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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 says:


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 most.

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 morning.

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.