When I came to Manchester as a student pastor, one of the first people I met was Wayne.
Wayne was a retired insurance guy, and the parish worker at church. Over his eight year tenure there, he personally visited each prospective member Organized the hospital and homebound visitation He was the guy who’d cook the burgers at the church picnic
And host the new member luncheon. He was friendly and good natured, able to talk to anyone and make people feel at ease. Wayne was the face of the church and loved by all.
In my fourth year at the church, Wayne was diagnosed with liver cancer. The prognosis wasn’t great. Wayne was undaunted, and scheduled the full battery of chemo.
He doggedly pursued his ministry at the church, and tried to continue on his life as normal as possible. But finally the day came when Wayne could no longer carry on, and he was admitted to the hospital. He was there for weeks. I remember visiting there every other day, with a growing feeling of dread. I came to hate the smell of that hospital Because every time I’d see Wayne, he had grown weaker and sicker. We kept praying, but I felt as if I had run out of things to pray.
One day the doctor came in while I was visiting, and told Wayne that there wasn’t anything more he could do. Wayne asked, “Are you saying that I am going to die?” The doctor back pedaled, “well, this doesn’t mean the end immediately People can last a long time, months, even a year sometimes. But it does mean that this is what will take your life.”
When I got home, I got down on my knees. I cried out to God more insistently than I ever had before—I pleaded for Wayne’s life. We had worked side by side for four years, and he was like a father to me. But in my heart I heard the words, “even Lazarus died.” Lazarus, the one Jesus raised from the dead, eventually died. Healing is only a temporary fix, I thought.
What good is healing if it is only a respite from inevitable suffering and death?
What is healing prayer for?
Is it a plea for more time?
Is it a vain attempt to control our own destinies?
Or is there something greater going on, in which we are but a small factor?
Our NT lesson addresses some of these questions about healing prayer. James is traditionally presumed to be the brother of Jesus, and a leader of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem. And in his day, it wasn’t easy being Jewish or Christian.
As Jews they lived in an occupied land Economically oppressed- poor peasants
Culturally-- own religious and governing institutions were reduced to puppet status
As Christians they were practicing a heretical religion And many had caused rifts in their families by accepting this new faith. Rejection, marginalization, and intimidation were part of their daily life. Not to mention the usual crises of illness and death that were all too commonplace.
And so what did James tell his congregation to do in the face of this suffering?
To pray. “Are any among you suffering? Pray. Are any cheerful? Sing songs of praise.
Are any among you sick? Call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them,
anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” James enormously practical advice doesn’t seem to carry any of the angst with it That my sad questions did. Because prayer for James wasn’t about making suffering go away. It wasn’t about a temporary respite.
It was about God’s power to heal despite external and internal circumstances.
But what is healing, if not changing external or internal circumstances?
How can you heal a person’s illness if they are still ill afterward?
Our modern definition of health turns out to be quite narrow.
In the ancient world, healing encompassed a broad range of positive outcomes
Including one’s emotional, spiritual, and psychological outlook
as well as one’s physical body. One word for ‘health’ in Hebrew is ‘shalom,’ also means wholeness, safety, or peace. In Christian contexts healing generally included forgiveness,
just as Jesus often forgave sins and healed bodies at the same time. For James’ community, healing was more than simply the disappearance of a physical ailment. It addressed the well being of the whole person in the context of a community.
When James states boldly, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up” He is not implying that all illnesses will be cured.
But he IS saying that the prayer of the community ‘saves’ a person—
Saves them from despair, saves them from being alone, saves them from needless suffering.
Jesus is the one who brings ultimate healing, raising people up on the last day
Bringing all to that place described in Revelation ‘where there is no more mourning or crying or pain.’ Prayer for James is no magic wand, but it is a “powerful and effective” tool that ought to be used.
One Sunday morning in September, as the congregation prayed, a call came in to the financial secretary Who was in the church office counting the offering from the first service.
It was the nursing home, calling for Louise. Wayne had died. That was the same Sunday the congregation had planned a celebration in honor of Wayne’s ministry We had made a big card and everyone had signed it, And because Wayne was so sick, it was going to be brought to him later that day. Hearing the news, the congregation wept and prayed for Wayne and his family. But in a serendipitous gift of grace, they also prayed for me,
because moments before Wayne had died, at the same hospital where Wayne had spent so many weeks, I gave birth to my first child, Joel.
That Sunday of great joy and sorrow taught us all about the meaning of healing prayer.
Wayne was not cured of his illness, But the community he had served supported him and his wife Louise throughout his illness. People not only brought food and helped with household tasks They also took on aspects of Wayne’s job without pay, kind of doing his job with him
so that Wayne could continue to work at the church. The people of the congregation visited with them and prayed with them. Wayne was not alone. And though there was great loss on that day, there was also new life. New life in my son, greeted by that congregation as ‘their baby’ And also in the completeness and wholeness of the new life of Wayne had with Jesus.
Our ELW says this about healing prayer:
“In its ministry of healing, the church does not replace the gifts of God
that come through the scientific community, nor does it promise a cure.
Rather, the church offers and celebrates gifts such as these:
God’s presence with strength and comfort in time of suffering,
God promise of wholeness and peace, and
God’s love embodied in the community of faith.”
These are the gifts that Wayne experienced.
It was real healing.
The prayers of righteous were powerful and effective.
This same prayer is available to us today.
In just a few minutes, we will have the opportunity for anyone who desires healing or forgiveness To come to two stations at the rear of the church for individual prayer.
Our lay prayer ministers and I will lay hands on your shoulders, and you may ask for a specific need Or simply ask for ‘general healing.’
We will pray for you or a loved one, and touch your head with oil in a sign of healing.
We will also join our hearts in communal prayer for healing as we sing and share communion.
Whether you come forward or remain in your pew, all are included in this ministry.
It is the gift of healing that Christ has called us to share.