Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 20, 2018
“I Just Heard the News. Sigh…”
Romans 8: 22-27
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
On Tuesday, Jeff Sessions announced that if an unauthorized migrant brings a child across the US-Mexico border without documentation, “we will prosecute you, and your children will be separated from you. If you don’t like it, don’t do it.” Your child will be taken from you, including asylum seekers fleeing persecution. It’s been denounced as inhumane by such human rights organizations as Amnesty International. Others have argued it is by definition torture. Whatever it is, it is cruel. Add it to the list.
Sometimes when I’m watching the news anymore, all I can do is groan. Lately, I’ve found myself not getting mad as often as I just <sigh>. What words are left to be spoken? Of all the emotional states summoned up in people since the election and in the months that have passed – whether amusement, bewilderment, rage or resignation – more than ever, sometimes it feels like the only thing left is to <sigh>. That doesn’t mean we accept what is happening. It’s not the fifth stage of grief after we’re done with bargaining and denial and so forth.
It’s not just in the news, of course. It’s the news we hear in the doctor’s office when she shares that the latest treatment plan has not performed as hoped. The cancer is more aggressive than we thought. It’s the news of addiction once again taking a loved one off their path to recovery. How often is the response to simply <sigh>?
After the latest failed job interview, after the last test you helped a child study for so hard, when word comes back that it wasn’t enough… In ways big and small, our lives are filled with disappointments and much worse. We may get mad. We may cry. We try to hold on to hope. But how many times have you simply had to <sigh>. As I was writing this sermon, I literally did it again. As I saw the news come across my phone that were another 10 dead at a Texas high school.
In today’s reading, Paul said, “all creation is groaning.” Isn’t that true. But “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for [when] we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Pentecost is often celebrated for its dramatic visuals – tongues of fire dancing on the heads of the apostles, violent winds, speaking in strange languages – also known as speaking in tongues. They were filled with the Holy Spirit. The mainline church is often criticized for not having enough Pentecostal zeal, a more outward expression of exuberance through such forms as dance and shouting. Yvette Flunder is a Pentecostal UCC minister. Yes, there is such a thing! She describes herself as Metho-Bapti-Costal, blending a mix of styles and concerns. She has often said UCC folks need a little more “glory” with our “justice.” Just as she has said others need a little more justice with their glory. I can appreciate her nudge, but I will admit my bias for such texts as the story of Elijah in 1st Kings:
“There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind;
and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire;
and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then came the voice of God to him in a whisper.”
I’m more “Be still and know that I am God” so it’s probably not surprising that I love this passage today: “The Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” And I was pleased to see it was included among the lectionary passages for the Day of Pentecost, along with the classic story in Acts of rushing winds and tongues of fire. There are days for that. And then there are days like today when, like the two sides of glory and justice, our silence needs noise too, on the streets and in the halls of Congress and on the steps of the Capitol.
And it’s not that we don’t know what to do, which would mean things are truly hopeless. Scripture is clear, "God's will," for example, in the Book of Leviticus chapter 19, verses 33-34:
When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not [mistreat] them. 34 Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens, [your native born]. You must love them as [you love] yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
More clarity of God's will in verses 9-10:
When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. 10 Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant.
Or from the Book of Ezekiel chapter 16, verse 49, for all the “let’s kill the gays” Sodom and Gomorrah people:
Now this was the sin of your sister, [the city of] Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
If you want to take scripture literally, well… How about, let’s not mistreat immigrants.
We may not know what to say, but scripture says a lot about what is right. And, if we don’t know what else to do, when we don’t know what to say, when we don’t even have the words for prayer, we can sigh. But not because we have no hope.
But if we feel frustrated, how do you suppose God feels? Children snatched from their mothers. More students killed in gun violence. 60 Palestinians, many of them young, killed at the border. It reminds me of a passage from the Book of Jeremiah.
A voice is heard in Ramah,
bitter weeping and lamentation.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be consoled,
because her children are no more.
