Scripture: James 5:7-20
“Where are we going?” I was following my Guatemalan host father, Daniel, and other elders from the Trinidad Glorioso Presbyterian Church, walking the dirt paths of their Mayan-Quiche village. “We are going to anoint our brother with oil,” Daniel replied. I was puzzled, not just by the language barrier, but also by the practice itself, which Daniel seemed to assume was self-evident, standard Christian practice. But though a lifelong Presbyterian, this was my first experience witnessing healing prayer done just as James counsels in the scripture today.
I found the scene both moving and concerning. The elders surrounded the sick man, reading scriptures, singing hymns, and offering prayers of deep passion and sincerity, closing by rubbing olive oil into his hands. I joined in as I could, but part of me stood aside in skepticism, thinking these humble Guatemalans seemed a bit naïve. I worried about how disappointed they would feel if and when their fervent prayers failed to accomplish the healing they so desired.
Looking back, I see now that my worry was less about them and more about me. I was uncomfortable with healing prayer, laying on of hands, and anointing, taught to be skeptical in my North American mainline Protestant worldview. I worried about their disappointment, because I’d heard tales of people in my own context; those that had left the faith, angry with God, even doubting God’s very existence; or those who heaped guilt on themselves for lack of faith, when it seemed prayers for physical healing had lacked results. Wouldn’t they all be better served by getting him to a doctor?
But then again, that question revealed that I was the naïve one, not yet grasping the realities my Guatemalan community faced. They had minimal access to medical care, and while they were very hardworking and resourceful people, in almost everything they did, they faced limitations imposed by systems of power and privilege from which they were at best excluded and at worst, actively oppressed.
Furthermore, the healing prayer they offered for their brother-in-Christ was only on the most basic level about alleviating his physical suffering. While they hoped and expected God to work through their prayer to heal his body, these Christians also trusted God to initiate other layers of healing. They recognized that this man might also need repentance from sin and reconciliation in estranged relationships, because sickness and sin are just different kinds of disruption to a whole person’s body-mind-and-spirit. They knew that there is healing for the whole community when a sick person is able to admit his vulnerability and speak the truth of his illness with others, trusting the community to join with him against whatever is causing his suffering. [i]
There are commonalities between the context of my Guatemalan community and the people to whom James originally addressed his wisdom. Early Jewish and Christian communities under Roman imperial rule faced persecution and systemic oppression, with their lives at stake daily. Suffering and emotional discouragement were just part of daily life in this context, and people struggled to maintain integrity of body, mind, and spirit. One scholar notes that while some illnesses were believed to result from personal sin, others were seen as the result of “uncontrollable external forces which sinfully pressed against the oppressed body of the poor and the persecuted.” [ii]
James, like my Guatemalan hosts, understands the Christian church as the place where a different kind of life could be learned and practiced, giving sustenance “in the midst of social disorder and oppression;”[iii]and in prayer, God could restore each person, inside and out, with sickness healed and sin forgiven.
This is the kind of community that James envisions throughout his epistle. Studying his wisdom over the past month, we’ve seen James address issues of divisiveness, warning against attitudes of partiality toward rich members; the slanderous use of words; and the dangers of boasting about ourselves or judging others. James counsels an attitude of humility, which Keith described last week as “living into the reality that God is everything.” James exhorts us that our outer actions reveal the truth of our inner faith, and that a central facet of true religion is caring for the most vulnerable people among us.
Today, we hear James call the community to a practice of prayer. “Let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no,” he writes, advocating a basic practice of speaking the unvarnished truth of one’s life and actions. Prayer is only possible if we can tell the truth about ourselves to God and others. The other actions of prayer James names are other forms of telling the truth: Can we allow others to know we are suffering or cheerful, sick or stuck in sinful patterns?
Such truth-telling is not easy in our culture. We expect adults to be independent, autonomous individuals who are self-directed and self-sufficient. We think we are supposed to have it all together, to stay in control of our bodies and emotions, and we’re continually convinced by consumer advertising that we should be able to fix every problem that might possibly cause suffering. When we get sick or a relationship goes wrong, we often experience a burden of shame, wondering what we—or someone we can blame—did wrong.
