Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
30th Sep 2018
The Prayer of Faith
30th September 2018
Sermon for Trinity 18 Year B
“The Prayer of Faith will save the sick” James 5.15
When in 1980 I went to work as a nurse in a hospice my eyes were opened. The Hospice Movement at this point was beginning to make itself felt throughout the country. And what I saw at St Christopher’s Hospice was a revelation of something new. It lay in the slaying of a great demon which was the spectre of terminal cancer. Up to the nineteen-eighties it had become a taboo subject and as a taboo, an unmentionable one. And the cloak of silence which overlay cancer was a thick one. It generated so much fear and unease because it seemed to represent a kind of hopelessness. It was a ruthless scourge. Dame Ciceley Saunders was the genius behind the movement towards a greater understanding of cancer and its human consequences. At the same time she showed a strong determination to treat the patient as a person rather than as a mere diagnosis. The patient was not to be deserted in what she described as their ‘total pain’. Good pain control, palliative care, was to go hand in hand with ensuring quality of life and experience.
And so the hospices, which were a cross between hospitals and good 4* hotels were born. At St Christopher’s there was a squawking parrot, and in the late evening a drinks trolley accompanied the drugs trolley, with morphine often washed down with a whisky and soda. The mood of the whole place was unlike anything that had yet been known. It was relaxed, convivial, and hopeful. Of course many would still say that the hospice was the place where patients ‘went to die’, but equally, they came to be seen as vital places, which celebrated and honoured life rather than being oppressed by death. They were a bridge between life and death. There lay the willingness to face the idea of disease and suffering and dying head on, and without flinching. This was done not as an act of will but as a witness to life and to hope. The dying patient need no longer live in the shadow of things, discarded, but find themselves part of a community of care living in the clear light of day. None of this was easy.
It is important to note that Dame Ciceley Saunders was no ordinary medical practitioner. She was also a Christian visionary and a prophet. The prophet is the one who breaks the old spells that bind the people to a limited destiny. In our Old Testament reading this morning two prophets, Eldad and Medad, prophesied from outside the place of normal sanction. But they were commended by Moses who yearned for the day when all God’s people would be prophets and possessed of God’s spirit. The prophet is for Moses the one who has spoken words and carried out deeds which bring the Kingdom of God closer to home. The prophet sees into the heart of things and acts to bring to birth those things which lie dormant in us and which have yet to be realised.
Dame Ciceley Sanders was a Christian visionary, but first an ordinary Christian like you or I. She was an Anglican Christian obedient to her Church and its teachings and awakened to the possibilities that the Christian Faith held for her work as a medical practitioner. The two elements combined powerfully to provide for her the coming together of Christian Faith and compassionate medical practice with new vision. The Christian teaching is the one which is for life and for the living situation and for its essential hopefulness in the Christian promise of life in God no matter what obstacles are placed in its way:
"You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die." ~ Dame Cicely Saunders.
It was in this same vein that Bishop John Robinson of Woolwich was to say that his own cancer was as much a part of God’s creation as the sunset and he found it very helpful to understand the words of the dying St Paul when he said that whether alive or dead he was the Lord’s. “What did it matter?” said Robinson as he himself lay dying. “What did it matter for Paul? Surely he had already known the Lord, he had already lived Christ’s life. He had already risen!”
In our second reading comes the injunction from James for the anointing of the sick in the very early days of the Church. Even in his time, less than a hundred years after the death of Christ, there is a deep compassion for the sick and dying which issues out of the life and death of Christ. With this experience comes a compassionate understanding of the human condition as it is found and the need for healing and confession. In this case the healing comes in the form of anointing with holy oil. James asks the Christian community directly ‘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’. Two thousand years after this original injunction, anointing was offered at St Christopher’s to hospice patients. Those words of authority and directness from The Letter of James echoed down the years and the anointing with oil once more done for the healing of the person. Not perhaps like morphine, or even whisky and soda, but nonetheless effective and a sign of hope and inner truth for the feeding of body and soul. Effective of the truth of the spiritual power which overlay and undergirded the life of the Christian Church from the very beginning. And its message too: that in Christ, neither life nor death may separate us from ourselves or from our maker. All becomes one. With this (Christian) understanding ‘palliative’ or ‘total care’ made it possible to challenge the ‘total pain’ of terminal illness.
In the Gospel reading for today Jesus is the first to own and recognise that the spirit of God works to heal and to give life, under all circumstances, and that the Spirit of God is free and may rest upon any person upon whom the gift has been bestowed in the name of God its giver. Ours is a spiritual church. Our readings this morning do not see prophets and healers as a particular caste of people or professionals. But rather they are those who act as agents of the divine (spiritual) purpose. Their purpose is to reconcile humankind to itself. Christ has come so that life and death may be seen in the one love and the one hope, whether it come through Eldad or Medad or Ciceley Saunders. The Kingdom of God is to be established upon this earth and its establishment is to come before all else.
Now is eternal life,
If risen with Christ we stand,
In him to life reborn,
And holden in his hand;
No more we fear death’s ancient dread,
In Christ arisen from the dead.
G W Briggs (1875-1959)