A siren broke the relative Saturday morning silence as I sat down to write. It was close enough to be heard, but far enough that I was uncertain of the direction or even the kind of siren. Was it an ambulance racing to someone’s home where a fall had taken place or where a sudden malady had struck? Was it a fire truck hurrying to salvage a house before it was consumed in fast-moving flames? Or was it racing to rescue a child who had tried to climb through a fence that seemed wide enough at first, but then wasn’t? Or was it the police, heading to the scene of an accident or a crime, or both?
Our little town had been rocked by an accident that became a crime in a matter of seconds. A car, out of control, driving recklessly, managed to careen over a curb, crash through a fence, and land in a yard, resting on its roof. An officer came upon the scene, climbed out of his squad car and stooped to look in the upside-down windows to see who was hurt and how he could help. Then one of the occupants pointed a gun in the officer’s face and shot him, point blank, fourteen times.
This was a Thursday worship night at Southport United Methodist Church. I had been home preparing and then headed out to go back to church for the evening worship experience. I left home around three; worship was at six that evening. I found my way from the house to the church blocked from multiple directions. I had to take a circuitous route to finally get there, much later than I figured, wondering what in the world was going on. School had just started down here, so I thought it was quite a disruption for the first day of school.
By the time I got to the office, I asked the staff what was going on, and they told me what they knew. To an outsider like me, Southport is a part of Indianapolis; it’s a big city. To those who grew up here or who have made their home here for many years, it is its own thing, its own community. The officer killed turned out to be someone we knew, not just a uniform on a big force. He was in our church recently because one of the kids in the day care pulled an alarm, and though we called and said it was nothing to worry about, the police said they had to check. So, they came and walked around. They took care of us. Even though they didn’t need to, they checked, stopped to look in to see whom they could help.
That evening, I was approached by one of our worshipers who told me she was struggling. She said that in 2015 she retired from the police force after twenty-one years of service. She had heard that another officer, one in an accident earlier in the week, had died that day. Then the shooting in Southport. She was feeling cut off from the community of which she had been a part for so long. She was feeling unmoored in a dangerous world, drifting alone and hurting. She scrambled for something, anything. She said, “Could we . . . pray . . . about all of this?”
Worship is about God, not really about our needs. Yet there was nothing more of God that night than to pray. I set the sermon aside for a while, and we just prayed. We put ourselves in God’s hands in those moments and leaned into that embrace. We poured out our sadness and our fear. We offered up the uncertainty of a world of such suffering and such cruelty. We admitted our anger and frustration and cried out for justice, even as we were hoping for mercy and for grace.
Then we tried to listen to James. We liked that he was adamant about prayer in all circumstances. That he ends his whole, very task-oriented letter by telling us to pray. Because we’re sick or because we’re well. Because we’re suffering or because we’re cheerful. We should pray. Pray with the sighs of our hearts; pray with the songs of our souls. We should pray. And pray together, call on help when our own prayers seem to be bouncing against the ceiling, lost in the clouds above our heads. We liked that there are tools to help in our praying. We can pray with our hands, laying them on those for whom we pray. We can pray with the oil of anointing, not because that makes the prayer better, lubricates the prayer machinery somehow, but simply because it gives us something to grab hold of as we pray. It gives us something to do with our hands. We found James helpful for our praying. Mostly. Sort of.
Well, there was that bit where we stumbled, where we averted our eyes and furrowed our brows – when he seems to confuse praying and sinning, or sickness and sin, like our sickness is caused by our sin. And we know better than that, having been raised in a scientific age. We know about germs and disease and genetic time bombs, none of which are our fault. It kind of makes us want to dismiss the whole thing. Okay, maybe in a healthy lifestyle choices kind of way our illnesses can sometimes be the result of our actions and our decisions. But that isn’t what James is really talking about. He’s thinking of a more direct correlation, isn’t he? About divine punishment because of bad decisions, or even thoughts, right?
Or is he? Is the link we read there not really there? Is it that we’ve put it there, or those who have gone before us put it there and we can’t get it out of our heads? What if it isn’t about a correlation, but about an effect? The effect of illness and the effect of sinfulness is the same, or at least it was in James’s community. Those who were sick were shunned, quarantined, set aside. And so it was with those who were found to be sinning. Just set them aside, excommunicate them. That was the practice, some historians argue. And maybe it still is in a way. We just don’t want those people around, those sinners, those unhealthy ones. James is trying to tear down that wall, trying to say that even the sick are worth our prayers, worth our time. They should call the elders of the church; they should call on the community to come and be with them, anoint them, lay hands—yes hands—on them. Touch. Inclusion. Sinners too, says James. Don’t let bad decisions, bad choices, wrong values, separate us. Pray for them up close and personal. Include them, invite them. Be invited if you’ve separated yourself because you were afraid of what they saw when they looked at you. Find a way back, a way to accept the grace that the community wants to pour out on you. Come back and be prayed for, prayed over.
Though we hate to admit it, James seems have more confidence in prayer than we do. The prayer of faith, he writes. The prayer of the righteous. Powerful and effective. The prayer of faith will save the sick. Well, we think, sometimes. We’ve heard of the rare occasion, the unexplained miracle. (Can any miracle be explained? Isn’t that part of the definition?) When someone gets well, despite the predictions to the contrary. James seems to think that is what we should pray for always. Pray for and hope for and expect. Sure. Why not hope for a miracle?
Yes, we ought to pray for miracles – but not miracles tied to this life. Instead, we pray for the miracles that bring us home. James actually doesn’t say that the prayer of faith will heal the sick, but that the prayer will save the sick. Save them, which means inclusion in the kingdom of God. It means inclusion in the community of faith. Paul tells us that we were given the ministry of reconciliation. That’s our job, not miracles of healing, but miracles of inclusion, miracles of hospitality. We are called to tear down the dividing walls and build up the body.
We are called to heal the community, not just the individual. Or rather, we heal the individuals by making sure they know they have a place to belong, a place that cares for them, a place that wants them, a place that honors them when they step into tragic circumstances for the good of the community at large. And it seems to me that the way to honor the sacrifice of the officer who stooped to help someone in need is not to call for vengeance, but to continue to stoop ourselves. Stooping is easy. Just get on your knees.