Text: James 5:13-20
Theme Verse: "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16b)
Dr. Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, specializing in the area of social work. Her work around the subject of vulnerability exploded when she offered a TED Talk in 2010 now viewed nearly 26 million times. Dr. Brown began her research trying to understand what makes certain people more resilient and whole, a quality she calls “whole-heartedness.” What blocks whole-heartedness? Shame. What do whole-hearted people have in common? Courage. She concluded that for real connection to happen, we have to let ourselves be seen. Really seen. James said it this way: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so you may be healed.” Are we willing to expose our souls through the power of vulnerability?
reader : Mike Moore
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
Many people give Winston Churchill the credit. I’m not sure he’d want it. For what, you ask? For giving a nervous would-be-speaker the following advice: “Picture your audience in their underwear.” Personally, I’ve never understood why this would be a calming practice. I get the notion of course – it’s to help you feel that the audience is as vulnerable as you are. The birthday suit, if you will, is the ultimate equalizer – rich, poor, young, old, ten toes or eleven – just the way we entered the world before we learned it was best to hide some things, dress up our inadequacies and button up our mistakes with fancy cuff links. It wasn’t always this way, you know. Adam and Eve were naked and were not ashamed – or so the text says. Actually this notion was brought up five times in just one hundred words used to describe Paradise and the Fall. The main thing, again and again was that they were naked. This seems odd to our ears but until the idea of shame was introduced, humanity was perfectly fine in its own skin.
One pastor went to visit one of his church members on a Saturday afternoon. He knocked on the door and hollered several times. No one answered but clearly someone was home. The pastor took out his card to leave taped to the door, writing out Revelation 3:20 on the back which read: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with them.” The next day in worship, the same card turned up in the collection plate. Below the preacher’s message was a written response: Genesis 3:10 – “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked and hid myself.” Wouldn’t it be fun if we only communicated with each other using scripture references? Anyway…
Its Labor Day weekend and I know many are at the Lake (and you may be there in your current daydream too – bonus points for being here this morning)… and… I know that the lake calls for different attire… and… well – I’m just trying to say, “Let’s all agree to leave in the same clothes we came in with today.” However, I wonder if we might be willing to take off the armor surrounding our souls for just a little while… maybe twenty minutes or so… and we don’t have to tell anyone we did. But just expose your true heart before God this morning, get real honest with yourself, and see what might happen. Labor Day is intended to be a re-charge holiday from all of our work – celebrating the amazing social and economic achievements of American workers through the years. And thus a fitting day to wrap up our series entitled, “Where’s My Charger?” We began with the leap to the new seasons of our lives – school’s back in session; attitudes and schedules all re-focus on new opportunities to grow and change and we posed the question: “Where do you store your brave?” Last week we considered the failure of formulas and how we need to plug directly into the Spirit of God as the formulaic approaches we take to save ourselves tend to come up short in the long run. Today? The Power of Nakedness – the charge that comes in being the one true authentic you that exists in this world. Not another soul like yours in the world. Isn’t that amazing? Yet we have a hard time just being ourselves much of the time. It’s exhausting to be somebody that you think everybody else wants you to be. But when you are able to truly be who you are, your spirit is charged and free – released to be who God designed you to be. Today we consider the idea of restorative connection – does the community of faith, the Body of Christ, have the power to heal?
We turn to James for our biblical inspiration this morning who seemed to be very interested in this very question. He wondered about the church and how it was to handle sin and, in turn, the sinners connected to the sin. If we use theologian Paul Tillich’s definition of sin in this regard – simply whatever separates us from God – we can recognize that there is a sin problem in our world and in our lives. I’m not stating the obvious to condemn only noting that much seems to be working toward this separation. God isn’t moving away from us, of course, we just have our own tendencies to drift or defy or deny the shadow sides of our existence. The church isn’t immune to this. Hopefully, the church is a place where we can be real and open about sin and deal with all that seeks to separate. James was all about this – skillfully going about his work of confronting and diagnosing and dealing with misbelief and misbehavior that popped up in places he was charged to care for and influence. James offered wisdom that was beyond simply knowing the truth. He considered wisdom skill-in-living that comes with embodying church and charge connection and community. What good is truth if we don’t know how to live it? What good is intention if we can’t sustain it? James, grounded in prayer — traditionally nicknamed “Old Camel Knees” because of thick calluses built up on his knees from many years of determined prayer — was about this. Prayer and wisdom rely on each other.
