A sermon by delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on September 30, 2012.
My first church was in the little town of Newcastle, Kentucky – about forty-five minutes away from Louisville, where I was still in seminary. I used to make that trip several times a week back and forth, forth and back, forty-five minutes each way, doing what I could to pass the time. And one day, I remember clearly I turned on the radio and found a gospel station where the preacher had taken as the text of his sermon this passage from James Chapter 5.
He began by reading from the King James Version of the Bible, “Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing songs. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church.”
And he didn’t get any further than that before he stopped preaching and went to meddling. Preachers do this sometimes, you have to watch them. He said, “Did you hear what James said? Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders. Call. Pick up the phone and call for the elders.” He said, “I am getting tired of you people playing hospital hide and seek. You lie up there in the hospital bed for three or four days waiting to see if the preacher can find you and then if he can’t, you go around church telling everybody, ‘Well, the preacher just doesn’t care about me.’ Do you hear what James says? Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders. Pick up the phone and call.”
Well, that’s not exactly the way James said it, but I think James would have said “amen” to that sermon. Because it calls for action and James is a man of action.
In the first chapter of this little book, he says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” In the second chapter of the book, he says “Don’t discriminate between rich and poor, showing favoritism toward the rich.” In the third chapter, he says “You people need to tame your tongues. They are full of deadly poison. They are restless evil in the body.” In Chapter 4, he says, “I want you to seek the way of wisdom and walk in that way.” All of these are action words.
James is a man of action. In fact, it was James who said, “Faith without works is dead.”
In Chapter five, he begins to talk about doing the work of prayer which is not the way most of us think about it. When we talk with someone who is sick, we often say, “I’m sorry that you are feeling bad. Is there anything I can do?”
“Well, okay, then, I’ll be praying for you.” Which is to say if there’s nothing I can do, I will pray.
Doing and praying are in two separate categories. And I think we put them there because of our experience with prayer.
I wonder how many of us have prayed for someone to get well who didn’t get well. How many times have you poured out your heart in earnest, fervent prayer, asking God to do something for somebody you loved, and your prayer was not answered in the way you hoped it would be. It makes you a little hesitant about offering the power of your prayers to anyone. A little reluctant to say, “I will not only pray; my prayer will be answered.” We draw back from the kind of boldness that you find in the book of James and we need somebody to correct that among us.
I remember being in Chicago a few years ago at something called, “The Festival of Homiletics, “which is a fancy name for a preaching conference. A very fancy name, I think. I was there at Fourth Presbyterian Church in the city of Chicago, Illinois, listening to the Rev. Doctor James Forbes, who was at that time pastor of the prominent Riverside Church in New York City. He was talking about prayer. He was talking about healing, and as he talked, he began to rummage around inside the pulpit.
You probably don’t even know what we have back here in the pulpit, do you? He didn’t know what was in that one, but he was feeling around inside. He kept doing that while he was preaching. We wondered what he was up to. Finally, he bent down, took a look, came back up with a disappointed look on his face. He said, “I was hoping to find some anointing oil in here,” and we didn’t say so, but we thought, “James, this is the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Illinois. You are not going to find any anointing oil in that pulpit.” And he didn’t.
But finally, he picked up a pitcher of water there to his right and a Dixie cup. And he poured some water into the cup, and then came out from behind the pulpit and began to walk up and down the aisle of the church, anointing people with water, making the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and saying, “In the name of Jesus, be healed.”
Dr. Forbes always does tend toward the dramatic. “In the name of Jesus,” he said, “be healed” to this one and that one and this one, up and down the aisle.
It reminded me of the experience I had when I was a teenager, visiting a Pentecostal Church in West Virginia. Now, the Rev. Tommy Wingo always had anointing oil in his pulpit and he would often invite people to come forward to receive prayer for healing. They would come and stand there at the front of the church. He would ask all the Deacons and Elders to come and gather around, and then he would take the anointing oil out from the pulpit, a big bottle of Pompeian olive oil. You may know the brand. He would go down, unscrew the cap, he would put that down, he would get some oil on his finger and he would make the sign of the cross on a woman’s head, and then clamp his hand on top of her head and begin to pray. “In the name of Jesus, be healed,” he would say.
