Rev. Dr. Russ Daye
18th after Pentecost
September 26, 2021
James 5:13-20 from NRSV
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.
They 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.
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck, and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have to feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”
Some years ago, a small group of people in a congregation that I was serving began meeting weekly for prayer, spiritual practice, and intimate discussion. Some unusual things began to happen. Two women in the group who suffered from chronic joint injuries began to experience real improvement. Another person who had acute osteoarthritis and walked with two canes began to move more easily and reported a dramatic reduction in pain. Then one evening when we gathered, a man in the group opened the meeting with a request for special prayers. He had a family member on the other side of the country who suffered from cancer. This relative was receiving treatment but his condition had collapsed, he had been admitted to the ICU, and the family was told the end was near. As we formed our chairs in a circle, we added an extra chair, asked God to ‘spiritually place’ that relative in the empty chair for our gathering, and dedicated the evening’s practice to him. When we met again a week later, I was shocked to hear that the morning after our gathering, the man on the other side of the country had risen, walked out of ICU, and returned home in radically improved condition. This man’s relative in our group, a neuroscientist and senior academic, knew the folly of making conclusions about causality, but he was convinced that our prayer session had made an enormous difference.
For me, the days that followed brought a jumble of ambivalent feelings and conflicted experiences. I knew that there is much suspicion of ‘faith healing’ in the United Church. But I felt that our church deserved to hear about the experiences of the prayer group. With the group’s permission, I shared these experiences in a sermon. The congregation listened carefully, but afterward during coffee time nobody talked about the sermon. This wasn’t normal. Members of the church usually engaged in conversation about the sermon with me, offering praise, critique or their own ideas on the day’s subject. But this time … nothing. Silence.
Later I asked the ministry team for their response. Again silence. Awkwardness. Finally, one colleague told me in a soft tone that the sermon wasn’t appropriate. The congregation hadn’t been sufficiently prepared for such a weird message.
Now, having been at the centre of all this, it’s impossible for me to be objective. Perhaps the sermon just wasn’t so skillfully written and delivered. But, in the years since then, I have reflected a lot about my own reluctance to preach about spiritual healing, the discomfort of colleagues and congregants, and the general unwillingness in the ‘mainline’ church to go there. I’ve tried initiating conversation about prayer and healing in clergy gatherings and it usually doesn’t go anywhere. Perhaps this is partly because I am signaling an ambivalence within me; it’s certainly there.
But why? But why, having witnessed the power of prayer in the small group I just told you about, and in other places too, am I ambivalent? Why the general reluctance to go there in the liberal church. This clearly goes against so much of scriptural teaching. This from James: ‘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.’ It is indisputable that prayer and healing were absolutely essential aspects of Jesus’ ministry. A careful reading of the second testament shows us that bodily healing and healing of the socio-political order (what we now call social justice) were inseparable for Jesus. So why our reticence? I think there are several reasons.
The first is that spiritual healing has become associated with fundamentalists and of their embrace of the political right, their views on gender and sexual orientation, and their rejection of science. Just listen today to the voices claiming, ‘we don’t need vaccines and masks; God will keep us safe.’
Another cause for reluctance is what we might call ‘the scandal of uneven results.’ One reason some of my colleagues don’t preach about their experiences of healing prayer is that they have been told: ‘when you talk about prayer leading to healing it hurts me and makes me feel inferior because I prayed over and over for someone’s healing, and it failed.’ Of course, this dynamic is made worse by TV evangelists with their false promises and staged ‘miracles.’
On top of this is the reality that the church floats in the sea of the larger culture and is inevitably influenced by it. The culture in which we float today is progressively shaped by the worldview of scientific materialism. Notions of prayer, spirit and divine participation in life are being pushed out of the circle of acceptable ideas. Remember the comments on religion by Julie Payette, our last Governor General. Remember how little push back she got.
Today’s society has rejected the notion of sin, but still has its own list of cultural sins and liberal churches have internalized them. This process has caused us to reject great swaths of our faith heritage. Have the televangelists performed fake healings? Then cut the practice of spiritual healing off of our corporate body. It’s better to enter society maimed than to suffer the fire of derision. Do we offend some when we say there is a relationship between prayer, wholeness and health? Then cut this belief from our corporate body. Better to enter society lame than to look ridiculous in the eyes of Bill Maher and other influencers. Is the concept of sin itself an affront to contemporary culture? Then tear it out. Better to enter society blind to its sins (and our sins) than to be pushed to the margins.
The problem with this is that there are millions of people who need the full power of the Christian heritage to help heal their spirits, their bodies, their families, and their communities. Today, most of those people who do find a faith community join a church that doesn’t care about being acceptable in the eyes of the larger culture. In Halifax one of those congregations moved into the hall of the church I served. They were charismatic, evangelical, doctrinally conservative. They prayed with passion, talked in tongues, and sang loudly. Their service had to take place after ours because it operated at such a high volume that we could hear it many meters away in in our sanctuary. This was good for me because it meant I could join them after our service.
What did I discover? First of all, many of the assumptions about these evangelicals were wrong. Their members are getting the vaccine. Most of their members do not reject sexual minorities. They don’t reject science but rather see its genius as a gift from God. Yes, their denomination has some conservative teachings about sexual mores and social justice, but the members seem to relate to these as most Catholics relate to their church’s teaching on birth control. The preachers are using their time to talk about the power of God’s presence in our lives, not to bash other religions or sexual minorities. Members of that church are mostly immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean who are struggling to make a good life in a city where they are not the economic winners and where they encounter systemic racism. When they worship, the Spirit fills their limbs with energy, it releases anxieties, it heals their spirits, and sometimes heals their bodies.
Like our culture, liberal churches tend to fear or scoff at such churches. But listen to Jesus: John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Whoever is not against us is for us. The experiences of my old prayer group taught me that some of the things that liberal Christians tend to think are against us are actually for us, that the rejoining of social healing and bodily healing doubles our power, and that deep spiritual practice with others restores spiritual limbs long severed. The growing friendship between St. Andrew’s United Church and the charismatics in the hall is erasing a false duality and grafting back together healing of community and healing of body.