Is there any congregation in the whole Christian church on earth that you don't have to leave when you are having a problem that you can't hide? Think about the people who have disappeared in the last six months from the pews you know best. What's going on? Illness? Job loss? Divorce? Hardly anyone leaves church because things are going well for them.
And to those of us still in the pews, have you ever heard yourself lying when asked at church how things are after your recent loss, or how you're holding up while someone close to you looks for a job, or how your kids are doing? What would it take for Christians to tell the truth to each other?
James envisions a community of people who can do just that. If we had started this reading just one verse sooner, we would hear James say, "Let your 'Yes' be yes and your 'No' be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation." It's a call to the simplest (not to say easiest) truth telling.
In the rest of the reading, his examples of truth telling in difficult times point to a community that gathers around a hurting member, rather than isolating that one, or settling for them isolating themselves.
If someone is sick, that person calls together the elders of the church to anoint and pray. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, "James empowers the sick themselves with regard to the assembly" (New Interpreter's Bible 12:222). The sick person receives the authority to summon the others. The one who (in most if not all of our churches) has had to put on a game face and be strong at church, or who has stopped going to church altogether because the pain is too great or concealing it is too hard, calls the elders and tells them where the community is needed to gather. Isolation (initiated either by the individual or the community) may seem more natural to us, but James provides a rubric for the opposite to take place. The hurting person and the rest of the community are in solidarity against whatever is causing hurt.
Sometimes the cause of hurt is not sickness but sin. How much harder it is to tell the truth about this at church! James paints the picture of a community that gathers to pray and to tell the truth. "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed" (James 5:16).
A July 28, 2003, ELCA News Release included this story about one of the evenings at the Lutheran Youth Organization (LYO) meeting that took place this summer:
She called for a "community lock down," asking adult counselors and advisors to account for delegates and instructed all to remain in the room until the delegate who made the remark came forth. Members of the convention prayed together, shared personal reflections and encouraged the delegate who made the remark to come forward.
Breitfeld told the convention that "this is a community problem" that must be dealt with together. She reminded delegates that the LYO is an "inclusive" organization committed to diversity.
In an interview with the ELCA News Service, Jon L. Vehar, Albuquerque, N.M., LYO vice president, said, "The significance of the LYO convention was that we took a comment made by one member, hurtful to the community, and dealt with it as a community. As a result of the process and as an organization that gathers in the name of Christ, it became an incredible learning experience for all involved."
Delegates remained in their seats for more than hour before recessing for the evening. The delegate who allegedly made the remark did not come forth. A dance scheduled for the evening was cancelled.
ELCA News Service, July 28, 2003.
I think the LYO meeting tried to do the right thing, but there was also something missing. (And "lock-down" was probably the wrong choice of metaphors.) What might have made it possible for the person who made the remark to come forward? "Confess your sins to one another," James says. What is missing in our communities that makes this next to impossible? How long did it take for someone at the top of the Catholic hierarchy in Boston to say, "I'm sorry" to those who, as children, had been sexually assaulted by priests? Yet until someone can speak a truth like that—confessing sin—the word "community" does not really describe any group of frightened, isolated individuals gathering in the same room.
What might make it possible for our communities to tell the truth about sickness and sin, and to pray fervently for the healing of both? To answer that question, I went looking for what James has to say about Jesus. The letter of James hardly mentions Jesus by name. After the first verse ("James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ"), the letter names Jesus only one other time: "My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?" (2:1). Though James says little specifically about Jesus, central to James' understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the conviction that there is no place for partiality in the community that bears Christ's name (cf. 3:17). The ground really is level at the foot of the cross.
If I were preaching this text (and I think I will be), I would speak the news of that level ground—and the self-giving of Christ to all of us standing there—as the means to true community. James contrasts life in the world and life "in Christ" (to borrow a Pauline way of putting it) as clearly as any New Testament author. The contrast could well make it into my sermon. In other places in our lives, like work (with its evaluations, bonuses and pink slips), or school (with its report cards, team rosters and standardized tests), we are constantly being ranked. Partiality is the name of the game. Life in Christ is different. Someone needs prayer: we pray. Someone is cheerful: we sing. Someone wanders away into sin: we go toward them, not away from them, in order to bring them back. This is James' vision of congregational life, made possible by the lack of partiality shown by Christ: from Christ and in Christ, we know that all of us are both "standin' in the need of prayer" and greatly beloved by God.