A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 27, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  James 5:13-20 and Esther 7:1-6
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Jessie[1] was deeply loved.  She was respected, appreciated, and deeply loved.  This was especially true at church.  People wanted to be near her.  They listened to her opinions, expecting gems of wisdom to be hidden in them.  The children loved her, too, and their parents wanted them to grow up to be like her.

She was in her 70s when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  It started with surgery.  There was something wrong that led them to do exploratory surgery.  When they opened her up, they saw that the cancer and that it had spread so thoroughly through her abdomen that they just she sewed her back up.  The prognosis wasn’t good:  statistics said she had weeks, maybe a couple months to live.  They could try throwing some chemotherapy at the cancer, and that might give her a few more months, but they would be pretty miserable.

Jessie decided she was an anecdote, not a statistic.  She would undergo the chemotherapy and she would pray and she would ask her church to pray for her.  At her request, we even arranged a special prayer service for her in which we anointed her with oil, laid hands on her, and prayed for healing.  The tumors shrank.  Some disappeared.  And Jessie had two more years of mostly vital life before the tumors started to grow again and she died.

Carol, a member at the same church, was seen as a bit of an odd duck.  People would listen to her, but they didn’t listen for the wisdom in her opinions.  She was welcomed.  She was loved.  But she wasn’t loved deeply.

Several years after I left that church, Carol was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  It, too, had metastasized and her prognosis was not good.  She underwent treatment.  People prayed for her.  The church might have held a special healing service for her, too.  There was no remission.  There wasn’t even any significant abatement of the tumors or the symptoms.  And it wasn’t long until Carol died.

I share this story because it feels like every time I read a story about a miraculous healing in the Bible, Jessie comes to mind.  And then Carol comes to mind.  And I wonder:  Why?  Why is the grace of healing so arbitrary?

Today is one of those days.  We don’t read about a specific healing, but in our epistle lesson we hear this directive:  “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.”  And, let’s face it, the Bible is rife with stories of healings.  Healings are at the core of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus may well have understood himself to be an itinerant healer as much as an itinerant preacher or rabbi.

But there’s no getting around it:  scientifically unexplained healing is a big problem for many North American Christians – you know, people like me.  I am enough of a modernist that I have a degree of discomfort with the scientifically unexplainable.  I’m one of those Christians for whom the Enlightenment legacy of science and rationalism leaves me wanting to point to medical interventions and programs that support people to explain healings.

And yet, there is my experience of Jessie and there are those stories about Jesus.  And those healing stories are important to the whole story.  “[Jesus’] healing powers drew the crowds to him, and his ability to heal also lent credibility to his radical, socially transforming teachings.

“Most of us are [at least to some extent] at home with the idea that prayer facilitates healing.  But we like to imagine the vehicle of that healing as the best available medical work aided by unexplained resiliency on the part of the patient.  It is this unexplained resiliency that we like to attribute to prayer.  Put that recovery in a fervent prayer service and we get a little antsy.  Take away the medical care, put the healing in a tent meeting, and make the condition a bit more difficult (congenital blindness from birth, say), and you can cut the skepticism with a knife.”[2]

Skepticism aside, Author Dee Dee Risher notes that most of the gospel stories about Jesus healing people take place outside synagogues, outside in the streets and in the deserts.  This isn’t surprising.  To quote her, “There were practical reasons [for the healings to take place outside that are] rooted in social divisions.  The priestly code made many of those with illnesses (leprosy, bleeding, deformed parts of the body, lameness, blindness) social outcasts.  If Jesus was a healer, his ministry would necessarily focus on the most marginal and powerless members of the social order.  His healing challenged the assumptions of a society that drew lines around who was in and who was out.  It redefined community and social class.”[3]

As I read Risher’s words, I thought about our identity as an Open and Affirming congregation and what that means.  The Open and Affirming movement is a healing movement.  The ONA movement at its best brings the church out of itself and into the streets.  It brings the church to people who have been marginalized because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and says, “You are whole; you are welcomed; you are loved.”  It is a prayer of healing spoken in actions as much as words.  That’s why I put the quote from Pope Francis on the cover of our bulletin.  “You pray for the hungry.  Then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”  He’s saying, I think, that prayer is great, and it should lead to action.

The story of Esther connects up here.  The Book of Esther stands as a complete story, so it’s a bit of a challenge to read one passage without the back-story.  Casey did a great job of summarizing.  Queen Vashti snubs the Persian king, so he decides to divorce her.  He looks for a replacement queen and picks the secretly Jewish Esther.  The evil Haman gets upset at the man who raised Esther, her cousin Mordecai, and so Haman decides that all the Jews need to be killed.  Mordecai pushes Esther to go to the king to plead for the lives of the Jews, even though approaching the king without being summoned is life-threateningly dangerous.  Esther does approach the king and, as we heard in today’s reading, pleads for their lives and (trumpet fanfare) is successful!

