Preached at St. George’s Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, 27 September 2015
Texts for this Sunday: Esther 7:1-6,9-10,20-22; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
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. James 5:13-14
This year my wife and I started on a journey. It started when my wife saw the doctor because of abdominal pains, and it ended up, months later, with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
Now I don’t say this to talk about me or my family. We’re not the first ones to take this journey, and it’s a busy path. Some of you, I am sure, have taken this journey before, and most of you have walked it with a loved one. You know the stages on this uncertain and unwelcome path, starting with shock and fear, moving into uncertainty and unfamiliar medical places like the chemotherapy clinic. After a while you find yourself well on your way and the path before you unfolds into a long slow grind, treatment by treatment - with hair loss, fatigue, changes in body weight as milestones along the way.
Throughout our journey, my wife’s faith has been an inspiration to me, and has kept me going as I walk with her. She often says that she’s felt God’s hand in hers as she takes this unexpected journey, and she marvels at how we have been surrounded and supported by the prayers of others.
Brothers and sisters on both sides of our families are praying for my wife. In churches where we have been members, a charismatic Anglican congregation in Medicine Hat and a more high church one in Waterloo, people are praying for my wife. Chaplain colleagues of mine from across the Christian spectrum have been praying for my wife. A friend of ours, an Orthodox priest, came to our house to anoint her. He brought a gold cross, holy oil from a monastery in Greece, and long prayers, all very foreign to my wife’s tradition. Afterwards, my wife said that she felt fabulous.
It should also be said that many of our non-believing friends have been very kind to us. We have received a beautiful card and thoughtful gift from a sister who is atheist. Many friends have used social media to say things like “sending healing thoughts and positive energy your way”. Such expressions are encouraging and welcome. It’s good to have company on the journey,
However, one thing we’ve discovered in our journey is that prayers — the real, intentional prayers of faithful Christians - do make a difference. Having vague expressions of positive energy and happy thoughts sent our way is all well and good, but knowing that prayer warriors are with us, remembering us before the throne of grace and asking God to give us his strength and comfort and healing power - knowing this helps keep us going. We feel supported and held up on our journey, as if some had volunteered to take a hand and help us over a patch of rocky ground, and others had offered to carry our pack or give us a sip of water.
Today’s reading from the Epistle of James reminds us that we who are the church, we as the body of Christ, are called to pray for one another. We’re called to rejoice at good fortune, to “sing songs of praise”, but we’re also called to pray for the sick and suffering. Amidst all the other things that we as church are called to do - worship, mission, outreach - we the church are called to be a caring community that ministers by our prayers as well as our actions.
I confess I didn’t really understand this until my first parish in a rural community. We had a small prayer list, and it was always an event when someone’s name was added. At the church door, people would ask my, “why are we praying for Frank?” or, “What’s wrong with Eva?”. Fresh out of seminary, I would follow my training on confidentiality and say, “I can’t say”, or “I don’t have permission to share the details”. Such statements didn’t really work at the church door.
What I realized over time wasn’t that my parishioners weren’t, as I first thought, being nosy. I learned that they were teaching me about compassion. They were teaching me about how God’s people are called to journey with one another, and that being part of the body of Christ is as much public as it is private. Sometimes compassion and concern don’t always work well with confidentiality.
Before I close, I would like to reflect on what exactly we are asking God to do when we pray for the sick. James tells us that “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven”.(5.15). This verse raises several questions. Will God only act to cure the sick if we pray to him? When people get sick, are they being punished for their sins? Should we expect God will heal the sick if we pray? What if the sick get sicker? What if they die?
I don’t have answers to all these questions, but I have some thoughts. First, I don’t think we have to tell God what to do. I don’t believe that God only helps the sick if we pray hard enough. Jesus in the gospels does often heal others when he is asked to, and he often credits people’s faith for their curing. Sometimes, however, as with the woman with the haemorrhage or the lame man at the pool of Siloam, Jesus is the one who steps in when no one else has faith or wants to help. So prayer, I think, points us towards the Son of God, the one we call Saviour, who was sent to us only by the compassion of the Father. Jesus came to be among us because of the Father’s love for us. Prayer is calling on that love.
As for the relation between sin and sickness, we as Anglicans reject the idea of illness as punishment. We don’t believe that people get sick because they’re being punished for something. Our liturgies, in the anointing of the sick, at the time of death, and during the funeral, remind us that the faithful can and do die, but that even as we go down to the grave our prayers and our alleluias are heard by God. We know that the resurrection of Jesus foretells a time to come when sin and death will be no more. In the new world foretold by Revelation, and mentioned in places such as Eucharistic Prayer Three of the BAS, there will be no place for the things that hurt and kill us, including cancer. If there ever was a connection between sin and sickness, it is part of our fallen world. Scripture only tells us that God did not intend creation to be this way, and God will fix creation in his own good time.
As Anglicans, we believe in praying for the sick. This parish still uses the Book of Common Prayer, and you will know the prayer from the service of Compline that uses these words:
“Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous”.
These words comfort us with the promise that our God is the enemy of sickness, sin and suffering. In our prayers for the sick, whether our prayers are couched in the noble words of the Prayer Book or whether they are own halting, uncertain words of prayer, we connect our love for the suffering with the love of God, and we commend the sick into God’s care. For those who are sick, knowing that they are held in prayer is a great comfort, for it connects them with the Body of Christ, and it reminds them that their journey of sickness, however difficult and uncertain, will bring them to the love of God.