A Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who will raise us up as we pray. Amen.
“Are any among you suffering?” Saint James asks.
At the risk of offending the author of my favorite epistle, what an idiotically obvious question.
“Are any among you suffering?”
Yes. Yes. A hundred times yes.
Pick up a newspaper. Tune into NPR. See the affliction visited upon the world, the torment that plagues us.
We see communities ravaged by storms, even right next door in North and South Carolina as floodwaters continue to surge. We see the climbing death toll in Indonesia following an earthquake and tsunami.
“Are any among you suffering?”
You don’t even need to turn your attention away from your daily life to see suffering. In a town with a high poverty rate, a high crime rate, an ever-widening gulf of inequality, suffering is all too obvious. Look around. Take note as you drive through Macon. We see our neighbors living in poverty in pockets around the city, see the scourge of hunger driving people to our doors on Monday – and the rest of the week when the pantry is closed.
“Are any among you suffering?”
You don’t need to leave these walls to know that we all mourn, we all carry afflictions. We know that financial insecurity, pain, illness, sorrow is visited upon each and every one of us. How many among us are still nursing the wounds of broken relationships or failed marriages? How many of us are hoping for medical miracles?
Maybe a better question for Saint James to ask is “How many different ways are each and every one of you suffering?”
If we were to sit down and write out even a partial list of the suffering just among the forty or so of us gathered here today, we would quickly exhaust all the ink and paper in Macon.
This suffering pierces our Lord’s sacred heart.
“Are any among you suffering?” Yes. “They should pray.” “Are any among you sick?” Yes. “They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”
I mentioned earlier that Saint James is my favorite epistle – and this is because the letter calls for Christians to actually do something. Our faith is not just a mental activity; it’s not just about what we think. Our faith isn’t mere spirituality or sentimentality; it’s not just about heart-warming moments. It’s not about what happens in the top two inches of our body or in our chests. Saint James gets that.
And yet again, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
Luther may have called Saint James “an epistle of straw” for its emphasis on works, but I get it. James speaks to me because he writes about an embodied faith. For James, faith means rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. It means being the Body of Christ in the world, being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
This is ministry that we can understand, that we can quantify. In 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina, I went on a few mission trips to New Orleans, mostly gutting flooded-out houses so that they might be rebuilt. The group of students was able to return to UGA, tired, sore, filthy, and report how many homes we had cleared. We could see the physical remains of a disaster and take physical tools to the problem. I could see the high-water marks on the houses, smell the stench of decay, touch the rotting dry wall, feel the fatigue in my muscles and the sinus problems caused by the mold. Organizations like Lutheran Disaster Relief (which is on the ground now in the Carolinas) keep doing this good work in areas devastated by fire and flood.
In our food pantry, we can report how many guests we’ve served. If we wanted to, we could quantify how many meals worth of groceries, how many cans of beans, how many bags of rice, how many bars of soap we send out. We can present our ministry in real numbers.
This type of work is immensely satisfying; the results are empirical: they are observable, tangible, quantifiable. They fit nicely on to budget spreadsheets and bulletin inserts, in reports to the council and the bishop.
And yes, these acts of social justice and charity are good work. This is important work. This is Gospel work.
But today, Saint James challenges us to engage in the spiritual side. Are you suffering? Then pray. Are you ill? Have someone anoint you with oil.
For many of us, James’ words today rub us the wrong way. On its face, it might come across as a bunch of “hocus pocus” superstition, as though mere words and ritual could fix concrete problems. There are times we want to roll up our sleeves and get to work, to really dig in and get stuff done – because concrete work produces concrete results, accomplishments we can see and which can be measured.
How do we tell if our prayer “worked”? How do we quantify the number of sick people “raised up” by prayer? How do you tally the untold number of quiet, little prayers lifted quietly throughout the day? The Church has been praying “for the peace of the whole world” for centuries; how do we put that work into concrete terms?
Even if we could assign a number value to this work, most of us aren’t like Elijah. I can’t point to a calendar and show how many days in a row my prayer has stopped the rain or broken a drought. Our prayers that the hungry might be fed have not reduced the number of people coming by our door on Monday morning.
The tension here is in how we view the modern world, bifurcated between the spiritual and the physical. The things that happen here on Sunday morning are spiritual. The things that happen out there the rest of the week are physical. Spiritual problems have spiritual solutions and physical problems have physical solutions. Some Christians have shunned the physical, emphasizing only spiritual solutions – as if to say that hunger, warfare, and disease could all be solved if we only prayed the right way. In this view, we are spirits stuck inside fleshy cages, just waiting to break free from the cruelty of this fallen world. In this view, only our souls are saved – and this in some far-removed place outside of time. Others have ignored the spiritual side of our faith; these Christians have downplayed Christ’s miracles, have done away with the need for prayer. For this group of believers, salvation is here and now; the Church is little more than a non-profit with bread and wine.
But as Saint James reminds the Church, the answer is both. There is no sharp distinction between the spiritual and the physical. After all, we worship a God who created the entire cosmos, who intervenes in history, who took on flesh – not just wearing a human mask but actually becoming fully and totally human. Our Lord knew the sharp pangs of hunger and the sharper pain of nails piercing his flesh. Our faith is incarnational, built on the very fact that the spiritual and the physical meet in the person of Jesus Christ. We worship a God who have given us Sacraments, tangible means of divine grace. Salvation is both here and now, delivering us from hunger and war and affliction, and transcendent, a coming time of both spiritual and physical renewal. Christ has liberated us from spiritual and physical death.
Are any among us suffering? Then let us get to work. Baptized into the Body of Christ, let us be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Are any among us suffering? Then let us pray. We are not God’s only hands in this world.* Our Lord is capable of miracles; God produces wondrous and saving deeds beyond number that far exceed our comprehension.
Thanks be to God.
*This line is adapted from one of my former seminary professors, the Rev. Dr. Ted A. Smith. Presenting alongside a panel on the topic of inequality, one pastor posed a question on our current climate of fear and political division. Dr. Smith’s answer was to pray and reject the notion that we are God’s only agents of change. He said, “‘God has no hands in the world but ours’ — if you believe that, then you ought to be afraid.”