The Gospel of Matthew quotes the same passage following the birth of Jesus. Herod, the deranged, delusional, paranoid King, ordered the Massacre of Infants and toddlers he feared might be a threat to his reign. The story in chapter two says: 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
How does God feel? I’ve often said that God weeps too. Listening to the news, whether on TV or in the doctor’s office, God’s heart breaks too. Which is exactly where we meet the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for [when] we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Theologian Bruce Epperly asked, “When I pray for another person or some concern, am I the one who initiates the prayer? Is it my idea? Or, is the Spirit of God praying through me, inspiring me to pray and we are channeling her energy? Like a conduit of the divine.” But that’s kind of passive.
When you pray for someone, why do you do it? I had honestly never thought about it before. Is it our idea to pray? We often say about our work in the world that we God’s hands and feet on the ground. “God’s work. Our hands.” So, is that also true of prayer? God’s prayer. Our voice?
Epperly speaks of a “divine-human spiritual connection so integrated that as God inspires us to pray, our prayers are also God’s prayers.”
So, let me think about that: a divine-human spiritual connection / so integrated / that it is God inspiring us to pray, which means, our prayers are also God’s prayers. It’s not passive. As I sigh listening to the news, they are really mutual sighs. And if they have become mutual sighs, well, that means instead of resignation, <sigh>, leaving us feeling hopeless, we are in mutual relationship. Therefore, hope-full. Wow. That’s actually pretty powerful.
It’s a different idea of prayer. Many of us may approach prayer as a kind of transaction. Without meaning to, we may think of prayer as “I pray, you give.” If I pray for a job, I’m supposed to get a job. Or we may think of prayer as a task to accomplish. Something we have to get done.
Whitney was a member of her church’s prayer team. Every week she would receive a list of prayer requests by email. One really busy morning, like we’ve all had, she grimaced at the long list of needs – illnesses, relationship struggles, all kinds of challenges. She knew each request was important but she didn’t have a lot of time so she simply read the list out loud, added “In Jesus’ name,” and deleted the email. She was happy she had accomplished her task and drove to her first appointment of the day. On the way, she stopped at McDonalds for an Egg McMuffin. As she spoke into the speaker, she said it felt an awful lot like her prayer that morning, not to mention, expecting God to be as timely as the restaurant worker should be holding her bag as she came to the second window. But praying, she realized, is not speaking into a microphone and hoping God gets the order right.
Thinking about prayer as a transaction between ourselves and God, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Either we blame God for not answering as we asked, getting the order right, or we blame ourselves, for example, I must not be doing something right. Or I’m not doing enough of it. It’s a lot of pressure. Prayer shouldn’t be hard. So instead, how about we think of prayer as relational.
Like Amaya. Jamal heard his young daughter in the other room. It sounded like she was practicing her A,B,Cs, but it also sounded like she was saying her bedtime prayers. When Amaya finished, Jamal entered her room and asked what she was doing. “Just praying.” “But it sounded like you were simply saying the letters of the alphabet.” “Well,” she said, “I don’t want to forget anyone, so I just say the alphabet over and over and let God figure it out.”
To me it sounds like she understood that being in prayer was more important that the words of prayer, or getting it right. Now, a serious adult theologian would praise Amaya for artfully combining an intercessory prayer with a receptive prayer, “ask, seek, knock” meets “thy will be done.” We could point out that she was being more relational than transactional. I’ll leave that for the theologians and come back finally to the meaning of Epperly’s statement: When the Spirit meets us in our weakness, in our sighs, “your prayers are also God’s prayers.”
He didn’t mean to imply that somehow our prayers are right and others are wrong. “God is on my side.” Rather, it is to think less of outcomes and more of intimacy. Not about getting it right but being in relationship. It’s as easy as sighing when we hear the news. That’s not praying “to” God. Those sighs mean we are praying “with” God.
 19: 11-13
 Psalm 46
 Jeremiah 31:15
 Bruce G. Epperly, “Who Prays? A Process-Relational Reflection on Petitionary Prayer,” Encounter 69.4 (2008)
 A Lutheran slogan
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world