This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 26 Septmber, 2021. (Pentecost 18B)

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20 – 22
James 5:12 – 20
Mark 9:38 – 50
Click here to view the readings in full at the Vanderbilt Common Lectionary

“The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up”  James 5:15

On the first Sunday each month, either during the administration of Communion or at the end of the service, we offer in this Church a ministry of prayer and anointing of the sick.   We heard, in the passage from James the encouragement for any who are sick to “call for the elders of the Church” who will then “pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord”.   This anointing of the sick with oil that has been consecrated by the Bishop during Holy Week, has been an important part of the Church’s ministry down the ages.   During the past century the emphasis has largely moved from “anointing the dying” — the so-called “last rites” — to anointing that is accompanied by prayer for healing.

We’re given some interesting sidelights to this practice in today’s readings.

The reading from the Book of Esther is part of what one commentator calls “a historical novella” — a little book telling a fictional story, set in a particular period of Jewish history, which ends up legitimizing the establishment of a festival that was not envisaged in the Law of Moses.   It is a great story, and I commend it to you to read it in full — the little synopsis printed in the pew sheet may have given you enough of a feel for the story to encourage you to read the whole yarn.   Someone else described it as a “morality tale” — and it clearly promotes the idea that right behaviour and a diligent keeping of God’s laws, will produce blessings — heath even.   The subtle scheming that goes on behind the scenes is also applauded!

Throughout the Jewish scriptures this connection between obedience and experienced blessings and prosperity is found in poetry (think of the Psalms and the Proverbs) and prophecy as well as in history.   [Think back to the Psalm that we had last week — Psalm 1 Blessed are those whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on that law will they ponder day and night.  … Their leaves also shall not wither, and look, whatever they do it will prosper”. ]

We will begin next Sunday to hear from the book of Job some parts of Job’s long critique of this linking of obedience and prosperity.

For our experience tells us something different, doesn’t it.   We know only too well good people who go through awful suffering, and wicked people who seem to keep on prospering!    The writer of the letter of James tries to move his readers away from that connection and rather to place a focus on a connection between sickness/healing and prayer.     He looks for the sick to be saved through “the prayer of faith”:  he points to the power and effectiveness of the “prayer of the righteous”.   And that should be good news for us, shouldn’t it!   But!  We rightly cringe when we hear of people praying for a sick or even dying person to be cured — and then by implication or suggestion placing a burden of guilt on the sufferer or her relatives when the prayer is not answered in the way that they prayed — with the clear implication that it must have been caused by their lack of faith!

But James also continues the older conviction that somehow sickness is the result of the sufferer’s sin.   Remember the disciples asking Jesus about the man born blind “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”  Jesus’s answer was “it was not this man or his parents who sinned that caused his blindness”.  But it has taken a long time for this to become the idea that determines our attitude to sickness — sure we can see people’s bad choices sometimes leading directly to sickness of body or mind, but most sickness cannot be explained in that way!

James does encourage us, though, to pray in faith.   He points, too, to the power of a righteous person’s prayer.   But who is the righteous one?   The example that the writer gives is that of Elijah. and even for people of James’s own day, Elijah was pretty removed both in time and nature from where they were — how much more from us some 20 centuries later!   There are some who might identify the Church’s past heroes as “the righteous ones”, and to ask these saints to pray for them.   But what about when you or I pray for the sick:  what are we to expect?

When I pray, I believe that I am approaching a God who wants what is best for people, that fulness of life is God’s will for all of us.   However, I also know that I have my own ideas about what might be best for the person I am praying for.   I try to name that in my prayer so that I am really concentrating on the task.  However, when I am looking for answers to that prayer, I try not to limit my search to what I had in mind.   I remember vividly being called to visit a woman whose nursing home staff was convinced was dying.   I anointed her, and prayed for her peaceful passage through death.  However, next morning she was up and about asking for breakfast.   Had my prayer been answered?   Yes, but not as I had framed it —her healing was real but in a different way from what I had pictured.   And healing  — which is always a movement towards greater wholeness or fulness of life — is experienced in different ways in different circumstances, and sometimes a peaceful death is a very obvious and appropriate answer to a prayer for healing.

The references in James to “the prayer of faith” and “the prayer of the righteous” might seem to suggest that prayer is to be left to people who are rather removed from our common experience.   But perhaps the passage in the Gospel today might give us encouragement to persevere in this prayer — whether it is prayer for the healing of the sick or for any other purpose.   “Do not stop him;  …whoever is not against us is for us…whoever gives you a cup of water…will by no means lose his reward”.   I think we more often hear this saying reversed so that it says:  “whoever is not for us is against us”, and that might give the impression that praying is effective only for those who are giants in faith or righteousness‚ or both.   Mark’s version of the saying is much more inclusive, and invites into the fold of prayer those of us who are only too aware of our limitations in faith or righteous living.   We are not called to be super faith-filled pray-ers, or completely righteous pray-ers — we are called to pray in the name of Jesus for those things that we perceive are what God wants.   For God rewards our prayers, but often in ways that are wildly different from what we thought was best.

I commend to you the practice of prayer for the sick, whether this is conducted in the privacy of our homes, or by having the sick person’s name mentioned in the church service, or by coming in our own dis-ease to ask for the “elders of the church” to lay hands on us and anoint us with oil.   Give thanks to God who is known as “the one who heals”.