Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Genesis 29:15-28 | Romans 8:26-39 | Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
This sermon is part of a summer preaching series on the book of Romans.
I’d like to invite you to take a deep breath in together to the count of three, and then let out a really satisfying sigh. Ready? Inhale (1, 2, 3) and *sigh*… It is good to sigh together. I’m going to ask you to sigh with me again at the very end of this sermon – that’s how you’ll know it’s over 🙂
There’s something about breathing together with other humans that sort of reorients me to my own body, to my sense of presence, to my connection with God.
The very first sentence of today’s reading from Romans reads,
We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (8:26)
Well, the English translation reads, “sighs too deep for words.” But the original Greek words actually hold quite a different meaning. A more literal translation would be,
the Spirit intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.
A sigh is very different from a groan. I sigh in relief, or in awe, or in exasperation. I groan in pain, or in longing, or in grief. I won’t ask the room to groan together, but you can imagine how different a room full of inexpressible groanings would sound.
If you were here last week, you might remember that our prayers and songs that morning included lots of references to groaning. The reading from Romans last week, the one that comes right before this week’s excerpt, included this sentence:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves… groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (8:22-23)
And then, the very first sentence of this week’s reading goes on directly from there, saying that likewise, the Spirit prays with us, with inexpressible groanings.
This trio of groaning – creation, ourselves, and God – expresses a deep yearning for restoration. Together with all creation, and with God’s very Spirit, we long for God to bring healing to the earth… even though we may not know how to ask, or even what to ask for.
Perhaps many of us can relate to the sentiment, “We do not know how to pray as we ought” (8:26). Some of us feel guilty about our personal devotion to God (or lack thereof), or embarrassed about using the wrong words if we’re praying out loud in front of others. But again, the Greek here holds more meaning than is evident in the English translation. Our translation reads, “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” but a literal translation of the Greek would read, “We do not even know the things we should pray for.” This is not about not praying the right way… this is about those times when we don’t even know what to pray.
Can you remember a time when you didn’t even know what to pray?
I am thinking about sitting in a wake in Decorah, IA after my friend and mentor Ben Splichal Larson died. You may have heard me talk about Ben before. Ben and his wife Renee were life-changing for me when I was in college and they were serving as pastoral interns. Ben was a pastor, and poet, and musician (he wrote the communion liturgy we’ve been singing this summer). He loved good coffee and good beer, and he was super silly, full of joy. The songs he wrote were the sort of songs that when I heard them, I realized that the words were exactly the words I’d been trying to say, but I didn’t know it until I heard them… You know what I mean?
Ben, and Renee, and Ben’s cousin Jon were in Haiti in 2010, working alongside the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti, when the devastating earthquake hit and Ben was crushed by concrete and died, along with thousands of Haitians. I remember where I was when I found out he died. I remember where I was when I learned that with his last breath Ben sang, “O Lamb of God, you bear the sin of all the world away… God’s peace to us we pray.”
I remember sitting at his wake, and just feeling pain. No words, no thoughts, no prayers. What would I have prayed for? I couldn’t imagine asking anything of God that would have even remotely made the situation right. Everything was so broken. The closest I came to prayer was a throbbing, deep in my chest, that reached out and in, reminding me with each breath how deeply this hurt, and how much I needed to be surrounded by this group of people who were hurting as much as I was.
Something like this is what Paul is talking about when he writes about the Spirit’s inexpressible groanings. Right there, in the very moment when our pain transcends human speech, when we are connected most deeply to our longing for healing, the Spirit is right there. The Spirit’s presence is our prayer. God doesn’t need us to explain our pain and ask for the correct solution. God knows the groan because God groans with us. The very Spirit of God is in the groan.
Ben’s wake was also the first time I had ever heard the hymn Neither Death nor Life (ELW 622). We’ve been singing it here at St. Luke’s as our sending song for the past couple of weeks, and today we’ll sing it as the hymn of the day because it comes directly from today’s reading. Let me tell you, that song sounds different when sung in the context of a funeral. Drowning in grief, those words of hope sound so far from the truth, and at the same time somehow they ring so clearly true.
