Make This Your Common Practice
based on James 5:13-20
by Rev. Thomas Hall
This morning we conclude our very short visit
James' neighborhood in the New Testament. While with James we've confronted discrimination
in the world and in the church;. We've made the connection between God-talk and God-acts.
And we've learned both the power of words to wound and tear apart and the power of words
to reconcile and heal. So James bids us adieu with a final word of pastoral counsel. He
Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church
leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master.
Believing-prayer will help you, and Jesus will put you on your feet again. And if you've
sinned, you'll be forgiven--healed inside and out. So make this your common practice:
Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together
whole and healed.
This passage has a lot to do with prayer, confession, and healing. Now we might want to
cast this lesson aside as a curious glimpse of a very primitive practice. Of a group of
believers who live in a pre-scientific world bereft of modern medicine. We look in on
their curious practice of pouring olive oil all over some guy and then giving him some
ancient massage accompanied with prayer and then actually expecting something to happen.
We might want to brush this aside as superstition, as a bit, well...embarrassing to us.
Doesn't lend itself well to Sunday morning worship. It's messy. And embarrassing. And we
all know that much has happened in the past two millennia--like locating the causes of
disease as being viral and bacterial. So we could simply set this lesson a side in the
"does not apply" category were it not for one thing.
The medical profession in increasing numbers are coming to believe the truth of our
lesson. The touching part. The confession part. And the healing part of the lesson. Over
the past decades doctors have begun to discover that with stroke victims, for instance,
those who have the strong support of family and friends invariably recover in remarkably
quick time while others with less severe strokes take much longer to recover and in many
cases never recover. They've also observed that when persons nurse hurtful feelings like
resentment, deep regret or guilt, and emotional wounds--recovery is painfully slow in
coming. The notion that we're just a bunch of atoms and that illness is a bunch of atoms
out of sync no longer has the day; we are more than atoms. We are human personalities with
an emotional and spiritual dimension.
So wellness involves a balance between the spiritual and emotional and physical person.
We are a unity and our health depends on keeping a proper balance , a unity. Seems to be
the very point that James makes. He uses a special word to describe what happens when
healing prayer is offered. "He shall be saved" James tells us. Saved? Like in
"we're one of the chosen and on our way to heaven" type of saved? No. Saved is
sozo in the Greek New Testament and it means wholeness and healing and restoration.
Spiritual healing is God's work of offering us balance, harmony, and wholeness of body,
mind, spirit, and relationships through confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Through healing, God works through us to bring about reconciliation between God and
humanity, reconciliation between individuals, and reconciliation with our world. This
morning healing may come to you. That means that mental and emotional balance may be
restored; spiritual health may become renewed through confession of sin, a wholeness may
return to a relationship with someone, or perhaps even a physical healing will result.
Seems that the United Methodist Church is beginning to make the refreshing discovery of
healing too. About a year ago I sat in a seminar conducted by Thomas Langford, the general
editor of the Book of Worship which is the official worship resource for this
denomination. He began to tell us a story about how this worship resource came to have
several healing services included in it. At first, there was opposition by the committee
over the appropriateness of healing in the Methodist tradition. Numerous bishops were
uneasy with the inclusion of healing; thought that people would begin to associate their
denomination with Jimmy Swaggert or Jimmy Bakker types. But with reluctance, they gave the
editors permission to include two healing services in the Book of Worship.
Several months later the bishops invited the worship committee down to Nashville to
unveil the now completed Book of Worship; the staff planned to include one of the two
healing services on their final night with the bishops. After word got out, pressure to
change the service theme forced the group to reconsider; but they all agreed to offer the
bishops a taste of the healing ministry. That night with over one hundred bishops and
their spouses and friends assembled, the committee began the service; at the conclusion of
the homily the liturgy calls for a reading of James 5 and the anointing with oil; several
prayer teams came to the front of the church and prepared to minister and prepared to
anoint with oil. Then the invitation was given for all who wanted healing to come and
receive a prayer of healing from one of the teams. At first there was only silence,
clearing of throats, nervous coughs. Then one sole bishop came and said, "I've been
diagnosed as having colon cancer; I just can't bear it anymore, please pray for me."
Then another came "My son and I have grown apart in the last several years; I want
you to pray for reconciliation between my son and I." Then another "My marriage
needs healing; could you pray for me."
