Scripture – James 5:13-16
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, September 20, 2015
A quick quiz: What is the strongest muscle in the human body? My first thought went to the advice you hear in weight-lifting: You need to strengthen your thighs in order to lift something hefty. But, I want to make a case for another part of the body – the tongue.
The tongue is the strongest muscle in the human body because it can encourage large audiences to fear the stranger. “Everyone coming across the border is a murderer or a rapist!”
The tongue can inspire a crowd to endure harsh times. “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!”
The tongue can persuade a nation to go to war. “They are harboring weapons of mass destruction!”
The tongue can challenge people to work for peace. “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.”
Last Sunday, we looked at the middle section of the Letter of James where he warned the community of faith to use great caution when choosing their words. He wrote, “The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Criticism and gossip can cut like a razor, destroying personal relationships and tearing the fabric of a community.
Today’s reading comes at the end of his letter and, as James is coming to a close, he highlights another type of speech – healing speech. The tongue can surely destroy and divide, but the tongue can also speak words that edify and inspire. The tongue can be employed for what builds up, rather than tears down; it can speak words that reconcile and restore. What kind of speech is healing speech? It can be words of encouragement or praise, but as James writes his final sentences, he spotlights healing prayer.
He writes, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray…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.”
My grandson Matthew, who is in the seventh grade, loves baseball. He plays on one team in the spring and another team in the fall. But, tonight when he goes to the baseball field, he will attend a memorial service for Tyler. This 16 year-old also loved baseball and even coached younger kids in Little League. Just before the beginning of school, Tyler was body surfing. No one saw what happened, but someone spotted him face down in the water. For two weeks, hundreds of people prayed for him to come out of his coma, and there were hopeful signs. But last Sunday he died.
Over the years of my ministry I have prayed for many people to be healed, and I suspect you have too. Some of the people I have prayed for have recovered, some have not.
There are a number of stories in the gospels of Jesus healing people. There are also stories in which his disciples heal people. James encouraged people who are ill to call on the leaders of the church to pray for them and to anoint them with oil. Further, he wrote, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.”
Our text serves as a springboard for us to contemplate healing. Consider the amazing healing powers within our bodies. We become ill countless times over the course of our lives, but our bodies recover. A virus infects us and we become severely fatigued for a few days. Our immune system battles the virus and in a week or so we are well. We take a nasty fall and break an arm. A doctor may reset it or put our arm in a cast, but it is our body that mends the bone.
If we need to put a name on this kind of healing, we might call it natural healing. However, in my mind, natural healing does not imply that God is uninvolved in the process. God creates life, God sustains life, and God is a constant source of healing energy.
It makes sense to me that if stress, constant bitterness and acute anxiety can compromise our immune system and cause illness, then prayer and meditation that produce inner peace, and instill hope in a greater power can promote healing.
James counsels to call on the leaders of the church to pray for healing. Some visualize people reciting incantations to produce a magic cure, but that may not be James’ point.
When someone is ill, being isolated from others and feeling alone can heighten his suffering. The presence and sincere concern of another can be physically, mentally and spiritually uplifting. James urges us to connect with people who are ill, because when we form a bond with them, there is healing power in the love we share.
A second type of healing we might call modern medicine. In this type of healing, we require more than our immune system can deliver. Our bodies might not be able to overcome pneumonia, but antibiotics can usually do the trick. Polio took the lives of many, but a vaccine robbed it of its power to destroy. If we have a tumor, a surgeon might be able to remove it before it wreaks havoc. Sometimes God’s healing power works through the invention of a new drug or the hands of a surgeon.
The mystifying miracle, for lack of better words, is a third type of healing. Someone is expected to die, but against all odds, recovers.
When reading this text about prayer “saving the sick,” we might think that since James wrote in a pre-scientific era when demons were often blamed for illnesses, he was simply naïve and imagined that prayer was a form of magic to keep people alive. However, James well understood the transitory nature of life. A few verses earlier, he wrote, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14).
It is essential that when we talk about healing, we not delude ourselves into thinking that we or someone we love will always be healed. Our bodies do an incredible job of mending and modern medicine often plays a role. But we will not overcome every illness. The last one will be the last one.
That being said, there are rare occasions when people seem to cheat death. The cancer that cannot be cured mysteriously vanishes. The illness that seems to have won the battle retreats. Such healing defies explanation and we simply say, “Thanks be to God!” Of course, the beneficiaries of the mystifying miracle do not live forever, but they do win an inexplicable reprieve.
A fourth type of healing we might call: the remarkable transformation. A person who is addicted fails on numerous attempts to get straight. She loses her job, she loses her family, life crumbles around her and she cannot beat the addiction. Then, she experiences a powerful spiritual transformation that molds her into a new person. She beats her addiction, puts her life back together, and embarks on a course that is no longer focused inward, but now oriented toward helping others.