Maybe you’ve heard today’s Romans reading at a funeral before, too. In this passage, Paul is wrapping up a chapters-long logical argument with a series of rhetorical questions, pointing towards the power of God’s love, and ending with a triumph:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (8:35)
We’ve learned by now, in this sermon series on Romans, that Paul is a practiced and meticulous writer. He has a knack for packing layers on layers of meaning into a single sentence, such that when you hear a whole paragraph of Paul read aloud, trying to glean just a little bit of meaning feels like trying to drink out of a fire hydrant. Why does Paul go to the trouble to list all these terrible things one by one, if he may as well have just said, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anything?”
Paul doesn’t speak in generalities here, but in specifics. He names hardship. Distress. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. Sword. And Paul is a trustworthy source on these things, because Paul has suffered many of these exact circumstances. Even now, as he writes this letter to the Romans, Paul is on a dangerous mission. If he is successful in his life’s work of spreading the gospel and building up the community of Christ, he faces arrest, imprisonment, and even death.
Paul knows firsthand that to be a follower of Christ is subversive business. Jesus says as much in the parables we heard in today’s gospel reading: The kingdom of God is subversive like an invasive weed, the mustard bush. One tiny seed gets into your bag of grain, and the next thing you know the weed has taken over your whole field. The kingdom of God is subversive like a tiny bit of fungus that you add to a huge amount of flour. Even though it’s invisible in the dough, it corrupts the recipe and changes the outcome of the whole batch. And so on…
The kingdom of God is subversive business. And subversion, when done right, threatens systems of power and domination. Subversion, when done right, might just get you crucified.
That is, after all, what the cross means for us. Jesus lived God’s love so deeply and boldly (loved, not incited to violence; loved, not plotted an armed overthrow), somehow loved so radically that it threatened to take down an empire. And we hear in the Romans reading today that we, too, are to be “conformed to the image of the Son” (8:29). That is, God is ever-remaking us in that same image. We too are formed into radical, subversive lovers.
That is a tall order. We are the ones through whom God makes this empire-threatening love known to the world. Paul says that God is knowing, planning, calling, saving, and glorifying us (8:29-30), just as God did with Christ, so that “Christ might be the firstborn in a large family” (8:29). Are we supposed to bear such resemblance to Jesus’s life as siblings of the same family to one another? Are we able? Do we have what it takes? Are we good enough?
Well. Paul says. The God of the universe (!) is willing to go to ultimate lengths to be with us and to save us – what do we really think can work against us? God, Godself is the one who makes us right – what sin or limitation of ours do we really think will be able to hold us back? Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, the savior of the world is on our team – how can we think that anything will cause us to be cast aside?
We are the ones who God has known, and chosen, and called, and saved to show God’s love to the world – what do we really think will be able to separate us from that love?
Again, Paul is not content to speak in generalities. Sometimes, you really need to hear the details. It’s the same reason why at a wedding, we don’t simply say “I take you as my partner,” but rather we add something along the lines of, “to have and to hold, from this day forward, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, as long as we both shall live…” In a wedding, these details are important because they communicate, I’ve thought about the ways this might be hard, and I’m telling you that none of those are exceptions to the promise I’m making to you today.
And in this letter from Paul, the details proclaim, there are lots of ways this life “conformed to the image of Christ” will be difficult. And none of that is an exception to God’s love for you.
God is saying:
I see you.
No, you are not an exception.
You are exactly who I’m talking about.
I see your hardship and distress. I see your debt and bankruptcy. I see your depression and anxiety. I see the way this world discriminates against you, and erases you, and puts you into boxes you never asked for. I see that you are hungry and empty – I see that you are vulnerable and exposed – I see that you are homeless – I see that you are lonely, and afraid, and at risk, and in danger — and I’m here to remind you —
You, now that you’re really hearing me.
To remind you.
Neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor height, nor depth,
nor ANYTHING ELSE IN ALL CREATION
will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Deep breath… and *sigh.*
I highly recommend reading Renee Splichal Larson’s pastoral memoir, A Witness: The Haiti Earthquake, a Song, Death, and Resurrection. You can purchase it from the publisher, or on Amazon or other retailers.