s138e00 Somerton Park 1/10/2000 Sunday 26b
"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 5:14
This is the standard text for the Church's ministry of healing, and to me it is fortuitous and instructive that the reading is coupled with the passage from Numbers about the complaining of the Israelites, and the strange exorcist in Mark chapter 9. For prayer can, so very easily, become complaining and telling God how the universe really ought to be ordered, so that we are less inconvenienced. But also the incident of this strange and unnamed person casting out demons (presumably quite successfully) in the name of Jesus, puts paid to any notion that healing is found only within the confines of the "Church".
And this is not an academic exercise, certainly not for me at this moment. I type these words suffering a monumental toothache ... I readily confess that I am having my moments of bitterness and resentfulness, when I feel sorry for myself. I suppose at yesterday's service, I could have organised a little healing service for myself - we have the oil and the elders ... But yesterday the aspirin was working, but not today.
Fortunately before the weekend I had the foresight to make an appointment to see a dentist later today. I have existed on aspirin and no coffee for the last 12 hours :-) Yet I suppose there would be a number in this congregation for whom pain is a rather more constant companion than it is for me. I really have nothing to complain about. I am blessed with aspirin, with some self administered acupuncture (without needles I can assure you :-) and a skilled professional to fix the problem this afternoon. How many people in this world have these facilities at their beck and call? Not very many, I suspect. I cannot complain. A pity Jesus doesn't say something about teeth causing one to sin in our gospel reading for today. I should relish the prospect of having this particular tooth to be cast out and thrown away :-)
After twenty plus years in full time ministry, and with my first curacy at a "charismatic" church - I think I have had as much experience as anyone with the ministry of healing. I enjoyed my time as a curate at St Mary's, and certainly appreciated the exposure to a spirituality rather different from that in which I was brought up.
My hesitancy with the ministry of healing is not that I question the efficacy of the sacrament, for blessings always come, even if those blessings are often not in the form we ask for or expect.
The ministry of healing has been perhaps seen as a way for Church growth. If people are healed, others will come to know and the Church will grow.
But another hesitancy is that the ministry of healing presumes a level of trust and intimacy between people, which we assume everyone wants.
Our gospel story tells us in quite dramatic form that we can enter life less than physically perfect, without an eye, a hand, or a foot. And I want to suggest that this is the first blessing of healing - that our ideals of perfection with which we belabour ourselves are completely different to God's ideas of what we should be concerned with.
I was interested to see that the New Revised Version of the Bible we are now using has the words "if your hand causes you to stumble" rather than the more familiar translation: "if your hand causes you to sin". This lead me to look at the Greek - not necessarily a reliable thing to do - I am no Greek scholar. But I find the word in Greek is from where we get our word "scandalised". My lexicon indeed says that this is a stumbling block, which one's foot would indeed "trip over" rather than sin. However it was enlightening to me that if we focussed on the eye, it could as much be translated: if what you see scandalises you, pull out the eye - rather than get up in arms to remove the scandal or to defend orthodoxy.
I see Jesus, in his sitting down and eating with sinners, being concerned to raise people's self esteem, not to become the leader of a "successful" movement. The second blessing is that we are able to concentrate on people and raising their self esteem and be rather less concerned that our Church is growing numerically or not.
It is not true that everyone wants intimacy and trust. In recent times it has become the practice for groups to hold hands at the end of a meeting as they say the "Peace" together. In the normal course of life I do not hold hands with anyone else, and feel decidedly uncomfortable when "required" to do so. Many of us Anglicans have inherited a classic Anglo Celtic reserve, and while we might appreciate a lack of reserve in others, some ask that their reserve be respected.
In an ideal world it might be nice to say "confess your sins to one another" - but there are in fact very few people who I personally would actually trust enough before whom I would confess my sins. Perhaps there is another blessing lurking here, that our health will not (necessarily) come as a result of public soul searching.
My text for this morning suggests anointing those who are sick "with oil in the name of the Lord". I believe that this means rather more than mentioning "Jesus" frequently in our prayers. I believe it means that we see the actions of God in a broad range of people, not resting in a narrow elite. So we are told that the strange exorcist spoke the name of Jesus in his ministry, and Jesus uses the phrase "in my name" and the "name of Christ" in his response. When we do things "in the name of Jesus" we are doing things consistent with how Jesus exercised his ministry, and that is accepting the gifts that all people brought to him, and so proclaiming the love of God for all sorts and conditions of people.
Indeed our own health is intimately linked to how we perceive we have something to contribute to the lives of others. So in like manner, acknowledging the gifts that others bring into our lives contributes to that other person's health and self esteem.
I have little doubt that the appropriate way of dealing with my tooth ache was to see a dentist rather than pray about it. Indeed as things transpired, the source of the pain, the abscess and infection was only going to be fixed by a good deal of drilling and lancing the nerve with strong antiseptic. I came away feeling like I had been mugged - I am sure my poor dentist wishes not to have a patient as difficult as me for a while :-) Some medicine is hard to take and even harder to administer, and we can look to prayer as an easy way out, but there is really no getting out of it unless we want to continue with the pain of our present existence.
But I really wonder if we ought to look at my dentist, and the other health professionals to whom we go as "elders of the Church" - whatever the faith they profess or not.
And this really leads me on to think about who is in the "Church". Recently some of you will know of the Roman Catholic Document 'Dominus Ieusus' where the traditional doctrine that the Roman Catholic Church believes itself to be the "true Church" recently was restated. (And please - I am not having a shot at the Roman Catholic Church - for the same thinking is very common - only the object is changed.)
I wonder what benefits derive from being in the "true Church". Does being a member of the true Church give those people permission to consign everyone else to eternal damnation? Does being a member of the true Church give those people permission to question other people's eternal salvation? Does being a member of the true Church give those people permission to kill others?
Perhaps even saddest still, does being a member of the true Church require the members to exhaust themselves with a divine imperative to get everyone else to become members also?
The scriptures, both Old and New Testament, quickly dispel any thoughts that the ancient people of God or the later followers of Jesus were in any way exempted from the normal expectations of hospitality and care for the widow, the orphan and the alien - anyone who is "different" - to care for, not convert. In fact, of course, the faith of the Old Testament and the New is to enable that hospitality and care for the widow, the orphan and the alien - all those who are different, all those who know not our heavenly Father, or have lost contact who was so precious to them.
I am beginning to see that any conception of "the Church" as a smaller subset than the whole of humanity (probably I should say all of creation) will inevitably lead to members treating some others with less respect and courtesy than they deserve. For the ministry of Jesus was to call the religious authorities back from their retreat from the real world and the lives of ordinary people, and it was precisely this call for which he was killed, as were the prophets before him.
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.