I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 27th at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC.
Prayer: O God who continually loves us, I am grateful. I am grateful that no matter how we’re feeling, you stay the same. I am grateful at your faithfulness even when we’re not faithful. May your spirit linger in this place and may our hearts hunger after your Word. In Christ’s name, Amen.
Over the years I’ve been part of several denominations, but the one service I attended faithfully until I moved to Philadelphia was Wednesday Evening Prayer Service. It was a combination of testimonials, hymns, prayers, and something like craigslist. Once I needed a stove, mine was beyond repair, and I didn’t have the money to buy a new one. After I raised my concern, an older couple said they had an extra one in their garage that worked just fine. Other times folks who needed to go to doctor’s appointments would ask those in the service for a ride and rides were offered. That service embodies today’s passage from James.
In the final verses of James’ letter, he spells out what community looks like. He writes, “Are any among you suffering?” “Are any cheerful?” “Are any among you sick?” He implicitly assumes that the answer to these questions is yes. James knows members of communities do not act, feel, or even think in unison.
Because James knows this, after each question he offers a way one can act during the service. For those who are suffering hardships, pray. For those cheerful, sing a song. For those sick, and here James doesn’t give a short response, James writes that they should be anointed with oil and prayed over by the elders of the church. My interaction with these verses was present from birth until my preteens. I attended a church that had an anointing oil odor. And I, at least once a month, was anointed with oil, whether I was sick or not. Now I’m pretty sure this is not what James meant by anointing with oil.
So let’s segue into a quick history lesson into the world of ancient Israel and Judah. Anointing with oil was mainly meant for authority figures. Some prophets were anointed and most kings were. It set them apart. Even the word Messiah and the Greek translation of the word Christ means Anointed One. One of my favorite anointing stories in the Hebrew Bible is when Elisha in 2 Kings 9 gave instructions to a younger prophet to anoint Jehu, who was a macho warrior. Elisha told him to find Jehu in this group of military people, separate him from the group, tell him that he’s going to be king over Israel, anoint him, and then run like hell.
Translating the Hebrew Bible idea of anointing as mainly for kings and prophets, this becomes very peculiar in James’ community. In essence, he’s saying it’s those who are ill in the community that should be treated with the dignity of dignitaries . It’s the ones who are losing their eyesight who should be queens and kings. It’s those who pray for their scabs, their diseases, and their depressions who are royalty among us. Except that’s not how sick people are treated. We hear more stories about people like Martin Shkriel who raised an AIDS and cancer drug from $13 a pill to $750, a 5000% increase.
Yet, in James’ community, healthcare was not based on who could afford it. It was based on who was present. It didn’t matter if you were wealthy, penniless, or somewhere in between. Those who were sick were treated with dignity, respect, and honor.
Through the rest of these verses, we hear a parallel notion about those who wander from the truth. The community is called to bring them back. To bring them back to where they can be themselves: happy, suffering, or sick.
Related, there is this strange little story in Galatians 2 where Paul calls out Peter. The story goes, Paul and Peter are eating together in Antioch with Gentiles believers. When some Messianic Jews from Jerusalem arrive instead of Peter continuing to eat with Gentiles, he eats exclusively with the Messianic Jews. Using the words of James, Peter wandered from the truth of the gospel and Paul called him out and brought him back.
What I’m trying to get at is this: Everyone belongs. Everyone belongs. No matter what. Yet, it’s not that simple.
Belonging to a community requires that we are honest with one another. We are upfront with how we’re feeling. Are any among us joyful? Are any among us indifferent? Are any among us struggling to find your voice?
And in this honesty, we become vulnerable. Sharing with the community our mistakes, our struggles, and our dreams. Are any among us regretting your past? Are any among us afraid of our future? Are any among us not ready to move on?
On the front of the bulletin, there’s a quote by Lilla Watson “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
This, my friends, is community.
This, my sisters and brothers, is what James and Jesus are calling us to.
This, my friends, is the gospel.
May we open ourselves in being honest, truthful, and treat one another, especially those society deems the outcast, with love and dignity. Amen.
Later in the service, the congregation participated in prayer stations.