Words With Friends (Sermon on Romans 8:22-27)
We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.
In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will.
Romans 8:22-27 (CEB)
One of my pleasures each day is playing a game called Words With Friends. It is Scrabble that you can play on your phone with others who have the same game on their phones. I enjoy playing Words With Friends. It seems to me a sermon could be called Words With Friends. You are my friends, and for a few minutes I share words with you. You share your words with me all through the week too. I’d like to share three words with you my friends today, and they are represented by the three Scrabble tiles on the bulletin. G H and P.
G stands for groaning. Our scripture is from Paul’s letter to the Romans. He speaks about all creation groaning, and we ourselves groaning, yearning to be set free from our bodies and our circumstances. At some point in life we all will groan. The word for groaning he uses is stenadzo, and the root is stenos, which means a narrow, confined space. When you are stuck in a narrow space, with no way to get free, then you groan.
Think of a person in a hospital bed. Medicine has done all it can do for them, and they are not going to get better. So they groan. Think of someone in a hard and difficult marriage. Things have been tough in their marriage for a long time, and they don’t expect it to change. So they groan. Think of someone in a factory job. The work load gets more and more, and there never seems to be an end to it. They’d love to leave the job, but they need the income. So they groan. Think of someone in a big city, living in a crime infested neighborhood. There are shootings practically every week, and no one seems to be able to change it. They can’t simply move away. So they groan.
In these ways and many others, people find themselves stuck in a narrow space, unable to get away. In her book Dakota, on the very last page, Kathleen Norris says, “All you have to do is allow the place you are in happen to you: the loneliness, the silence, the poverty, the futility, indeed the silliness of your life.” If that place describes your place today, you are probably groaning.
The second word begins with H. Hoping. Paul says, “We were saved in hope.” And he goes on in a few lines to mention the word ‘hope’ 5 times. He believes hope is possible in any situation, even ones that make us groan. He believes hope is the normal Christian experience.
Henri Nouwen tells a little parable. A sister and her brother are having a conversation in the womb. They are a pair of twins yet to be born, and they are talking. She says, “I believe there is life beyond birth.” Her brother says, “No, that’s just a dream. All we have is this dark place we are in, with this cord we cling to. There is nothing else.” She says, “But I can’t help but believe there is a place beyond where we are, a place of light and freedom and movement.” Her brother says, “No, there isn’t anything else.” She says, “I have also come to believe that there is a Mother.” At this her brother gets angry, “There is no mother! There is no life after this place. This is all we have. Be realistic.” She says, “But sometimes we feel this pressure squeezing us from outside. It makes me uncomfortable. But it reminds me that there must be life after birth, life beyond where we are, a life where we will see our mother face to face.” At this her brother turns away from her and stops talking. The conversation is over.
This parable reminds me of two kinds of people, the ones who have hope and the ones who do not. And sometimes the two people are us at different times in our life, having hope and not having hope. The question for us is this: when we are in that narrow, confined space that makes us groan, and hope is hard to come by, how can we find hope again?
That brings me to the third letter P, and the third word Praying. Paul speaks of the Spirit of God coming inside of us to help us, and he makes the astonishing statement, “We don’t know what we should pray.” We don’t know how to pray at all, but the Spirit within us prays within us with words and groans that cannot be expressed.
I have been a minister for 17 years. One of the occupational hazards of being a minister is that since you are called on so often to pray, it is easy to think you know how to pray. It is easy to forget that none of us really knows how to pray, or even what to say to God. So God comes within us to help us.
There is a business downtown called Ink Fever. It’s a tattoo shop. It’s owned by a woman named Anissa, who has an art degree from Siena Heights. She puts on her blue gloves and gets out her ink gun, which makes little holes in the skin and leaves ink there. She is very good at it. Her work was highlighted in the newspaper a few months ago. On the walls are pictures of lots of different designs you can get. There is a display of religious tattoos, including prayers people have had written on their bodies. The Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, or simple one-word prayers like faith or mercy. Anissa will write those prayers on their bodies.
This is one of the stranger analogies I’ve made in a sermon. But I see the Spirit of God praying in us as a kind of tattoo artist. The tattoo artist can write a prayer on the skin. The Spirit writes prayers on the walls of our hearts. The Spirit is at work in us, writing these prayers in us in indelible ink. Thomas a Kempis, the medieval mystic, said that God takes up residence in us and writes God’s own name on our hearts. It is as if God is claiming ownership and protection over us. It is like God is saying, “In life, in death, in life beyond death, this person belongs to me, so I will write my name here.” Frederick Buechner said that each of us is really a mystic, whether we realize it or not, because each of us senses within us, in our depths, a something or a someone with the power to bless us.
When I am in a groaning time, and I can’t seem to find the capacity for hope, what helps me is to realize that I am not left to my own resources. There is a something, call it the Spirit of God, that is within me — hoping, yearning, groaning, praying on my behalf. A something inside that blesses me and sets me free, now and forever from now.
I may not have explained all this very well. It’s hard to put it in words. If something I have said strikes you, hold onto it and let the rest go. But please know that I’ve enjoyed playing Words With Friends today. We’ll play again later.