The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 26, 2021
Today, we the apostle James tells us to pray – whether we’re suffering or cheerful, sick or sinful, prayer is the proper response of the people of God. This isn’t just a call for us as individuals to pray for one another, it’s a communal call for “the elders of the church” – the presbyters, or priests – to pray on behalf of the entire body of Christ.
James doesn’t stop with intangible, spiritual action like prayer. He calls sick Christians to ask the elders of the church to “pray over them” – a phrase that is linked elsewhere in the New Testament with the idea of the physical action of the “laying on of hands.” Likewise, the elders are to anoint the sick with oil, a practice that was quite common in most cultures in the 1st century Ancient Near East. To you and me, this passage seems to be saying that when we get sick, we should go to a priest, not a doctor. The priest will treat your sickness with prayer, the laying on of hands, and holy oil, and presuming the prayer is made in faith, the Lord will heal your body.
But that presumes an understanding of illness that you and I have – that scientific analysis alone is able to assess your state of health. St James tells us that prayer, anointing of the sick, and the laying on of hands will, in the words of one Biblical translator, “restore the weary,” which is substantially more than prescribing antibiotics can do. 
The restoration promised here is much more than physical healing, it’s a restoration of the whole person – body, mind, and spirit. This is why James links the healing of the body with the forgiveness of sins in verse 15. Physical illness, in the minds of those hearing this letter, wasn’t limited to the body. For the body and the spirit weren’t separated in the way our worldview seems to assume they are. Illness of the body and the soul – physical sickness and sin – were flip sides of the same coin. The restoration of the whole person promised here is nothing other than salvation.
And salvation flows from the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ in the manger at Christmas. Christ became incarnate to save us, and the sacraments are the means by which God works out our salvation. God didn’t send a spirit into the world to save us, he sent his Son to be physically born of a human being. To become one of us. It was only in becoming one of us that he could redeem us. And this redemption – this restoration – isn’t merely a spiritual restoration, it’s a restoration of the whole person. Christ became incarnate to save our bodies, our minds, and our spirits – and the continual physical interaction with God through the Sacraments of the Church is the way God works out this salvation in our lives.
What are the Sacraments of the Church? According to the catechism, the “two great sacraments given by Christ to his Church are Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.” But the catechism doesn’t stop there. It says other sacramental rites which evolved in the Church include confirmation, ordination, marriage, confession, and the anointing of the sick. Though the prayer book doesn’t say it this way, it’s safe to say that throughout history, in the East and the West, these are the seven rites that are generally agreed upon as the sacraments of the Church.
We’re quite used to the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist simple because it’s celebrated here at St. Mary’s every day, and perhaps less so, Holy Baptism, though most if not everyone here has been baptized. When was the last time a priest anointed you with oil? When is the last time you went to confession?
The apostle James not only lays the foundation for the sacrament of anointing of the sick in this passage, he also alludes to confession when he continues, “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 my evangelical days, I understood this to simply mean that we should confess our sins to any other Christian, and that we should all pray for each other. But James says this in the context of the previous verses in which he calls church to call upon the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil. In the gospel of John, Jesus says to his apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” That authority to forgive sins, and the authority to bind and loose Jesus gave his apostles in Matthew 16, has been passed down from bishop to bishop throughout the centuries, and ultimately to priests like me when the bishop laid his or her hands on our head. In The Episcopal Church, private confession is optional, not required as it is in the Roman Church. But just because it’s optional, and perhaps even foreign to your personal piety, it doesn’t make it any less powerful a means of grace for the average Christian.
Confession and anointing of the sick are by far the most underutilized sacraments of the church. Friends, I’m here to tell you, there is a lot of grace to be had in these two sacraments. All the baptized have access to the riches of God’s grace in these two sacraments, and yet very few take advantage of them. One of the reasons I’ve heard people say they don’t is practical: they aren’t publicly scheduled, and “I don’t want to bother you, Father. I know you have a busy schedule.”
Let’s clear that up right here and now. I’m busy, yes, but never too busy to administer the sacraments of the church. Beyond preaching God’s word, the main duty of the priest is to rightly and duly administer the sacraments of the church. If it’s an emergency, I’ll drop everything to bring the sacraments to you. If it can wait, sure, we’ll schedule a meeting at a convenient time for both of us, but administering the sacraments is not a burden to me. It is a joy.
And speaking of scheduling, we do have a regularly scheduled time for private confession: 5:00 on Wednesdays. It’s available by appointment too, but the church is open with a priest here at 5:00 on Wednesdays waiting to hear your confession, offer counsel, and grant absolution. And beginning this Wednesday, we will begin offering the anointing of the sick each week during the 6 p.m. Wednesday Mass.
Are any among you suffering? You should pray. Are any among you cheerful? You should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? Call me. I’m happy to pray over you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord. Are any of you stuck in a cycle of sin, or have committed a sin that is particularly weighty upon your conscience? Come on Wednesday evenings, or call me to make an appointment. If you prefer to go to confession with a different priest, that won’t hurt my feelings at all. I’m happy to connect you with another priest, either from St. Mary’s or from the wider diocese.
Friends, avail yourself of God’s unconditional love and grace in the sacraments of the Church. For in the sacraments, our salvation is literally fleshed out and we are restored to wholeness of body and mind and spirit. Restored and refreshed by God’s grace, we are given the strength we need to choose to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world and bring about restoration and wholeness to all of creation. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B ed., vol. 4 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 113.
 Andrew Davison, Why Sacraments? (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 1.
 BCP 858-860.
 John 20:30
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!