Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 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. Elijah 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. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
Nearly twenty years ago, in my introduction to the New Testament class, I saw a picture in our text book that stuck with me. It was of these small terracotta sculptures. I dug through my book last night to remind myself exactly what they were. If you were sick, and prayed at the temple of the god Asclepius for healing, you might leave a reproduction of the body part, made of clay, as an offering after experience healing or restoration. In my textbook, there are small and intricate ears and eyes. I looked up some more images on the internet and found hands and arms and abdomens, even entire necks and heads, all left in thanksgiving. I found a picture of one, a realistic leg on marble, that is inscribed with these words: 'Asklepios and Hygieia, (from) Tyche, a thanksgiving offering.” If you entered in the temple, you might find yourself surrounded by these small sculptures, evidence of the ways the ancient faithful looked to their gods for care in times of trial. Some modern Christians have similar practices, with our Greek Orthodox siblings and many Catholics of Latin American and Spanish descent, offering up small metal legs and arms and hearts, alongside their prayers for renewal and restoration. Asking for relief for suffering is an act that crosses time and cultures. And, according to the author of James, relieving suffering through prayer is a core function of the church.
We have spent September hearing the words of the book of James, a letter that was passed around Jewish Christian communities outside of Jerusalem. It was written well after Jesus’ death and resurrection but before Christianity can really be understood as something wholly separate, if inspired by, Judaism. People who were Jewish but lived outside of their traditional homelands in other parts of Rome would have need community to help them continue their faith practices as a minority religion, and a religion of a conquered people, in Rome. Within the broader Jewish diaspora, Jewish Christians were an even smaller group, with an even greater need to be held up and held together in the midst of the everyday violence and cruelty of the Roman empire. In her commentary on this text, Dr. Noelle Damico reminds us that these small church groups were likely made up mostly quite impoverished people. It is hard to be poor. It is hard to access care when you are poor. When wealthy people hoard resources, poor people are more likely to suffer. James believed that Christ compelled his followers to build a community that relieved suffering, not one that compounded it. An active, engaged prayer life was part of that relief of suffering.
According to James, our faith should influence how we live: how we develop relationships, how we treat neighbors and strangers, how respond to the trials and tribulations of life. According to Damico, the church is a place where Christ’s followers can begin the work of reorienting the systems of oppression at work in the world into the reign of love and justice Jesus began cultivating during his life and ministry. Where the wealthy would have places of honor and privilege outside of the church, within the walls of the church, they were to practice living as equals with the poor. Ideally, the practice that began within the confines of their religious community would then shape with wealthy’s behavior outside the community. They would stop taking advantage of the poor everywhere because Christ demanded justice of them. According to Dr. Damico, prayer, with and for one another, became one mechanism by which “the community orders and reorder itself as an assembly of equals, both in fundamental critique of the wider world and in loving support of one another as we seek God’s guidance for how to live.” Listening to and praying for one another helps us see each other as whole people, beloved by God, and worthy of compassion, care, and dignity.
I appreciate the ways that prayer, as an act done on someone else’s behalf, is something that is accessible to so many kinds of people. You don’t have to be rich to pray for someone. You don’t have to educated. A child can do it. A senior adult can do it. Someone sick in bed can do it. You can pray in car or a bus or at home at your desk. A stranger can pray for you. A close friend can pray for you. I know that people can get intimidated or fearful of prayer, worried that how they might pray might not be eloquent or articulate enough, especially if they are praying aloud and in front of people.... they worry that they might mess up the prayer, like it’s a special combination on a lock that might close forever if they don’t say just the right words at the right time with the right rhythm. I don’t think any of that’s true. And, I don’t think James did either. Prayer isn’t exactly easy, but it is an action, an intention, a stance of openness towards God and neighbor that just about anyone can offer to anyone else if they really want to.
Given our current political climate, where some people are using the language of Christian faith, and prayer in particular, to justify a political position of Covid denialism, alongside the fact that I know that plenty of people have prayed for healing that has never come, I want to be very careful about how I talk about prayer and healing. It is a common and terrible bit of theological malpractice to tell someone that if they pray hard enough or in the right way that God will grant that prayer the way that a genie grants a wish, and, if they aren’t healed, then God must have decided they didn’t deserve healing. And, right now, it is an all too common and terrible bit of the theological malpractice to prop up misinformation about public health policy with language that sounds a lot like this scripture in a way that only benefits political operatives, while leaving millions of people suffering in the midst of an on-going and dangerous pandemic. These two cruelties are the opposite of what James is saying about prayer in Christian community.
In her commentary on this portion of scripture, Dr. Gay L. Byron states “Prayer changes things.” I think the thing that prayer changes is us. It takes great vulnerability to share both your songs of praise and your great sufferings. And, it takes real commitment to receive that vulnerability, honor it, and pray alongside someone else. Praying for one another requires that we show up, we listen, and we respond to the needs of the person right in front of our faces. I don’t believe that we can keep hearing one another’s prayer and not be moved and changed by what we hear, not if we are listening with the ears of our faith and really prepared for the Spirit to move us through the prayers we pray and ask for others to pray for us. There is a particular kind of healing that comes from be known and heard and tended to. And, how can we not be moved to work for a more just and loving world when we have heard the prayers of the suffering. The spirit can work in and through us to alleviate so much suffering in this world. And, all of that can start with prayer and confession and amend-making and forgiveness.
I want to offer up one more thing I learned in my studies this week. Verse 14 says that the elders of the church will pray over the sick and anoint them with oil. In his notes on this verse, Dr. Cain Hope Felder notes that this oil isn’t simply a ritual element that brings a nice smell or holy ambiance to the prayer session. The oil was a common medicinal remedy. Isaiah 1:6 talks about tending to bruises and sores with oil as a medical treatment. In the healing scene in Mark 6:13, oil, alongside prayer, is used to heal sick people. During the purification ritual, where a someone has been suffering from leprosy is examined to see if they are healed, oil was put on the right ear, thumb, and toe of the person who was healed in Leviticus 14:10, 12, 15-16. This scripture shows us that you can believe that prayer brings healing and also put your trust in the medicines of the era. And, it is part of the responsibility of the church to make sure that all who are suffering have access to the medicines that can help heal them.
Prayer and healing are both complicated and intrinsic to the life of the church. As Sarah continues with her internship this coming school year, she may be inviting you to participate in prayer and other form of spiritual practice. I hope you will take her up on that invitation. Because, the world needs a lot of healing right now. And, we can do our part in this healing by praying for each other and lifting up our songs of praise. May we be changed through these prayers.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
Some images of the votives that people left in the temple of Aesclepius:
Cain Hope Felder, introduction to the book of James, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Noelle Damico, "Proper 21), Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
The entry on "oil" in The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.