“In This Together”
When a group of us got together on Zoom earlier this week for Bible study, we read and reflected on today’s passage from James, chapter five. And the very first comment made was how appropriate this Scripture seems for our context today, as we continue to struggle through the Covid-19 Pandemic.
It’s hard to believe that we’ve actually been living with the pandemic for 18 months now. And although many of us thought things would be better by now, here in Saskatchewan, the situation is as bad as ever with the number of new cases every day, the significant impact on unvaccinated children, the full status of our ICUs, and the terrible delays of other necessary medical procedures and treatments.
This has been tough. And it continues to be tough, especially for those who are stuck at home, those who are personally impacted by cancelled surgeries, those who are frustrated and close to burning out in health care jobs, and even those who are currently struggling to access their proof of vaccination so that they can participate in events in the community.
The people that James the Apostle was writing to weren’t experiencing a pandemic, but they were struggling with oppression by rich, and they were being encouraged to hold on, and to endure with patience. Like us, they probably wondered when things would finally get better. And in today’s passage, the Apostle gives them some advice for what to do, and how to hang on, despite their difficult circumstances.
“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any among you 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.”
I appreciate the acknowledgement that although we are going through this difficult time together, we are impacted in different ways. Some are disproportionately impacted, and so there is advice that suits our different circumstances.
If you’re suffering, James encourages prayer. And that’s challenging, because the pandemic itself may have interrupted your usual practices of prayer. You may have relied upon the weekly gathering for worship to draw you back into conversation with God. And if you can’t be here in person, the online version of worship may not be prompting you to pray in quite the same way that you did in the past.
And even for those who are comfortable coming to worship at the church, that long hiatus from worshipping together may have affected your old habit of coming to weekly church services, such that you’re only making it out occasionally.
When you do experience some kind of suffering – whether it’s loneliness or depression, frustration at the world or weariness from the stresses and strains of your daily work, or the economic or health impacts of the pandemic – when you experience that suffering, do you pray? Do you talk to God about what you’re feeling? Do you draw upon the resources of your faith to ground you, encourage you with hope, and strengthen you for the days ahead?
James does say that if any of us are suffering, we should pray. However, it’s not just personal advice. It’s also an instruction for the community as a whole. When someone is sick, it’s not just the sick person who is given the advice to pray, but the elders of the church are called to pray for that person, to go to them and show their care by praying and anointing with oil. It’s a reminder that we’re in this together, and as a Christian community, we must respond to each other’s particular needs.
Certainly, I have been aware of members and elders of our church caring for the people of our community throughout this long pandemic. There have been lots of phone calls, cards in the mail, and in-person visits more recently since they’ve become possible again in some settings.
But I know there have also been gaps in our caring ministry. When the Pastoral Care Committee met earlier this week, there was some time spent reviewing lists of members and checking in about how folks are doing these days. And in some cases, we could only say, “No, none of us have talked to that person in quite a while. That’s someone we should check on.”
But you may have noticed the Apostle’s advice. He asks, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church…” So yes, you are invited and encouraged to call. Call me. Call your elder. Certainly, let us know if you are sick or suffering, if you are lonely or have a practical need, or if you just need some prayer. Because prayer is not something that we must do alone, but we are called to do together, for one another, together in community, whether by phone, online, or when possible, together in this place.
Of course, James also wonders if there are some in the community that are cheerful. And if there are any who are cheerful, he encourages them to sing songs of praise. That’s what some of us have been doing throughout the last 18 months.
Even when we were extremely limited in how many people could be together in the church, our music leaders kept on singing. Soloists, instrumentalists, and small ensembles of singers kept praising God and lightening our spirits with their joyful praise in Sunday worship and “Half an hour of hymns.” And now that the choir has resumed rehearsals, even more singers are sharing their cheerfulness with each other, and with those listening in-person and online.
But I discovered an interesting thing as I was reading about the Apostle’s instruction for those who are cheerful. The Greek word (euthymeo) that it translated as “cheerful,” can also mean “to take courage in spite of suffering and hardship.” In other words, he’s not necessarily talking about people who are happy and joyful because everything’s going pretty well for them. He’s talking about people who are coping with hard times too, but people who are determined to “take courage” and trust God through the challenges of daily life.
Which means that this is an instruction for all of us as well. Whether you’re strong and well enough to be here in the church singing in the choir or the congregation, or whether you’re sick, or self-isolating, or medically vulnerable and you need to stay home… You’re encouraged to sing songs of praise. Sing out loud in the church, or sing along with us in your living room. Sing beautifully with all the right notes, or just make a joyful noise, but sing – and let your heart take courage.
In the middle section of today’s passage, James goes into more detail about the benefits of praying for one another in the Christian community. Interestingly, he gives the example of the Prophet Elijah, who was a human being like us, and prayed effectively. First, Elijah prayed fervently that it might not rain, and it didn’t. Later, he prayed that rain would come, and it did.
Gosh! I remember doing quite a lot of praying about rain this summer, and I didn’t get quite those results. I prayed for rain to put out fires. I prayed for rain to grow our crops. I prayed for a break in the rain, so the farmers could get the harvest in, limited as it was. And I don’t think any of my prayers “worked” in the sense that we didn’t get exactly what I asked for.
But I still believe that prayer is effective, even if it’s not usually in that transactional sort of way in which I ask for something, and God gives me just what I wanted. James tells us that “the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.”
Certainly, we know that our prayers don’t always result in people getting healed of their diseases, or physically being able to get back up again when illness has knocked them down. But the words James is using for being “saved” and “raised up” can possibly be interpreted as physical healing, but also refer to spiritual wellness and salvation. He’s talking about the healing of hearts and spirits, even when our physical bodies may be overwhelmed by diseases that we are unable to cure.
And perhaps most important of all, he’s talking about the healing of relationships that takes place when we make ourselves vulnerable and enter into prayer together. He talks about confessing our sins to one another, and praying for one another so that we may be healed.
I don’t think he means that our sins cause our physical illnesses, but our broken relationships, both with each other and with God, do contribute to our spiritual ill-health. And healing becomes possible when we share our lives with each other, going deep in relationships of honesty and trust. And then, when we pray for one another, we can experience transformation and healing.
Perhaps you can remember a time when you experienced something like that. Either you confessed to someone you had hurt, apologizing for your cruelty, indifference, or neglect; or perhaps someone confessed to you.
If your experience is anything like mine, it probably took a huge amount of courage to talk to that person about it. Your stomach was likely full of butterflies, your palms were sweating, and you considered just going on with things the way they were, avoiding the subject or even that person altogether.
When you opened your mouth to confess your hurt, or your fault, or more likely both of those things, your heart was opened also. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were tears shed. Sometimes a wound needs to be opened and cleaned in order for healing to take place.
But in the caring community of the Christian Church, where we pray for one another and entrust our prayers to each other, healing does become possible. And we are invited to pray, to take courage, and to remember that we are in this together. We can call on each other for help, and we can participate in building each other up with our prayers and acts of care and service.
Today’s passage ends with a reference to members of the community that may wander away and be brought back by another. If that wandering member is you right now, because the pandemic has interrupted your participation in the church or you haven’t felt very connected with the community in quite a while, please do reach out to us.
Or if you are aware of someone who has wandered away, I invite you to reach out to them. Remind them that they are valued and loved, missed and welcome to return. We are in this together – not only in the pandemic, but in this life – and none of us can do it alone.