The praying for the sick was supposed to last only fifteen minutes but bishops kept
coming for healing prayer and the service lasted for almost an hour; something had broke
in that healing service and the bishops, putting status and prestige aside, came quietly
and simply as human beings in need of the healing touch of a brother or sister.
Seems I'm beginning to discover the power of healing. One member of my family in this
congregation would probably not be here were it not for healing prayer. A doctor had sat
my wife down with the shocking news of some problems with the pregnancy; I went to
Wednesday evening church service with a very heavy heart. I tried to lead the campus group
in several choruses, but I was overwhelmed with this crushing news. What I didn't realize,
was that word had gotten out that afternoon about the problem; and that evening a small
little congregation surrounded Dixie and I in soaking prayer. I will never forget a
Nigerian student get up and pray a prayer that put me back on my feet and gave me new
hope. I knew that come what may I had been healed inside out. That's the power of touch.
That's the power of community. That's the power of forgiveness. That's the power of the
prayer of faith.
I remember in one seminary class in Princeton when a young student had become a father;
I had worked with him delivering the New York Times. But when he went through the delivery
of their first child; they discovered that the child was severely damaged internally;
months and months of surgery would be needed and painful therapy. I knew of this. But I
was so numbed that I couldn't go to him and hug him--when he needed us most. Seemed we
seminarians didn't know how to embrace grief very well. Or to stand by persons in crises.
I have since talked about this with Jim and asked forgiveness but not when Jim needed me
In the Greek text our lesson begins not with a question, but with a declarative
statement. James isn't saying, "Is anyone among suffering, Is anyone among you
sick?" But rather James is saying, "there are some among you who are
hurting--pray; there are some among you who face emotional pain, loss; someone out there
is silently desperate--call the church's 911 number." My professor Bryant Kirkland
draws this huge circle on the blackboard. Covers the entire space.
"Up here," he says, "is the top of the world. That's where some of your
congregation will be when you enter the pulpit. Their promotion's come through; the house
sold on Friday; the first child has come and they're on cloud nine." But pointing
down to the bottom of the circle he scribbled and highlighted. "Here's where others
are in any service on any Sunday and in any pulpit. For them life has collapsed; a spouse
has moved out; a teen smokes her first cigarette, someone's fired, bankruptcy is filed;
and they're living in hell." "What do you do? You go to the lessons with a heart
going in two directions and you listen to what God tells you."
Some of us are living at the top and others at the bottom of that circle. Healing is
for both; if you've experienced loss through an abortion or loss of pregnancy, let God
heal you this morning. If you're suffering through substance abuse or entangled in
addiction or you know someone who is, let God heal and use you to heal that person this
Father Odilo has offers a concluding prayer to the Indians on the reservation in
Marvin, South Dakota when one of the Indians asks to speak. He says,
In the Bible Jesus uses many prayers and faiths and loves. You read that; you will see.
But you in your own heart, you really believe in him. He will show you right off, God can
heal you! But it is the person--you--who will heal. You have to forgive the sick man
yourself, and to give him time: You ask him, "Do you have faith?" Do you love
God?" And he answers, "Yes, yes sure!" You tell him he must leave all his
sins at the bottom. You ask him again, "Do you believe him?" He says,
"Yes." Then you go touch him and you heal him right now.
Powerful how Jesus acts! I found that out. It comes through here (pointing to his
heart). I can feel it--just like you get hold of electricity; makes you sweat, gets you
warm and touch you and you can heal. We heal quite a few people in Sisseton. They
sometimes backslide and that's bad. Jesus don't like that. But Jesus forgives; he likes
the sinner. He don't want nobody die. He wants to be good to everybody.
Now, who likes Jesus? Raise your hand! (Here the priests didn't know what to expect.
They all raise their hands hesitantly). "How many of you ever heal anybody? (Here
only about two hands went up.) "How come? How come you know Jesus and you no heal
nobody?" (Dead silence).
The question from a Native American--who lives on a reservation in one of the poorest
counties in America--confronts us all, as it did those 45 priests that evening. Can we
imagine God speeding up the natural process? Can we imagine God using us to heal, to make
whole, to reconcile others to God's love? "How come you know Jesus and you no heal
nobody?" Make this you common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for
each other so that you can live together whole and healed. Amen.