“Spirit of sickness, I command you to come out in the name of Jesus,” he would pray for her with his eyes squinched shut, his hair flopping this way and that. “Come out,” and then he would step back from this woman, all the deacons and elders would step back at the same time. And she would rock back and forth on her heels. I remember one woman began to twirl like a large slow top, saying, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.” Because that’s what you say when the prayer works. When you feel the healing power surge through your body.
What do you say when it doesn’t work? When you aren’t healed? Well, Tommy Wingo used to say it was because we didn’t have enough faith. That’s what he would say. We prayed, we just … we didn’t have enough faith this time. Next time, we will have faith.
Implicit in that explanation is the idea that if you had enough faith, if you prayed the right kind of prayer, if you said the right kind of words, if you had someone praying who was a righteous person like the Prophet Elijah, then A+B would always equal C. Your prayer would always work.
The problem with that kind of thinking is that it turns prayer into some magic formula and it turns God into a divine lackey who has to spring into action every time we snap our oily fingers.
That’s not the way it works. Is it?
God is God and God cannot be coerced by our prayers.
But God can be asked and sometimes, we forget that.
Some of you may have met Isaac LaLucca, who showed up at Richmond’s First Baptist Church almost by accident a few weeks ago. I was coming back from a lunch appointment, I parked out here on Monument Avenue, I was walking through the courtyard toward the building, and I looked over to my left, there was this young man sitting on a bench in the sunshine. I walked and introduced myself, “Hello,” I said, “My name is Jim.”
And he said, “I am Isaac.”
I said, “Isaac? The son of Abraham.”
“Yes, yes,” he said.
Turns out Isaac is a long-distance runner from Kenya. World class marathoner. I was very excited about that. I said, “Isaac, I’m so glad to meet you. I’m the pastor of the church.”
And then he got excited. “Thank you, Jesus,” he said. As it turns out, he had been sitting out there in the courtyard, praying that the pastor of the church would appear. And there I was. An answer to prayer.
He said, “Pastor, I tried to get into the building. They wouldn’t let me in. So I prayed that you would come out. Here you are.”
Isaac, as it turns out, is a man of prayer. He loves Jesus. He loves telling people about Jesus, but most of all, he said, he loves praying for people to get well. I invited him to stick around, he came with me to the Wednesday night supper that we have here at church.
Afterwards, we went out to the front of the church where the runners congregate who are practicing for the Marathon in November. It’s the Wednesday night Marathon training team. I wanted them to meet Isaac. I wanted him to meet them, so I went out front and there they were, just finishing up their run, standing out there, gasping for breath, soaked through with sweat. “Ahhh!” I said, “Meet Isaac, world class distance runner from Kenya.”
They were pleased to meet him, but you know, Isaac wasn’t paying any attention. Because Danny Taylor was sitting out in front of the church in his wheelchair, waiting for the bus to come from the Virginia Home that would take him back to his apartment.
Now, most of you know Danny. Danny is here this morning. He’s always here on Sunday morning. Danny has had cerebral palsy since he was born. And he handles it with as much grace and good humor as I have ever seen in a human being.
But Danny was sitting out there that Wednesday night in his wheelchair, Isaac was standing near him, I was looking around at all the runners, saying, “Look, look what I’ve got. Olympic distance runner right here.”
Isaac was looking at Danny. And finally, he said to me, “Can I pray for him?” And I looked at Danny and said, “Is that okay with you?”
Danny said, “Sure,” and Isaac began to pray. Put his hand on Danny’s shoulder, and he said, “Lord Jesus, I pray for this man. I pray for him to be healed of his…” and then he asked me, “What does he have?”
“I pray for him to be healed of his cerebral palsy in the name of Jesus.”
He prayed for him and then he said “amen.”
I looked down at Danny, “You okay?”
Looked around to see if anybody else had noticed and then the bus came for Danny, he got on the bus, went back to the Virginia Home, Isaac got into my car, I drove him to the place he was staying. He said to me on the way, “You know, it doesn’t always work.”
