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Sermon for Proper 12/Ordinary 17 A Romans 8: 26-end

July 20, 2014

groaning‘We are groaning inwardly while we wait for God.’ Words from today’s epistle.

In the name…………….

When I was a little boy I used to have a set formula to pray before going to sleep. Dear God bless mummy and daddy, that sort of thing.

As I got to know more people, the list of folk to pray for got longer and longer. I soon got wise to a more efficient way to pray: Dear God, what I said yesterday goes for today as well.’

Many Christians don’t really grow out of that sort of prayer. They make shopping lists and read them out. They do a lot of talking.

That’s fine, our epistle suggests that prayer is a bit childlike, Paul tells us to call God ‘abba’ when we pray. Abba was a children’s word in Aramaic, a bit like our ‘Daddy’ but some Christians go further in their childishness. They think they can manipulate God by praying. They regard prayer rather like the casting of magical spells: if they use the right words, if enough people pray for the same things, perhaps all praying at the exact same time, they can somehow change God’s mind and make him do something that he wouldn’t otherwise do.

And many Christians don’t even pray in their own words. They are happy to read set prayers out of a book. Well, reading prayers can be good, if you are joining in the office of the Church. That’s public prayer, even if you are alone, at home, and sometimes we get so tired, or we’re going through some crisis, that’s all we can manage, but if you are limited to set prayers then you are limiting yourself to spiritual junk food.

One commentary on today’s epistle said, ‘Prayer that comes tripping off the tongue does not always come from the depths of the heart and prayer that does not come from the depths is not likely to climb very high.’ . Or the Quaker, John Bunyan: ‘When you pray, let your heart be without words, rather than that your words be without heart.’ Our epistle suggests that there is more to prayer than that. It suggests that the Holy Spirit prays inside us, crying out ‘Abba, father’

It says that the whole universe prays with groanings and that our prayer is to join in that groaning. The Greek word Paul uses for ‘groaning’ is quite a violent word. Prayer is not a cosy thing, nor is it necessarily peaceful and quiet, or at least not at first.

Far from mouthing words, prayer comes from deeper inside us. We pray when we tune into those groanings, when we listen to what is going on inside us.

St. Augustine said, ‘God does not need to be told anything about what we need and want. Our words in prayer are not for God’s instruction but our own. We discover this way what in fact we do desire, what we want to reach out to and love. Thus we come to hold in open awareness what before we have lived unknowingly.’

So it is the Holy Spirit who does the praying: To quote Walter Wink: ‘The Holy Spirit is like a substrata of molten magna under the earth’s crust, trying to erupt volcanically in each of us. It does not have to be invoked, but merely allowed; not called to be present, but acknowledged as present already. Our task is not to mobilise God, but rather to bring our consciousness and commitment to God, to give articulation to the inarticulate groanings within our souls, to bring God’s longings to speech.’

Think back to when you were a child. Before you can remember, you cried out as a baby, you cried out for milk, you cried out when your mummy wasn’t to hand. Slightly older, you said things like’ That’s not fair!’ ‘I want…..’

Think of yourself as a teenager. Perhaps you yearned for someone you fancied to return your admiration. You wanted the world to be a better place, as you became disillusioned with adults and their mediocrity.

Think of all the things you think or mumble under your breath now. He’s so arrogant. I could murder him. There must be something more to life.

A couple of Christian psychiatrists, Anne and Barry Ulanov, suggest that these cries and thoughts are the beginnings of prayer. They call them ‘Primary Speech’. All human beings cry out from deep inside. And that’s the basis of prayer.

But it’s not just the Holy Spirit inside which cries out. There are other voices in there too. There’s the voice of our own selfishness. There’s the voice of our conscience, which is partly a muddle of the voices of authority figures we’ve long since forgotten: The school mistress; the policeman; the granny; The one who said, ‘Don’t do that dear, it’s not nice.’

Prayer involves listening and discernment. And that requires being still, wrestling with all the voices until the voice of the Spirit emerges. Former archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said that he prayed for 30 minutes each day but that the first 29 minutes were a preparation, a settling down.