None of this makes James an easy pill to swallow. Some would have preferred his writing to be tossed out of the Bible. Martin Luther didn’t like it – thought it lacked the grace Paul promoted. “Faith without works is dead,” James writes. James promotes some expectation but Paul did as well. We could drive ourselves nuts trying to navigate every nuance and difference of the passionate intentions of the books that were canonized. In the passage from the end of James’ work that we look at today, James is calling for transparency – vulnerability – concerned the church won’t survive without it. “If you’re suffering,” he writes, “then let’s pray about it.” We all need the “me too” experience – where when we share what we’re going through someone else can say, “Me too… been there… fighting it even now.” There is strength to persevere when we share and pray together. “If you’re cheerful, then please sing and praise God.” Nothing heals like a cheerful soul singing passionately. If joy is filling your life right now, we need to feel it as a community – your joy can carry us while we are hurting. James goes on – if there’s sin in your life – things that are hanging you up from connecting to God or deepening your faith, confess it. It’s not just going to go away like a virus if you wait long enough. Confess it. Call it what it is, and heal through it. “Confess your sins to one another, pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
So let’s do it – turn to your neighbor this morning and just tell them the thing that is most hanging up your relationship with God right now. Go ahead. Okay – wait. It’s not that simple is it? It’s hard. I remember at 20 years old, in my time at the Nazarene church where Carrie had grown up and before we moved to pursue ministry, there was a man in the church who wanted to start an accountability group with a few men – I guess they considered me a man and invited me to be a part of it. The lead guy was well respected – ran a huge department at the University of Missouri. I was honored to be asked even though I wasn’t really sure how it all worked. We met at Denny’s – no better place to discuss your sins than over a Grand Slam breakfast and cheap coffee I suppose. First meeting – just me and this successful man in this prestigious position. Nobody else showed. I didn’t know how this was supposed to go and fortunately this man took the lead. Before I knew it he was crying and telling me about his struggles with pornography and how it was affecting his family and I just listened wondering what I was supposed to do to help. I felt bad because I was thinking about sharing that I probably watched too many episodes of Cribs on MTV that week. Is this what James had in mind? Confess your sins that we might heal? I don’t know and I’ll admit to feeling ill equipped to help the guy. The group never got off the ground. We didn’t meet again and I didn’t feel like I knew the man well enough to say every time I saw him, “Hey – how’s it going with, you know, the stuff you’re dealing with?” I was honored that he trusted his confession with me but also uncertain at that point in my life how to support him. What I hope is that somehow, even in his sharing with me, he felt less alone and more accountable to his struggle. Maybe it helped him become unstuck. Confession is essentially the process of getting unstuck.
Alcoholics Anonymous gets this. The Big Book of AA says this: “We pocket our pride and go to it, illuminating every twist of character, every dark cranny of the past. Once we have taken this step, withholding nothing [confession], we are delighted. We can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall from us. We begin to feel the nearness of our Creator. We may have had certain spiritual beliefs, but now we begin to have a spiritual experience. The feeling that the drink problem has disappeared will often come strongly. We feel we are on the Broad Highway, walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe.” That’s what it means to be truly, beautifully sober. It may be why so many recovering addicts find Jesus in AA meetings more readily than stained-glass sanctuaries that seem to promote stained glass lives, masquerading our greatest hurts – our deepest shame. If confession moves us through shame to freedom, we find connection – and without a connection – our lives flat-line like our phones if they are never plugged into a power source. The church must make room for vulnerable connection.
Connection is why we exist. That’s what researcher and professor at the University of Houston, Dr. Brene Brown discovered in her research about vulnerability. Her six years of effort exploded when she offered a TED Talk in 2010 that has now been viewed nearly 26 million times. She began her research trying to understand what makes certain people more resilient and whole. She quickly learned that if you ask people about love they tell you about heartbreak. If you ask them about belonging they tell you the most excruciating experiences of being excluded. You ask about connection, they’ll tell you about disconnection. It’s like the focus of your staff evaluation – your boss says forty-seven things about how awesome you are and gives you one “opportunity for growth” and you sink with the one and forget the forty-seven. She found that some people, however, operate from a quality she calls “whole-heartedness.” What blocks whole-heartedness? Shame. What do whole-hearted people have in common? Courage. She concluded that for real connection to happen, we have to let ourselves be seen. Really seen. This requires courageous vulnerability. James would call it confession for the sake of healing.
Dr. Brown distinguished brave (which we talked about in week one) and courage which comes in vulnerability. Brave is more action-centered. Courage is more of a state of being. The word itself comes form the Latin, “couer” (or heart) – describing one who would “Tell the story of who they are with their whole heart.” It’s the courage to be imperfect; compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others. They fully embraced this liberating vulnerability; willing to risk their heart even when there were no guarantees. If this dilutes the shame we carry and the shame we force on others, then imagine the freedom we can offer to each other to blossom into the beings and witnesses for God’s love that we so long to be. James says, “Confess, pray… all for the sake of communal healing.” But… our tendency is to be rug sweepers. We try to be good enough on our own, working our own private sin management programs.
Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette is pastor of First Church Somerville in the Boston area. Her church takes seriously James’ call to confession. They have volunteer, lay liturgists lined up for twenty-four months at a time – all to share in the part of worship where they confess, pray and seek healing. The liturgist of the week says, “Now is the time we bring our stories before God,” and then he or she shares their soul confession. Can you imagine? They describe confession as “giving our stories away to others.” Huh. It’s how they get at the “me too’s” in their church. Some say, “It seems so negative to talk that much about sin…” but “better out than in,” Baskette responds. “I want my sin,” she continues, “where I can see it in the clear light of day. It is much less of a threat there – I can track its movements. If we don’t ask each other, and ourselves, to do these hard things, we will never find out what we’re made of.” What are we made of? That’s the daily question, right? And it’s not a “What am I made of today?” It’s a “What are we made of today?” Who’s the we? You. Me. Us. God. When we confess our vulnerabilities and find out we can still stand, somehow, together, we stand taller, we help more readily. We practice grace and we are free. We’re just one naked soul helping other naked souls find their way home. Could we do this?
Elizabeth Lesser asked this simple question in her book Broken Open: “Would you rather be an ego or a soul?” “Our egos want to protect our image and our vulnerability (our wounded-ness) but our souls want to be integrated – literally, to have all our pieces in the same place instead of feeling always scattered, trying to remember which secrets to protect and which images to maintain.” Hiding it all; protecting our sin… that just sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? The writer of Hebrews (4:13) says “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before the eyes of the One to whom we are accountable.” God doesn’t need to punish us for sin. Sin (the sense of separation from God) is its own punishment. It devours us from the inside. God’s purpose isn’t to bring down the yardstick and punish. God’s joy is to heal it. Heal sin. Heal us.
My family had the opportunity to hear Bob Goff speak a week ago – you might remember him as the author of the book, “Love Does” which was the inspiration for the sermon series of the same name that started our year together in 2016. He’s an animated guy – a model Seven on the Enneagram for those taking that class here on Wednesdays. So much life and energy and fun. He’s done some extraordinary things to help people around the world – abused and neglected children in Uganda in particular. He’s taken up sky diving however – why not!?! His son was doing it so he decided to join the trip that it must be to fly in the sky. Bob — and I feel like you’re immediately and always on a first name basis with Bob – doesn’t spare any of the details and he finds a way to laugh about it too. When he was learning about how to jump, the instructor said that if your first parachute doesn’t work and your back up chute malfunctions, you’ve got about 60 seconds until you come face-to-face with the earth. “Splat!” and he laughs. He says, “What’s interesting is that it’s not the first splat that kills you. When you first hit the ground, every bone in your body shatters and your insides are all shaken up but that doesn’t kill you. What kills you,” he continues, “is the second time you hit the ground after you bounce off the ground the first time. The second time, your newly jagged bones pierce through all of the rest of you and ‘phhhffft’, dead.” What he said next was what stuck with me. He said, “The church needs to be here to catch people after that initial bounce.”
What does that mean? Well, it means we all are going to hit the ground face first sometimes in our lives. Sin is sin and I’ve got it and you’ve got it and none of us talk about it all that much. But maybe, just maybe, confession is a place we can work at this. Confession can be painful like hitting the ground without a parachute. James says, “Confess and pray for each other so that healing might come.” And that order must matter. You can’t truly heal, then pray, then confess it seems. We confess first, pray, and catch one another before that second landing – holding each other long enough for the healing to come. Easier said than done, right? Most God-things are. I wish I could say, “And then God told me exactly what to do next.” But as I heard someone say, “We serve a Mighty God … not always a tidy God.” The mess of the world is our habitat. Our charger exists in the midst of it all. We plug into each other, create deep enough connections (which takes real investment) so that we can heal enough to face the next challenge. So here we are – soul out in front of us for all to see. There’s more power in that vulnerable act than any amount of armor could ever provide to guard and protect our souls. What do you say? Are you suffering? Share and pray. Are things just clicking right now? Share and sing. Have you been burned? Are you struggling with much that separates you from God? Confess, pray, and together, our hearts will become whole again.
 Info on James inspired by Eugene Peterson’s intro to the Book of James found in The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.
 Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession. Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette. The Pilgrim Press. Cleveland. 2015.
 Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession. . Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette. The Pilgrim Press. Cleveland. 2015.