Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

Click here for directions

A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

To Make the Wounded Whole

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Numbers 11:4-6,10-16, 24-29;  James 5:13-20


The children of Israel are complaining again.  It is a cycle that repeats itself for about 40 years while they wander through the wilderness.  This is relatively early in the cycle, when they have just started moving again, after camping out at Mt Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments.  Verse 4 says, “The rabble among them had a strong craving …”  Other translations call the complainers “the riffraff.”   The rabble, the riffraff, the complainers . . . they are present among God’s people?  I know you must find that hard to believe. 


The complaint isn’t always the same of course. This time it is because they want meat.  The last time they complained about the lack of food, God provided them with manna.  They still have manna.  In fact, the description of manna in verses 7-8 makes it sound rich and tasty with multiple ways to prepare it.  The word manna literally means “what is it?”  which indicates that for forty years, God’s people are sustained by a question.  Don’t you love that?  I guess that might be a sermon for another time.


They still have manna, but they want meat.  And Moses has had it with trying to respond to their complaints and meet their needs.  He says to God, “These are not my children.  Where am I supposed to get meat for all of them?  I can’t do it.  Just kill me now.” 


Probably the most helpful thing Moses says is “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.”


Caring for the whole community is too heavy.  It’s too much for Moses, too much for one leader.  God agrees that this is true.  God has Moses call together 70 people to share the work, to carry the load of community together. 


Of course, two guys miss the meeting.  Eldad and Medad, they didn’t see the Doodle poll, they didn’t read the letter inviting them to the diaconate orientation.  They don’t know the plan, especially not the details that everyone else worked out in the prayer meeting. But somehow the same spirit that fell on the others falls on Eldad and Medad anyway.  And as if there weren’t enough complaints already, now someone complains that Eldad and Medad aren’t official, but they’re acting like they are.  Even Joshua wants Moses to stop them, but Moses doesn’t and leadership is shared.  The load of care is lightened.     


Jean Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, an international network of communities of people with and without developmental disabilities sharing life together.  Earlier this year, Jean Vanier received the Templeton Prize.   He has published over 30 books on religion, disability, normality and success.  Here are some of his thoughts from his book Community and Growth.


It is quite easy to found a community.  There are always plenty of courageous people who want to be heroes, are ready to sleep on the ground, to work hard hours each day, to live in dilapidated houses.  It’s not hard to camp – anyone can rough it for a time.  So the problem is not in getting the community started – there’s always enough energy for take-off.  The problem comes when we are in orbit and going round and round the same circuit.  The problem is in living with brothers and sisters whom we have not chosen but who have been given to us, and in working ever more truthfully towards the goals of the community.  .  . True community implies a way of living and seeing reality; it implies above all fidelity in the daily round.  And this is made up of simple things – getting meals, using and washing the dishes and using them again, going to meetings – as well as gifts, joy and celebration.[1]


The children of Israel are one group, working out the issues of community. And so are the Jewish Christians to whom the book of James is written. Scholars believe that the book of James was either written by James, the brother of Jesus, or by someone who was taught by James.  Either way, it is addressed to people organizing themselves into a church, but it’s a church that doesn’t yet have years of tradition behind it, a community that has to find fidelity in the daily round.  And as we have seen already, James offers very practical advice. 


James’ church began in Jerusalem, which in the late first century was a war zone.   Anyone who had the means to go elsewhere likely did so.  Those who remained were poor, and suffering, including a number of widows and orphans.  The Christian community provides stability in the face of a situation of injustice, hopelessness, and suffering.   James names three actions which help people participate in the community.   They are prayer, singing, and ministering to the sick. These three acts are still important in how we participate in Christian community two thousand years later, but some of them require a bit of adaptation.    

“Is anyone cheerful?”  James asks.  They should sing.  Singing is a way of expressing praise gratitude, of recognizing the good wherever we find it.   This one translates pretty directly from the first century to us.  We still sing, to express both joy and lament.


Ministering to the sick.  This one might need a tiny bit of interpretation.  It might be helpful to know that oil was believed to have medicinal value.  It was used by a variety of healers.  But the poorer members of James’ community would probably not be able to afford it.  If the church leaders are going to be anointing with oil, then the wealthier members of the community will be subsidizing the poorer ones.  So James is advocating a model of community where everyone is welcome regardless of economic status and everyone has access to the resources of the community.[2]


We might not anoint people with oil for medicinal purposes.  But we still minister to the sick.  We visit them in the hospital. We pray for healing.  And we provide tangible care in other ways, transportation to appointments, food and moral support for family members, house-sitting, pet-sitting, running errands. And I would point out that just like the spirit fell on Eldad and Medad, the spirit of God may fall on any of us. Any of us can visit someone in the hospital.  Any of us can pray.  Any of us can offer to provide food or run errands.  You don’t have to have been at a special meeting to participate in that kind of ministry. 


