I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mother to us all. Amen.
I found myself years ago, in a dark chapel, praying with teenage girls, on the last night of an intense retreat—Kairos—the capstone of their spiritual formation in the Catholic high school where I was teaching English. I was new to the school, new to Christianity. I had NO idea what I was getting into when I said “yes” to being a chaperone for the retreat.
The first three days were filled with spiritual talks, self-examination, late nights, Bible study, lots of junk food, then, an evening of confession and prayer to prepare for the midnight Eucharist. The girls could choose to go to confession with a priest or to come for prayer with one of the teachers standing in the corners of the chapel; young women began to line up to speak and pray privately with us.
Girls whom I’d led in discussion of The Great Gatsby; girls I’d wrangled with endlessly over the dress code; girls I’d cheered on the volleyball court and applauded in the school musical . . . These same girls came up to me, right up to me, invading my personal, adult, teacher space, leaned in close and started to whisper their fears, and their hopes, and their sins: Ms. Wille, please pray for my mother; the cancer is back. Ms. Wille, I got accepted to the University of Chicago, I don’t think I’m smart enough. Ms. Wille, my father’s drinking is so bad, sometimes I hate him. Can God forgive that?
What started as a chaperone duty became an overwhelming experience of grace and transformation.
These young women had such need, as we all do. They stood in line, waiting for prayer, and when the time came, made themselves completely vulnerable.
All my defenses crumbled before their sincere fear, joy, and admissions of fault and confusion.
What started as a controlled interaction that was meant to begin with their prayer request and end with my laying hands on them with a short prayer became a Holy Spirit moment.
Girls moved right past my attempt at clear boundaries. They dodged the hands I tried to place on their heads, instead leaning in, placing their heads on my shoulder as they whispered their prayers.
After two hours of hard praying with a steady stream of girls, the adults stumbled out of the chapel, seeking water and a bathroom break before Mass began. We stared at one another, stunned, exhausted, disheveled—my shirt wet from shoulder to waist from the tears of girls’ leaning against my shoulder—but our eyes shone with the power of the experience.
That night changed me. It’s when I first, really, got what it meant to be a praying Christian. I realized viscerally that being Christian was going to be messy, uncomfortably honest, vulnerable. Following Jesus meant I was going to have to follow him out of a private, personal relationship right into the heart of community, loving and caring for others past any boundaries.
Had I known our reading from James today, I might not have been so surprised.
In his letter James has been instructing the community in how they ought to treat one another, turning them to the wisdom of God, then, in this final passage, he turns to prayer.
Are any among you suffering? Pray.
Are any cheerful? Sing songs of praise.
Are any among you sick? Call the faithful of the church, ask them to pray and anoint you with oil.
Confess your sins to one another. Bring the sinner back into the fold; in that way you both shall be saved.
Here, James makes clear that being a member of the Body of Christ, being Church, is different from relying on ourselves and being who we want to be, it doesn’t look very much like membership in other kinds of organizations.
We are to respond to all things—sadness, suffering, joy, and sin—with prayer. Together. In community.
And, oh, All Saints, I know this is one of your beautiful gifts—praying with and over one another in times of joy and sorrow.
For what else is “Love on a Plate” than a prayer of healing for those who are sick and a song of praise for those who rejoice?
And isn’t singing “God, Grant them many years!” on the first Sunday of each month a song of praise with the cheerful celebrating anniversaries and birthdays?
And we pray for the dead lavishly, with tears and joy, as we hang prayer flags
for the sacred Triduum of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints, and All Souls. One of my most tender memories of this place is gazing up at those brilliant colors fluttering overhead, looking for the name of my mother, who had died just months before. Though her name was written in my own hand, I knew she and I were being lifted in prayer by the whole community.
And I imagine that only prayers of confession and repentance over the sin of racism could have led to your astounding Greenlining Campaign.
These are public prayers, part of being members of this particular Body of Christ, but you should know—or perhaps you’ve already heard or experienced?—that your leaders—the Vestry, wardens, and anyone who dares visit a vestry meeting—also spend the first hour of their monthly meeting praying for one another—for the blessings and the sorrows of their lives.
Now, I don’t want to shock you, but I confess that I wondered if we REALLY needed to spend an entire hour on prayer at Vestry, but last Tuesday I was transfixed as each of the 14 people gathered named their needs and, then, we went around the circle as each person prayed for the joys and sorrows, the thanksgivings and the petitions, of the person on their right.
When it was my turn to be prayed for, which was done with great care and deliberateness, I felt held, weightless for a moment as another rejoiced with me, carried my burdens with me, reminding me that, as one writer says, prayer is “a way to be held by God when we are too tired to hold ourselves up.”
This is how we are to be church, sharing our joys, our sorrows, even, gulp, I’m saying it—confessing to one another when we’ve sinned, fallen short, screwed up, hurt one another—trusting that in this place we can find—and offer—forgiveness. This is no small thing.
In polite company, we might celebrate another’s success, but we usually look past pain and failure. Those who are sick and suffering too often become isolated, ignored, growing embarrassed that they are a drag.
James tells us that is not OUR way. The way WE love one another, love God, is by bringing everything—EVERYTHING—to God in prayer, not on our own, but in community.
For how we pray shapes who we are.
Prayer in the midst of sorrow shapes us into people who give thanks in all things, a community that is faithful in good times and bad.
When we pray with others in their good fortune, we become people who remember that all that we are and all that we have comes from God.
If we confess to one another and pray for one another when we fall short, we are molded into people who are humble and forgiving, who learn that mercy and tenderness are not false promises but the very being of who God is and the way we’re trying to learn.
There are those among us in need of prayer. Right now. Those grieving ill spouses, those worrying about their children, those devastated by the sorrowful state of our world, those whose marriages are teetering, those who aren’t sure they’ll find anyone here to connect with. And there are those falling in love and starting new adventures and hearing God’s call in their lives.
Some of that I know because you’ve told me; some of that I know because, well, that’s what it is to be human.
Being real enough with one another so that we can pray together is hard.
Stopping to encourage and pray with one another takes time.
Confession is embarrassing. Forgiveness often goes against our grain.
But that’s love, the thick love that we are called to in Church, together. As the novelist Toni Morrison wrote: “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.” We are called to a thick love, and thick love has costs.
Those are the costs of living together in Community, which of course we do in this body of Christ. Though this community has been stretched and thinned out over the past year and half, made to connect over Zoom and Facebook, forced to try to understand one another through masks and emails rather than hugs, you have continued to pray and stay together.
Now, we are gathering, slowly, slowly; we’re not all back in the building yet. We can’t pack the place the way we used to. We’re still having to smile with our eyes above the masks.
But that’s okay.
We can still do these essential things that James calls us to, even when they are hard, for there is thick love here, God has given us one to another, and thick love can handle all things: joy and sorrow, sin and reconciliation, disappointment and resurrection. And thick love is drawing us back together.
So, are any among you suffering? Pray.
Are any cheerful? Sing songs of praise.
Are any sick? Call for prayers and anointing.
Are any sinners? Confess to one another.
Who among us cannot answer “yes” to all of those questions at various times in our lives?
And where else, where ELSE, should we go then, but to the Body of Christ, our Church, All Saints?