Finding Life: Summer 2020
A Time for Groaning, a Time for Hope, A Time for Freedom
Jun 21, 2020
For this week’s events, click “Download PDF.”
To watch Virch online service, click HERE to watch entire service.
Note: The June 21 sermon was powerful for many people, but the video quality was poor. To watch just Steve’s sermon (re-recorded for better video quality), click HERE!
Hey, Friends, So I’ve been planning a few sermons in Philippians this summer. I still want to continue with that little project later. But I had prepared a talk for today that didn’t sit right with me, and then yesterday afternoon, Spirit of God, with a little help from my great partner in life, my wife Grace – that it didn’t make any sense. So, I’m going with what’s been in my gut and my heart all week instead.
I want to talk about this moment in time we’re in as a time for groaning, a time for hope, and a time for freedom.
It’s been a hard year so far, hasn’t it? It’s still achingly hard. A mentor in my life, the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond, recently used the phrase a “triumverate of trauma” to talk about our collective experiences of pain, dislocation, and anxiety. We face an enormous public health crisis. We face political and economic crises. And we face a massive exposure of our country’s systemic violence toward Black lives and the fact that ending this is somehow still a matter of controversy. This is a lot of pain for us to process – it’s been a year of trauma.
If you feel anxious or angry or exhausted or kind of unmoored, maybe even locked up – not sure what to say or what you think or feel – if any of that’s been true for you, you are not alone. I feel all those things a lot; most of us do.
Strangely, though, this is a year of some considerable opportunity as well. Many of my colleagues I love and respect have a lot of hope right now.
Back in early April, Arundhati Roy wrote this stunning essay, “The Pandemic is a Portal.” I’ve read it dozens of times. She writes of the US and of India, and how even by early April, the COVID-19 pandemic had opened windows into massive inequities and pain. She was unmincing in the horrors we’re seeing this year in public life. And again, that was back in April. There’s been a lot more since then.
But she also closed her essay with these words that I still read as prophetic, as full of the Spirit of truth and insight.
“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
My friends, this pandemic, and our protests over racial injustice and violence, these offer us the biggest of disruptions. They are offering us an opportunity to imagine our world anew, to imagine and fight for another world.
But meanwhile, here we are as summer begins and we’re still in the midst of it all. What do you say while you’re still on the threshold?
When you hope for a new and better future, but you can’t yet see what it might look like, and you can’t yet see the way there?
Honestly, when we’re at the threshold of a dying world behind us and a new one we can’t see, we waste a lot of our energy and heart and time. I was going to go off on all the ways we do it, but I realized I don’t need to do that.
What I want to talk about is a way forward. What do we do when we’re between worlds, when we’re at the portal, when we’re longing for a better tomorrow while our pulses still pound and our hearts still ache today? What do we do?
I’m drawn to a passage of scripture that points our way in the Spirit of God. It’s right in the middle of the very middle chapter of the New Testament’s biggest letter, Romans. From chapter 8:
Romans 8:18-27 (NRSV)
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
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 with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Since September, I’ve been meeting with a beautiful community group on Saturday mornings. We used to meet up in person in the lobby of our church building, and for the past three months we’ve been meeting online. But for most of the past ten months, we’ve been studying this letter to the house churches in Rome. We’re almost ¾’s way through.
We’re reading slowly. It’s been amazing, incredible, mind-blowingly awesome sometimes, and a total slog other times. Because Romans is complicated. Its author, Paul, makes no sense to us sometimes. And this letter has often over the past twenty centuries been used as an armed weapon against people. Romans has been used as anti-Semitic, anti-gay, anti-all kinds of people. In the wrong hands, it’s been a tool of oppression and shame.
But it’s actually this confusing, but impassioned cry of good news – of belonging, of justice, of peace, of God’s love and faithfulness to all people. And here Romans tells us that in this very moment of history, as with all the in-between spaces in which the people of God have ever sat and suffered, the Spirit of God is in us and with us and has a way for us.
Glory is coming. The beauty, the pride, the pleasure, the joy that is the destiny of God’s children is coming, but today we suffer. Today we long.
All of creation longs. Have you heard it this spring? Not a just a desire to return back to normal, but to see a better day.
What’s amazing is the Good News tells us creation isn’t just longing for a better world, it’s longing for something specific. Creation is longing for the revealing of the children of God.
For all God’s children to become what we were destined to be. For those who have suffered, for those who have known too much indignity, too much waiting, too much poverty, too much danger, to know our rightful freedom. Not the so-called freedom that Black Americans have known since Juneteenth, 1865, where as our own Paula Champagne’s art points out, so many “terms and conditions have been applied.” But full physical and spiritual freedom – wholeness, peace, dignity, security.
For those children of God who have been complicit in other’s diminishment, we are to know what the New Testament calls righteousness, which is not just like private, religious living. The New Testament word for righteousness is like rightly ordered. It’s integrity, wholeness, justice.
See it with me for a moment. Imagine a future where you and your children and your children’s … imagine a future where you and your loved ones, and the generations to come after you know the freedom of the children of God – wholeness, peace, dignity, security, integrity, justice. Freedom.
