Generous Souls

James 5:13-20

Lynnie Sullivan is a big man, not just in his physical presence, but also in his personality, his opinions, his intellect, and his impact. Lynnie is the son of a small-town newspaper publisher, so he grew up in the newsroom and learned at an early age how to express his big opinions in a big and impactful way. He can out-talk, out-smart, out-argue, and outwit anyone in the room. One of my favorite stories about Lynnie is the time that he wanted to go to a rock concert—I don’t remember whose—but he didn’t want to pay the exorbitant prices that rock concerts command these days. So he hung a broken camera around his neck, made a name tag that said “Press” and walked right into the arena just as big as you please. And the thing that was really amazing, was that “Press” was the only thing the name tag said: no picture, no name, no masthead, no nothing, but “Press.” Once, when I was on Session and had the great idea of resurrecting the church’s peacemaking committee, Lynnie asked me what would I do when they turned the fire hoses on me? I didn’t happen to see any fire hoses in the vicinity at the time, but that hardly mattered to Lynnie. He is the embodiment of “Go big or go home.”

It was December of 2012. Months earlier, in August, I had agreed to preach at a special worship service that my church holds every year in December. It’s called “When Hearts Are Troubled” and it is intended for folks who are grieving during the Christmas season. A long time ago, one of my pastors, Debbie Osterhoudt, had told me that it was always heartbreaking to her when she looked out over the congregation during the Christmas season and saw pews full of sad faces. Whether it is from Seasonal Affective Disorder, the pressure of holiday expectations, or the prospect of tense family gatherings, people suffer during the holidays, and it shows on their faces. For folks who are grieving a loss at Christmastime, it is a particularly painful time, especially when the mall insists that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” When Hearts Are Troubled gives people a place to come to voice their sorrow at a time when everyone else is telling them to be jolly.

When I had agreed to preach back in August, I had no way of knowing that I myself would be one of those grieving people during Christmas that year. Daddy had died on Halloween. His funeral was held on November 5, almost exactly a month before I was to preach at that worship service. At his funeral, my sister gave the eulogy and I read a favorite poem, “Let Evening Come,” by Jane Kenyon. Afterwards, more than one person commented on our composure. How in the world had we managed to get through those readings without falling to pieces? They asked. But that day—just before the “Hearts Are Troubled” worship service—I felt all my composure melting away. My preparation was thorough and my sermon was solid, but as I arranged my papers in the pulpit and faced the still-empty pews, I suddenly felt fragile, like I might fall to pieces as soon as I started to speak. How in the world was I going to get through that sermon without falling to pieces?

It is rare for me to ask anyone to pray for me. I’ve been a praying person all my life, even during my rebellious teenage years and early twenties when I claimed to be an atheist! I was still a praying person! But I’ve also always been a deeply private person. Despite a number of powerful prayer experiences that have convinced me of the efficacy of prayer, I still was loath to ask anyone to pray for me. But that day, I knew I could not pray my own way through that service. I needed someone bigger and stronger than me to get me through.

All this month we’ve been talking about generosity—generous hands, generous hearts, generous minds. And each Sunday, I’ve described generosity in terms of openness: opening our hands to the poor among us, opening our hearts to our enemies and to people we see as “other” or “different” from us, opening our minds and emptying ourselves so that we can be filled with the presence of God. We’ve opened our hands to pray with palms up and palms down, we’ve opened our hearts to extend lovingkindness in prayer for others, and we’ve emptied our vert selves so that our minds can be filled with the presence of God in Centering Prayer. In today’s lesson James asks us to open our souls to the power of prayer: to pray for ourselves, to pray for others, and to ask others to pray for us.

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.  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

The beauty of openness is that it allows the Spirit to flow both in and out. Open hands can give and receive. Open hearts can love and be loved. Open minds can see and be seen by God. And an open soul can offer and receive prayer. To be open and vulnerable enough to ask for prayer is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty. And to acknowledge our spiritual poverty is to be blessed with the all the riches of heaven: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That phrase “poor in spirit”—the Greek words are οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι (hoi ptochoi to pneumati)—means something along the lines of reduced in spirit to begging or asking for alms. Translating more loosely: Blessed are we when we are reduced in our souls to begging, for then all the riches of heaven are ours.

Have you ever noticed how open we become to the Spirit of God when we are in crisis? The blessing of being a spiritual beggar is not that God hears us only when we beg, but that we are most open to God when we become spiritual beggars. What if our souls were so open to God that we came to church each Sunday as if we were beggars or supplicants on our knees before God?

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 night that Daddy died, his pastor, Craig, called and asked if he could come over to Mama and Daddy’s house for prayer. When he arrived, he had with him his prayer book and a vial of oil. He explained to us that he wanted to pray for Daddy and anoint him with oil. We all gathered around Daddy’s bed: Mama, my sister Lisa, my sister-in-law Cheryl, and me. We all laid hands on Daddy, as Craig prayed, then he marked Daddy’s forehead with a cross of oil and commended him to his Savior. It was among the most beautiful moments in my life. And of course at that time Daddy was beyond the hope of physical healing, but the love of his family and the love of the community of faith that the oil and the hands and the presence of the pastor represented was and continues to be a source of hope and healing for all of us who were there. Because that circle of hands and hearts around his bed represented not only the particular people who were there but our families and friends and fellow church members and ancestors and all the communion of saints who had poured their life and love into us and into Daddy.

That life and love flowed into and among us and through us to Daddy even as he lay dying, because we were all wide open to the life and love of God. That’s what it means to pray for each other as a church community: we open up our souls to each other and to God so that God’s life and love can flow between and among us. So that those of us who are spiritually impoverished in times of illness or crisis or the approach of death can draw from the strength and riches of God. “The prayers of the righteous avail much,” James says, not because the righteous are particularly skilled or uniquely connected to God, but because in prayer we open our souls to God and to each other in a spirit of generosity and in a spirit of kenosis—an emptiness that is open to being filled with God. Because of the generosity of spirit that was present, that night around Daddy’s death bed remains one of the richest moments in my life.

So there I stood a month later, about to preach at the Hearts Are Troubled service, and feeling fragile and weak and impoverished. And in walked Lynnie Sullivan as big as life! “Lynnie,” I said, “Will you pray me though this service? I’m not sure I can get through it.” And he did! And afterwards as I was leaving the sanctuary, there was Lynnie walking towards me with that huge and generous smile on his face. And he wrapped his big ole arms around me and I said to him, “The prayers of the righteous avail much! Thank you!”

Lynnie prayed me through that service when I needed someone to draw from the strength and riches of God. And so may we all pray for each other:

Are any among us suffering? Let us pray!

Are any of us cheerful? Let us sing songs of praise!

Are any of us sick? Let us call for the elders of our church and have them pray over us, anointing us with oil in the name of the Lord!

May the God who loves us and gave his life in Christ for us so enlarge our souls with generosity and openness that God’s life and love flow in us and through us and among us! Amen.