By Kenneth Carter

To Make the Wounded Whole

About this article

This sermon based on James 5:13-20 was preached at Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte (NC) on September 28, 2003.

James 5:13-20

I was usually the first one at church, on Sunday mornings, but that day there was a car parked out front. I went in, began to make preparations for worship and then Marvin came in. I had seen Marvin around town before, but never in church. We had met at the local seafood restaurant, and said hello when we saw each other, but that was about it.

Soon other folks began to arrive, and they found their pews, like we would, like you have this morning. They began to whisper to each other, "There's Marvin," and they would almost point to him. They were surprised that someone new was in church — this was a small community — and they were really surprised that it was Marvin.

I made a note to go visit Marvin that week. No one comes to church, early on a Sunday morning, for the first time, unless something is going on.

I went by a couple of days later. Marvin and I began to talk. He said, "I was listening to the radio, and the speaker was talking about bringing the elders of the church to pray over the sick, and anoint them. Do you ever do that?" And then, more slowly, he asked, "Would you do that?"

I was a couple of years out of seminary and graduate school, this was almost twenty years ago. I paused. Then Marvin said, "I have cancer, and it's pretty far along."

So I told him I would pray about it, and call a couple of people whom I trusted, and who might know more about this than me, and I would get back to him soon.

And I did. A few nights later I took the lay leader with me, and we went to Marvin's house. This was a story he shared in the community, so I'm not telling you anything that didn't become public. The lay leader, Dale, was a little nervous. I'm sure this was not what Dale had bargained for when he accepted the nomination committee's invitation to be the lay leader!

We arrived. Marvin and his wife were there. I read this scripture, James 5:13-20. I then asked, "Marvin, do you have any sins to confess?" There was a long silence. In a small town everybody knows everything about everybody, and I had discovered that Marvin was a well-known and divisive person in this community. You were either for Marvin or you were against him. I had also learned that Marvin was estranged from his son, who was in the same business that he was in. I had picked up on the fact that Marvin had done his share of hard living. Do you know what I mean when I say "hard living?"

There was a long silence. Then it began to pour out, these confessions, in the presence of his wife, and the lay leader, and me, a middle-twenties just-ordained minister, thinking, "They never had a class on this at Duke!" And yes, I am convinced, that we were in the presence of God. Confessions about things he needed to make peace about. The time had come, and Marvin knew it.

We tried to do it as closely to the scripture as we could. We prayed. Marvin prayed. His wife prayed. Dale, the lay leader, prayed. I prayed. And then I anointed him with oil, and we prayed for his healing.

Are any among you suffering? They should pray.
Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.
Are any among you sick? 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.
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up,
And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
Therefore confess your sins to one another
And pray for one another, so that you may be healed.
James 5:13-16 (NRSV)

People do read the Bible. I have discovered that over these years. Marvin was reading the Bible, studying it, trying to apply it to his life. It helps to look closely at the scripture for today, and begin by asking: Why was it written? This was an early Christian community, but they were struggling. Some were not honest in their speech. Some were suffering physically, maybe to the point of despair. Some were in need of forgiveness. Some were in trouble. You don't need confession, intercession and healing unless there is sin, trouble, sickness.

Sometimes, I think, we have an ideal of what a Christian community must be like. Actually, whenever two or three Christians gather together, or maybe a few more, there will be sin, and trouble, and sickness. There will be gossip and pride. There will be a teenage situation that boils over. There will be a workplace issue that lacks integrity. There will be disease.

James wrote to the early Christians, and to us, to see our sin and trouble and sickness in a new way, as occasions for God's gifts, gifts of confession, intercession and healing.

These are what we might call spiritual practices. Verse 16 reads, "Confess your sins to one another." We are sinners. This is our human condition. Sometimes we sin against someone else, by what we say, or what we think, or what we do. You and I share this in common. We are sinners. There is only one way out of sin, and that is confession. I John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, the Lord is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Confession is naming the sin, before someone else, in the presence of someone you trust, and then claiming the forgiveness as a reality.

