Saturday, September 29, 2012

Healing despite the obstacles

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Healing and health happens in many ways, as today’s readings demonstrate, despite the obstacles presented. First, I want to talk about obstacles.
There are several reality TV shows which feature overcoming obstacles. Big Brother, Survivor, Biggest Loser, and Wipeout are some examples. Competitors need physical strength, mental quickness, persistence, and determination to win in these shows. They may also need to work as teams, while making sure they don’t lose as individuals. So, some of the obstacles are physical elements such as rope nets, swinging beams, and water. Other obstacles are people, and their own determination to win in the end. Obstacles need not prevent anyone from achieving their goals.
... Esther sought healing for her people. Her story is fascinating, and uplifting for all oppressed people. She was an orphan, living with her Uncle Mordecai, who worked in the court of Ahersuerus – Xerxes. In order to find a good life for his niece, Mordecai proposed that Esther audition for the role of the next queen. She was chosen from among thousands of other beautiful young women. Mordecai told her that whatever she did, she should keep her Jewishness a secret, so she did. She quickly became King Xerxes’ favorite wife.
After some time, an obstacle arose. A leader named Haman developed a plot to get rid of all the Jews in Babylon. Queen Esther invited the King and Haman to a series of dinners, and at the last one, exposed Haman’s plot to the King, and her own identity as a Jew. Xerxes could not countermand the plot, but allowed the Jews to defend themselves. Haman was executed on the gallows he had had built to kill the Jews.
In this way, the Jewish people were saved from slaughter – an extreme way of understanding healing. Jews celebrate this event every year on the holiday called Purim, with a dessert called hamantaschen. They are mini fruit tarts in a triangular shell which look like Haman’s hat.
... Jesus’ disciples noticed that some people were using Jesus’ name to heal sick and injured people, even though they were not believers in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. This troubled the disciples, but Jesus said it was OK. They would not be able to use his name to do harm. They were using his name for healing, and that was a good thing. Preventing the people from using Jesus’ name for healing would be like putting a giant obstacle in the way of the non-believers eventually coming to believe in Jesus.
Believers should do everything possible to avoid placing obstacles in the way of more people coming to believe in Jesus. Some obstacles are as common as steps leading into a building or the lack of a PA system. Other obstacles are failing to adapt to changing times in language, in music, in culture.
For example, congregations have failed or thrived depending on their response to changing circumstances. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church is in a fringe suburb of Chicago. People are constantly moving in or out of the suburb, to be closer to the city, or farther away from it. The long-time pastor realized that they were constantly training new members to be leaders.
The church had a partnership with a Thai group of Christians; at first, the Thais leased time and space in the building. Later, the Thai congregation established a connection with the ELCA, and the two congregations worshiped together four times a year. The sermon was translated into English or Thai, and the hymns were sung in both Thai and English. Today, there are few original St Paul members left and the congregation is called St Paul Thai Church.
Over the years of their relationship, both pastors worked to train their leaders to accept the other group and to remove obstacles from a healthy partnership. St Paul Thai is now a healthy growing congregation serving both English- and Thai-speaking people in the community.
... The text from James refers to literal healing, in many ways; there is healing for those who are sick, those who are suffering, those who are sinning. There are natural and human-caused obstacles to healing. We don’t go to the doctor when we first get sick or injured, so the problem is worse than it might have been. Some illnesses are not curable – and ultimately, the rate of death per person is 100%. Life itself is stressful, and that can be an obstacle to health and healing. Especially, we don’t want to admit to ourselves or anyone else that we are not well, because it feels shameful to not be perfect.
According to Scripture, however, there is no shame in asking for healing; in fact, we are encouraged to pray for it, and to ask others to pray for and with us. James assures us that prayer is effective – it does something. Prayers for healing may not cure us. We may still have terminal cancer, for example, but we will be more prepared to face our illness, and more at peace with it, when we pray our way through it.
This is why I like to offer healing services, where people who so wish can be anointed and prayed for. The ancient Jewish tradition of anointing with oil for healing is continued in the early Christian community, and in our lives today.
In a previous congregation, the local ministerium (a gathering of ministers) was very ecumenical and very active. It consisted of a few mainline pastors, and a larger number of more “Evangelical” pastors. We gathered monthly for education, mutual support, and prayer. We had a ritual that I didn’t appreciate at first, but that I grew to love.
In our group of 15 or 20 pastors, there was always one or more of us experiencing difficulties in our personal or parish lives. As we closed the meeting in prayer, we would put the troubled person on a chair and gather around her or him. We would all place our hands on the person and speak the prayers on our hearts. It was powerful to pray for those in the chair. It was humbling and awe-some to be the one in the chair being prayed over.
Even praying face to face for each other is powerful, so I invite you to try this. Please turn to your neighbor – small groups of two or three. Hold hands if you’d like. Listen as I read a portion of the James text with some small changes.
Are you suffering? You should pray. Are you sick? You should call for the leaders of the church and have them pray over you and anoint you with oil.
Now I want you to look at each other and repeat what I say. “I ask God to heal you ... from whatever you are suffering ... In Jesus’ name. Amen”
Now take your finger and make the sign of the cross on the other person’s forehead. ... Amen
... Jesus wants healing for us, as individuals, and as communities, despite the obstacles that hinder our healing. Jesus wants all people to know they are welcome in his reign so he can heal them. And Jesus wants us to make sure we are not placing obstacles in their way as he reaches out through us to heal them.
This week, I hope you will find someone to pray for in person. I know you all have your prayer lists. But how often do you pray for another person in their presence? If you don’t regularly pray for another in person, and if you don’t receive prayer directly, I encourage you to try it. Spouses can try it, or friends can try it. It doesn’t have to be a long prayer; it can be as short as the one we prayed earlier. “I ask God to heal you ... from whatever you are suffering ... In Jesus’ name. Amen.” Only Jesus will be watching, so there is no reason to be afraid, no reason to put obstacles in the way of this simple prayer practice.
Please pray with me – by repeating after me: “I ask God to heal you ... from whatever you are suffering ... In Jesus’ name. Amen”