Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 27, 2009

2009.09.27 “No Place Like Church”

Central United Methodist Church

“No Place Like Church”
James 5: 13 – 16
Pastor David L. Haley

September 27th, 2009


      “Are you hurting?  Pray. Do you feel great?  Sing.  Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master.  Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet.  And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven – healed inside and out.   Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.”  (James 5: 13 – 16, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson.)     



     On a bright Sunday morning in February of 1982, shivering in a T-shirt and running shorts, a young woman jogger stepped into the vaulted stone vestibule of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City to catch her breath and warm up.


      This woman is not your usual passerby checking out a church. This woman is Elaine Pagels, Ph.D., Harvard University, now Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, winner of the coveted MacArthur Prize Fellowship, one of the leading scholars on early Christian literature.


Once inside, her response to the worship service in progress – which she describes in her book Beyond Belief (Random House, 2003) – startles her: 


“Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to the worship in progress – the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation; and the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice.  As I stood watching, a thought came to me:  Here is a family that knows how to face death.” (p. 3)


      And why would a young woman out running on a sunny Sunday morning need to know how to face death?  She explains:


“That morning I had gone for an early morning run while my husband and two-and-a-half-year-old son were still sleeping. The previous night I had been sleepless with fear and worry. Two days before, a team of doctors at Babies Hospital, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, had performed a routine checkup on our son, Mark, a year and six months after his successful open-heart surgery. The physicians were shocked to find evidence of a rare lung disease.  Disbelieving the results, they tested further for six hours before they finally called us in to say that Mark had pulmonary hypertension, an invariably fatal disease, they told us.  How much time?  I asked.  “We don’t know:  a few months, a few years.” (p.  4)


Raw from that sleepless night, standing in the back of that church in her running outfit, Mrs. Pagels says: 


“Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there.  Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable.” (p. 4) . . . “The drama being played out there “spoke to my condition,” as it has to that of millions of people throughout the ages, because it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of fear, grief, and death while – paradoxically – nurturing hope.” (p. 27)


What Mrs. Pagels found in that church on that February morning, what we may have found in church after the sleepless nights of our own lives, is that from the beginning of Christianity up until now:


“what attracted outsiders who walked into a gathering of Christians, as I did on that February morning, was the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family.” (p. 6)


It is such a “group joined by spiritual power into an extended family” described in this morning’s reading from the New Testament Letter of James:


“Are you hurting?  Pray.  Do you feel great?  Sing.  Are you sick?  Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master.  Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet.  And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven – healed inside and out.  Make this your common practice:  Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.”  (James 5: 13 – 16, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson.)

As we have seen on previous Sundays, here was an early Christian church that was struggling.  Some were not honest with each other.  Some were suffering, in mind, body, or spirit. Some were in need of forgiveness.  Some were in trouble. So James wrote to those early Christians – and through them to us – to encourage us in our care for each other, through the use of the common spiritual practices James describes: prayer and praise, confession and intercession, healing and reconciliation, so that, as James put it, “you might live together whole and healed.”


Now I am aware, as you are aware, that in modern life the practical outworking of these spiritual practices may be different than it was in the 1st century, when scientifically-based medical care was non-existent.  But even in a society and a congregation such as ours, there is still a place for the practice of such disciplines in our care for each other.


Individual prayer and praise, for example, we understand; each one of us practices it each week as we sit in these pews; quite likely it’s what brings us here each week.


Intercession – our prayers for each other and for others – while we may never understand how it works, we understand and practice. If you’ve ever had your life or family fall apart, if you’ve ever viewed life flat on your back from a bed, you know how comforting the words are, “I/we are praying for you.” What we need to add to this are our prayers, not just for the sick and the elderly, but for children and youth and young adults; our prayers not only for physical ailments, but for healing of mind, body, and spirit; our prayers not only for individual concerns, but for social and global concerns as well, our prayers for justice and compassion. Do we only pray to the Great Physician, or “Our Father in heaven,” who knows when even a sparrow falls?


            And what about confession? Is there anyone here today who would feel comfortable confessing your sins to those sitting around you?  As one woman asked, “Is there any congregation in the whole Christian church on earth that you don’t have to leave when you are having a problem you can’t hide?” Ever hear the story of the two parishioners who decide to confess their sins to each other?  One says to the other, “So what’s your sin?” And the other says, “Well, I did this, and I did that I’m not too proud of, and then there was the time when I did this, and so on.” And then they say, “So, tell me, what’s your sin?” And the reply is, “Well, it’s gossip, and I just can’t wait to get out of this room.”


        And yet, where else can you go to find – through word, ritual, and the acceptance of others, genuine forgiveness?  Psychologists and therapists might be able to tell you the roots and causes of your sin. The civil and criminal justice system can tell you the consequences and the cost of your sin. But where else can you find forgiveness for your sin, other than church? How does James put it: “If you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven – healed inside and out.”


Healing. Considering the vast and complex knowledge of modern medicine, what does it mean in the context of church to pray for healing, and anoint people with oil, as James prescribes and as we do?  And yet, as all of us who suffer and seek healing have found, especially in our age of “high-tech low-touch” medicine, there is great comfort and power in rituals of touching and healing, and that’s why we practice them.  As it says in the United Methodist Book of Worship:


“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.”


In short, church – according to James – is not a place for sanctimonious hypocrites, but for humble people who know their constant need of confession, forgiveness, healing, and the powerful, prayerful encouragement of each other. 


I lament that some of you who are young, as you undergo the transitions of your life, such as college and marriage, are going to drop out of church, because (1) you’re not sure you believe everything the church believes, or (2) don’t think you need it.  Quite likely, someday, like Elaine Pagels, you will find yourself back inside a church and discover how much you really DO need it.  Even more fortunate are you if can do that through these early years, providing you with some of the best friends and most important relationships of your life.


I lament that there are people who move from congregation to congregation looking for a creed they can agree with, when what they really need is a place where they be cared for, and learn to care for others, even those with whom they disagree.  


I lament that there are people out there who don’t think they need church, but frankly, have nobody to care for them, as both family and friends are far away. When, as a chaplain, I am called to help an individual or family at a time of crisis, there are two questions I ask, to help them summon their best and most needed resources: (1) Do you have friends or family you can call? (2) Do you have a church or pastor you can call? 

Sometimes we may feel, that as a Christian congregation, we have little to offer. We’re not a megachurch, we don’t have a band, no huge children or youth ministry. But in actuality, we have something very powerful and very important to offer:  the care of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family.


      Elaine Pagels went on to say:


“I returned often to that church, not looking for faith but because, in the presence of that worship and the people gathered there – and in a smaller group that met on weekdays in the church basement for mutual encouragement – my defenses fell away, exposing storms of grief and hope. In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible for Mark, and for the rest of us.”  (p. 4)


“Four years later, when our son, then six years old, suddenly died, the church of the Heavenly Rest offered some shelter, along with words and music, when family and friends gathered to bridge an abyss that had seemed impassable.”  (pp. 26 – 27)


Quite frankly, even as a pastor, there are days I’m not sure I ever want to go near a church again. But then, one day it happens: you experience what Elaine Pagels experienced, and what James described, where, in church, through the care and prayers of others, you experience the care of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family. It brings tears to our eyes and gratitude into our hearts, and becomes no less than God’s care for us.


So may it be.  So may it ever be.  Amen.


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