I knew that. You all know that.
But I admired him for his willingness to do something. To offer a prayer for Danny. And I thought, “Why haven’t I offered to pray for Danny?” I’ve prayed for Danny for some things, but never prayed for that – for a miracle. Isaac just did it. He did it with that kind of boldness, that kind of faith that James talks about.
It made me think back to that time in Chicago and wonder what would have happened if the Reverend Dr. James Forbes had stopped at the end of my pew, and dipped his finger into the water and made the sign of the cross on my forehead. Would I find that in that moment, all my hidden anguish, all my secret sorrow, all my weakness, all my sickness, all my pain rushed up to greet the touch of his finger. Would I know even if nothing else happened that in that moment, I had been prayed for? Somebody had done something for me.
We Baptists shy away from that kind of touch. It seems too Penecostal to us, or perhaps too sacramental. But at either end of the Ecclesiastical spectrum, if you ask the elders of the church to pray for you, they will do more than promise to pray.
I was talking to my brother in law, Chuck, about this very thing last week. We were hiking together in western North Carolina. Chuck is an Episcopal priest and I said, “Tell me what you do when you go to the hospital where somebody is sick?”
And he said, “Well, I always take some anointing oil.”
He said, “It’s a tradition that dates back for centuries. Priests used to anoint the afflicted part of a person’s body because oil was thought to be a kind of medicine. They would apply it to the afflicted part.”
He said, “I don’t do that anymore, especially because of the parts where some people are afflicted, I don’t do that. But I do make the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead and I pray for that person to be healed.”
He said, “The oil we use is oil that has been consecrated by the Bishop or by a Priest. It’s a wonderful aromatic oil. “
And he said, “Sometimes when I come home from the hospital, I can still smell the smell of that oil on my fingers. Sometimes, when I am lying in bed at night, I reach over to turn off the light, and as I pull my hand back, I smell it again. For me, it has become the smell of healing.”
The smell of healing.
“Is anyone among you sick,” James says. “Let him call for the elders of the church. Have them pray over him, anointing with oil in the name of the Lord.”
And then he says, “The prayer of faith will save the sick.”
It’s hard to know where to put the emphasis, isn’t it?
Is it the prayer of faith that saves the sick? Or is it the prayer of faith that saves the sick? Or is it neither? Neither the prayer or the faith… but God who saves the sick.
I tell people sometimes, “I don’t believe in the power of prayer.”
And they look at me, shocked, “What are you talking about? You’re a Baptist minister.”
“I don’t believe in the power of prayer,” I say, “I believe in the power of God and prayer is the way we make that hair-thin connection between our need and God’s ability to meet that need. But the power is not in the prayer; the power is always in God.”
And when we pray to God, we ask God to heal, God can do something. We can pray. I sometimes tell people, “You know, doctors can’t really heal.” And the good doctors will agree. A doctor can do surgery, can take out a diseased appendix, can stitch you up again, but no doctor on earth can make skin and muscle knit back together again after surgery. Only God can do that. But a surgeon can operate.
In the same way, we can perform the operation of prayer. When someone is sick, we can do something. We can pray. We can gather up that need, along with our little bit of faith, and we can offer it up to the one who is able to do all things.
Do you know that in this church on the second Sunday of every month at 5 o’clock in the evening over in the Chapel, we have a service that we call, “A Service of Prayer for Healing?” Notice that we don’t call it a “Healing Service.” We don’t want to promise too much! But we will promise to pray for you if you come. If you are sick in body, mind, spirit, we will pray for you and we do.
I’ve been in that service when someone came forward and kneeled down at the kneeler and said, “I need your prayers. I’m sick.”
And I have said, “Would you like me to anoint you with oil?”
And I dip my finger down into a little bit of olive oil and I make the sign of the cross on that person’s forehead and then I do what I can do. I can pray. You can pray. I pray for that person’s healing and I leave the rest of it in the hands of a good and loving God.
When that service is over, when that person leaves the building and reaches up and touches that spot on his forehead where the healing oil is, he knows this if nothing else.
He has been prayed for.
Somebody has done something.
The rest is up to God.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.