“Next Steps” Colchester Federated Church, September 26, 2021, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (James 5:13-20)

Today is the end of our exploration of the Letter of James.  We’ve contemplated some of James’ famous wisdom sayings.  Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.  That faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.  That blessing and cursing can come from the same mouth, and it shouldn’t be this way.  And that we can show that our actions are good by living a humble lifestyle.  The letter ends by instructing Christians to fulfill the responsibilities we have to other members of our community.  Again, this is about putting our Christian faith into action which is the central teaching of the letter.  James writes that if any of us are suffering, we should pray.  If any of us are happy, we should sing.  And then James gets specific when he writes, “If any of you are sick, they should call the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”[1]

This is a scripture passage that has modern implications for how churches operate.  In our church for instance, we have Deacons.  If we look to our Colchester Federated Church Bylaws, the Deacons have the responsibility for “the spiritual growth, well being and worship life of the Church and its members, preparation of Communion elements, assistance in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, baptism, dedication, and reception of new members, concern for the needs of the ill, inviting people into the Fellowship of the Church and providing for their education” among other responsibilities.  Our Bylaws state that Diaconate is “responsible for the work of the Church.”[2]  We are a congregation affiliated with the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ.  Power isn’t top down, it’s bottom up.  Now sometimes from a Pastor’s perspective, that can feel like having hundreds of bosses who have all sorts of different opinions and expectations.  After all, it is the congregation that has the power to call or dismiss Pastors.  But when congregations are healthy and working well together, it can be a covenantal partnership where the work of the Church doesn’t just fall onto the shoulders of church staff.  Instead, we carry on the work of the Church together as the Body of Christ.  That is such a beautiful way of being in Christian community together.

It matters that in the final section of James’ letter, he is emphasizing that the work of the Church doesn’t remain in only his hands.  He speaks of elders (whether they were ordained or lay leaders at that time), these were folks who were entrusted with the spiritual care of their Christian fellowship.  It wasn’t work that any of them could go about alone, it required the strength of the community.  James’ final instruction is that if anyone is wandering from the truth and someone turns back the wanderer “recognize that whoever brings a sinner back from the wrong path will save them from death and will bring about the forgiveness of many sins.”[3]  If we consider sin as separation from God, from one another, and from who God is calling us to be—this is quite the statement.  If we see someone lost and wandering in our church family, we are invited to bring them back home to God.  Prayer and praise and healing are placed in a communal context.  James concludes by encouraging spiritual practices that foster solidarity within the fellowship.

Sometimes we may make our faith too individualistic.  As if being a Christian is only about my own personal salvation, and it doesn’t matter how I treat my neighbor because I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  Sometimes this individualistic theology focused solely on one’s personal salvation may come in part from our American culture which does tend to focus on rugged individualism.  But what about ways that we are shaped and sustained by the community?  Of course, one’s personal relationship to God is important.  And, can we be Christians in isolation?

There’s a fascinating example of this from Christian history.  The beginnings of certain monastic movements were that individuals went out into the desert to live simple lives devoted to the worship of God.  Then word would get out that a wise and holy person was living in this cave out in the wilderness.  Pilgrims would journey to meet with the holy person and learn from them.  Sometimes they would even want to stay and devote their lives to simplicity and the worship of God.  Perhaps they would find a cave nearby to live.  Not in the same cave, but just over there, you know, in case you ever need somebody or get lonely or something.  Small communities of hermits would form which would sometimes become larger communities and eventually monasteries.

When I was in the Holy Land there was this monastery we visited out in the Judean desert—the Monastery of St. George of Koziba.  It clings to the steep cliff of the Wadi Qelt above a small garden with olive trees and cypresses and is famous for its hospitality in the desert.  Wadi Qelt is what some believe to be the valley of the shadow of death from Psalm 23 and/or it could be the road that Jesus references in the Parable of the Good Samaritan because it is quite treacherous and connects Jerusalem to Jericho.  Many of the Greek Orthodox Monasteries don’t allow women to even come visit, but the Monastery of St. George does.  They allow women in part because there was once a Byzantine noblewoman who related that the Virgin Mary had directed her to this monastery to be healed from an incurable disease.  She went to the monastery and she was healed.  The monks concluded that the Mother of God allowed a woman to be present in their monastery, so perhaps they should too.[4]

The Monastery of St. George of Koziba is literally in the middle of the desert within a deep gorge surrounded by cliff walls.  It’s stunning and isolated.  As you walk down to the monastery, you can see that there are small caves above it.  In fact, it was five hermits who together built a small chapel around 420-430 C.E. and this would eventually become St. George of Koziba.  There are 15 hermit caves which were occupied during the Byzantine period that you can still find as you walk down the path—three of those caves have mosaic floors and there are mud-brick ovens outside of them.  All of this means that there were some people who yearned for even more isolation than the monastery in the middle of the valley of the shadow of death could provide once it was built long ago.  Yet those hermit caves did not exist in complete and total isolation because there was a Christian community nearby.[5]

People are not meant to live in complete and total isolation.  It’s why this pandemic has been so difficult at times.  It’s why solitary confinement in the prison system is so unbearably harsh.  Because humans are social creatures.  We are meant to be part of something larger than ourselves.  James ends his letter by imploring all of us to remember the importance of Christian community, that we can reach out to those who are lost and wandering.  That we can offer one another oil for healing and praying and singing together.  Let us not forget the power of Christian community especially if the going gets rough.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] James 5:14, Common English Bible.
[2] By-laws of the Colchester Federated Church, Colchester, CT.
[3] James 5:19-20.
[4] “Monastery of St. George,” https://www.seetheholyland.net/monastery-of-st-george/
[5] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Monastery of St George of Koziba” in The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, 394-397.