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Based on the Scripture readings:
Psalm 139
James 5:13-16

2006 March 5
First Sunday in Lent
Gretchen L. Elmendorf, Associate Pastor

Healing Prayers

I saw the strangest thing the other night that caught me off guard. On the evening news, there was a broadcaster, I think he was talking about how the market fared that day. At any rate, while he was reporting the news, I saw that he was actually wearing a cross, made out of ashes, on his forehead. Now I know that's a familiar sight for you and me, one that we can take for granted, many of us having just worshiped together for Ash Wednesday, but I don't ever recall seeing an ashen forehead with a cross on a journalist reporting the news live. Now, if you compare this one image to the multitude of other images also flashing on the news screen this week, you would see a stark contrast. What I saw on Monday and Tuesday were images of Mardi Gras: of crowds, of floats, of streets filled with revelers. I saw people, even journalists, wearing mardi gras beads and chefs teaching cooking segments on how to prepare Fat Tuesday meals. The greater story of course for all to see was that people so devastated by hurricane Katrina had triumphed through their own ashes to be able to come together courageously and celebrate what for them is a holiday central to their identity. But if I were new to this planet and wanted to know what people do on the last week of February, and the only source of information I had was television, I would come away from the week knowing how to prepare for Mardi Gras. But I would know nothing about Lent, having seen no images of Lent, except for perhaps that one clue -- the journalist wearing soot on his forehead for an evening show.

How would we explain Lent to someone from another planet? What images would we show? We would explain that Lent is a period of waiting, a time for soulful reflection, a time for sacrifice, a time for repentance, a time to ask for God's forgiveness, a time for reckoning with the fact that "remember we are dust and unto dust we will return." A time to give something up, a time to fast, a time to seek out quietude and banish the noise. We would describe images of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the desert, of disciples struggling to watch and pray with Jesus in the darkest garden, of Jesus abandoned at the cross.

But there is another image of Lent that sometimes is forgotten. It's the simple image of people praying. In Lent, we are invited to draw nearer to Jesus, to find time in our otherwise busy lives to sit in a bit of silence and to come to God in prayer. In Lent, I like to imagine people sitting in sanctuaries all over this world, lighting candles in the darkness, bowing heads, folding hands together, closing eyes, praying quietly yet fervently. And there's something else I like to imagine about Lent too. It's the image of people being healed, being made whole the more and more they pray.

During the first week of Lent, I've been blessed with the opportunity to sit in this sanctuary for several days now alone and pray. I look at the images of Jesus around me, my favorite being Jesus the good shepherd carrying his lost sheep. I envision myself being carried too. And then I feel some excitement. It dawns on me, Lent is not just a time to give something up, it's a time to add something new. I have a chance again, we all have a chance again, to make more time for God, to drop everything, if only for a moment, to come to God anew in prayer, to sit in silence so that God's Back to top still small voice may be heard, to create the space God needs to draw us close and wipe away every tear, to heal us.

"Are any among you suffering? They should pray. 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."

There's something about Jesus that impressed me greatly when I was at the divinity school. For all the extensive historical research there is out there, what we know to be true and virtually indisputable, is that Jesus was an extraordinary healer. Theologian Marcus Borg writes: "More healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in the Jewish tradition." I like to think that if Jesus was such a powerful healer when he walked on earth, now that he is the risen Christ, can you just imagine how his ability to heal is magnified and even more expansive and transforming?

Dr. Herbert Benson, professor at Harvard Medical School, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel, author of several books on prayer, meditation, and healing, says that he receives five to six calls a week from HMO's asking him about spirituality and healing because health care use has been found to be lower among those who pray or meditate. Dr. Benson says, "If spirituality were a drug, we wouldn't be able to make it fast enough."

This Lent, we will hear stories again of how Jesus healed…. But we will also hear Jesus' words, that we must go and heal. Most of us aren't surgeons or shamans or even Reiki masters, and yet Jesus asks us to heal. He called his disciples together and, according to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, "gave them power and authority …to cure diseases, and sent them to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal." (Luke 9: 1)

Did you know that being a healing influence to others is not as complicated as it seems? Did you know that the most healing thing we can bring to people is just our presence? Psychologist Joan Klansburg says that 80% of our conversations are nonverbal. 80% of our conversations are nonverbal! This means we can communicate a lot of love and care to another person without even having to say a word. Showing up is what counts. Physician Rachel Naomi Remen, after years and years of working with cancer patients, writes, Back to top "I think the greatest thing you can ever give someone else is your attention - not with judgment but just listening."

Isn't just being present for a person in need a lot easier than worrying about coming up with the right things to say? So often when you're worrying about what you're going to say, words get in the way. I learned this as a hospital chaplain. I entered the room of a patient one day who was very ill. She was tired and weak and when she saw me, I got the feeling from her expression that she wasn't up for a visit. I introduced myself and asked if I could offer her a prayer. As a hospital patient, sometimes you don't want to see the hospital chaplain walking in. You think to yourself, "What is she doing here?" The chaplain reminds you of death. You get paranoid, thinking, "The doctor must have sent her here because I must be dying." Well what I said next didn't help matters any. The woman told me she wasn't up for a visit and wanted to sleep. She looked very anxious. I got anxious. I wanted to put her at ease and let her know it was okay to send me away. As I was struggling to come up with something just right to say, I blurted out, "It's all right. May you rest in peace." Judging from the look on her face, my words weren't very healing to her. Worrying so much about what to say got in the way.

So this Lent, be present to one another and to God, pray, listen, don't worry about what to say, show up. Let God's healing power work through you. And remember -- you are more than capable of being a healing presence to each other. That's how God made you. James writes: "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."

In a few minutes, we will have Holy Communion, followed by an ancient church ritual of healing. We in our church have been busy praying these days. There are quite a few who we know and love who need healing and who we hope will be showered with the abundance of God's comfort and love. Perhaps we come to this healing service today with our own hurts and pains, and we are praying for our own relief. We know that sometimes the healing that takes place is not so obvious. Sometimes, we wish there was more healing we could see. But no matter what happens, worship God today knowing that no matter what we can or cannot see, healing is taking place. For even in the darkness, there is God's light. The psalmist writes to God:

11 If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,"

12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

May we be witnesses to God's healing light together this day and through the days of Lent. Amen.

Copyright © 2006 Gretchen L. Elmendorf.  Used by permission.

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