Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 23rd of Fifth Month, 2021
Speaker: Stephanie Crumley-Effinger
Scripture: Romans 8:22-27, NRSV & MSG
Romans 8:22-27 NRSV:
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour 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.
Romans 8:22-27 - The Message:
22 All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it's not only around us; it's within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We're also feeling the birth pangs. 23 These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. 24 That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don't see what is enlarging us. 25 But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy. 26 Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter. The Spirit He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. 27 The Spirit He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.
In the wider Christian Church today is celebrated as Pentecost, which means “fifty days,” as it occurs on the fiftieth day since Easter. Pentecost commemorates the event recounted in Acts 2 in which God’s Spirit filled the followers of Jesus, enabling them to speak in the different languages of Jews who had come to Jerusalem from many countries in the Roman Empire, and thus beginning the outreach ministry of the movement that became the Christian Church.
For many churches this is the main day that Spirit gets attention – God and Jesus are the focus of most of the other Sundays of the year. But for our Meeting, every Sunday we explicitly devote part of our Meeting time to waiting worship in which we quiet ourselves to pay attention to guidance from Spirit. Friends were founded on listening for Spirit’s guidance, and we continue to hold this as central in our worship, toward which everything else leads.
The cycle of scripture readings for the church year, known as the lectionary, includes the story from Acts 2 among several scripture passages recommended for use on Pentecost. It is a fascinating account from which there is much to gain. But today we are considering another of the passages among the lectionary readings, Romans 8:22-27, which Brian has just read in two different versions. These verses come from the letter written by the apostle Paul to the church located in the city of Rome, to interpret for them the Christian faith as he understood it.
In this passage Paul addressed everyday experiences of life and the potential impact of divine Spirit upon us. He acknowledged that life includes difficulty and suffering, that the vision of a restored creation is something we can glimpse and long for, but is only begun - set underway, but not completed.
Three times Paul referred to groans or groaning as expressions of the struggle between the way that things are and the longing for how God calls them - and us - to be. In all three of these - creation’s groaning, our groans, Spirit’s groans – Paul used forms of the same Greek term. The word “groan” connotes effort, pain, and struggle, being pushed beyond one’s capacity. In the past month, Michael has heard a lot of groaning from me when my sore left arm has moved beyond its limited range of motion due to such actions as tying my shoes or flossing my teeth. Groaning is not a pleasant sound; it indicates a problem. We don’t want to groan and do not enjoy hearing groans of pain from others.
The first form of groaning that Paul identified was the groaning of creation, which he compared to the pain of childbirth. If you have ever accompanied a woman who is in labor, or have given birth to a baby yourself, you are likely to remember the pained sounds that tend to accompany the work of labor and delivery. A mother’s body must work incredibly hard to bring a child into the world, and those contractions hurt, as does pushing with every fiber of one’s being to help the baby move from inside one’s body to outside it.
When we think about the world we can observe many instances of birth pangs, such as growing awareness of the deadly impact of climate change but too little action taken to mitigate it, greater acknowledgment of the prevalence of white supremacy but continuing denial of the extent of racism in organizations, persons, and systems, the success of the Me, Too movement in raising awareness of the widespread nature of sexual harassment but such problematic behavior continuing to occur, and greater rights won for LGBTQ people, such as same-sex marriage, but numerous state legislatures now passing laws which harm transgender people. God’s beautiful Earth and the plants, animals, and people in it are far from experiencing the full flourishing of life which God intends. We can name many examples of creation writhing in pain and distress. We can consider the fabulous photograph, known as Earthrise, taken by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 (2), showing our world as a beautiful blue and white ball, and imagine it groaning in these struggles:
The second form of groaning that Paul identified comes from within us – in The Message version of the passage that Brian read, described as “The Spirit of God . . . arousing us within”, as we are “yearning for full deliverance.” We can imagine and glimpse and even have some experiences of what it would be like for ourselves to be fully at home in goodness, in tune with holy purpose and living in complete integrity, both inwardly and with other people. But because these glimpses are embedded in the reality of life, which can be very rough, it can be hard to maintain hope and wait with patience, both for getting one’s own act together in places we fall short and for other people being less annoying and difficult. Or downright harmful. We can groan with disappointment or misery or impatience that the redeemed relationships with self and others to which Jesus calls us are incredibly elusive. I long for the day when I respond with calm and equanimity to someone confronting me about my actions or words being hurtful or unhelpful, but instead find myself responding yet again with defensiveness rather than curiosity and heartfelt desire to learn and grow from what they have said.
Such a cause for groaning is currently present in the glimpses of life post-pandemic that we continue to be given – such as this morning our Meeting taking the next step in having a blended Meeting for Worship. But these glimpses always come in the context of the toll that Covid-19 continues to take, both on a horrendous scale faraway in India and other countries where it is raging out of control and killing thousands daily, and right here in Indiana where the vaccine is widely available, but people still become ill and some die of the disease, the rate of full vaccination is only 33%, and in some counties the percentage of positive Covid tests is again rising.