It’s coming. And not just for us but for all of creation, because the earth groans too. It is in bondage to decay – viruses that mutate and kill, waters fowled, air diritied, oceans teeming with plastic, and atmosphere soaked with carbon. So much bondage to decay, our earth cries out with us.
How long? When will we be free?
We’ve had glimmers during this pandemic. I’ve heard that air is cleaner, less carbon-filled than it’s been in years. Even where I live this spring, we live on this tiny urban plot, with a major, busy thoroughfare in front of us, and a long row of brick apartments to one side of our place, and a gas station being torn down on the other.
But on our tiny patch of land, my wife Grace has over the past decade grown and tended a beautiful garden. And it’s been more breathtaking this spring than ever. So sometimes when I sit in the chair outside our door and read or pray there, I see that garden, and I see our future miniature – the renewal, the beauty, the freedom, and I think: Glory, it’s coming.
But even with the hope of glory, we long too, the passage says, for the redemption of our bodies. That not just our spirits but these bodies of our would be free. These Black bodies of ours, these disabled bodies of ours, these measured and found wanting bodies of ours, these judged bodies, these queer bodies, these too fat or too skinny bodies, these scarred and stretch-marked and wrinkled and sagging bodies, these bodies of ours that cause us shame or danger or regret – when will these bodies be free?
I see you, church family, in the longing for a world where Black Lives matter, and Black bodies are safe and beloved. I see you longing for a world where all our children are educated with hope and dignity. I see you longing for your voice to be heard in the world, for an end to your invisibility in how you’re seen again and again through White eyes or male eyes or anything other than seeing and celebrating you eyes.
So much longing among us.
So what do we do now?
If Spirit in us, we groan, and we hope, and we live today like our future is here.
I watched my wife bear three children. Not all at once, thank God. But three babies she bore, in five years. And those labor pains were real. That was some hard core pain.
Now I have never known what it’s like to pant and grunt for hours while my pelvic floor feels like it’s about to explode, but brother Paul, that metaphor takes me where we should go.
Because I know what it’s like to hurt so much you can’t put that hurt into words. I know what it’s like to pray and have no words to say.
The groans of our Black brothers and sisters have been loud and clear this past month. They’ve been loud and clear for centuries, to be honest, but not everybody has been listening. But if those are your groans, friends, of exhaustion, of anger, of too much and how long and not again, Spirit of God is with you in your groaning, while you wait for the redemption of our bodies. These groans are holy prayers that God both listens to and joins in with you.
All of God’s children’s cries of pain, and hurt and anger too deep for words, these are holy prayers. God lives and and listens to these groans.
And friends, if you’re not groaning now, if your body and wealth and health and dignity are upheld and in no way at risk, then listen hard and long to the groaning of the rest of God’s family. Listen hard and carefully to the groaning of Black rage, or Black exhaustion, or Black insistence on change. Listen to the groans of our Indigenous siblings who say: can you see my life and my land and all of what’s been taken. Listen to the groan of our Asian siblings who say: we will not be ignored or exoticiszed. We are not a vehicle for your colonial fantasies or fears about who we are. Listen to your immigrant siblings’ groans who say: stop telling us to leave, stop blaming us for your problems, stop making us afraid. Listen to the groans of your queer or trans siblings who just this past week said: thank God we can’t be fired for just existing as who we are. Listen to to the groans of those who lack wealth, lack food, lack health, lack acceptance.
Care enough, listen hard enough to make someone else’s groans yours, if you don’t have enough of your own, because you can’t really pray until you’ve learned to groan. Spirit of God is in our groaning prayers. And you can’t be where God is if you don’t go where the Spirit of God goes, to the groans and cries of God’s people.
We groan. And we hope. Not just sentiment. Not hoping like, I wish, I wish, I wish, but growing that muscle for a better future, so we decide it’s worth our time, our resources. We hope when we commit to action that shows we believe a better future is possible. It’s not too late to change our company’s culture. It’s not too late to fight for drivers’ licenses for our undocumented immigrants, it’s not too late to make our law enforcement and criminal justice systems actually protect and serve us all. Hope says, do something about it. Hope says, get to work.
And listen, I believe in awakening and educating and learning, doing our own work, as much as anyone. On race, I’ve been doing the work of awakening, reading the books, having the talks, all the stuff, for 25 years. I’m going to keep doing it. But we don’t just need a bunch of so-called woke people who can say all the right words, and judge our brothers and sisters when they don’t say it all as well as we do. We need action for a just world of freedom and glory. Hope is the fuel that gets us to put in the work.
We groan, we hope, and we live the future today. The faith of Jesus is what we call an eschatological hope. That’s fancy words for daring to live as if our future is invading our present.
Daring to live as if freedom has come. Daring to live as if we can rest, and play, and touch the earth, and have some fun, even while we’re still groaning. Because faith in Jesus sees the glory coming. And knows that even if I’m still groaning, even if I have reason to be angry or afraid again tomorrow, today I get to live like I’m already free.
Today, I get to love and rest or celebrate or do the work or take a break, as I am so led by the Spirit of God. Because today I am free. Or as Romans ends: Nothing can separate us from our inheritance as God’s children. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.