Sunday, July 27, 2014

Your sighs and groans and mumbled prayers are heard by God in heaven…a sermon on Romans 8:26-39

A. Hanson, NYC 2014
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God who promises to hear our prayers.  Amen. 

Let’s listen one more time to today’s reading from Romans, chapter 8, verses 26-39:

 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. 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.
 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

            This portion of Paul’s Letter to the Romans was written as a sort of encouragement to followers of Jesus. Paul is acknowledging that the road that believers walk is difficult, and that even in their present suffering, God bears with them. Paul is NOT equating suffering with what it means to be a Christian or saying that suffering now will pay off with salvation in the future.  Paul is saying that suffering is part of what it means to live in a broken world.
            While we do not live under the oppression of the Roman Empire, we certainly know what it means to live in a broken world.  And while we are eavesdropping on a letter written to another people in another time and place, Paul’s letter to the Romans provides hope for us even now. We need to hear that in the midst of what feels like a broken God-forsaken world, with immigrant and refugee children being detained in unimaginable and inhuman conditions in our own country, passenger planes being shot out of the sky in Ukraine, and land strikes on children and families in Gaza, we need to hear that God is present and knows that our weeping and our groans and our sighs are prayers. 
It is easy to become discouraged with all the suffering in the world.  It is understandable to ask, “where is God in all this mess?” and believe that suffering points to God’s absence rather than God’s presence.  I don’t have some theological rationale for why suffering exists.  I don’t have a neat answer for you.  It would be a mistake to look at this text from Romans and parse out sound bites that would attempt to explain suffering in this broken world, such as, “ We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  This sounds suspiciously like it could be manipulated into the baseless platitudes of “Everything happens for a reason” or “God never gives you more than you can handle.”  Sometimes suffering is just suffering.  Life is hard.  Suffering is not part of the roadmap of how to be a Christian, but unfortunately, it is part of what it means to be human.
So is there any good news? It’s good news to me that the Holy Spirit helps us pray when we are too weak to do so on our own.  When we cannot even form words, just sighs. And that same Spirit intercedes for us with God who promises to hear our prayers. Somewhere along the line, maybe in Sunday School, maybe as a result of memorized prayers before going to bed or table graces, many of us got the idea that a prayer is only a prayer if it makes sense and sounds good.  Anne Lamott writes in her book, Help, Thanks, Wow, “Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.” So your sighs and groans and tears and mumbled prayers are heard by God in heaven. 
I remember how liberated I felt when I learned that I could actually shout at God when I was angry because God can take it.  God does not want or need us to kneel quietly, fold our hands neatly and pray with the eloquence of Jesus himself.  God loves us just as we are and wants us to bring our whole selves to our prayers. God does not love us any less if we are not blessed with the gift of words or if we shout “God, where are you?!” or even if our prayer is something along the lines of “Whoever you are, I hope you are listening.” 

And while it is good news that the Spirit intercedes for us, the even better news is that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Suffering is real.  Pain is real.  Sin is real. It can feel like God is absent from our lives, and yet, God became human and lived among us and lives in us, so we never have to be apart from God again.  Nothing will separate us from God.  Not hardship, distress, addiction, mental illness, divorce, abuse, persecution, famine, nakedness, poverty, wealth, peril, fear, doubt, certainty, sword, war, politics, violence or even we ourselves.  Nothing in all of creation, in this broken world, can separate us from God. Sin still exists in the world.  Brokenness still exists in the world.  But the hold that sin, death, and evil has on God’s beloved people, which is ALL people, has forever been broken.  Thanks be to God.

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