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The 18th Sunday after Pentecost; James 5:13-20

Here I am, preaching in person in real-time in our church for the first time since February 23, 2020! We are in the 4th wave of the pandemic that shut us down a month later. We have a vaccine developed at unprecedented speed that promises to at least control, if not stop all together this virus, and restore a near normal way of living together. That is, if enough people are vaccinated. Almost unbelievably, in our communities are protestors of vaccination requirements for various reasons, some of them religious. Faithful to their own interpretation of Scripture, these folks are arguing that being vaccinated shows a lack of faith in God. And along comes our 2nd Lesson, from the Letter of James!

Let me re-read a few verses from that, leaving out words that get in the way:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. … Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church … have them pray … The prayer of faith will save the sick … pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

That is quite un-ambiguous, isn’t it? And yet in my experience, examined honestly, I can find examples (and personal experiences) that clearly show it’s not that simple!

When I read that Epistle it brings back memories of an elderly gentleman in one of my earlier parishes. He was there only because he had married an Anglican; he was deeply suspicious of Anglicans as possibly not Christians, Anglican priests almost definitely not! He was simultaneously a great pain where I sat, and someone who challenged me and made me grow. On almost any question he could quote a litany of proof-texts, and then take the position, God said it, I believe it, that settles it. He didn’t leave much room for negotiation!

We clashed most often on prayer. He insisted prayer, especially for healing, was always effective. This text from James was first on his list of proofs. I would protest that one only needed to look around to see that it didn’t work like that; that I had prayed lots of times for someone to be healed (also anointed them); others, sometimes many others had prayed too, and healing didn’t happen. That would just bring a comment about my lack of faith, or that I was not among the righteous – usually with an appropriate scriptural quotation as proof, or suggestion on how to mend my ways!

I became somewhat obsessed with this man – it became a challenge to make him see it my way. A wiser priest took me aside and told me to let it go. After all, if I succeeded he would have nothing, and he would have to re-build his faith, which might take years. Given his age, he might not live long enough, and did I want that on my conscience? Just let him go, leave him to God, who loves him just as he is, I was told. But just maybe, this priest said, I needed to work on my understanding of prayer, to get beyond the “It works, or it doesn’t work, who knows why” stage. Here, he said, this might help.

“This” was a recording of a talk by John Claypool at an Anglican Fellowship of Prayer Conference. I still have it, about 30 years later. Claypool was an Episcopal priest; the back story was his early teens son dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, despite his prayers and those of hundreds of others. So here is my interpretation of Claypool’s reflection, and my own experience of prayer, illness (others’ and mine), and life-experience. Make of it what you will, in your context and our times. All is based on a verse from the 40th Chapter of the prophesy of Isaiah:

… those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

The first way in which God may respond to our prayer is what we call “miracle.” From somewhere outside ourselves, and outside our time and space, God reaches into our world, and rearranges and changes it in such a way that problems are solved, suffering is relieved; prayers are answered dramatically. (As someone who as an academic specialized in physical systems theory, I have even come up with a mechanism based in quantum mechanics and chaos theory of how God could do this, without it being detectable!)

Biblical examples of healing miracles are plentiful. So are healing stories in post-biblical times, right up to our own. The Roman Catholic process of canonization examines healing miracles very rigorously to eliminate any possible human cause for a recovery. No, to the best of our ability to understand, God acts, a diseased body is made whole, and suffering is ended.

When we pray for God’s help, for ourselves or someone else, a miracle is usually our hope. But prayer and faith are not magic by which we manipulate God. God always remains God, sovereign and free. Often, for reasons known to God alone, our prayers for a miracle are not answered, no matter how hard we pray, or how much faith we have.

But God is not limited to miracles. The second way in which God may respond to prayer is what we can call “co-operation.” God works with us and others, alongside, assisting, as we and others work to change our circumstances. It is becoming well-known that those with an active prayer and faith life, those who believe that with God’s help they can get well, respond better to medical treatment and recover from serious illness more often and faster than those who lack spiritual resources. We all know stories in which with the eye of faith we can see human effort assisted by God’s grace, achieving results which might not have been possible by human effort alone. God works with our efforts, supports and strengthens them, to achieve what we pray for.

But miracle and co-operation do not exhaust the ways God answers prayer. God may, for God’s reasons, do neither. No miracle happens, and all human efforts fail. It would be easy to suggest that God is not answering prayer. But there is a third way.

Sometimes the only result of prayer is that from somewhere outside ourselves we are given grace and strength to endure what will not change, and what we cannot change. Circumstances remain exactly as they were, suffering continues, yet the unendurable becomes endurable. God is present in our lives, not to change them or improve them, but to make them tolerable.

Many of us have experienced this in our lives, or have seen this in the lives of others. What to another observer seems intolerable is not only tolerated, but is experienced with strength and grace that seem beyond human capacity.

“Those who wait for the Lord,” those who pray and have faith that the Lord will hear them; “shall renew their strength;” their prayers will be answered.

Sometimes, “they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” From outside themselves will come energies and actions that cannot be understood or explained, and their circumstances or suffering will be overcome in a way that no human agency accomplished.

Sometimes, “they shall run and not be weary” They will be assisted in their struggles and their efforts to overcome their circumstances, and with the assistance of God will achieve results that human strength alone cannot achieve.

Or, sometimes, “they shall walk and not faint.” They shall be given the strength to carry on, to put one foot in front of the other, to continue in the face of circumstances that will not change, but with God’s grace, they will be able to endure.

I could leave it there, but that would ignore a rather profound question underneath all this – can there be a purpose to illness? After all, God didn’t have to create a world with illness and suffering.

An interesting hint came in a quote from André Gide’s journal1, overheard in a broadcast2:

I believe that illnesses are keys that can open certain doors for us. I believe that there are some doors that illness alone can open. There is a state of health which allows us not to understand everything … health cuts us off from some truths, or shields us from those truths such that we are not disturbed by them.

Illness allows us to move towards insight and understanding that might not be available otherwise. It may therefore be a part of God’s plan for our growth and salvation – remember, salvation is actually a health greater than just physical health. I’m still working on the implications of that, but thought I’d share it nevertheless.

Meanwhile, my own prayer discipline, such as it is, has evolved in line with the Jewish tradition that you can’t ask for much in prayer because, 1>st – you cannot ask God to change the past, and if you think about it, an awful lot of what we pray for asks exactly that; and 2nd – you can’t ask God to do anything for you that would be against the interests of any other person; and if you think about that, it pretty well eliminates a lot of everything else. So I try to stick to advise given me by a very wise spiritual guide a long time ago:

When you wake up in the morning, just before getting out of bed, ask God, “Please!”. And at night, just before going to sleep, tell God, “Thank you!”.

And that is sufficient!

1 André Gide – French author and Nobel Prize winner in literature. Three well-known quotes:
   “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”
   “The colour of truth is gray.”
   “There is a law in life: When one door closes to us another one opens.
2 From Gide’s experience volunteering in an African leper colony; reflections heard on the Internet radio station “Radio Stefansdom” from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, several dates (translated from German).

Copyright ©2021 by Gerry Mueller.