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Groans Too Deep

Romans 8:26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes[q] with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God,[r] who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit[s] intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

I think it’s pretty important that we pray. We pray here, together, sure, but I also think it’s something that we should try to make a part of our days. Which maybe sounds odd, not because you disagree, but because that’s not necessarily something we talk about a lot here. We pray a lot here, but we tend to talk about other things.

Maybe that’s because we’re so sick of hearing about peoples’ “thoughts and prayers.” Is there a cringier phrase than “thoughts and prayers?” This always comes up after a school shooting or some other very preventable atrocity, where there’s a whole chorus of people offering thoughts and prayers where what’s needed are laws and policies. And so “prayer” becomes a way of making inward and individual what should be outward and political.

That kind of “prayer” is actually just spiritualized despair. It’s not supposed to move anyone to do anything. No one actually expects it to do anything, because there’s nothing to be done. The world just is what it is and there’s not really a god who could do anything about it. “Thoughts and prayers” is really just a way of saying, “Hey, keep those bad feelings to yourself, you’re messing up everyone else’s vibes.”

And there’s this other closely related aspect of that kind of “prayer.” Because that “god” is so flimsy and ineffectual, there are certain things you really can’t pray to that god. You certainly can’t be angry at that god. You can’t make demands of that god. And so prayer or contemplation become practices of accepting the world as it is and rejecting my anger or desires. Prayer, then, is really just training in a bourgeois politeness where we give honor and kudos to our rulers for not actually doing anything.

But in our Scriptures, prayer is a lot rowdier than all that. Prayer isn’t a retreat from a world that’s not changing, and it’s not us blessing the world as it is. Prayer is our demand that God needs to make another world possible, and we make that demand, of God and our neighbors and ourselves, because we think God really can do that. But even more than that, in our Scripture this morning, we hear that God is actually the one stirring us up to make demands of God.

I think we often have this picture in our heads that we’re “down here” and God is “up there” and so praying is basically us trying to toss our thoughts like paper airplanes from “down here” to “up there.” But we’re fundamentally on our own down here, and praying is trying to get a response from elsewhere. But in our Scripture this morning, the Apostle Paul gives us a different visual. Paul says that when we cry out to God, God’s Spirit is already with us. When we haven’t even formulated our thoughts and prayers, God’s Spirit is somehow prior to our desires, groaning with us in sighs too deep for words. So the picture here is not us alone down below trying to cajole something from God alone up above. The Spirit of God is already beneath us, with us, around us, and in our midst helping us to look and long beyond this world. The very movement to pray, the very inclination or desire to see God at work in the world is, according to Paul, already stirred up by the Spirit.

And that changes that nature of our prayers. Again, when the assumption is that God’s definitely not here already and probably doesn’t exist at all, then our prayers curl around everything we don’t think is possible and don’t want to admit to ourselves. That kind of prayer is an exercise in avoidance. But if we assume that the very inclination to pray is also God’s presence with us, and if we assume that God is at work in the world and in our lives, in our deepest intuitions and desires, then a whole different genre of prayer opens up.

I want you to think about the difference between how you talk to your boss and how you talk to your parents (maybe, substitute an elder figure with whom you have a healthy relationship if it’s not your parents). Paul says that we’ve been given a sprit of adoption not a spirit of servitude—that’s what our relationship to God is like. You know your boss doesn’t really have your back or if they do, it’s only with conditions. Break those conditions, and their “care” for you ends. So the way you talk to your boss, the way you ask for time off or a raise or a promotion, curls around that fundamental assumption that they’re probably not gonna do anything—you have to play this deferential game where you act like whatever made up stuff they’re talking about actually matters.

Compare that to the way you talk to your parents (or some other adult or person you’re close to). I’m fortunate to have a relationship with my parents where I don’t have to hold back. If I’m frustrated about something, I can tell them about it with all the colorful language I can call to mind. If I’m frustrated with them, I can say “Dad, what the hell?!” The point is that there are some relationships where it’s just a given that that person has your back, and that changes how you talk to them, it changes what you let yourself say around them and a feel around them; and that’s why it’s in those relationships that we really feel like ourselves, because we’re not making ourselves smaller or curling ourselves around the knowledge that they don’t actually give a shit about us.

