In the summer of 2002 I was the kitchen manager for a kid’s camp in the Poconos. On the first night of one week a counselor approached after we had finished cleaning the kitchen at the end of the day. He hesitantly told me that he thought he had a bladder infection because he had to use the bathroom every 5 minutes. This would undermine his ability to build respect from the campers and would mean he had to take time off from counseling. I had watched him leave the fireside chat repeatedly that evening with a deeper look of embarrassment each time and had wondered what was going on. He asked me if I would pray for him. I said I would, and that I wanted to get the chaplain, a Mennonite pastor named Charlie Ness, to join me in praying for him. The counselor said OK and I told him to wait for me in the kitchen. I found Charlie and asked him “Do you believe in laying on hands in prayer and anointing with oil to heal the sick?” When Charlie answered: “Yes! Of course!” I brought him back to the kitchen where the young man waited for us. I got some oil out of our gallon jug, put it in a cup and brought the young man and the pastor into the serving area which was private. We anointed the young man with oil and prayed that God would relieve him of the ailment. As we prayed and laid hands on that young man something happened. The next day the young man came to me with a look of astonishment saying that from the moment we began praying he had felt better. At the end of the week the young man had not had any kind of problem or relapse. God had healed him.
When I asked Charlie the question, it was partly because I had been around some traditions that believed God no longer worked this way, that prayer for healing was presuming on God, that prayer for healing was an attempt to control God, or that prayer for concrete things was too risky. The main reason was that I needed someone else to bolster my faith in God’s willingness to heal because two years before this I had been praying that my Dad would be cured of cancer, and had laid hands on him and anointed him with oil in a large gathering of ministers with a “No” answer that broke my heart. This was the first time since my father’s death that I had prayed for healing for anyone. I knew all too well about risky. But I also knew about the importance of obedience and still had some trust in God even though it was hard. James’ encouragement in today’s scripture was in my heart that night.
13Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are 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. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. James 5:13-18
When we look at a text like this, we need to be careful in our application to make sure that we do not believe that we can make formulas to control God. This text is not about how to get God to heal people! It is about our relationships. One of things you might have noticed is the relational theme that runs through James’ writing. He is deeply concerned with the quality of relationship that his readers have with God, each other, and the world around us. James begins this section with the call to live in relationship with God in all circumstances. Having a conversation with God constantly going on in your head is one of our main goals as followers of Jesus. Every preacher I know has mentioned this as important, and now it is my turn. For a more practical guide to beginning this practice I recommend reading The Practice of the Presence of God by the 17th century Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Brother Lawrence writes about the necessity of this practice of prayer we have seen throughout James’ epistle saying:
The most holy and necessary practice in our spiritual life is the presence of God. That means finding constant pleasure in His divine company, speaking humbly and lovingly with Him in all seasons, at every moment without limiting the conversation in any way. This is especially important in times of temptation, sorrow, separation from God, and even in times of unfaithfulness and sin.[i]
Prayer is more than we understand. I don’t think any of us can grasp what it means to live in the presence of the living God, listening for his voice and speaking with Him. In my sorrow, when I am broken and discouraged, I can enter into God’s presence and not be rejected. In my joy I can sing praises and God will dance with gladness as I sing. We are encouraged to come into God’s presence in all circumstances and as His followers are welcomed no matter how broken we might have become. We deeply underestimate how much God desires to be with us, even to the point of patiently enduring our pain and brokenness. Living in prayer restores us and creates the space for God to work more effectively in our lives.
Sometimes our brokenness comes in the form of a physical illness and let me say that a majority of the time these kinds of ailments have absolutely nothing to do with any kind of bad moral decision making. As most of you parents know just having kids in school is enough to get the whole house sick. Amy’s time in petri –ahem- pre-school brought that lesson home to us in more than one way. That being said, we are called to support each other through our trials, illnesses, and the bumpy parts in the road of life.