It takes courage to ask for others’ prayers. Many people resist it, even—maybe especially—in church communities. Mary Hinkle Shore asks, “Is there any congregation in the whole Christian church on earth that you don’t have to leave when you are having a problem that you can’t hide? …Hardly anyone leaves church because things are going well for them.”[iv]
Our congregation has a strong practice of intercessory prayer for family and neighbors suffering loss or going through illness, our Prayers of the Community. To me, that time is often a highlight of our worship service, especially when we receive thanksgiving for our care and testimonies of healing.
However, even here we are understandably reluctant to ask for prayers when the cause of suffering is not sickness but sin. Yet according to James, confessing and praying for one another in our sins is equally as important as anointing the sick: “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.”
It is a basic truth of the human condition that we are sinners. All of us, each and every one of us, sometimes sin against God and our neighbor in what we say, think, or do. Ultimately we cannot ignore, deny, or cover up these ways we miss the mark in living out of God’s love; we can only move through and beyond sin in the practice of confession. Confession is naming the sin in the presence of a trusted companion, and then accepting and claiming forgiveness as our new reality.[v]
For James, we are able to tell the truth of our lives because we know and trust in a merciful and compassionate God who is ever-ready to heal and forgive. Our community with one another is established on the level ground before the cross of Jesus Christ. That’s why there can be no boasting or judging, no partiality or diminishing of one another; that’s why James calls us to move towards—not away from—those who have wandered away to bring them back into the community. There is justice and mercy for all in the presence of the gracious, self-giving “Judge who is judged in our place.”[vi]
Our awareness of our equal standing as sinners who are also God’s precious children makes those who live in Christ able to trust and act in ways vastly different from our surrounding culture, able to stand with one another in suffering which is not unusual but to be expected, able to stand together against the distortions of abusive systems or relationships; and able to speak the truth of our need for God’s compassion and mercy, thereby finding healing and forgiveness.
In closing, I offer you another story from my year in Guatemala. It was the middle of the night, and this time, I was the sick one, suffering from the usual traveler’s ailments. My host parents, sleeping in an adjoining room, heard me get up to the latrine multiple times. Back in bed, nauseous in the dark, there was a knock at the door. “Come in,” I said, wanting to tell them to go away, but also not wanting to offend my hosts. Daniel and Toribia and Fredy, my host parents and brother, along with two visiting church youth leaders, came in and gathered around my bed. They offered to pray. I agreed, though I was completely mortified by how public my, uh, internal issues had become.
I don’t remember their specific words, but I remember feeling awed by the sincerity and passion of their prayer for me, that I would find healing in their community. And I don’t remember being immediately and miraculously cured —it took a trip to the doctor and some Cipro—but I do remember a strange sense of relief and peace, that I didn’t have to hide my illness, that I wasn’t alone in it, that even as a stranger in a strange land, I was part of a community of people who believed in a God of healing and forgiveness, people who knew how to talk to God with trust and conviction.
And here’s my testimony 15 years after that healing prayer: that moment, when, uncomfortable and humiliated, I agreed to receive the care of people I’d just met, people I’d previously understood to be “poor” Guatemalan farmers somehow in need of my volunteer service, that moment began a journey of healing in Christ continuing to this day, in which I have learned and am still learning to lean into my vulnerability and accept my limitations, to recognize God’s presence with me in suffering, and to trust God’s acceptance and forgiveness, revealed in and through the people Christ has called together, a journey of healing that has been teaching me the depth and breadth of God’s love for me and every creature of this earth.
So on this day after “Independence Day,” I invite you to embrace and lean into our mutual dependence on the God of grace and mercy; I invite you to risk vulnerability and tell the truth of your weakness and limitations, to let others in to stand with you in times of sickness or sinfulness. May you be found when you wander and be brought back, again and again, to the true community of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One in Three, Three in One. Amen.
[i] Mary Hinkle Shore, http://www.pilgrimpreaching.org/2003/09/being_church-1.html
[ii] Christopher Michael Jones, http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=52
[iii] Christopher Michael Jones, as above.
[iv] Mary Hinkle Shore, http://www.pilgrimpreaching.org/2003/09/being_church-1.html
[vi] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Vol. IX: The Doctrine of Reconciliation. Edited byG. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh T. & T.Clark, 1936–1977.