Take It to the Lord in Prayer
Trinitarian Congregational Church 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Anthony S. Kill October 15, 2017
Texts: Acts 5:12-16; Matthew 20:29-34
This is the second worship service that I’ve led here at Trinitarian that has included Prayer Circles during the service
I realize that some of you may have never seen, or even heard of, a such a service of prayer before now.
Granted, such a service may seem foreign to the mainline Protestant tradition.
Perhaps it sounds like something out of the Charismatic tradition, where a preacher will put a hand on your head and shout “Heal!” and everyone will throw away their eyeglasses or hearing aids.
So first, let me assure you that in the 1986 Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ, there is a worship service for Healing Prayer, with laying on of hands — and even an option of anointing with oil.
I’ve participated in many services of healing prayer over the years.
Let me share with you a bit of personal history: When I first came to Massachusetts in the mid-1980’s, my first position was as interim pastor at First Church in Cambridge UCC in Harvard Square, while the settled pastor was on a year-long sabbatical.
There was a prayer group that met monthly on a weekday evening in the parlor to pray for each other, for others in the congregation, and for the needs of the world.
They wanted a more formal prayer service, in the chapel or the sanctuary, and they wanted to invite more people, so they asked me if I would help them create a healing prayer ritual and lead a service.
Soon we started doing monthly services of healing prayer in the chapel.
During that same year, I was asked by the Metropolitan Boston Area Conference Minister (Rev. Charles Harper at that time) if I would be the Massachusetts Conference’s representative at an Interfaith AIDS Task Force, a body that was coming together to offer a religious response to the AIDS crisis.
This was the mid-80’s. AIDS was a brand new mysterious plague, largely not understood even by the medical profession, and greatly feared, not only by the general population but even by health care workers.
No one wanted to touch or go near a person with AIDS.
And of course, it was also widely known as “The Gay Plague”, making it even more repulsive to those who disapproved of homosexuality.
I had just come to Massachusetts from the New York City area, where I’d been involved in some ecumenical work there to help people understand the AIDS epidemic, and respond with some compassion.
In any case, the Boston Interfaith AIDS Task Force decided that one way to give witness to a compassionate Christian response was to hold healing services, including laying on of hands, not only for AIDS patients and their loved ones, but also for health care workers and all who were in any way involved.
Of course, it wasn’t just for AIDS – anyone and everyone was invited to come and participate and receive prayers for healing.
Every month, we would hold an evening service at a different church in the greater Boston area – Episcopal, Lutheran, Baptist, Congregational, Unitarian, Presbyterian, and the services would be led by a large group of ecumenical clergy each month.
This went on for several years.
After I completed my interim position at First Church in Cambridge, I next served a congregational church in Arlington for several years, and we hosted occasional Interfaith Healing Services there.
Then I was called to Eliot Church in Newton UCC, and we hosted an evening Interfaith Healing Service there as well.
Then the Eliot Worship Commission asked me, “Why can’t we have our own services of healing prayer, and incorporate them into the regular Sunday morning worship.?”
And so we did – and held such a service two or three times every year. So that’s how I got involved in this particular ministry.
I believe that prayers for healing are a very central, significant ministry for Christians.
One of the primary ways Jesus Christ witnessed to the all-embracing love of God and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God was by his many, many healings – healings of body, mind and spirit.
So one of the primary ways that we Christians can emulate Jesus, and follow in the way of Jesus, is by the ministry of healing and prayers for healing.
And our world today is so, so, so in need of healing.
There is so much suffering, so much disaster, so much violence and death, in our own country and around the world
And so much lack of compassion, lack of understanding, lack of helpful response, even among some of our leaders.
And not only is the larger world in need of healing.
There is much grief, much illness, much brokenness, in our own hearts, in our own homes, in our own lives and families and communities.
At times we feel utterly battered, completely defenseless against the powers of evil and darkness and sickness around us.
So often we hear the question, and we ask the question, “Where is God in the midst of all this?”
And that’s when we most need to recognize and remember and believe that the suffering Christ, and the risen Christ is in our midst, here with us and among us, now and forever.
Even in our most fearful hidden corners, even behind the locked doors of our most secret agonies, the wounded broken Christ is there, a sign of hope and wholeness.
