so sorry about Macy. Don’t think we’re like her, Mr. Mayor. Do come back!”
The second says, “Ms. Photographer, here, over here, come take a photograph of the Sunday school…”
The mayor says, “Do you have to deal with women like Macy often? I’ll pray for you. Let’s see this Sunday school.”
In James’ story, he says our favoritism makes us become judges with evil thoughts. We honor the rich and shame the poor. He points out — the rich already have honor and the poor already shame, why are we adding to this problem?
It’s not Macy, it’s not the poor, who causes us problems, says James, it’s the rich. The mayor has the power to change the rules that keep Macy from doing better!
Poor people don’t make the country laws, they aren’t the ones who make housing market schemes and regressions set in; they aren’t the CEOs and company owners who bring home millions of dollars tax free while their employees earn minimum wage and pay heavy taxes. It’s not the poor taking jobs over seas, and not the poor who oppress others. It is the rich.
This holiday we have tomorrow, Labor Day, was started by unions, trade organizations, groups of working-class poor pulling together. A day to recognize it’s not the rich who make our country great, but the average worker.
James is arguing that we Christians, those who invoke the name of Jesus, are supposed to be equals. We’re to ignore who has money and who does not. We’re to treat all people equally. Treat them all with love.
Honoring the rich and powerful because we hope they might make us rich and powerful too is idolatry. Is worshipping, wanting, following something other than God. Banishing the poor and powerless because we’re scared they might make us poor and powerless is sin. It is dishonoring, not loving, cursing the children of God.
James says if a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of us says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat your fill,” … but we don’t give them clothing and food when we clearly see they need clothing and food to be able to be warm, filled, and peaceful — we have dead faith.
When we tell someone “I’ll pray for you,” after hearing about their situation, and don’t actually pray for them, pray with them, or assist in their situation… our faith is dead.
It is dead because it doesn’t do anything.
It is nice words.
But only words.
Words without power are just food for trees – carbon – and we’ve got enough of that already, thank you very much. No more empty words, no more CO, is needed.
Jesus, too, is bantering words in our scripture today. He’s tired of all the words and so seeking a quiet place away from the Jewish crowds who can’t stop talking about him and to him. But even way out here word about Jesus has spread.
A woman immediately hears about Jesus. It doesn’t matter Jesus is in a house resting. She barges in and throws herself at his feet and begs. She makes a total scene for the sake of her daughter.
Why does Jesus call her and her child a dog? This is such a disturbing encounter. Jesus doesn’t seem to act like the Jesus we know. He implies he is only there to help the Jews and no other religion. Indeed, other religions are dirty dogs. And this woman reverses Jesus’ words to argue even dogs get leftovers. Even more strangely, Jesus now implies she has won the argument of words. “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
This woman never converts, never becomes Jewish. She still worships Baal or Zeus or another god. Jesus never sees the little girl. He heals her with a word from the distance.
Perhaps the woman pointed out Jesus’ hypocrisy and instead of arguing with her, he gracefully agreed. Gracefully lost his argument and granted her the win. Perhaps when someone points out we’re saying one thing but doing another, we don’t have to respond in anger but change our ways gracefully – like Christ.
Or perhaps this is an example of how to relate to others who are not like us within our midst. She says if she is a dog, she is a dog under the children’s table. In the household, in the protection, of the children’s family. She might not be Jewish, but she lives with Jews. And so since she guards them like a good dog, they should also assist her. Since non-Christians make up our community and help us, we should also help non-Christians.
Or perhaps, Jesus was responding sort of what we answer today sometime when we say ‘I’ll pray for you.’ He just was being more direct. Once my mission is done, once I have time, if I get a chance, I’ll help you. In other words, I have an opening on the 12th of Never. Should Never ever come, then 12 days after that I’ll help. Should I remember this week to pray for you, and nothing else comes up, I’ll pray.
And the woman calls Jesus on it.
And he agrees she’s right. And he takes action NOW.
In the next scene, Jesus has moved on and now some people bring Jesus their friend who cannot hear and speaks poorly. After all of these words — words that do nothing, words that cause Jesus to change, to invoke a miracle — this man has only poor words.
Away from the crowds, in a quiet spot, Jesus examines the deaf man and sighs a single word in Jesus’ native language “Ephphatha.” In English, “Be opened.”
Jesus’ one and single word prayer to God opens the man’s ears and lets him speak clearly. Jesus tells the man and his friends not to speak about this, but the more Jesus stresses their silence, the more they talk. They go around telling everyone of Jesus’ miracles. “He makes the mute speak and the deaf hear!” “The lame leap and the blind see!” The words they all wanted to spread about Jesus were about his healing, his miracles, what he could do for their physical needs.
And our physical needs surely need met.
But so do our spiritual. And few were speaking of what Jesus offered spiritually. Few were speaking of the cost of discipleship. Few were speaking of Jesus’ message of God’s love, forgiveness, and reminder of God’s commandments. They were only speaking of what they could get from Jesus — and Jesus wished if they would speak, they would speak of so much more.
Speak of being opened. Being opened spiritually. Being opened to the needs of others. Being opened to the love of God. Being opened to seeing their mistakes and changing their mistakes, as possible, with grace.
Speaking, as Jesus’ brother James would later write, and acting as those who have living faith. Faith that grows, faith that acts, faith that is ever blossoming, faith that looks at each situation and asks ‘what is really going on?’ ‘How can I truly assist?’
Sometimes that assistance is giving – giving money for a bill, giving a ride to the doctor – but more often than not, the assistance that is really needed is silence. Someone to listen. Someone to pray WITH you, not for you. Someone to HEAR you.
May we be astonished beyond measure with our Lord. May be take his example and speak what we truly mean, do what we say we will, and not speak empty words. And may we embrace times of silence. Amen.
Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore Ohio, September 6th 2015