Numbers 11; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-41
This morning we complete our journey through the Epistle of James as part of discerning our mission and vision. Today’s passage invites us to consider what a healthy community looks like, and why we need one so badly. During my years as a pastor I’ve noticed that some people have the best of intentions about being part of a church; but they simply can’t make it happen. When a crisis arises in their life, they call on the pastor for help. I have often responded that I can help them as much as possible. But if they become part of the community, there will be a whole group of people willing to help. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.
One day I was with a friend who was depressed. This is someone who ministers to people all the time. But he had just separated from his life partner. Returning home each night to an empty house reminded him of his loneliness. He longed for a group of people who would be waiting for him. Not just anyone; people who knew him, loved him and knew what he was going through. He sought a community that would be present, faithful and deep enough to meet him where he was.
What makes community enough for us? And what about our lives builds community? James addresses these questions with his own. Are any of you suffering? They should pray. Obviously he means something different than he did when he warns us not to tell a person who is naked and lacks food, go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill. Isn’t it cruel to say to a suffering person, you should pray?
Not if we understand what prayer really is. Parker Palmer wrote that prayer is the practice of relatedness. “In prayer, I no longer set myself apart from others and the world, manipulating them to suit my needs. Instead, I reach for relationship, allow myself to feel the tuggings of mutuality and accountability, take my place in community by knowing the transcendent center that connects it all… In prayer, I not only address the love at the core of all things; I listen as that love addresses me, calling me out of isolation and self-centeredness into community and compassion.
In our suffering we long for that quality of community, just as my friend did. Many have given up on finding it in the church. Church is fine for Sunday worship, Bible study, good music and seeing friends. But when I’m in a crisis they look elsewhere. To be a community of prayer is to be truly connected to each other. The responsibility belongs to both the individual and the community. My friend wasn’t blaming anyone. He was simply between communities. So he was praying – crying out to a small group to be there for him, to stay close enough, to know him well enough to match the depth of his pain.
The listening sessions revealed that we want St. Athanasius to be a community of prayer to match the depth of our pain. We must both be that community and be willing to ask for it, expect it and demand it when we need it. Do you have people waiting for you when you come home hurting? If so, you’re blessed. If not, you should pray– to God and to some people God has put around you. Don’t suffer alone because no one reaches out to you. Reach out for help; ask people to be there for you; be there for others in their need; and watch who composes your community of prayer.
But James doesn’t leave it at suffering. Are any of you in high spirits? They should sing songs of praise. We don’t only need people when we are depressed. We need people to celebrate life’s victories with us. One of the forms of church that developed in the sixties in Latin America is the ecclesial base community - small groups that pray, study the Bible and act on community problems. Their method was see-think-do: see a problem, think about it in light of God’s word, and act on what God says. It was great for creating a lot of social change.
But after about 20 years people grew tired and discouraged. Each action led to another. But they never arrived; they just kept struggling. Finally they realized that they did have small victories along the way, but they never paused to celebrate them. So they added a forth step – celebration, including remembering, laughing and singing. A whole new genre of church music arose that speaks of struggle and God’s accompaniment. Songs of hope; songs that nurture imagination of a different reality. And it became acceptable to laugh again.
Laughter and song nurture wholeness. Intentional communities that endure balance seriousness with lightheartedness. They meet each other in both pain and joy. They laugh. They tease. They sing. They celebrate the good things that happen to each other. God knows we love to sing and laugh at St Athanasius. Do we laugh and sing enough these days?
Finally, James returns to a more serious tone: Are any of you sick? They should call the elders and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil. I know some of you have recently spent time in clinics getting tests and treatments. It can be pretty impersonal. ‘Go to that window to talk about insurance if you have it. Then go to the other window to discuss your payment. Now sit down and wait while you watch TV.’ Then someone calls your name and you follow her down the hall into another room. They say what will happen and you wait again. A technician speaks to you through a window. The machine makes some noises and movements and stops. They tell you to leave and that they will call you later with the results. It all feels so disconnected and mechanistic. The testing and treatment feel separate from the sickness. I know they have a purpose and we want to be cured. But it’s like our bodies are separate from ourselves.
Maybe that’s why James says to anoint with oil: it allows us to be touched by human hands and soothing oil, rather than only by metal machines and anonymous technicians. We don’t know how healing works and we don’t know all that blocks healing form happening. When a Jewish person was sick she went to the rabbi rather than the doctor, and he anointed her with oil. The church took over this practice. James suggests that perhaps the soothing human touch within a caring community makes a difference in the healing process.
Many say that the worst part of getting sick in the isolation of being at home alone or in the hospital, and the alienation that results from the treatment itself. Cure is one thing. Care is another. For many years hospitals were Christian ministries where care and cure came together. Then care became more professional and cure became more technical and they were separated. The hospice movement arose as an attempt to heal the divide.
The last aspect of community James addresses is enslavement to sin: Confess your sins to one another so that you may be healed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a little book about community about 75 years ago in the context of Nazi Germany. Like James, he concluded the book by addressing confession: “The pious fellowship permits on one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.” Once again, the individual is isolated and alienated from the community.
Nowadays we’ve turned confession into entertainment. Oprah is the new high priestess. People vicariously enter into other peoples’ sins, effectively avoiding dealing with their own. Some of us confess our sins to a therapist, which is a step in the right direction. But compared to community it is inadequate. 12 step programs move even closer with their combination of a nonjudgmental environment and a willingness to confront each other’s’ self-destructive behavior. The sense of belonging, sharing a common weakness, and knowing that my healing matters to someone – all of these are elements of a healing community.
Can St. Athanasius be that kind of community? Of course it can; but not if we’re competitive about it. What could be more foolish than to be competitive about someone helping out with carrying out God’s mission in the world? Yet in the Book of Numbers, two prophets who stayed back in the camp dared to prophecy there, rather than with the rest of the 70 prophets. A young man, who expected to be rewarded for his diligence, told Joshua, who told Moses, who probably laughed in Joshua’s face as he replied, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!” Then in the Gospel, John tried to prohibit someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he didn’t belong to their group. Can you imagine?
Unfortunately, we can. It happens all the time. And it needs to stop. Stop seeking credit more than caring. Stop excluding others because they didn’t help. Stop hanging on to power because you can. If we stop competing, open ourselves to community, commit to it, and have faith that God will build it with us, our prayers might be as effective as Elijah’s, who prayed for rain and the heavens gave rain.