First, something from a safe distance: I wrote the homily that follows as part of a class in Celebrational Style (that’s a course in leading worship) while I was at JSTB. The assignment was to create, preside at, and preach for a service of sacramental anointing outside a Eucharistic context. To do that I had to get to grips with the sacrament’s underlying theology and found Jake Empereur’s book Prophetic Anointing: God’s Call to the Sick, the Elderly and the Dying to be really helpful.
The Sacrament of the Sick can’t promise healing–indeed for a long while it was only offered to the dying!–but it must pray for it confidently. How do you handle that? Empereur’s argument (as I recall) is that anointing recognises the prophetic vocation of sickness. I remember the homily divided the congregation (of classmates) right down the middle. Some thought it was powerful; other’s hated it. Luckily the professor fell in the first group…
As I re-read it today I am hearing me preach to myself. Does it ring true to my own experience since? I do find it encouraging right now. It speaks to my experience of God in all this but possibly not to my actual experience of Church or even of community. Or perhaps it points up the unstable edginess of prophecy… the sacrament might assert the central place of the sick in community life but it does so against a constant marginalising pressure. One of my unspoken fears is that if my condition worsens seriously I will have to leave my present community for somewhere able to give more care. Marginal or central? Both.
It is easy to be eloquent about sickness when we are in the best of health but even something as a simple as a minor headache can leave us speechless and confounded. There is a mystery here: the Christian community both attempts to find a meaning in suffering and to pray for it to end.
Jesus healed the sick in body and mind but eventually was reduced to pain and suffering; he raised the dead to life but finally succumbed to death, a most violent death. His enemies scorned him with this very taunt: “You saved others, why don’t you save yourself?”
God’s word of comfort and life is so utterly opposed to all diminishment yet is diminished, so completely proclaims freedom yet is bound.
The nasty truth is that sickness can destroy us, can eat at us, can make each miserable moment an effort. In sickness we know pain, and defeat, and emptiness. Our glorious notions of the ennobling power of suffering fade faced even with a headache.
And our culture adds another layer to the pain of sickness. Because when health and fitness become twin Gods, sickness becomes sin; when productivity becomes paramount, the passivity of pain becomes failure. In the harsh sunshine of this world it seems that sickness can only alienate us from our community, from our friends and family, even from our own selves. It seems that to be sick is to be on the margin, on the edge, on the way out.
But . not . for . us , not in the church, not in the community of Jesus. That is why we gather: to undo the power of illness. To recognise its evil and to pray for life and health and joy. But also, and perhaps above all, to take you who are sick into our midst. To reveal the lie that sick people are peripheral to the pulse of life. Because, no matter the appearance otherwise, you are the heart of this community, our community.
Jesus whispers to you with a call, a challenging vocation: “Come to me, you who are weary and heavy-burdened — and I will give you rest” Jesus has invited you to exchange the “yoke” of alienation for the “yoke” of companionship, and has made a promise: “this yoke is easy, this burden light.”
In this sacrament, it may seem that the Church gathers to try to give you something you lack. But the reality is different. We who appear healthy are here to receive from you. You have something to give to us. A word to speak to us from the margin, from the edge, from our centre, from our heart. You are gift to us, you are a hard poem telling us of life and death, of the mystery at the heart of all life.
That is why we celebrate today: we need you, we need to learn from you, we need to see you tread a path in Jesus’ footsteps, a path that we will each in our own way follow.
This is the mystery: we anoint you as prophets, pilgrims on our common way, that we may all be prophetic to a world that so fears both life and death; and yet we anoint you that you may be healed, that we may as community be made whole.
We have good news for each other, we have the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit, because we hear the Lord’s invitation and the Lord’s promise:
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”