James: Prayer and Healing
Some of you know that I own my own home in Liverpool. It served me well while I was pastoring in the Syracuse area at a church without a parsonage, but now I find myself in a different situation, and I’ve been looking at my home with an eye toward selling. Thanks to a thoughtful parishioner here, I have some folks from Gouverneur, actually, renting from me for a while, and in the meantime, it is giving me time to slowly begin making repairs. I have to admit, that when I look around at the house, I have a tendency to get overwhelmed with the things I think need fixing up before it’s ready to sell. I need a new front door. Some landscaping. The porch needs to be painted. There’s that spot where my brother Todd tried to hang a rack for pots and pans, but did it wrong, and tried again a couple of time before getting it right. The pet door we installed that never closed quite completely. And everything I try to repair seems to take twice as long to fix as I hoped for and cost twice as much as I budgeted for. So overwhelming, and that’s just a sliver of the to-do list.
For some reason, this is what popped into my mind when I was thinking about what needs healing in our world, in our lives. Sometimes, I think the need for healing can overwhelm us. Think of those who are struggling physically – with illness, with cancer, with disability, with some persistent ailment. I think of the people I know who are struggling with addiction of one kind or another. People who are trying to absorb the grief of a tragedy, who are mourning and grieving and broken from loss. I think of the struggles of our community – unemployment and poverty. Children in need. I think of our nation – there’s so much fear that is driving us as a country right now. Around the world, war, and refugees, and disease.
In the face of all that we might say needs healing, it is easy to get overwhelmed, isn’t it? The list of broken people and places and situations can seem just – too much. Too much. So what do we do, as people of faith, when we’re overwhelmed with looking at the hurt of the world, or the hurt in our own lives, the lives of the people we love?
Recently, I’ve seen some pushback when people offer their thoughts and prayers after a tragedy. It’s not uncommon, after a national or international tragedy, for social media and news sites to be filled with images and facebook statuses and tweets and blogposts all saying: “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” After the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, after the bombing in Paris, after the hurricane and floods: “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” We say this because we really are thinking about and praying for people caught up in tragedy. And we say this because we feel helpless. What can I do about a hurricane? What can I do about gun violence? What can I do about a war in a far off country? And I’ve seen people push back a little, saying, “We need more. We need more than thoughts and prayers. We need action. We need people working for change. We need strategies and solutions.”
And I think: Yes – yes to all of it. We need action and change and strategies and solutions – and thoughts and prayers. We need a way to experience and be part of healing in people’s lives, and in our world. We need to pray for God’s healing action, and be part of God’s healing action. I think trusting in God’s healing, and believing that God has a place for us to be part of the healing of the world is the only way we can keep from being overwhelmed, crushed under the weight of our troubles, offering words that are empty, instead of full of promise, in the face of hurt and pain.
I think that’s where James comes in. We’ve taken a very brief walk through the book of James. There are other great passage in the five short chapters that make up James’ letter, but we’ll have to save that for our next time around. In today’s text, James talks mostly about prayer and healing. Suffering? Pray. Cheerful? Praise. Sick? Let the church community prayer together, anointing with oil in the name of Jesus. A prayer of faith “saves,” says James, a word that means healing, being “made well.” It gives the sense not just of mending a wound, but of complete health, wholeness. Prayers of faith also bring about forgiveness. So, James says, confess your sins to each other, and pray for each other, because the prayer of the righteous – that is, the prayer of those who are in right relationships with God and one another – is powerful and effective. James gives some examples, including the profound significance of someone being brought back onto the path of discipleship because of the actions of a brother of sister in the faith. There’s another whole sermon series waiting for you eventually on prayer. And a study group or two. My heart’s desire is that prayer, which is just fancy-church language for opening our hearts to God, would be as easy for us as breathing. We get so scared of it, as if God will reject our words. But I think God is waiting for us to strike up more conversation. When we open our hearts to God, James says it is powerful and effective.
Today, after the sermon, we’re going to spend some time in prayer, praying for healing. Whatever healing you need in your life right now, and whatever healing you see that the world needs right now. You’ll have an opportunity to receive anointing oil and a prayer if you choose to come forward, or if you ask for someone to come to you in your pew. Praying for healing, using anointing oil, which has long been used as part of rituals of faith – these aren’t magic words that we say, magic ceremonies. Praying for healing doesn’t mean praying for God to fix everything. Ask anyone who has healed from an injury, recovered from surgery, had a wound slowly heal – they’ll tell you it is a process. It takes time. It doesn’t happen all at once, and doesn’t always happen in a smooth, orderly way, and doesn’t always happen how you want it to.
We’ll pray for healing, and healing means that we have to be vulnerable. We have to offer ourselves for healing. To be healed, we have to be willing to go to the doctor sometimes. To be healed, we have to be willing to share with others what is hurting us. To be healed, we have to be willing to accept help. We’ll pray for healing, and that means that we’re responsible for each other and for our world. James tells us this means sometimes we have to confess to God and one another – sometimes we’re broken because we’ve participating in breaking ourselves, and breaking others. We have to share with each other, share with God, in order for healing to take place. We have to be invested in each other’s healing. Healing isn’t a solo act. It’s an act of community. In the gospels, when Jesus healed people, he’d usually send them to the religious leaders, who would confirm that a healing had taken place. Why did they need to do this? Wasn’t just being physically healed enough? No – that was only part of it. To be healed would mean to be reconciled to the community. People who were ill, or diseased, or otherwise struggling would have been apart, separate from the community. After Jesus healed someone, visiting the religious leaders would be the formal step of being reconciled with the community. James never talks about praying for healing on an individual basis. His assumption is that healing is something we experience together.
How have you experienced healing? I know we long for God’s healing to be at work in our lives, in our community, in our world. Our thoughts and prayers, and the actions and responses that spring forth from them, mean that we can work with God for healing, as we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, as we lift each other up and hold each other accountable, and as we make ourselves vulnerable to God, letting God work on mending our hearts.
The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. And the prayer of faith will make us whole. Thanks be to God. Amen.