If we would be silent and still for thirty minutes each day, then the first several minutes would involve being open to loads of conflicting voices. Far from being restful, it is quite confusing, almost exhausting. But it’s the only way to get to the still small voice beneath them all. The very conditions which make it impossible to pray are, in fact, the right conditions for praying. Martin Luther said, ‘It is certain that where there is no distress, there is no prayer; or if there is prayer it is feeble and powerless. That is why troubles are so necessary’

Kafka’s diaries describe his feeling of prolonged, irresistible dissatisfaction. But he moves, step by step, from a cacophony of nervous, chattering voices to a brooding, restlessness in which he cannot work, and then to a reflective silence. He said that we do not arrive at a state of well being ‘so long as the many devils are within us.’

Far from being an escape from real life, prayer opens us up to it. We face up to the terrors which frighten us inside. Instead of getting on with something to distract us, we listen to the fears within until the voice of the spirit strikes a deeper chord which makes us see how the terrors really are small fry.

We also listen to our desires. Some of the desert fathers were plagued by lust when they prayed. Leggy, naked virgins appeared to them in visions. They tried all sorts of things to get rid of these visions. They would have been better off attending to these lusts. There is nothing wrong with fantasy. It leads to God. The sex drive is powerful and dangerous. If we repress it, it is likely to lead to our dominating people or abusing people. But if we simply allow ourselves to be aware of it, it can lead us to what we truly want, to what God really wants for us. Sexual desire can lead to a relationship, which can lead to marriage or partnership, which can be blessed by God and which can help our personal growth.

Anger is a powerful drive. If we repress it, it can lead to outbursts when it breaks through the lid we put on it. It can lead to violence, murder and wars. But if we listen to our anger, we can become aware of God’s anger in us. Of his desire for a world of justice. We share his anger against poverty, famine and violence. We listen to the anger within, which goes right back to our cries when we were 7 or 8 when we said, ‘It’s not fair!’ And we find an urge to do something concrete to make things more fair. By giving regularly to Christian Aid or by joining a peace group, or whatever.

(Maybe it’s a mistake for the church to censor the cursing bits in the psalms at mattins and evensong. They express a valid desire, albeit a desire which has to be honed, not acted on in its raw state.)

What is happening is that we are listening to the various desires within us and learning to discern, sifting which voices are selfish, which are other people’s and which are God’s desires speaking to us. Our desires change as we become aware of God’s desires in us as we begin to discriminate between the voices which beset us so strongly.

The psychiatrists I mentioned earlier put it like this: ‘Prayer is exposure to everything that is in us and the willingness to receive the inevitable changes that come as a result.’

We sin when we ignore these voices. Sin isn’t really about doing bad things. It is about being less that fully human, less than truly ourselves. We sin when we close our mind to the voice within. As the psychiatrists I mentioned put it: ‘Sin is the refusal to get our feet wet in the ocean of God’s connectedness. ‘

In our epistle, Paul says that we don’t know how we ought to pray, but through our inarticulate groans the Spirit himself is pleading for us. Paul likens the Spirit to a legal advocate, one who tells us what to say in court or who speaks for us. Augustine again: ‘Our prayers have a voice of their own, quite apart from our own voice’

Paul says that our distress and anguish in prayer are connected to the future world that God’s is going to bring. He says, ‘I reckon that the sufferings we now endure bear no comparison with the splendour, as yet unrevealed, which is in store for us….Up to now the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth.’

Groans as if in the pangs of childbirth. One reason why childbirth is painful is that we have big heads. The story of Adam and Eve suggests that childbirth is painful because Eve ate the fruit of knowledge. Well, in a way, that’s true. We humans have brains out of all proportion to the rest of our bodies. Over the past 2 million years of evolution the human brain has tripled in size. A baby’s head is the largest part of its body and it is the first to emerge. After birth, the brain will quadruple before adulthood. In other primates the brain merely doubles. The mother’s energetic potential determines what the brain’s size will be at birth. After birth, the baby’s brain will grow according to the path already set. When we pray, we allow the spirit’s energy inside us to help the universe to grow in the direction of God’s future kingdom. The unborn child must be afraid when it starts to descend the birth canal. Our distress on this earth is, Paul says, owing to the radical leap forward we are to take into God’s coming kingdom. Prayer is our tuning in to a glorious future.

Come thou, Holy Spirit, restore the lives which, without thee are dead, kindle the hearts which, without thee are cold and dull enlighten the minds which, without thee are dark and blind fill the church which, without thee is an empty shrine and teach us to pray.

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