Another spiritual practice is intercession. Intercession is praying for others. If you have ever known that others are praying for you, you will know how powerful that is. Samuel, of the Old Testament, said, "God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you" (1 Samuel 12:23, KJV). To intercede is, in the words of Augustine, to pray for the well-being of others before God.

I am thinking of a wonderful woman, a member of a congregation that I served, who died a few years ago. Each time I would visit, as I prepared to leave, she would say, "I want you to know that I pray for you, and that I pray for the church, every day." She could no longer be physically active or even present in the church. There were many things she could no longer do. But she could intercede. I would always say, "That is the very best thing you could do."

A third spiritual practice is healing. I understand the bad reputation healing has acquired in our time. The hucksters who prey on the weak, the gimmicks of those who want to profit at the expense of the desperate. The healing in front of television cameras that seems, to the reader of scripture, to be so foreign from the One from Nazareth who healed and then would say, "Go in peace. Your faith has made you well. Don't tell anyone about this!"

I understand all of that. But perhaps we have gone to the opposite extreme. For a few years I taught a class a semester at Greensboro College, Old Testament in the fall and New Testament in the spring. It was a discipline to come up with an hour and fifteen-minute lectures. Now before I say anything more about that I want you to relax — those lectures are safely filed in an out of the way place!

In reading the New Testament again, for a different purpose, something became clear to me: Jesus came among us to do three things — to preach, to teach, to heal. I was always more comfortable with teaching. I liked school, I like intellectual questions; the preaching part I grew into, I could see it. The healing, now there was the puzzle. I learned that it was not possible to take the preaching and teaching portions and dispose of the healing narratives. They were woven together: Jesus said that he was the light of the world because he had healed the man who had been born blind. Jesus said that he was the resurrection and the life because he had raised Lazareth from the dead.

And so Jesus instructed his disciples to be preachers, teachers, healers. And he calls us in his name to be, in the marvelous phrase of the late Henri Nouwen, "wounded healers."

How we do this is very important. I commend to you the United Methodist Book of Worship's statement on healing ministry:

"It 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."

Authentic healing is the work of Christ, who is the great physician. I am aware that it seems like an odd subject to some. And yet, there it is, in the book. At least the book that Marvin was reading.

Back to Marvin. We prayed for Marvin's healing that night. He did live about six more months. During that time he was there, each Sunday morning, in worship. People began to warm to him. He became more than the object of their curiosity or focus of their gossip. He became their brother in Christ. Some would have honestly told you that they had never expected that. Marvin went to his son, and they reconciled. All was not perfect — it was never a Kodak moment — but often, when I would stop by to see Marvin, his son would be there. And then, one day, Marvin died. It was not unexpected.

What was happening there? We had prayed for his healing. And yet he died. I go back to the scripture: The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up. That verse has two meanings. When Jesus healed, he would sometimes say, rise up and walk. But there is another meaning: the Lord will raise them up may also refer to the resurrection, which is, through the eyes of faith, the ultimate healing.

This work takes many forms. Sometimes there is physical healing. I believe that has occurred in the lives of some folks. I have no other way of explaining why they are still with us, and I rejoice that they are. Sometimes there is relational healing — healing within families, among friends, within a church. Sometimes there is spiritual healing — God comes into our lives, and our sins are forgiven, and we are made whole.

  • Some of us have done something, said something that we later regretted, and we need to put all of this in our past. God calls us to confess.
  • Some of us are in some kind of trouble. God invites us to intercede.
  • Some of us find that illness or suffering is a part of our lives, or the life of someone close to us. God offers to heal us.

Marvin and I shared very little in common, but I think God sent him into my life to teach me something, to broaden the horizons of my narrowly educated mind, to help me toward a sign of the kingdom. And maybe God's gift for us, this day, is an inbreaking of the kingdom, in the presence of One who came to preach and teach and heal. The church that bears his name will surely remember the practices of his first followers, ones that seem as relevant as when they were first written:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray.
Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.
Are any among you sick? 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.
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up,
And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
Therefore confess your sins to one another
And pray for one another, so that you may be healed.


Sources: The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), page 613.

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