Finally, a fifth type of healing. Legendary sportscaster Vin Scully, was speaking about an injured baseball player and his playing status for upcoming games. Scully said, “John has several injuries. His playing status is listed “Day to day.” Then, Scully added, “Aren’t we all.”
While we would like to think that we will be playing all season, the fact is, our status is day to day. An illness or an accident can take us out of the game at any moment. And whenever our final inning comes, for most of us, it is before we are ready to be yanked out. There is one more family wedding we want to enjoy, one more graduation to see, one more birthday to celebrate, one more destination to visit.
This type of healing is not a physical healing – a healing of our body – but rather a healing that occurs in the depths of our soul. This healing allows us to reach a state where we are at peace with dying.
In his letter, James calls on the community to pray for the sick. He says, “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.”
Note that nowhere in this passage does James use the word “cure.” Rather, in what sounds like an echo of the resurrection of Jesus, he says, “The Lord will raise them up.” I think James is saying that if physical healing in this life is not possible – if they cannot be raised from their sick bed, they will be raised from their death bed – and receive their healing in God’s eternal realm.
Dana Ferguson was a 40something Presbyterian minister and mother of two. For more than a year, she battled cancer. A few months before the cancer won, Dana had a conversation with a woman in her congregation who was also struggling with a life-threatening disease. The woman asked Dana, “Do you ever get over being afraid of dying?”
Dana paused before answering, because a part of her wanted to conceal her honest feelings and pretend that she never had doubts or moments of wavering. “But,” she said, “That would not have been the truth.”
Dana held deep convictions about her faith. She trusted God, but she admitted that she had not fully conquered her fear of death. She feared leaving her children without a mother.
Dana said that despite her fear, she knew it did not negate God’s love for her in any way. She knew God loved her throughout her life, and that God’s love would not cease at her death. Shortly before dying, she said, “My story will continue on in the next life where I will be wrapped tightly in the arms of a loving God.”1
Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, touched many people with his writings on spirituality. Two years before he died, he wrote, “When we reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die, then oppression, persecution, and even death will be unable to take our freedom. Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge a knowledge more of the heart than the mind – that we are born out of love and will die into love, that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love, and that this love is our true Father and Mother, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us.”2
There is a powerful connection between faith and healing. I do not pretend to understand how it works, but I believe that God’s healing energy can restore us. And even when a full recovery is not possible, there can still be healing in our souls; especially when we embrace the promise of Scripture that our story continues beyond death where we will be wrapped up in the love of God.
Dana Ferguson, “The Body Broken,” February 5, 2006.
Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, (New York: HarperOne, 1996).
Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton
God of love, you speak to us the Words of life, words of forgiveness, words that call us to reach out to the poor and the hurting, words that offer us hope and direction. As your people gathered to worship you this day, we in turn speak words from our mouths and our hearts to you, and so we pray, God of love, hear our prayer.
We bring before you those in our world who suffer from the effects of acts terrorism…where sadness and grief are real, bring healing and comfort. Where fear accompanies each hour of the day, and loss of property and belongings are the result of terroristic threats and actions, bring hope and peace. God of love, hear our prayer.
We offer thanks and praise for all those who first respond to acts of terrorism, for their selfless acts, and their willingness to be your hands and your arms and your face in the midst of disaster. God of love, hear our prayer.
And as hard as it is sometimes to pray for those who hurt and those who harm, as your people, we pray for those who have turned to violence as a means of revenge or as a means of making a point. Heal those hearts. God of love, hear our prayer.
We lift up to you the people of Syria. We pray for peace in that land, we ask that the upheaval and power struggles might be resolved – for those who are hungry there, and for those who are destitute there, bring a measure of hope. For those who are refugees, help them find open arms to welcome them among the world’s nations, and a commitment to meeting their needs across the globe. God of love, hear our prayer.
We pray for those who lead our nation, our state and our city. Give those whose decisions and actions impact not just the world today but the world in the coming years, wisdom and courage. Give them the ability to work together for the common good, and the vision to help create a world which will be life giving not just to us, but to our children and grandchildren as well. God of love, hear our prayer.
We voice to you this day concerns for those we love and those in this community of faith who are walking in the very shadow of death, for those approaching the end of their earthly life and for those who have known the death of a loved one. May they all know of your presence in their life.
Westminster Presbyterian Church 1502 West 13th Street Wilmington, DE 19806 302-654-5214 www.wpc.org
God of love, hear all the prayers we voice and those that remain in our hearts. Knowing we are heard, we say, “Amen”.
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