Dave Clark sermon: Sighs too Deep for Words
Romans 8:26-39 August 10, 2014
Rev. David J. Clark
If our congregation is open and affirming, you could call the eighth chapter of Romans elegant and affirming. It’s an eloquent portrayal of God’s love that won’t let us go and watches how God cares for us even when we aren’t aware of it. What has always captured me is the bit where Paul says that when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words and prays for us. That is, when we are low and confused and sighing in frustration or grief or whatever, we don’t have to worry about getting the words or thoughts right for God to understand our prayers and respond.
Have you ever had a situation where you wanted to pray but just couldn’t figure out what to say? Maybe you have had conflicting feelings, and don’t really know what you want. You watch the evening news with all the violence, refugee children, starvation and you sigh. You want to pray for that promotion that will move you across the country, but it means leaving family behind. (Sigh) Or you pray for someone to get out of a difficult situation, but you also sense that they aren’t really going to “get it” until they learn lessons the hard way? (Sigh) Are you allowed to pray for someone to hit rock bottom? Maybe you have stood at the bedside of someone you love desperately. They are ashen and gray, struggling for breath. You want them to live, but you also want their suffering to end. What do you pray for—a miracle or for them to die and soon? (Sigh). Maybe you are just frustrated, confused, weary, tired of praying because it feels like your prayers are just bouncing off the ceiling and depleting the little faith you do have. (Sigh).
When my spirit is sighing with the weight of my problems, I’m bolstered by this notion Spirit is interceding with sighs too deep for words—something that is beyond language and impresses on God just what I’m really going through inside. The passage says that the whole creation groans when we are in a bad way. The Spirit goes beyond words, with sighs and sends prayers on your behalf to the loving Creator.
This means that prayer isn’t about finding the right words. Sometimes we act as if the words in our prayers are magic spells that cause God to act on our behalf and we need to get it just right. Remember the first Harry Potter movie where the kids wave their wands trying to say “Leviosa” just right? If they say it right, on object will rise, levitate, but if they don’t say it correctly then all sorts of strange and unintended things happen. The kids go around practicing, “Leviosa.”
We may start feeling like the reason that our prayers aren’t “working” is because we aren’t saying the right words. We don’t know how to talk to God. Some people sprinkle churchy phrases into their prayers. Throw in some Thees and Thous. In the church I grew up in, they had a printed prayer of confession where we humbly beseeched God to forgive our “manifold sins” and weaknesses. Manifold? I didn’t know what that was, other than something in a car engine and I knew that I hadn’t committed any car sins so I refused to pray that part.
I also remember being taught that prayers had to have a certain structure to be proper. They had to start with Dear God, like a letter and they were supposed to first say thank you for things you appreciate, they were to confess stuff you’ve done wrong and ask for forgiveness, then you prayed for other people then finally after you’ve buttered up God enough, you could ask for what you really started the prayer for in the first place. I remember going through all that and falling asleep before I said “Amen,” and wondering if it still counted, of if I had to go through it all over again.
What if it’s not really about our words but about our spirit and attitude?
Sometimes our words get in the way. We act like the kids saying Leviosa, believing our words are like magical spells that direct God to act in a certain way. Like we know what is best all the time? Yeah, sure. Like our plan for someone else is best, like our way is better than anything God will come up with for them or us?
I suggest that if the Spirit is sighing in prayer, that maybe a sigh is a good enough prayer. It’s what God responds to, not your fancy words, the images you create, but a heart that opens up. If you think about it, a sigh is nothing more than a letting go. It is letting go and squeezing out of all your breath. It’s like a mini-death. We have to let go before we breathe in again.
I think that prayer as sigh is a sign of surrender to God’s will. It isn’t about trying to manipulate God, but to communicate an openness and to realize that your words cannot capture all that is in your heart. Just open it up.
Maybe you’ve never prayed this way. Let’s give it a go, shall we? Close your eyes; breathe deeply. Open your hands as a sign of surrender to God’s amazing love and care for you; let them be open as a sign of being open to all the challenges and possibilities the divine spirit offers you. Bring into focus a situation where you want God. Maybe it’s a relationship, a personal problem or struggle, maybe it’s a health concern or an attitude or behavior that you can’t get under control. Maybe you can’t even define what the problem is; you just sense that something isn’t right. You don’t have to have the solution and order God to give it to you. Instead, let go of trying to control everything and just allow yourself a quiet sigh from your heart. Give it over to God and let God fill your empty hands with the blessings in life your Creator has in store for you.
For some of you that may be the most honest and faithful prayer you have ever prayed. Your sighs are prayers. Learn to live in that kind of attitude where you are surrendering to God’s will and open to the gifts of God and you will lead a life of prayer. Prayer isn’t about words; it’s about walking around life with an openness, and trust.
Of course the only way you can do this is to trust that God is good and really cares about you and has good things in store for you. That is where the rest of our lesson comes in so powerfully. When we think that our sin causes God to reject us, or that God won’t help us until we get our lives perfect, we set ourselves up for failure. You aren’t ever going to be perfect. God isn’t interested in that, but helping to make life better. There is a wonderful line in Romans 8 about the fact that nothing can separate us from God’s love, God is always engaged and wanting to help.
How does the Spirit intercede, what good is it? Does God magically make our problems go away? Actually, I believe, yes, sometimes, we pray and they do go away. But that is exceedingly rare. God do like Superman did and spin around the world and make it go backward in time and undo all the things that happen to us or even the dumb things we do. But God gives us a community. God gives us people who care and will help us in our weakness, to support us. And this community is called the church. It is born out of the suffering and death of Jesus and recognizes the darkness that each person goes through as part of the human condition. Thank God for it because it means we are not alone in our darkness. Creation groans, God’s spirit sighs, and we pray with you. You get a community of love and support who will help sustain you.
But so often our faith isn’t seen that way. All the people who make it sound like God rejects everyone who is not like they are must make God’s spirit sigh.
Yesterday I went to the Orange County Pride Festival to help at a booth for my wife’s church in Orange. Across from her booth was the atheist booth and the guy looked kind of grumpy over there and had a black chalkboard that he had written a sign about how atheists aren’t judgmental and condemning like church people. I had a chance to talk with him a little and he said he wanted to do something positive instead of being against stuff like the atheist movement often gets into. I think he was surprised to see that in addition to my wife’s church, the UCC Irvine church was right near him and the Episcopalians and other congregations just around the corner.
He had to sit there all day watching the people at my wife’s church sit under a banner that said “Be Loved.” And people from her church would catch people’s attention and ask, “Do you want to be loved?” Everyone smiled. Most said, “Yes!” And folks from church draped these be loved necklaces on them almost as if it were an ordination saying, “You are loved by the people of First Christian Church, Orange.” It was amazing to walk around the festival seeing hundreds of people with these badges and necklaces.
When I returned for the clean-up later in the evening, I noticed that the atheist had re-written his sign to something about everything thought to be supernatural isn’t magic, but has a scientific explanation. I guess it didn’t really feel authentic to claim that all church people are haters when you had to watch what was going on at the FCCO booth all day. Maybe we can help people change their signs, the misperceptions they have about our faith, about God’s love and be for them the beloved community, the answer to sighs too deep for words. That’s where the magic really is—when someone sees themselves as part of the community, cared for and loved.
Pastor David Clark is interim senior pastor for the Redlands United Church of Christ. Pastor Dave Clark began his ministry in Redlands in 2013.
Pastor Dave Clark sermon: Sighs too Deep for Words was delivered in Redlands United Church of Christ, Redlands, California. Former Indianola Iowa Pastor David Clark is now Senior Pastor of Redlands UCC.