The Prayer of Faith
30th Sep 2012
Sermon for Trinity 17 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 the 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’. 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. 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 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.
1. 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.
2. For God, the living God,
Stooped down to man’s estate;
By death destroying death,
Christ opened wide life’s gate.
He lives, who died; he reigns on high;
Who lives in him shall never die.
3. Unfathomed love divine,
Reign thou within my heart;
From thee nor depth nor height,
Nor life nor death can part;
My life is hid in God with thee,
Now and through all eternity.
G W Briggs (1875-1959)
2nd Sep 2012
13th Sunday after Trinity Year B
This people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me.
St Mark’s duty in writing his Gospel is to set down for posterity the foremost facts of the Christian Gospel. In this endeavour, it is important for him to set the teaching of Christ in contrast to the existing Jewish tradition. But this was not, we should note, in opposition to it! Jesus’ purpose is to enrich and deepen and broaden the people’s understanding, and the light that he shone on existing religious practice was and is a revealing and a critical one. This morning’s Gospel centres on a confrontation with the Pharisees concerning ritual cleansing rites: the ritual washing of hands before meals and the cleansing of dishes. Today, these duties are widely praticed outside the religious sphere as being basically civilised and practical. Good manners… No-one would dream of providing a meal on dirty dishes and serve food with dirty hands, would they? But here, Jesus is speaking not about good manners but about the worship due to God. For Jesus, true religion is a religion expressed by the human heart.
To speak of the heart is to address humankind from the inside out. It is to call from us our true selves. It reflects upon what is needful : ‘Rend your hearts and not your garments’, warns the prophet Joel (Joel 2.12-13). There is no need to fuss over considerations of what remains ritually clean or unclean : this is to externalise what can only be experienced from our interior life; No : Christianity is firstly and foremostly a religion of the heart, of what lies deep within human nature. Joel’s ‘rending of the heart’ is a call to a radical kind of honesty about what things are needful for us. And though we cannot always be ‘honest to God’, we do have in this Eucharist the means by which we can try. If last week we spoke of the God ‘who seeks us out and knows us’ so this week we can speak of our own human knowledge in terms of what God already knows of us: Ultimately, St Paul says in Romans 8, “I shall know, even as I am known”. Christ, the Son of God, is shining a new light onto man and women as we really are. And we are to know right away that Gods longing for our reconciliation is one which is being communicated at this moment; heart to heart. The transparency of God’s a priori love for us is humbling and gladdening – it is everlastingly generous and renewing.
What Jesus calls ‘The Commandment of God’ is realised in us as we worship God. When we worship God in church, we come to realise that this is an experience of God’s prior knowledge of who we are and of what our world is made. It involves a heightening of our senses. Our worship of God involves an experience of the sensitive contemplation of our lives and their purposes. This is because our place of worship is a place of truth-bearing and truth telling. It is important to set religious practice into its proper context. The liturgies, the ceremonial, the outward signs of our religion: making the sign of the cross, bowing at the name of Jesus, kneeling for prayer, standing for the Gospel, the burning of incense; these are all outward expressions of what we regard here at Holy Cross as ‘practical piety’, for they express something of the respect and the honour we want to offer to God. I thank God that there are many examples of such piety shown in churches and even on the streets.
I was once in a funeral car, been taken to the Islington Cemetary, and sat next to the driver with the chief mourners behind us. As we approached Hampstead Hill, next to the Royal Free Hospital, two hoodies were walking in front on the pavement. The driver noticed them and moaned to me about hoodies and the demise of our society, when suddenly, as these two hooded young men saw the hearse and the coffin, pulled down their hoods and bowed in respect. My driver said to me after a long, dense pause, “Well, I take that back, Vicar”. Does such a gesture point us to something we should always admit – that humankind has an essentially spiritual nature, or as the great theological writer Evelyn Underhill put it ‘Man is a worshipping animal’. Or as St Augustine rejoins, ‘Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless ‘til they find their rest in thee’.
It is the Church’s vocation in the modern age to seek out and to uphold all those people and places where the love of God is being acknowledged, both in an beyond the bounds of the established Church. Only a religion which comes from the heart will have the necessary sensitivity and compassion to acknowledge these things…as like for like. The words of Jesus remain stern and unyielding and challenge us to discover that place of being where, as Cardinal Newman once put it, ‘heart speaks to heart’. Acts that emerge out of a movement of the human heart are agents of human transformation : we need never doubt this and nor, and for that matter, did Christ.
‘The people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me’. Jesus seeks after the coming together of our actions and their intentions. And he calls us, as spiritual beings, to live lives that take proper time to reflect upon the love of God from deep within us. The danger is always the trivialisation or routinisation of those things which form the essential bedrock of our spiritual health. The return for us, therefore, is always to the heart of things, their centre and source, Jesus Christ, ‘by whom and with whom and in whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory be to thee, O Father Almighty, now and for ever. Amen.