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Sighs of the Spirit

This sermon was first preached at an online worship service on Sunday, July 26 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square as part of a sermon series on the book of Romans. Relevant reading here.

[ deep sigh ]

The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

[ deep sigh ]

When I have been a part of conversations at St. Luke’s and in my personal life these past few months, check-ins have often included heavy sighs. It’s hard to even know how we are doing. Do we measure each day by what we remember as “normal life?” Or in this strange reality we are now finding ourselves in? The metrics seem off. Even when things are going well, it’s like there is an unspoken addendum. “Things are good….all things considered.”

Some days are better than other days. And then, randomly, some days are hard, really hard. Minor daily tasks feel overwhelming. Motivation is lacking. Everything feels kind of gray. Even as we adapt to this new normal, even when, for some of us, the good days (all things considered) are more consistent, it’s impossible to know when a hard day will hit. We are all on this pandemic rollercoaster. Except it’s a lot less fun than an amusement park ride and there’s no clear picture of when it might end.

Our needs and the needs of our families and communities seem ever present. And out of reach. It’s hard to even know what those needs are sometimes. We run out of words when we are overwhelmed by grief or sickness or pain or death. We try to pray, our spirits are restless, and nothing comes out. We are just surviving, coping, the best we can.

Our reading from Romans today asks us, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” But it feels like there’s a lot of things against us right now. We are in month 4 of social distancing. Stimulus checks have dried up and some of us have lost our income, or most of it. Some of us feel lonely, others can’t get a moment of peace to ourselves. We don’t know what the next school year will bring, if our kids will be safe, if teachers will be safe, if students will get the social interactions they crave and the education they deserve. It feels like we are losing our giants and heroes left and right this week, people like C.T. Vivian and Representative John Lewis, legends that felt almost immortal, but who now have died. Fascism is again on the rise, with Gestapo style kidnappings happening in Portland by the feds and Trump threatening that Chicago will be next. White supremacy and state violence are surging. CPD sucker punched a Black teenager last weekend at a protest and knocked her teeth out.

If God is for us, who can be against us? There’s a lot against us right now. And people are crying out.

Moms at their breaking point, snapping at our kids and then crying over a glass of wine. Teachers (ugh!) exasperatedly revamping lesson plans.  Loved ones sobbing at video-chat goodbyes in the ICU or at socially distant funerals. Activists in the streets wailing as medics rinse the tear gas out of their eyes.

And in those cries – the snapping, the exasperation, the sobbing, the wailing, the sighs – are all wordless prayers, expressions of the Spirit. The snapping, the exasperation, the sobbing, the wailing, the sighs – these faltering supplications are felt, and known, and gathered up by the Spirit to be delivered directly to the heart of God.

There is this narrative out there that in order for our prayers to be answered they have to be worded just right. It’s like, prayers are magic spells, and if you mispronounce the words you might get more than you bargained for. Or like the trope in old fairy tales, where if you don’t word your wish just right, you get tricked by a loophole and receive something completely unhelpful. But Paul reminds us in this letter that actually, that is not true of our God at all. Our God doesn’t need eloquent words or poetic prayer. Our prayers don’t have to be in perfect iambic pentameter.

They don’t have to be words at all.

In fact, it is through our weaknesses that the Spirit enters through. It is through our uncertainty. In the midst of so much transition in our personal lives, in our world, and even here at St. Luke’s, we don’t actually have to have it all figured out before God can work. We don’t have to have our strong policies already in place. We don’t have to have an increase in giving or a growing bank account. We don’t have to have the details clearly outlined. Our weakness is where God hears us, God intercedes for us, and God begins to work.

St. Luke’s is trying to do some big things right now. We are figuring out stuff with our building, our ministry partners, our mission, our staffing patterns, worship during the pandemic, and all kinds of other things too. We are looking at doing some really big things with what feels like very little money in the bank, very little energy for adventures, and very little capacity to make it happen. But the Spirit is right there with us, in these weaknesses, working these things out cosmically in realms we can’t see.

This passage in Romans is a passage of hope. And it is not written by or for people who are unfamiliar with loss, or stress, or conflict, or uncertainty. Paul and the Church in Romans have experienced hardship, and distress, and persecution, and famine, and nakedness, and peril, and the sword.

And even more importantly, God has experienced those things too. This hope in Christ is not pie in the sky from someone who doesn’t know what we are going through. Jesus entered into a world full of disease, without widespread access to healthcare. Jesus experienced loneliness and the pressures of a community who constantly needed him. Jesus had tension with family and friends and followers. Jesus was surveilled by the state, kidnapped by the feds, beaten by the cops, before being hung from a tree. In Christ we experience hope AND solidarity, which makes that hope tangible and real.

Even when it feels like it, and these days it often feels this way, the future is not foreboding. We don’t have to face tomorrow with dread, constantly worrying about what might be next. We can look to the examples of our ancestors, the people who Paul was writing to, Christians in the heart of the Empire at a time when Christians were persecuted by the Empire. These ancestors in the faith took risks because they believed in the hope given to them through Jesus Christ. They were able to be faithful and courageous. And because of that, we now look to their stories as another sign of hope and solidarity.

I completed my Clinical Pastoral Education at Mount Sinai hospital here in Chicago, a hospital founded by Jewish people to serve those often left out and underserved by our healthcare system. At the time of its founding, that was Jewish immigrants who other hospitals refused to serve because of their own anti-semitism. But now, Mount Sinai primarily serves Black and Brown people, many of them without insurance or even citizenship, fulfilling that mission to serve the underserved even as the details of who is undeserved have shifted.

Mount Sinai was a place that tried to pull rabbits out of hats, making something out of nothing, giving people healthcare with very little funding and resources. And during my time there, I met up with a family in the ICU who was taking their beloved Matriarch off of life support.

This was before COVID, and so this elderly woman had a hospital room full of loved ones surrounding her. Children, nieces and nephews, cousins, and all kinds of relatives. She was a grandma, a great grandma, a great great grandma, an auntie, a mother, and more. As a chaplain, I began to lead the family through the liturgy we use when we are taking someone off of life support. After praying, I began to read one of the suggested readings for the occasion. These verses. The verses from Romans we read today.

As I was reading, “For I am convinced, neither death nor life – “ I only got a few words into the verse when the entire room of people joined in. From memory. Multiple generations adding their voices to say, “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,” voices getting stronger as more joined in to recite, “nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor all of creation can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

I had stopped reading entirely about halfway through because I had started crying. I asked them how they all knew these verses so well, by heart. I learned that these verses were a favorite passage of their beloved Matriarch. She taught it to them. All of them. And now they teach it to their descendents, their loved ones. 

Our ancestors make a way for us with their faithfulness. The choices that they made have brought us to this point, so that we can step out courageously and be faithful too. Even when we don’t know what the result will be, even when we don’t see all the fruits of our labors.

And one day, we will be elders and ancestors. And our choices and our faithfulness will echo throughout the generations. And our descendents will thank us for the times that we labored for a vision we couldn’t quite see clearly, for the ways we stepped out in faith, for the hope that we clung to even and especially when things seemed impossible.

We are facing right now, at St. Luke’s and in the world, things bigger than many of us could’ve imagined even a few months ago. There are tough decisions ahead of us, and hard work. But even bigger than these challenges, even stronger than this uncertainty is the love of God who will be there with us through it all.

For I am convinced.
Neither death, nor life
Nor pandemics nor fluctuating school plans
Nor rising fascism, nor police brutality
Nor risky transitions, nor dwindling savings accounts
Nor our own actions, nor our doubt
Nor anything else in all of creation
Nothing
Will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Amen 

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