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Words of Healing

September 28, 2015

“Words of Healing” James 5:7-20 © 9.27.15 Ordinary 26B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Healing. At one time or another in our lives and those of our loved ones, we have longed for it. From the scraped knee on the playground to the recovery from an accident to the combat wound to the hip replacement or the heart surgery, we want to get well, and we want those we love to be whole again. And we cannot forget the brokenness of mind and spirit that also afflicts us and our families and neighbors, the hurts and disorders that go so deep and last perhaps a whole lifetime, sometimes arising from physical trauma. The body may have long since healed, but the emotional toll keeps being exacted daily.

James has something to say about healing, and I believe he can help us. But first we need to admit that we (or at least, I) have a number of problems with what he says. For one, the author seems terribly naïve about prayer and healing, almost magical in one place. You know what I mean by “magical thinking.” It’s the common belief that just wishing for something will make it happen, that if you make a good effort, and you concentrate hard enough, your desires will be granted. Unfortunately, there are Christians who equate such thinking with authentic faith.

And we know how misappropriated James’s words have been. Perhaps we could not expect him to foresee it, but this author’s words have been used by parents who pray over their children and never take them to the doctor, letting them die for the sake of “faith healing.” They have been the seeds from which tent revivals and healing services have sprouted and grown. And they have sat in judgment on the forlorn Christians who have prayed for loved ones who were ill, only to have them not get well. If the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective, does that mean that if your prayer for the sick doesn’t “work” that you are somehow not holy enough? And if we are truly people of faith, do we forsake doctors and hospitals in favor of prayer and anointing with scented oil?

And James, we have more questions. Are you serious when you call on Christians to confess their sins to the elders of the church and in each other’s presence? Don’t you know we don’t hang our dirty laundry in public? Before long, all our foibles and sins, our faults and our fears will be the latest gossip all over town and in cyberspace. Maybe they did that stuff in the first century, but we are private individuals whose personal lives are not for consumption by others, maybe not even by our own spouses or friends, unless we choose to put ourselves out there on Facebook or tweet our every move. We’re not even sure we particularly like that prayer of confession we have to say every Sunday. (See note 1.)

And who are we to judge? The quickest way to lose a friend is to question their actions or their motives, tell them they’ve done wrong. After all, everybody’s human; nobody’s perfect. And how do we know what the truth is? People march to different drummers; I may be off course as much as my neighbor. What do you mean “bring back a sinner from wandering”? Not all who wander are lost, you know.

Obviously, James has a lot to answer for and to.

Or so it would seem. Actually, I suspect that James would be appalled at the way his words have been so misapplied and misunderstood. The blame for fanatic insistence on faith healing and distrust of medicine has to be laid at the feet of charlatan preachers and misguided believers rather than the author. And, as for those poor souls who have been told they don’t have enough faith, a scene from the film Leap of Faith comes to mind.

It’s rather obscure, I suspect, but if you have seen that movie, you know that it revolves around a tent-revival preacher con-man, played by Steve Martin, who gets stranded with his entourage in some little Kansas town. He decides he might make some money there, so he sets up his tent and the crowds pour in, hoping that he can work miracles of healing, and like Elijah, bring rain. At best, what he does is harmless entertainment; at worst, it’s a religious fraud. Martin meets a waitress in town, with whom he wants to have a romantic liaison. She rebuffs him, but Martin becomes interested in what has happened to the woman’s teenage brother, who cannot walk without crutches. He had been hit by a truck and paralyzed. The boy went to a preacher who claimed he could heal people through prayer. Nothing happened, and when the minister was questioned on his lack of results, he responded that the boy and his sister did not have enough faith. And if the boy were suffering, it must be God’s will. Martin sees through the scam, since he’s so expert at them himself. His response is theologically loaded and thoroughly correct: “God doesn’t have a trucker’s license, kid.” Neither God nor the boy’s faith was at fault; it was the careless fool behind the wheel.

How many harmful ideas, misguided doctrines, and parochial notions have come from sloppy, even ignorant Bible reading? What I mean is the sort that pretends that passages and verses can be read in some sort of vacuum. People who practice this kind of shoddy interpretation pay no attention to details like when, where, why, and to whom some Bible verse was written. Indeed, they don’t care most times about the book as a whole or even the surrounding verses of their cherry-picked proof text. And certainly not how it might fit in with a larger group of works in the Bible. So you get notions that range from silly to unjust to dangerous about women, sexuality, marriage, the family, or, as here, healing and prayer.

But enough criticism. Time to move to how we might read James more beneficially. The first thing we need to do is recognize an aspect of his work we’ve noted in the other sermons in this little series. And that’s his link with the wisdom tradition in the Bible. James, like those sages so long ago, is trying to give people some practical advice on daily living. So he has dealt with matters like envy and ambition or the relationship between rich and poor or the way that faith is proven by action. But most of his collection of essays seems to deal with matters of speech. We reflected together on that earlier this month. Just like his colleagues in ancient Israel, James is interested in the appropriate word, in saying the right thing at the right time. He knows that people like to talk, and that language is a powerful force to shape reality as well as describe it. He is convinced that what we say matters and can do either great harm or great good.

In the text for the morning, he has insisted that his readers not grumble about their lot in life, but be patient as they wait for Christ to come. And he reflects what Jesus had to say in the Sermon on the Mount when he asks that there be no swearing. By that James does not mean refrain from profanity or refuse to swear an oath in court. Instead, he reminds his flock that the lives of Christians ought to be marked by integrity and reliability. So nothing more than a simple “yes” or “no” will do to confirm the truth of one’s statements. Nobody needs to swear on or by anything holy to back up the claim that he or she is honest.

