It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything; recovering from a back injury has necessitated that I limit the amount of time I spend in front of the computer. I thought I’d break my silence with the text of a sermon I preached in the Providence Community Chapel yesterday during the school’s Week of Prayer. Perhaps the sermon can in some way be as edifying for you to read as it was for me to preach.
When Professor Lortie first approached me about preaching in Chapel during the Week of Prayer, I was somewhat reluctant to take up his invitation. For I’ve been in too many prayer events over the years where the preacher has attempted to make his listeners feel guilty over their lack of prayerfulness and then harness that guilt to steer them into an intense period of prayer activities. While it is quite likely true that most of us do need to spend more time in prayer, this is not the Gospel. Instead, these preachers are like the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus chastised for tying up heavy burdens too hard to bear and laying them upon the shoulders of others, while they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. In a time when many of our lives have been turned upside down by a global pandemic, the last thing I want to do is add one more item to your ever-lengthening to-do lists. Nor do I have any desire to ratchet up the pressure when the valves in many of our lives are already set to burst. But it is not only the legacy of manipulative prayer meeting preachers combined with our time of global pandemic that has caused me some pause. It was also the awareness that although I have been praying for years, I still feel like an amateur when it comes to prayer.
This has been underscored for me in recent days by my interactions with a friend who serves as a pastor. Just before Christmas this pastor lost their spouse in a tragic accident and in the days that have followed they have led a Job-like existence being struck by one inconvenience, calamity, or trial after another. I’ve often found myself at a loss for words, not knowing what to say or how to pray, as I talked with them over the phone, not even being able to meet with them in person due to the lockdown. Sighing and groaning have largely marked the form of my pastoral presence to this servant of the Lord going through this season of suffering in the midst of an out-of-joint world.
For these reasons, I was not particularly eager to take up the mantle of Week of Prayer preacher. However, as a member of the Chapel Committee I have had a front row seat to see how hard Professor Lortie has been working during this most unusual year to keep the Community Chapels afloat, so if I could in some way make his life easier by accepting the invitation, I felt like I had to do it.
The gift that I received for my magnanimity was the opportunity to preach on this compelling passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is truly a timely word. It is a word for a suffering and beleaguered people. A word for a world imprisoned by the shackles of death and decay. A word of hope amid chaos, the promise of redemption from corruption, and the pledge of a glory to be revealed that far surpasses this present darkness. And what is perhaps most interesting for our purposes is that what stands as the fulcrum between the old world that is passing away and the new creation that is dawning is prayer. Or, more precisely, the Holy Spirit who emboldens us to pray.
In our passage we see that prayer is joining in the groaning of the whole of creation. This occurs not as we flee from, but rather as we enter into the deepest places of need and suffering. The apostle Paul goes even further by telling us that in our weakness we don’t even actually know how to pray. But this is not a problem, for prayer is not really about us getting our act together and putting on a good performance, rather it is about the Spirit sweeping us up into God’s life by groaning in and through us with sighs too deep for words.
We join the Spirit’s groaning because through that same Spirit we sense that something is not right with the world or even right with ourselves. This hunch or suspicion is confirmed for us by the same Spirit who pierces the shadows like a spotlight illumining the figure of the Crucified and Risen Christ. In the Person who stands among his disciples risen from the grave bearing the wounds in his hands and side, we are given a glimpse of the true end of all things. Death does not have the last word. The regimes of fear which seek to dominate our lives have been proven impotent before the truth of a love the grave could not contain. In Christ, we behold the life-giving power of God that triumphs over all that seeks to dehumanize and destroy.
This revelation is for us a sort of Exodus. Like Israel being rescued from slavery in Egypt, we have been released from the grasp of the tendrils of Sin and Death. As the cloud of smoke by day and pillar of fire by night went before the Hebrews, the Holy Spirit now leads us out from slavery to fear into the freedom of resurrection life. However, like our ancestors in the faith we have not yet reached the Promised Land. The decisive intervention has occurred – there is no rolling back the stone – but we have not yet arrived in the land flowing with milk and honey. Scorpions inhabit the wilderness of this time between the times and bread and water are often scarce. So, in the midst of our pilgrimage, we groan with the Spirit in a way that only those who have met the Risen One can groan. We groan because in knowing Him, we know that the way things are is not the way they have to be, or the way they ultimately will be.
As the Spirit groans within us interceding for us, we find ourselves joining our voices with the Risen One who now lives to intercede for us at the right hand of God. With our brother, Jesus, we cry “Abba! Father!” for we have been adopted into the family of God. And if we are God’s children, then we are in line for the inheritance that belongs to the children. To call upon God as our Father is to receive the assurance that nothing – neither death nor life, nor COVID, nor constitutional crises, nor crashing markets, nor political uprisings, nor demons without, nor demons within, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As you continue in this Week of Prayer, I hope you see from our passage that prayer is not another hard task cruelly placed upon our backs leaving our knees buckling under its weight, rather it is a gift that sets us on our feet to claim our true identity as God’s children. To pray is to be swept up in a conversation that has been going on from before the beginning of the world between the Almighty Lover and His Only Beloved in the bond of Eternal Love.
The soon-to-be-released issue of Didaskalia, Providence’s own theological journal, includes a charge given by Pastor Peter Bush on the occasion of the ordination of a young pastor. In the sermon, Bush laments the professionalization of the clergy that has occurred in recent years and calls upon the young minister to embrace the life of an amateur, reminding her that the word amateur finds its origins in the root meaning “to love.” In other words, amateurs are lovers. So, this morning, when it comes to prayer, I encourage you to delight in your amateur status. For we pray because we are lovers; lovers who have been loved into loving by a love fiercer than the grave. Praise be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – Love without end. Amen.