Even at our most abandoned — perhaps, especially at our most abandoned, when no peace or reason or consolation can be found in all the world, there is a hope to be found only in the unfailing, undying, all-present compassion of the God who loves and dwells among and suffers with every creature under heaven.
The most vivid statement that I know, of the power of prayer and the sense of the presence of God in the face of senseless tragedy comes from an incident reported by a minister from my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary in New York.
This incident occurred while Ann Hallstein was serving as a chaplain at what was then Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City,(now New York-Presbyterian Hospital) in upper Manhattan.
I will tell the story in her own words:
“I was called to the Emergency Room, where a resident told me an eight-year-old boy had been brought in by his mother in a taxicab, shot in the head by her boyfriend or former boyfriend. The boy had no chance of surviving, but the team was working on him, while his mother and aunt sat nearby in a tiny closet of a room.
When I opened the door to join them, fear pounding in my heart, I saw two tiny girls – not women, girls – teenagers of indeterminate age, clinging to each other, as vulnerable and alone as I had ever seen anyone look. They were in shock, obviously.
I introduced myself, sat down, and had no idea what to do next: any words I could think of seemed not only insufficient, but profane.
What could anyone possibly say to comfort a child whose own child was lying in the next partition, dying of a gunshot wound to the head?
While I fumbled and tried to react in some appropriate way, the door was thrown open and a large woman, about 6 feet, 2 inches tall, stepped in, filling the room with her presence.
She grabbed the two sisters up by crooking her massive arms around their necks and pulling them to her, calling them her babies.
(She was, I should add here, their neighbor, simply their neighbor). And then, in a commanding voice full of authority, she ordered Jesus to come into the room “right this minute, come in here Jesus, my babies need you, and they need you now, “I don’t mean later, I don’t mean in ten minutes, I mean NOW! Get down here! “Come into this room and comfort these babies!
“Jesus, Jesus, get in here now, there’s nothing anyone can do but you.”
As I looked on with wonder and great admiration, I felt the energy in the room change; calm came over all of us, and the mother stopped crying and moaning.
Their neighbor continued to hold them in her vise-like elbows, rocking them both back and forth.
I stood up, put my arms around them all, and joined in the rocking.
We swayed there together in one mass for 10 or 20 minutes, I suppose – I had no sense of time, nor of place: all I felt was the love of this woman, and the love of God that she had so forcefully, and so effectively, called into the room.
She soon left, but the palpable sense of love and comfort remained long after the few minutes of her presence.”
Hallstein continues: “Prayer? You bet– the most immediate, most effective and most powerful I’ve seen.
I could tell that what fueled her, what “made it happen” was that she was fully present, totally open and full of both love and faith.
She was there, she summoned God there, and it was her presence that invoked the healing needed at that moment.
Everything was not “all right” — there was not a happy ending –the boy died that night.
But God had been called and had been with the suffering mother and aunt, and they felt it, and were able to function, and to survive that horrifying scene.
This was presence as prayer.”
(end of quote)
Presence as prayer. Presence as healing prayer.
That is one thing we can do for each other, and for so many others beyond our own community, in the face of tragedy and sorrow and heartache.
What can we do? We can be the church, and we can be present – there for each other, with our prayers and our persons.
We can be the church, and we are the church.
We give witness, witness to God’s love and healing and forgiveness; witness to God’s will for the world so gone astray from ways of peace and compassion, and justice.
We can be the church, not afraid to show or see or touch wounds, even wounds too deep for words.
We are the church, here to be the vessel, the conduit of the spiritual power of Jesus Christ to the world at our time and our place in the universe.
We are the ones who evoke God’s presence to the places that need healing and reconciliation, hope or consolation in the world around us.
We collectively, by our faith and our support, are the living community of Jesus Christ in this place.
We are part of the living body of Christ in this place, reaching out like the arms of that neighbor in that hospital waiting room, lifting others in her embrace, holding them in love, carrying them in prayer. Calling forth the presence of God for the sake of this whole sad and suffering world, helping it find a touch of healing, a scale of justice, a heart of mercy, a light of hope.
And oh, how the world needs that presence. How the world needs you.
How the world needs us, to call forth the living Christ.