We live in a culture that idolizes independence and creates co-dependence. The myth of independence says that we each must be strong and stand on our own two feet with nothing to help us. The myth of independence sets up codependence because the message that comes through in terms of helping others is that only when we are strong and standing on our own can we then help one of those poor slobs that hasn’t “gotten it all together” yet. This sets up one person as the exclusively strong giver and the other as the exclusively weak receiver. This kind of relationship is mutually destructive in that it creates pride on the part of the giver which leads to judgment and despair on the part of the receiver that they can ever overcome others’ judgment or their weakness; or that God would ever desire to help someone as reviled by others as they are.
James calls us to a different way of being in the world here, that when we are sick to ask for the prayer we need. That when we are falling down to rely on our brothers and sisters to hold us up. God has gifted each person here with something that this body needs in order to function well. That means we must learn to depend on each other to accomplish God’s call on us personally and us as a community. So when you are sick, call the elders to come and anoint you with oil and pray over you, in our mutual support and prayer we can confront the brokenness that lies within us, and the brokenness the exists in the world around us. Whatever the source of the problem, coming together in the presence of God will bring the health we most need, even if it is the mental and spiritual health needed to face death well. The other necessary component of interdependence is sharing with each other what our weaknesses are. Each of us has at least one area in our lives in which we consistently fall short of the mark. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to face those challenges alone? Thankfully we don’t have to. This room is filled with people who fail just like you do. Their difficulties may lie in other areas like addiction to pornography, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or food. Your difficulty might be pride, judgment, fear of the future, lack of trust, or greed. Sometimes it feels like there are as many ways to completely mess up as there are people, but when we are open with each other about where we fail, we haul those things that have been growing in the dark places we hide into the light and they lose their power over us. A little over a week ago I began inputting everything I eat into an app called My Fitness Pal. I share that food log with two friends who look at what I eat, and this has had an effect on me. I am dragging everything out into the light, and that is making a difference. On Wednesday I was struck with a deep hunger and found myself in the Safeway candy aisle. I knew I would have to input whatever I ate, and after 5 excruciating minutes walked away empty handed. I overcame because I was intentionally bringing my self harming eating habits into the light, and my sin against myself could not thrive under scrutiny. I will still mess up again, but because I am being open with some trusted friends I have their strength to help overcome my weakness. In their loan of strength, they are not judging me; we are all weak and are being the strength for each other that we don’t have on our own. We all fail, but together we can fail forward, picking each other up a little closer to the mark we are aiming for. Our prayers for each other are most effective when we can be pillars of mutual support.
The final prayer interaction we have is with the world around us. Our prayers can, like Elijah’s, open up means by which the world around us can be drawn in to relationship with God. We can pray to dry up the things that give life to the independently codependent structures of our society and we can pray for God to nourish the things in our society that lead to mutual dependence on each other and our true dependence on God. Prayer is the means by which we align ourselves with the purposes of God. That alignment means we can see exactly what God seeks to challenge in the culture around us, and in ourselves. Truthfully, being aligned with God’s purposes will make us about as popular as Elijah was as we challenge the structures in our society that go against the love God has called us to have for all of His image bearers. There are a lot of image bearers that are going to benefit from having health care next month and there are a lot of image bearers that will suffer greatly if we attack Syria. There are a lot of image bearers that die, are imprisoned, or are treated like waste every day right here and there are a lot of image bearers who get the chance to participate in restorative justice programs, who find homes and who through some grace are given a new life. Through prayer we will find ourselves on the side of life, abundant life that has meaning beyond stuff, abundant life that sees the value of all who bear the image of God, from the child in the womb to the inmate on death row. When we pray, things can change, the world can be transformed. Ordinary people living ordinary lives become agents of God’s transformation in the world simply because we engage the presence of God and acknowledge our need.
Friends, we need each other. In order for me to minster well, I need your gifts and talents to support me and in order for you to minister well you need my gifts and talents to support you. It is when we come together in prayer that we can begin to let go of the lies of independence and codependence and hear the truth of God’s gifting in each of our lives. When we come together in prayer we can also hear the truth of our weakness and gain the strength to accept other’s gifts. Our Open Worship time is a place in which we can practice this communion with God and others, and hopefully the time of Open Worship will expand for us beyond the boundaries of this service to encompass our whole life. Let us pray.
[i] Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. Whitaker House, New Kensington, PA 1982. p.61