Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
30th of September 2018
This week is the last in which we hear from the Letter of James, learning from his teaching about the true wisdom that comes from above, as opposed to the ‘earthly, unspiritual, devilish’ wisdom of the world. Two weeks ago James warned us about the dangers of our tongues. Now James tells us how to use our tongues well, in prayer. Whether we are unhappy, happy, or sick, James tells us to pray; however we may be feeling and whatever is happening to us, James says that prayer is the appropriate response. This is how we can guard our tongues and ensure that we don’t start a fire with them – by remembering that all our words are said in God’s hearing.
Over the past weeks we’ve seen that James’ letter is about the very practical ways in which followers of Jesus were to live together in community. James knows that there are many ways in which people fail to live as followers of Christ, and he describes some of them: showing partiality to the rich; neglecting the poor; using our tongues to curse other human beings made in the image of God; boasting and lying; engaging in disputes; laying up worldly treasure. James has no illusions about how badly people can behave, even those of us who claim to believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. James also gives practical examples of how we can show that our faith is alive and not dead: feeding the hungry; clothing the naked; caring for the widows and orphans. His advice that members of the church should pray in every circumstance is another practical example of true wisdom.
‘Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.’ We take it for granted that when those who are suffering pray, they are praying prayers of petition, asking that God take away their suffering from them. But one of the commentators that I read this week wrote that in James’ Jewish context it was perfectly possible that he was advising the suffering to complain; to pray the psalms of lament that are scattered so plentifully throughout the Psalter. It may be that the religiously correct response to suffering is to join the psalmist in crying out: ‘O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying to me, “There is no help for you in God.”’ (Psalm 3:1-2) or ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.’ (Psalm 22:1-2) If we are suffering it is okay for our prayer to be complaint.
‘Are any cheerful?’ asks James. ‘They should sing songs of praise.’ James seems to have been aware of the latest research on the health benefits of gratitude. As I have mentioned before, studies into positive psychology (studies that look at psychological health rather than psychological problems) find that deliberately expressing our gratitude can increase our well-being and happiness, and that gratefulness, and especially expression of it to others, is associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy. Generating an attitude of gratitude, remembering that ‘all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above’ is good for us.
Then we come to the part of today’s reading that might cause us some disquiet:
Are 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. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore 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.
What are people of faith to do if faithful people pray over the sick, and yet the sick are not healed? What are we to do if our prayers do not seem to be ‘powerful and effective’?
It is apparent through the letter that James is convinced that God is compassionate, that God wants the suffering to be comforted and the sick healed. Since the God we believe in is the God and Father of Jesus Christ, who healed the sick and welcomed the excluded into God’s family, we can agree with him. James also believed that the prayers and actions of the Christian community could enable God to raise up the sick, and that I think is true, too, although maybe not in the way that James might have meant it.
People who are sick are not to be left alone and isolated. The community is to care for them. ‘Are 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.’ Representatives of the community, and not merely the minister but the elders of the church, those whose faith is known to be deep and wise, are to visit, pray, and anoint those who are sick. I have talked to the children about the reasons we anoint those being baptised with oil; we are acknowledging that through their baptism they are being commissioned as prophets and priests and royal children of God. While oil might be being used here as a form of medicine, I suspect that anointing a sick person with oil is also meant to remind them of their status as a beloved child of God, baptised into the family of God.
James tells the elders not simply to pray with the sick but to touch them. In recent years as the horrors of the Royal Commission have educated us about the dangers of the wrong sort of touch we have become a little scared of the right sort of touch. One of the things that I have become aware of as I visit the sick and suffering is the absolutely vital importance of a gentle and loving touch. As I sit and talk with an elderly person who has lost most of their sight, we hold hands. When someone cries, I put my arms around them or offer my shoulder in wordless support. Whenever I ask people if they would like me to pray with them they automatically hold their hands out for me to take as I speak to God with them. I have turned up to the family of someone who has just died to talk about the funeral and been hugged by people I have never met, because they believe that I bring God and the church with me. Appropriate, loving, gentle, touch is absolutely vital in ministry, and especially for people who are sick or isolated and who are touched so often in clinical ways. I have seen the healing that touch can bring, especially to people isolated in aged care facilities.
As inhabitants of the twenty-first century we might balk at James’ connection between healing and the confession of sins: ‘therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed’. It can be deeply dangerous to equate sin and ill-health, and when his disciples asked Jesus of the man born blind, ‘who sinned, this man or his parents,’ Jesus quickly responded ‘neither this man nor his parents sinned’ (John 9:1-3). But while sin does not lead to illness, the awareness of being forgiven our sins can lead to health. I have seen the weight that those who believe that their sins are unforgiven bear, and more than anything I have wanted to relieve them of that weight. It is why we start our services with a prayer of confession followed by a declaration of forgiveness, so that we can then worship God and go out to service standing tall in the knowledge that we have been forgiven, cleansed, healed, made new.
When I was a theological student I spent one summer working as a chaplain at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. One of the wards I was allocated was the bone marrow unit, and one of the patients I saw there was a woman in her 50s who had leukaemia after having previously had breast cancer. In one of our conversations she asked me whether I believed that she had cancer for a second time as punishment for being divorced and remarried. Apparently some Christian members of her family had told her this. Now, one of the things that we were not meant to do as chaplains is try to change people’s faith. But I told her that I believed in a God of love who was committed to our health and wholeness, and that I certainly didn’t believe in a God who sent illness as punishment. We had a long discussion and I felt at the end of it that this woman had a new and happier image of God. I wrote the discussion up in her clinical notes, because I thought the other staff might see a change in her.
They did see a change in her. She died that night. I was devastated when my supervisor told me, because I had been so sure that our conversation had inaugurated a new, healthier, happier, life for her. It took quite a while for my supervisor to convince me that it had. My supervisor told me that that woman died believing in a God who loved her, rather than one who was punishing her, and that that was the greatest gift I could have given her. I was young, and still struggling with the idea that death can be a gift, and it took me months of reflection to accept what my supervisor said. Now, years later, I have been in other situations in which death has been a gift and prayers that the person dying will go gently into the hands of the God who loves them have been an important part of that death. Now when I read James telling the first Christians to visit the sick and pray and forgive them their sins and touch them I know how very healing that can be, even if the end result is death.
James is the practical letter, the letter of works, Luther’s epistle of straw, and so we can be sure that James thinks prayer is one of the practicalities of life. James reminds us that one of the things we are called to do as a community, along with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the widows and orphans, is to pray for others. That is something practical that we can do even when we ourselves are frail and sick. In our prayers we join Christ in his prayers; the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes of Christ: ‘he is able for all time to save* those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.’ (Hebrews 7:25) When Christ was alive on earth he healed the sick, freed the captives, welcomed the excluded. Now when we do those things, including when we pray for others, we are joining Christ in his work. This is part of who we are called to be as church, a community that prays not just for ourselves but for others, holding the entire world in our hearts before God. Amen.
 Robert J. Karris, ‘Some New Angles on James 5:13-20’ (2000).