The third action that James names is prayer.  This is the most difficult one to understand, at least for me it is.  It says, “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”  For some of us, that statement is self-evident.  We believe, we trust, we know about the power of prayer.  But for others, it is not so clear.  Some people have tried to study prayer scientifically, to see what effect prayer had on people who were sick.  Did people who were prayed for recover faster or more than people who were not prayed for?  Did it make any difference if they knew they were being prayed for?  The results of those studies are inconclusive, because the results of different studies are in conflict with each other.  Prayer, apparently does not lend itself to scientific observation.  But we already knew that from personal experience.  Sometimes we pray and people recover from serious illness.  Other times we pray, just as fervently, and they don’t. 


So was it our prayer, or something else that made the difference?  Just what does prayer do?  I don’t know. This is one of the mysteries of faith that is still very much a mystery to me. 


But I like the thoughts of Rev. Bruce Epperly, a Disciples of Christ pastor.  He says that God is present in every moment of our existence “luring us toward healing, wholeness, and beauty.” And that “our prayers create a positive field of force or healing around those for whom we pray. Accordingly, our prayers become one factor in shaping the experience of those for whom we pray. Our prayers are not all-determining, but provide a creative influence on others, along with the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual factors shaping their lives.”[3]


James’ teaching on prayer is difficult because prayer is mystery.  It is also difficult because it implies a relationship between sin and disease.  Now we can acknowledge that our bad habits contribute to our sickness.  The doctor says to eat right, sleep well and exercise and when we don’t do it, there’s a relationship there.  But that’s not what James is talking about.  James reflects a very different first century understanding which said that illness was a sign of God’s punishment.   Most of us don’t share that understanding, so we stumble over verse 16, where James says, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”


Even if we don’t believe that sickness is a result of sin, I think this text can be helpful to us.  I would remind us that confession is a form of truth-telling.  Confession is honestly naming who we are and who we aren’t.  It is telling the truth about what we have done well and how we tried but failed and what we haven’t had the courage to try at all.  And if the truth is told, we are all sinful, we are all broken, we all have pain and hurts from the past that we carry around with us, we all have regrets, some as recent as yesterday.  If we are a community of truth, then the truth is that we are all broken, wounded, imperfect and in need of healing. 


The more truth we can tell about ourselves,  the more likely it is that our prayers will conform to God’s will, God’s desires for truth and justice and mercy. 


Addressing the question about how prayer works, the Rev. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Cantberbury says this, “. . .We have one absolute instance of God’s reconciling love at work in Jesus on the cross, and that is practically the only clue [to how prayer works].    It works in a man whose heart is open to God and to all the world, so open that it is broken to death.  And our Christian growth must be constantly enlarged to the world’s suffering and sensitivity to the victorious mercy of God.  It means that our eyes have to be fully open to the world, to see its dereliction and hopelessness, . . . and it means that we must know in ourselves how God’s mercy breaks barriers, remakes and renews.  It is only through such open hearts that God can work.  When selfishness and greedy manipulation are set aside, and insensitivity and complacency are overcome, then there is an empty space for the wind of the Spirit to blow through.  That is all we can know.  If prayer ‘works’, it is because of lives that have been crucified with Christ.[4]


Moses said, “God I can’t carry your people alone.  They are too heavy for me.”  So God empowered people with the Spirit to share the load.  We cannot carry on alone either.  So God gives us brothers and sisters to share the load, sisters and brothers whom we did not choose, with whom we are becoming an authentic community of broken hearts, of shared joy, and mutual responsibility, a community that seeks to be faithful in the daily round,  a community that more and more becomes the Body of Christ.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (London:  Darton, Longman & Todd, 1979), pp. 67-68.

[2] A.K.M. Adam  Commentary on James 5:13-20


[3] Bruce Epperly What Difference Does Prayer Make?  A Progressive Vision found at http://www.bobcornwall.com/2010/05/what-difference-does-prayer-make.html

[4] Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement:  Sermons and Addresses (London:  Darton, Longman & Todd, 1994), pp. 140-141.