St. Philip Lutheran Church
26 September 2021 + Lectionary 26b (Pent. 18)
Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16, 24-29; James 5.13-20
Rev. Josh Evans
“I’m not really that kind of Christian,” admits Episcopal priest Winnie Varghese. “I like a chanted service, incense, and a script.” But asking someone to pray for her and giving her concerns over to someone else to carry is more of a struggle. Honestly, it’s relatable.
It’s hard to ask someone to pray for us. It makes us feel vulnerable. We value being independent and self-sufficient. To admit something is wrong, that we need help, might be perceived as a sign of weakness or an admission of failure.
Anyone who has ever been responsible for leading or overseeing a group of people knows well Moses’s plight – parents… teachers… work supervisors… pastors. Everyone has their breaking point … when the overwhelming responsibilities make us snap … and Moses has apparently reached that point.
And really, who can blame him? It’s been one complaint after another ever since the people left Egypt: Where are we? We’re lost, aren’t we? There’s no water! Have you brought us out here to die?
You can imagine Moses’s inner dialogue: Is nothing ever enough for you people? A little gratitude might be nice! After all, Moses didn’t even want to go back to lead the people out of Egypt in the first place. He in fact thought of every excuse in the world not to go. But go he did.
And look where it gets him … an entire group of people who complain, complain, complain: We miss Egypt and all the food we had there! As though they had forgotten the whole slavery part…
So Moses, shouldering their complaints and their burdens all by himself, takes his complaint to God.
If only Moses had the writer of James to lend him some advice. James knows well the struggles of being human and the burdens we carry. Which is why James also encourages his readers to pray for each other and let themselves be prayed for.
Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them… Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another.
There is power in praying for one another and in letting ourselves be prayed for. It’s why we add names to our weekly prayer list – to make our struggles and the struggles of those we care about known, so that our community can pray for them, call them, write to them, and check in on them.
Even in the moments when the prayers don’t go the way we want … the diagnosis takes a turn, the treatment stops working, a name moves from the list “for healing and wholeness” to “for those grieving” … even there, the power of the community to hold our prayers and concerns collectively is as strong as ever.
It’s why we gather for prayer vigils in the aftermath of traumatic events. In the summer of 2016, a man with a gun opened fire on the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people in one night. In the weeks ahead of that shooting, a group of seminary friends and I had been out in Boystown in Chicago, celebrating our time together before we each went our separate ways for a year-long internship. When I heard the news about Pulse, I realized: In another city, in another bar, that could’ve been us.
The night after the shooting at Pulse happened, a group of us went back to Boystown, to a 7-11 parking lot, for a community vigil – to pray, to remember, to be together. In those moments, nothing about our prayers could change the tragic events that had happened – let alone bring back the 49 people who were killed. But it didn’t make our prayers any less powerful.
That kind of prayer is about being together – the support of the community in moments of grief, anxiety, loneliness, desperation. When we don’t know where else to turn, we turn to each other. Because in that community, there is healing – a sense of wholeness and peace – knowing that our burdens and our concerns and the valleys of life are not ours to carry and walk through alone.
Moses’s concerns were valid. It’s not difficult to sympathize with his feelings of being overwhelmed and overextended. And in response, God has Moses gather 70 elders from the camp. It’s unfortunate that verse 17 gets excluded from the lectionary reading because it is pure gospel: “I will take some of the spirit that is on you,” God says to Moses, “and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.”
At the end of his rope, Moses, in his own way, turns to God for help. And God delivers – surrounding Moses with the support of the community, reminding him that the burdens he carries are not his to carry alone.
Even in her hesitance to be prayed for, when her natural tendency is to reach for chanted liturgy and scripted prayers, Episcopal priest Winnie Varghese reflects: “When the absolute bottom falls out of my capacity to cope, I ask my mother to pray for me, and I know my parents will — during their evening prayer on the sofa, in detail.”
Remembering the Friday evening prayer meetings of her childhood, in language and words she didn’t fully understand, she realizes her own prayers today are much like the prayers she remembers from all those years ago – the emotion, the weight, and the freedom found in those moments of praying and being prayed for.
Whatever it is, however heavy or weary, you don’t have to carry it or go through it alone. That is God’s promise. That is the promise of the community of faith.
Thanks be to God.