Ezekiel 37:1-14; James 5:13-16
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.
These are the words Marvin heard on the radio one Sunday morning. Those are the words that motivated Marvin to go to church. He lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone, so it was not a surprise to him that as he walked in the door people wondered to see him there— he had never been to church yet in his lifetime of 68 years, and people wondered why he would start now. He also wasn’t too surprised when the Pastor showed up at his door a few days later. It was a small town, after all, and he’d talked with him before at the seafood restaurant on Main St. But Marvin was still anxious. When the Pastor asked the obvious question, what had brought him to church that Sunday of all Sundays, Marvin told him that he’d heard James 5 read on the radio. He told him that he had stage 4 cancer. He asked the Pastor if he ever came with the el-ders of the church to pray over the sick and anoint them for healing. He was even bold enough to ask if he’d be willing to come back to do just that. And that’s what happened. He could tell the Pastor was a bit surprised, but a few days later, with a lay person that seemed as surprised to be there as anyone, the three of them sat in Marvin’s living room with his wife. Marvin wondered if the Pastor would ask for his confession. He remembered that being a part of the James pas-sage, but he hadn’t asked for it specifically, and when the Pastor did ask him— asked him if there were any sins he wanted to confess— Marvin realized this was also what he had been waiting for. He shared every single instance he could think of and then some. He rambled on for some time and when the Pastor and lay person left, having prayed with him and put oil on his forehead for healing, Marvin realized that hearing those words of forgiveness had been just as important to his healing as being anointed with oil. (Bishop Ken Carter’s story from Ministry Mat-ters)
Bold Spirit Prayers are prayers that God desires to hear from us— big, impossible, amazing things that our hearts know are God’s will. God loves bold Spirit prayers— prayers that we barely have enough faith to even utter out loud, let alone think will come true, and yet God hears them and longs for us to believe in them. But one of the things that I think keeps us from praying bold courageous prayers, is our own lack of faith that God can even forgive us, let alone do something even more miraculous. After all, what could be more bold than to ask God for for-giveness? To actually confess our sins?
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, Speaking of Sin, describes two ways that churches often deal with sin and with confession. The first is the way of judgment. Many churches choose to deal with sin by pointing out the sin and the sinner as if church were a courtroom. The evidence seems clear to those naming it, and rarely are the worst sinners the ones in the church. The se-cond ways churches often deal with sin and confession is to treat it like palliative care. We all come, recognizing that we do things that aren’t ideal, and we see it as some common sickness that we all have. So we sympathize with one another and then go on with our lives. The problem with each of these ways of dealing with sin, however, is that no one ever gets released from it. In the courtroom model there are scapegoats to be found around every corner so we never have to look at the ways we collectively contribute to the problem; and in the palliative care model, we only look at it as a community and so none of us as individuals ever recognize the way that I am doing wrong within my local context and within my personal relationships. What’s missing from both of these ways of dealing with sin— with the behaviors and mindsets that keep us from God— is that we never find the healing we so desperately want.
I think that’s why the writer of James links confession and forgiveness with healing and whole-ness. At one time or another, and even in some places today, you’ll find people making the con-nection that our prayers don’t “work” because of our sinfulness. But that’s a connection that rarely makes any sense unless you are praying for the very thing you are working against. Think about it. If it’s all up to us to be “sinless” in order to have our prayers “work,” than we’ve reduced prayer to a formula— subtract this, put in a little of that, and presto: we get what we want. That’s not prayer. Prayer is not a magic trick. Prayer is a relationship with God. It’s a way of life. And I think confession and repentance is truly important because without it, we will not have the cour-age to pray bold enough prayers.
As we prayed for all of the ministry partners we have in the St. Cloud region and around the world, I was in awe of how big our network is and how extensive we are in ministry and how wonderful it is that God is working through this congregation and those we are partnered with to bring about the Kingdom. But by praying for them and for us in doing this ministry, I have to also ask myself, why are these all necessary? What is happening in St. Cloud so that 23% of our population is living below the poverty line— and most of those are women and children? How am I contributing to the problem? Or how am I apathetic to the problem? Or how am I choosing to ignore that so many families, the majority of whom are working more than one job, cannot afford basic necessities like shelter, food, and clothing?
When we confess our sins to one another; when we are willing to vulnerable enough and to be held accountable for living in a different way; then we are freed up to pray the really bold pray-ers— like God, please use me to lower the poverty rate in St. Cloud. God, please call on our church community to do something that is able to help people’s lives to be transformed. God, may I be so bold as to ask that your Spirit move in this community in such a way that we no longer just address the immediate needs of people, but that we begin changing the very fabric of this community so that we are no longer okay with children going hungry and adults working three jobs and still not being able to feed their families.
God wants our bold, spirit-led prayers. God wants you to know that you are forgiven so that you can ask for really powerful things to happen in this community. God wants us to recognize what we need to be forgiven for, so that transformation can happen not only in the lives of those 23%, but in all of our lives and we seek to create Christian community in the St. Cloud region.
Ezekiel was shocked by what God was willing to do. Ezekiel lived in a time in which his own people had turned away from God. They were at war with their enemies, at war with one anoth-er, and they were splitting apart as people had to flee because of the violence. And even those left in Jerusalem— those that had not yet fled, were so filled with pride, so blind to what was happening, that they believed Jerusalem could never fall. But it did fall. And the people who were left were marched out of Jerusalem— the place where they believed God lived—and were forced to march to Babylon. And even in the middle of that kind of destruction, of that kind of evil, of that kind of desolation and suffering and weeping, God walks with Ezekiel to the ashes and says to Ezekiel, “Ezekiel, can these bones live?” And all Ezekiel can manage to reply is, “O Lord, you know.”
And then God says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
In essence, God invites Ezekiel to pray as he has never prayed before. To pray for breath to enter those dry bones; to pray for flesh to come upon the people again; to pray for life to inhabit the people of God again. This is not some gruesome horror movie. This is a metaphor for all of the times when you and I can only see dry bones; can only see our own suffering; can only see death all around us— and even there God says to us, new life is not only possible, it is probable. I will bring new life. “I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live.”
God is calling us to be honest with ourselves and with God. To confess out sins to one another as James encourages us to do, to pray for one another in our suffering and in our cheerfulness, and in doing all of those things, to see how God can heal us, transforming our lives and the lives all around us.
I’m not sure what Marvin was expecting when he asked the Pastor and the lay person to pray over him. He didn’t live forever after that prayer. But in the couple of years that he did live, Marvin found it within himself to reconcile with his son who he hadn’t spoken to in years. And he was a bit softer around the edges to his wife and the people he knew in town. And he taught his Pastor and perhaps that lay person too, that God calls us to be community for one another— not “pretend everything is okay” community; or “condemn everyone who’s not like us community;” but a real living body of people who are willing to be honest with one another in who we are, where we fall down, and how we need God. A community that knows we are forgiven so that we can trust in the one who loves us and pray for God’s Spirit to work in bold ways.
So let’s take the time now to confess our sins and then take some time of silence to pray bold spirit prayers. Pray for what you need to see happen in your life and in this community. Pray a bold prayer for what you’d like to see happen in St. Cloud and for God’s Spirit to transform the world.