Inwardly we groan as the hope of a world after the pandemic remains elusive, and the reality of Covid is very present. Paul encouraged us not to stop with inward groaning, but to bring the groaning of our hearts and voices into prayer, into communication with God. When we do not have the words to use, or do not know what to say, just that it is too hard, that need not be a stop. Paul tells us that we are not limited to words, nor is God’s Spirit, who grasps our wordless need and expresses it with “sighs/groans too deep for words” as the NRSV terms it, or, in the Message version, “The Spirit does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.”
Words are great when we have them, but we are not dependent on words for communicating with that which is holy. Words are extremely limited and can be grossly inadequate for communicating the combination of longing and frustration or fear, or whatever is happening within us that defies expression within the boundaries of language.
I had a recent experience with wordlessness and inability to understand what was happening in which I turned to God’s Spirit with a blast of feelings and turmoil. About four weeks ago Michael and I visited members of our New York family and the ones with whom we stayed have a dog whom they do not want in their kitchen, so they set boards across the two kitchen doorways to keep him out. Each time we walked into or out of the kitchen we had to remember to step up over the boards, which are about a foot high. When we forgot to do so in leaving the kitchen, we knocked over the board, with a loud clatter. It was a bit embarrassing, but no more than that. When I did that I sometimes thought, and at least once said, “wow, I’m glad I was going out of the kitchen,” realizing that if I were to hit the board while going into the kitchen, it wouldn’t fall down because it was leaning against the wall on either side of the doorway, but would trip me. I was aware of the potential for such a collision and just hoped that it would not happen.
The last evening that we were there, though, it did. I was walking into the kitchen, carrying some of my sister-in-law’s fine china bowls, looking at the table where I was going to set them down. Intent on that task I once again forgot the board across the doorway and walked right into it. But this time because I was entering the kitchen and the board was up against the walls from the outside, it did not knock down. Instead, I fell, landing on my left arm on the tile floor with a loud crash, the china flying out of my hands and smashing into about a hundred pieces.
After a few hours in the ER, followed by a poor night’s sleep, we abandoned our plans to visit other relatives and instead headed for home and an appointment with my orthopedic doctor. As I lived into the disappointment and the new reality of painful injury and limitations, I became angry with my brother-in-law that I had been hurt falling over the board. I started an inward rehearsal of grievances as over and over again I would feel a rise of anger and resentment, which distilled into two thoughts: “he should have removed the boards after we knocked them down a few times” and “he owes me an apology.” These thoughts came to preoccupy me through the long hours of the car ride from Long Island to Indiana, and when I voiced them, poor Michael had to hear me complain and rage. I kept thinking about it and my anger and resentment kept building.
But after a day or so of this preoccupation I found that the fury and resentment were making me feel worse than the injury itself - it had gotten emotionally and spiritually out of hand. So as the angry thoughts and the feelings of wordless rage would arise I began to throw them at God, and Spirit met me in my inner groaning.
I started to do this each time that the feelings and thoughts flooded over me, which was quite often; I was like the picture of the first jar on the bulletin cover, filled with muddy water:
But as I did this repeatedly, slowly the sediment began to settle into the bottom of the jar of my heart as Spirit’s insight began to confront me with an uncomfortable truth: even though I had been uneasy about the potential for falling if I walked into the board going into the kitchen, I never asked for the boards to be removed. Clarity emerged that I could not blame my brother-in-law when I had noticed the potential for a dangerous fall but then did nothing about it.
Through bringing my resentful groaning into this wordless rage-prayer, the water in my inner jar began to become clear, just as the picture shows. Spirit challenged me to be a grownup and recognize that, while I had realized the potential danger, I didn’t act on that awareness and ended up suffering because that very thing occurred. Rather than blaming my brother-in-law, God was calling me to take responsibility for my fall. As I did this my anger began to dissipate and leave me in peace.
Anything that causes us to struggle and groaning is fitting to bring to prayer. We do not need to wait until we have words or to clean it up in any way – we have Spirit help to groan with us, and from chaotic mess we can find divine guidance and loving support.
As we move into the period in our worship when we explicitly let go of words and bring ourselves exactly as we are into waiting on Spirit, I invite you to consider in what ways you might be experiencing the groaning of creation, of individuals, and groups whose struggles touch your heart. What might be points of distress regarding your personal challenges or a break in a relationship about which your heart groans? How might you bring this to prayer, knowing that you don’t need to have “the right” words - or any words at all - but that Spirit understands our need and “makes prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans”? How might you have patience to persist in offering this need and waiting so that perhaps the stirred-up messy turmoil of your groaning can gradually settle, like the water in the jar, into clarity of guidance for responding?
. . . Paul names creation’s suffering by comparing it to the groans of a woman in labor (sustenazō, verse 22), painful cries from the depth of her being during that time between times when she does not yet know whether the outcome will be life or death . . . We, too, suffer in ways large and small as we groan inwardly (stenazō, verse 23) while we wait for the fulfillment of our adoption, and even the Spirit groans (“sighs,” stenagmos ,verse 26) as it gives voice to our deepest longings. This shared “groaning” is testimony that God is present in the midst of our greatest need, even when we do not have the words to name it. - Audrey West
New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2020 Stephanie Crumley-Effinger. All rights reserved.