James’s exhortation brings to mind a story about my paternal grandfather. It was common knowledge than when Granddaddy said “I swear it on a stack of Bibles,” he was actually and invariably lying. Maybe he felt the need to take such an oath because his life was not for one moment marked by graciousness or integrity in dealings with others. Granddaddy was one of those men about whom the joke was written that asks: “How do you know if he’s lying?” The response: “Are his lips moving?” Most often he exaggerated facts and promoted himself in the most selfish manner imaginable. He even got his fifth wife, my grandmother, that way. Today they would have met on the Internet, but back in the day it was through a personal ad in the paper. And when Grandma found out the truth—that he wasn’t the rich man he led her to believe he was—she was stuck, a mail-order German immigrant bride far from her family, without significant resources or in that day much of an option for divorce. She died at 63; I never saw her smile.

The author would point to Oscar Cheatham, Sr. as an example of what not to be. Let everything in your life and mine instead be truthful and honest, and your speech will be regarded implicitly as reliable.

Talking about talking leads James to reflect on the way we speak to God and the circumstances in which we do that. Suffering leads us to pray. Being cheerful prompts songs of praise, which are also prayer. Sickness is a time to call for the elders to pray over the one who is ill. James means these three instances—suffering, cheerfulness, and sickness—to stand for all of life. So the bottom line is: talk to God all the time, whatever is happening. Prayer of some sort, whether it’s the earnest, impassioned plea for healing or the joyful burst of song, is always appropriate speech.

Lest all this be misunderstood, let’s think about the rest of this book. We might think if we pray when we’re suffering, then all we do is sit there and take it. James does not mean any such thing. Job is used as an example of endurance, as are the prophets. But if you read those documents, Job rails against the injustice of God; he certainly doesn’t just take it. And the prophets were bold in their conversations with the Lord. Pray, yes, but the prayer of the suffering can be anything from “thy will be done” to “you tricked me, God” to language so harsh and profane that others might call it blasphemy. (See note 2.)

Singing is another kind of prayer. It is the offering of a cheerful, thankful heart. Of course, cheerfulness will be shown in how we treat others, the posture of our bodies, the smile on our faces. But psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs of praise are another, very appropriate way to express it. James would urge us to learn them, use them, enjoy them. After all, says the old catechism and our church mission statement, the goal of our lives is to “glorify and enjoy God forever.”

So James calls on the suffering to pray, which might even be screaming in anger at God. He bids the cheerful to sing, even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Next he invites the sick to call on the elders to pray for them, to hear their confession, and to anoint them with oil. Some might say: “Sounds way too superstitious, like a shaman or witch doctor.” Others, suspicious of anything other than their brand of low-church Protestantism: “Too Catholic.” Still a third group: “Oil and prayer? The elders go? What about the minister? Isn’t that what we pay him for? And shouldn’t we call a doctor? What if one of the elders is a doctor?”

James doesn’t rule out medicine and technology, though given the state of both in his day, I dare say people were better off with oil and prayer. The wisdom tradition trusted the gifts that God had given to human beings to discover ways to solve problems, to do what needed to be done to make life better. There’s nothing here that says “don’t have that CAT scan, take that pill or schedule that surgery.” But James urges us not to trust only in medicine and technology. There is tremendous power in the caring of committed church officers and in the petitions of concerned church members. It feels great, doesn’t it, to know you are being prayed for? Isn’t it encouraging and sustaining? It’s as if God himself were enfolding you in his arms. And before we dismiss anointing the sick, think about the warmth of an appropriate touch, an asked-for hug, simply a hand in another hand. Olive oil was considered to have healing properties in the ancient world, and it was also a symbol of the Spirit of God. Scenting the oil adds to the experience, soothing, uplifting. Think of your favorite aroma. If you were sick, wouldn’t it bring at least a little joy?

But James knows that healing includes more than making the body well. It also involves being reconciled with God and with each other. And so the emphasis on confession of sin. Thus the encouragement to bring back an erring brother or sister. Being able to speak truth about ourselves with one another and speak truth to another assumes a safe emotional space, a place where you and I can be vulnerable, where we can expect to be accepted despite our faults, loved as those who belong to God through baptism. If we were to confess sins to each other or to the elders, then those are words that should stay within the community of faith or within the small circle of mutually accountable friends and not be spread abroad. I’m speaking in general here, and not about legal definitions of privileged conversations and confidentiality. And if the church isn’t a safe place where we can be at our most vulnerable, we need to wonder why not. If the church isn’t a place where our humanity can be revealed and our brokenness shared, where we can cry our eyes out, where can we do that?

James invites us to say the right word for the right time. To live lives of such wholeness that the truth is always on our lips. To speak to God as those who know he is listening. To be confident in the power of those words and use them in rituals that surround our brokenness with order and somehow begin to put our disjointed lives back together again. Or as hymn writer Jane Parker Huber once put it: “So God grant us for tomorrow ways to order human life that surround each person’s sorrow with a calm that conquers strife. Make us partners in our living, our compassion to increase, messengers of faith, thus giving hope and confidence and peace.”

******

Notes

  1. My late uncle Coley was even convinced the prayer was a conspiracy by liberals in our national office in Louisville, KY to make us Presbyterians admit speech, actions and thoughts of which we were not guilty.
  2. For example, Jeremiah (20:7) accuses God of rape or at least, seduction, casting himself in the role of an assaulted woman: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.”
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