And Paul is saying that that is what our posture can and should be toward God. With God, you don’t have to be polite and deferential and respectable, you don’t even have to have words. Your prayer can just be “God, what the hell?!” And that is actually a profound kind of belief because that prayer assumes that God is real and cares about us and is obligated to us and could make things different.

This is why the Psalms, this ancient book of prayers that Jews and Christians have used for worship for thousands of years, encompasses every possible human emotion. There’s nothing held back in the Psalms. Consider, for example, Psalm 82:

God takes God’s stand in the divine assembly,

In the midst of the gods renders judgment.

“How long will you judge dishonestly,

And show favor to the wicked?

Do justice to the poor and the orphan.

Vindicate the lowly and the wretched.

Free the poor and the needy,

From the hand of the wicked save them…”

Elsewhere we read, “How Long O Lord Will you forget me?” And “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” That’s Scripture. That’s the Word of God. Looking back at God and saying “How long will you show favor to the wicked?” Like, “What are you doing? I need you to get it together!” That’s prayer. I think this might be the tone of the Lord’s Prayer too.

If God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, if the Spirit of God is already all around us, somehow at work in our intuitions and our deepest desires, then belief isn’t just convincing myself to assert 10 impossible things before breakfast, belief is following the movement of the Spirit and allowing those intuitions and desires to surface; and likewise, unbelief isn’t skepticism or incredulity—unbelief is that self-policing, that self-censoring, that conforming of our desires and our intuitions to the patterns of this world so that we just go along with what we feel in our bones is profoundly wrong.

This is why sometimes here at Jubilee during our prayers of the people you’ll hear us pray for judgement on specific people or institutions who are being unjust. That’s not just to be funny or cutesy. One of the ways that we police or censor belief is through the disease of passive voice. We hear this all the time where “things are happening” but no one is responsible for them. It’s just the way the world is. Don’t even bother trying to ferret out the nuances of cause and effect; it’s not worth your time and you don’t have the necessary information to think about these things. Just accept it all. A Black person “was shot” during a traffic stop. Don’t consider that it was a cop who shot them. A hospital in Gaza “was bombed,” never mind that Israel dropped the bomb. Durham Public School workers “were told to pay back part of their raises,” never mind that the District changed the pay scales and the Superintendent won’t be paying back his $10,000 raise.

The powers of this world, the gods in the assembly, deflect so that we feel like things have to be this way, so that our belief and our hope and our love find themselves restricted within ever smaller circles. So when we name those doing injustice, we’re practicing belief. We’re saying, “God, do something about this, because we think you can do something about it.” Or even if we’re not sure or certain about that, we still feel it in our guts it shouldn’t have to be this way, and so we groan and Paul tells us that that inchoate groan is the Spirit of God with us.

So my friends, that’s why I want to encourage us to pray. It doesn’t have to take an hour of your day. Read a Psalm on your phone while you’re drinking your coffee in the morning. Close your eyes and say the Lord’s prayer whenever you get in your car. Before you eat, say thank you and remember those who don’t have any food and those who are keeping the hungry hungry (and you don’t have to be weird about it). At the end of the day when you close the door behind you, think about everything that’s been frustrating you and just let out a groan and say “God, what the hell?!”

God’s Spirit is already at work in the innermost movements of your heart and your mind. Prayer is just the bellows directing the Spirit to where love needs to grow. Let your love grow, let your hope grow, let your anger grow, let your defiance grow, let them swell and show you what they’re trying to show you, and even if you don’t know what to make of all of it, remember that God’s Spirit is there with you beneath the words, beyond the words, praying with you in groans too deep for words, drawing you into God’s presence right now. Amen.

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