Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sunday Sermon: The Right Words

Based on Romans 8:26-39

An old, old story:
It is the night of Passover. A peasant is rushing to finish his work in the fields so that he can attend the holy service. But, alas, the sun drops and it is darkness when no travel is permitted.
The next day the rabbi spots him and asks him where he’s been. “Oh, Rabbi, it was terrible – I was stuck in my fields after dark and had to spend the night there.”
“Well, says the rabbi, “I suppose you at least recited your prayers.”
“That’s the worst of it, Rabbi, I couldn’t remember a single prayer. “Then how did you spend the holy evening?” says the rabbi. “What did you do?”

What do you do?”
That’s the question. What do you do? When you can’t find the right words.... it’s not as easy as it appears.... finding the right words, at the right time.
And sometimes, words disappear at just the moment you need them most.
Perhaps it’s a time of stress or grief.
Just when you are trying to write a card to your friend who was just diagnosed with cancer, you can’t remember or think of a single thing to write that doesn’t sound cheap.
Or perhaps you are standing in front of a family who has just lost a child, and you open your mouth and nothing comes out.
Or perhaps you are trying to express your own pain when darkness or fear descends. The right words, or any words, just won’t come out.
Perhaps at a time of deep joy, as you stand face to face in front of someone who has promised to be with you “in sickness and in health, for richer/for poorer”
or when you have witnessed unexpected abundance, and instead of words there is a lump in your throat.
Perhaps you are one who would really like to get up at a funeral and “say a few words” about your mother or your great-aunt, or your cousin, and you know you just couldn’t.
And you envy those who can.

It’s the same thing with prayer, isn’t it?
I know some people who pray easily, and others who can’t seem to get the words out,
some people who seem to know exactly what to say to God in every situation, and some people who have no idea what might be ‘the right words’.
In front of God they are tongue-tied and mute, like the peasant standing in his fields after dark, unable to say the right words. Or any words.

Paul says that this is actually our natural state before God. We are all actually more like that peasant than we care to admit.
“We do not know how to pray as we ought....” not some of us, not those who are shy, not those who don’t know God, just “we” – “we do not know how to pray as we ought....”.
We don’t know how to pray, and we don’t know what to pray. Not really. Even those of us who are most eloquent when we pray, who always seem to know what to tell God, do not know how to pray as we ought.
And others of us are just honest enough to say – we really don’t know what to pray for.

When your child is ill, when a friends’ marriage is coming apart, when terrorists invade, what do you pray for?
Peace? Revenge? Healing? Comfort?
A new start? Or do you just open your mouth and no words will come out, because we really don’t know how to pray, or what to pray for.
We just know that it’s dark, and we feel alone, and every word seems like a foreign language.

And what does it matter, anyway? Prayer is such an odd activity, speaking to a hidden God.
You know, there are people who don’t pray at all. Not even at meal time.
I remember visiting a couple once, from my church.
And they invited me to pray before our dinner, because, they said. They really don’t.
They really wouldn’t know what to say.
So they don’t.
And why is it so important, anyway?
Isn’t it more important how we live our lives, what we do, how we serve?

Except for two things. If Romans 8 is correct – prayer is at the heart of the gospel, the heart of our relationship with God, the God who longs to be connected with us, who promises us that nothing can separate us from his love.
Prayer is not extra-curricular activity, it is at the heart of the promise of the God to be with us in everything, to be out in the fields after dark, to be standing with us, walking with us in our moments of deep joy, in our times of deep suffering, at all the times when the right words will not come out.
Prayer is God’s promise to hear us, to be with us, to walk with us, to make the words come out right, even when everything is going so wrong.
Prayer is God’s promise to be in the struggle with us, with the marriage that’s going south, with the chronic illness, the grief you feel, the daily joys, the daily sorrows.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love.

Prayer is not extra-curricular activity – and it’s not just prayer that we’re not good at. We also do not know how to live as we ought, not really.
We’re stumbling all the time, you and me, and our lives are sometimes as jumbled and tongue-tied as our prayers.
So, what do you do? What do you do?

What did you do?
The rabbi asked the peasant long ago.
Oh, the peasant said, “I could only recite the alphabet and pray that God would re-arrange the letters.”

“the spirit intercedes for us....” The Spirit takes our jumbled and tongue-tied words, and somehow makes a prayer out of them.
The Spirit takes our tongue-tied lives and somehow makes an offering out of them.
That is what it means to intercede.
To intercede is to give a voice to someone who has no voice, to make a bridge to bring people together who were separate, to make communication possible.
Child advocates speak up for children who are vulnerable, making sure their interests are represented, since they have no vote.
Others advocate for the poor and the homeless, for those who are weak, for those who are abused.

When we pray here in church for our neighbors, we always remember those who are not able to pray themselves, those who are speechless for whatever reasons, sickness or despair, poverty or weakness or ignorance.

We want to give voice to their concerns, to connect them somehow to God who cares for them.

So the Spirit stands with us in our prayers, and in our lives, interceding for us, interpreting our cries, our groans, our laughter, our tears.
So the Spirit stands with us in our lives, as well, in our service, in our struggles, in our confusion, doubt, fear. We’re not alone in life.
God is in it with us.

When you open your mouth to talk to God, about your life, about your family, about your marriage, about the world, and you don’t know what to say; Take courage. You’re not alone.
God is in it with you.
Nothing can separate you from the love of God, not your worry for your children or grandchildren, not your failures or successes at work or at home, not your grieving or your weakness.
Your life might be as jumbled and confusing as your prayers, but God is in it with you.
You’re not alone.
God is in it with you.

Not to make everything perfect, not to fix every mistake, not to make sure your life flows smoothly all the time.

But to get you through. To work through all things. To make your life a prayer, somehow.
God is in it with you.

After all, that is the point.
The point is: nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Not life or death or grief.
Not dangers, toils or snares.
Not groans or sighs.
Whether you are out in the field and the darkness is descending, or out in the world struggling to make sense of your life: you are not alone.
The Spirit intercedes for you.

When the right words won’t come....
The right word is given.
When our sentences trail off, the right word is given to us.
When there is a lump in our throats, the right word rises up.

And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.
Full of grace and truth.

1 comment:

8thdayplanner said...

When I have trouble finding words I fall back to this:

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

- Meister Eckhart