To Make the Wounded Whole

I was usually the first one at church on Sunday mornings, but that day there was a car parked out front.  I went in, began to make preparations for worship, and then Marvin came in.  I had seen Marvin around town before, but never in church.  We had met at the local seafood restaurant and said hello when we saw each other, but that was about it.

Soon other folks began to arrive, and they found their pews, like we would, like you would on an ordinary Sunday morning.  They began to whisper to each other, "There's Marvin," and they would almost point to him.  They were surprised that someone new was in church--this was a small community--and they were really surprised that it was Marvin.

I made a note to go visit Marvin that week.  No one comes to church, early on a Sunday morning, for the first time, unless something is going on. 

I went by a couple of days later.  Marvin and I began to talk.  He said, "I was listening to the radio, and the speaker was talking about bringing the elders to the church to pray over the sick, and anoint them.  Do you ever do that?"  And then, more slowly, he asked, "Would you do that?"

I was a couple of years out of seminary and graduate school; this was almost twenty years ago.  I paused.  Then Marvin said, "I have cancer, and it's pretty far along."

So I told him that I would pray about his request, I would call a couple of people whom I trusted, who might know more about this than me, and that I would get back to him soon.

And I did.  A few nights later I took the lay leader with me, and we went to Marvin's house.  This was a story he shared in the community, so I'm not telling you anything that did not become public.  The lay leader, whose name was Dale, was a little nervous.  I'm sure this was not what Dale had bargained for when he accepted the nomination committee's invitation to be the lay leader of his small rural church!

We arrived.  Marvin and his wife were there.  I read this scripture, James 5. 13-20.  I then asked, "Marvin, do you have any sins to confess?"  There was a long silence.  In a small town everybody knows everything about everyone else, and I had discovered that Marvin was a well-known and divisive person in our community.  You were either for Marvin or you were against him.  I had also learned that Marvin was estranged from his son, who was in the same business that he was in.  I had picked up on the fact that Marvin had done his share of hard living.  You can use your imagination when I say hard living!

There was a long silence.  Then it began to pour out, these confessions, in the presence of his wife and the lay leader and me, a middle-twenties, just-ordained minister, thinking, "They never had a class on this at Duke!"  And yet, I am convinced that we were in the presence of God.  Mark was voicing confessions about things he needed to make peace about.  The time had come, and he knew it.

We tried to do all of this as closely to the scripture as we could.  We prayed.  Marvin prayed.  His wife prayed.  Dale, the lay leader, prayed.  I prayed.  And then I anointed him with oil, and we prayed for his healing.

Are any among you suffering?  They should pray. 

Are any 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.

The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up,

And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.

Therefore confess your sins to one another

And pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  James 5.13-16

People do read the Bible.  I have discovered that over these years.  Marvin was reading the Bible, studying it, trying to apply it to his life.  It helps to look closely at the scripture for today and begin by asking:  Why was this written?  This was an early Christian community, but they were struggling.  Some were not honest in their speech.  Some were suffering physically, maybe to the point of despair.  Some were in need of forgiveness.  Some were in trouble.  You don't need confession, intercession and healing unless there is sin, trouble, sickness.

Sometimes, I think, we have an ideal of what a Christian community must be like.  Actually, whenever two or three Christians gather together, or maybe a few more, there will be sin and trouble and sickness. There will be gossip and pride.  There will be a teenage situation that boils over.  There will be a workplace issue that lacks integrity.  There will be disease.

James wrote to the early Christians, and to us, to see our sin and trouble and sickness in a new way, as occasions for God's gifts, and these gifts are confession, intercession and healing.

These are what we might call spiritual practices.  Verse 16 reads, "Confess your sins to one another."  We are sinners.  This is our human condition.  Sometimes we sin against someone else by what we say or what we think or what we do. You and I share this in common.  We are sinners.  There is only one way beyond our sin, and that is confession.  I John 1.9 says, "If we confess our sins, the Lord is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."    Confession is naming the sin, before someone else, in the presence of someone you trust, and then claiming forgiveness as a reality.

Another spiritual practice is intercession.  Intercession is praying for others.  If you have ever known that others are praying for you, you will know how powerful this is.  Samuel, of the Old Testament said, "God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you" (1 Samuel 12.23, KJV).  Intercession is, in the words of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, "thinking of something or someone in the presence of God...the struggle not to let the world and God fall apart, the recognition that, in spite of appearances, God and the world belong together."

