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Open My Heart, Illumine Me, Spirit Divine

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