One of the interesting things about this story is that God is never directly mentioned.  Here it is, one of the books of the Bible, and God isn’t mentioned.  But there is a line in chapter 4 that points to God.  When he’s trying to convince her to go to the king and plead for the Jews, Mordecai says, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”[4]  There is a hint in here, in this line, of the possibility of fate not being random, of there being a power that moves in our lives for a purpose.  This line points to God.

Esther’s response to Mordecai in an invitation, a direction to an ancient spiritual practice:  “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day.  I and my maids will also fast as you do.  After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”[5]  Get the whole community to engage in this spiritual practice to help me prepare to risk my life for the sake of justice.

It reminds me a little bit of the homework assignment Pope Francis has been giving us during his visit to the United States:    “Before going, I want to give you some homework.  Can I?” the New York Times quotes him.  “Please don’t forget to pray for me, so that I can share with many people the joy of Jesus.”[6]  People facing important duties need to know that others are standing behind them, holding them in holy light, empowering their work.  That’s why your pastors, your Cabinet members, and your Care Team are listed on the weekly prayer request email.

At the Daytime Women’s Fellowship meeting on the Monday just past, I asked the women what spiritual practices they found grounded them and connected them to God.  I was walking around with the microphone, so I wasn’t taking notes, and I don’t remember everything that was said.  Nonetheless, two responses have stuck with me.  I think they stuck with me because they offered me a little “aha!” moment.

One person said that she approached embracing change as a spiritual practice.  I think that’s quite profound.  Embracing change is an act of trust.  And if faith is much more about trust than it is about belief (and I think it is), then embracing change is an act of faith.

The other spiritual practice that stuck with me from Monday was the practice of embracing one another.  The person who shared this meant literally touching, holding hands, giving them a squeeze, offering and receiving a hug.  This practice must be done with sensitivity.  Some people don’t like to be touched at all.  Some people are comfortable with a handshake but not a hug.  Others are all in.  We need to respect the touch limits of ourselves and of others.  That said, I really appreciate the idea of embracing each other as a spiritual practice.  For it to be a spiritual practice, embracing one another needs to be about seeing the presence of the divine in each other and expressing divine love for each other.  I think that’s pretty glorious.

If you follow the church’s Facebook page, you might have noticed that most of this past week’s posts had to do with spiritual practices.  Yesterday, this Deepak Chopra quotes was posted:  “Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.”  It was posted with a question, “Which would you rather have?”  I’m pleased that the comments said that this was a false dichotomy, that in fact the two work together.

Earlier in the week, we posted a Bruce Lee quote:  “The usefulness of the cup is in its emptiness.”  It was followed by this image.

There were others, and perhaps you noticed that only one of the Facebook posts had anything to do with intercessory prayer, and then only obliquely.  “Don’t worry about anything.  Pray about everything.”

The author of this letter we call “James” offers similar advice.  If you’re suffering, pray.  If you’re cheerful, pray.  If you’re sick, pray – and get others to pray for you, too.  “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” the author writes.

And I’m with him up to this point – and then he uses Elijah as an example.  Elijah prayed for drought and it happened.  Then he prayed for rain and the rains came.  My problem here is that that this sort of intercessory prayer treats God like a fairy godmother, a cosmic bellhop.  Here’s what I want God.  Make it happen.

For me, intercessory prayer is much more confessional.  God, this is what I’m concerned about and this is what I’d like to have happen, but you know better than me.  God, this is what I’m concerned about.  Help transform me to make a difference.  First I pray about the hungry.  Then I feed them.  That’s how prayer works.

Fr. Richard Rohr

Father Richard Rohr once said, “To pray is to build your own house.  To pray is to discover that Someone else is within your house.  To pray is to recognize that this is not your house at all.  To keep praying is to have no house to protect because there is only One House.  And that One House is everybody’s Home.…  That is the politics of prayer.  And that is probably why truly spiritual people are always a threat to politicians of any sort.  They want our allegiance and we can no longer give it.  Our house is too big.”[7]

I titled this sermon “Spiritual Advice” because that’s what I think the author of James is doing in this passage.  I’ll take the opportunity to offer a little spiritual advice of my own.  Find a spiritual practice or two or three or eight that opens your heart to the presence of God.  Then practice it – or them – and trust God to do the rest.

Amen.

[1] The names in this story have been changed.  I am retelling it as accurately as I can remember it.

[2] Dee Dee Risher, “The Stumbling Block of Healing,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/stumbling-block-healing (accessed 21 September 2015); emphasis added.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Esther 4:14

[5] Esther 4:16

[6] Quoted from The New York Times by Glen Miles and posted on Facebook, 25 September 2015.

[7] Father Richard Rohr, quoted by Randall Mullins on Facebook, 26 September 2015.

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