I am thinking of a wonderful woman, a member of a congregation that I served, who died a few years ago.  Each time I would visit her, as I prepared to leave, she would say, "I want you to know that I pray for you and that I pray for the church, every day."  She could no longer be physically active or even present in the church.  There were many things she could no longer do.  But she could intercede.  And I would always say, "That is the very best thing that you could do."

A third spiritual practice is healing.  I understand the bad reputation healing has acquired in our time.  The hucksters who prey on the weak...the gimmicks of those who want to profit at the expense of the desperate...the healing, in front of television cameras that seems, to the reader of scripture, to be so foreign from the One from Nazareth who healed and then would say, "Go in peace...your faith has made you well...don't tell anyone about this!"

In reading the Gospels over the past years something has become clear to me:  Jesus came among us to do three things--to teach, to preach, to heal.  Earlier in life I was always more comfortable with teaching...I liked school, I liked intellectual questions.  The preaching part I grew into; I could see the need for it.  The there was the puzzle.  But over time I have learned that it is not possible to take the teaching and preaching portions of the Gospels and dispose of the healing narratives.  They are woven together:  Jesus said that he was the light of the world because he had healed the man who had been born blind.  Jesus said that he was the resurrection and the life because he had raised Lazareth from the dead.

And so Jesus instructed his disciples to be teachers, preachers, healers.  And he calls us in his name to be, in the marvelous phrase of the late Henri Nouwen, "wounded healers."

How we do this is very important.  In the book of worship of my tradition, the United Methodist Church, there is an important statement about what healing is and is not.  

Healing is not magic...It does not replace medicine or psychotherapy...It is not the same as curing...It is a mystery.  It is relational:  the relation of mind, body, and spirit.  Our relationship to each other.  Our relationship with God.

Authentic healing is the work of Christ, who is the great physician.  I am aware that this seems like an odd subject to some.  And, yet, there it is, in the scripture.  At least this was the scripture that Marvin was reading and hearing. 

Back to Marvin.  We prayed for Marvin's healing that night.  He did live about six more months.  During that time he was there, each Sunday morning, in worship.  People began to warm to him.  He became more than the object of their curiosity or the focus of their gossip.  He became their brother in Christ.  Some would have honestly told you that they had never expected this to happen.  Marvin went to his son, and they reconciled.  All was not perfect--it was never a Kodak moment--but often, when I would stop by to see Marvin, his son would be there.  And then, one day, Marvin died.  It was not unexpected. 

What was happening there?  We had prayed for his healing.  And yet he died.  I go back to the scripture:  The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.  That verse has at least two meanings.  When Jesus healed, he would sometimes say, "Rise up and walk."  There is another meaning:  the Lord will raise them up may also refer to the resurrection, which is, through the lens of faith, the ultimate healing.

This work takes many forms.  Sometimes there is physical healing.  I believe this has occurred in the lives of some people.  I have no other way of explaining why they are still with us, and I rejoice that they are.  Sometimes there is relational healing--healing within families, among friends, within a church.  Sometimes there is spiritual healing--God comes into our lives and our sins are forgiven and we are made whole.

  • Some of us have done something, said something that we later regretted, and we need to put all of this in our past.  God calls us to confess.
  • Some of us are in some kind of trouble or we know someone who is in some kind of difficulty.  God invites us to intercede.
  • Some of us find that illness or suffering is a part of our lives or the life of someone close to us.  God offers to heal us.

Marvin and I shared very little in common, but I think God sent him into my life to teach me something, to broaden the horizons of my narrowly educated mind, to help me toward a sign of the kingdom.  And maybe God's gift for us, this day, is an inbreaking of the kingdom, in the presence of the One who came to teach, to preach and to heal.  The church that bears his name will surely remember the practices of his first followers, ones that seem as relevant as when they were first written:

Are any among you suffering?  They should pray. 

Are any 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.

The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up,

And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.

Therefore confess your sins to one another

And pray for one another, so that you may be healed. 


Will you join me in prayer.

We confess to you, O God, that our lives are broken.  We acknowledge that our world is in need of your healing.  Send the power of your Holy Spirit into our lives.  Redeem our world through the presence of Jesus Christ.  Amen.