When your pastor and I were emailing in preparation for this service, I made the comment that “I’m very much looking forward to this. I’m coming to think of Zoom preaching as sort of a modern-day version of the circuit riders of frontier times. We’re living in a new frontier.”
Meighan replied: “That's absolutely right--this is the new frontier. Church is reinventing itself right before our eyes.”
This new frontier, like those frontiers of olden days, is very challenging. At times even frightening. Physically cut off from one another can leave us feeling disconnected and alone. Separated from a life that makes sense. It can even leave us feeling at moments as if, quite literally, we don’t have a prayer.
As the old African-American Spiritual puts it: “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. … Not the preacher, not the deacon, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”
And in my case when the “me” is also the “preacher,” lest it be said that I don’t have a prayer, I ask you this morning, I implore you, “Pray for me!”
I can’t think of a passage in the entire Bible that speaks more powerfully to the challenges we are experiencing on this new frontier than the scripture reading for this particular day in the church year. In writing 2,000 years ago to the church in Rome that was facing great uncertainty about its future, the Apostle Paul reminded these early Christians of the foundation of the faith they shared. Everything he says is all about God. And at the same time, it’s all about us. These words from the letter to the Romans leave us with three foundational convictions: God prays for us. God cooperates with us. God advocates for us.
Paul said, “we don’t know how to pray as we ought.” At first glance this might sound like one of those “should” statements, adding one more burden to our already overwhelmed lives. But I don’t read it that way. I think Paul is speaking for himself. He is admitting that there are times, if it were all left up to him, that he feels he can’t pray. That he doesn’t have a prayer. That’s not very reassuring, because apostles, like preachers, are supposed to know how to pray.
There is a legendary story of an article that appeared in a Boston newspaper telling of someone who reputedly knew how to pray. It was a review of some proper social event that recently had taken place. It stated: “The Reverend Doctor Parker prayed the finest prayer ever delivered to a Boston audience.”
I’d call that a professional prayer, a performance prayer, because of whom it was delivered to. Not to God, but to a Boston audience. A proper one, no less. Paul is talking about a very different audience. Namely, God. Prayer expresses our relationship with the mystery lying behind all that is.
Prayer is the act of being in touch with this mystery. I find it’s sometimes hard to feel all that much in touch. I used to get irritated when someone would say, “I’m praying for you.” Especially when I thought that person was a bit overly pious, or maybe even was someone I didn’t trust all that much. But now I figure I can use all the help I can get. And if someone is willing to pray for me, whatever their motives, I’ll take it.
But here’s the zinger, the curve ball. Paul says that God is praying for us. “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.” Other translations say not sighs, but groans. Not words, but inarticulate moans. It’s the sound made when a knee is pressed into one’s neck for nine minutes. Hardly a prayer likely to make a proper Boston audience feel all that comfortable. But that’s what the prayer sounds like when the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs-moans-groans too deep for words. No matter how discouraged we might sometimes be… No matter how desperate we might feel at times... We always have a prayer. Because God is praying for us with a cry that wakes us up and grabs our attention and shatters our isolation. Imagine the mysterious source of all life and being caring that much about you!
God not only prays for us. But God works with us. God partners with us. God cooperates with us. That’s what I hear Paul saying in that second paragraph of today’s reading from Romans. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”
This pandemic is really pushing the envelope for feeling all that good about much of anything. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade if you’re feeling “God’s in His heaven— All’s right with the world.” But even the 19th century poet who penned those words, Robert Browning, didn’t think all was right with his world. And I certainly have to say that I didn’t expect to be spending the late years of my life with the world falling apart, with everything I’ve personally invested in at risk, with being cut off from physical contact with family and friends. This was not part of my plan.
At first glance this phrase—“all things work together for good for those who love God”—might sound a bit Pollyannaish. But I’ve been wondering lately if there might be considerably more to this than I’ve realized. Another translation of the original Greek words suggests to me a new way of looking at this. The Jerusalem Bible reads this way: “By turning everything to their good, God cooperates with all those who love (God).”
Imagine the possibility of the mysterious ground of all being working alongside you as a partner in making things to be good! Not only are we to cooperate with God who prays for us, but through our prayers guided by the Spirit God is cooperating with us! Co-operate. It’s like we’re in the operating room, dressed in scrubs, sharing responsibility with the master surgeon in keeping the patient alive. This is a scene we’ve watched all too often in the daily news lately. The patient on life support is disproportionately BIPOC: Black, Indigenous, Person of Color. And poor. And often elderly. There we are in the operating room alongside a team of caring others doing our particular job. And God is co-operating with us.
In case you hadn’t noticed, everyone in that scene is wearing a mask. To protect themselves, of course. But in surgery, just as with public health directives for everyone today, the primary purpose of wearing a mask is to protect others. To protect the patient. Even God is wearing a mask. Please stay with me and follow the metaphor. We’re talking Master of the Universe here! Why is God wearing a mask? Not for self-protection. But for our protection. God is co-operating with us in this bruised and battered and broken world to keep the heart beating and the lungs breathing and the infection at bay!
These days demand so much from us. Do you ever wonder what little old you can do to eliminate White supremacy or to support essential workers who are at risk or to provide meaningful support to families struggling to survive without work and without schools being physically open? Consider this possibility. Perhaps the most ethical, the most divine, Christ-like single thing you and I can do to address these challenges is to wear a mask! Oh yes, and to vote, too.
Paul raises a rhetorical question. “If God is for us, who is against us?” Let me put that a bit differently. If the Creator of all the universe is praying for us and cooperating with us and advocating for us, what threat could possibly remain that would have the power to destroy us?
I suspect we’re all too aware of what’s out there that could do us harm, if not wipe us out. Part of the challenge in this information age is TMI—too much information. A week ago I learned a new term: “doomscrolling.” It refers to the practice of checking our smart phone first thing in the morning after its alarm awakens us by then scrolling down through all the dreadful news that’s come in overnight. Repeating this practice at lunchtime. And again just before turning out the lights at night. Doomscrolling. Not good for our sense of well-being. There should be a requirement that every cell phone is imprinted with a warning: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health.”
Paul offered his own doomscrolling litany of threats to human existence. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That catch-all phrase at the end—“anything else in all creation”—covers even the threat that is wreaking havoc on our health and sanity and economy and politics and global order. We’ve all seen the big blowup pictures of that spherical golf ball-like shape with little red mushrooms growing out of it. It looks larger than life, but is actually only a few billionths of a meter in size. Where did it come from? That little coronavirus pseudo-living being is part of the created order. God made it, which makes it essentially good, because everything God makes is good. To be sure, this microscopic bit of genetic material wearing a protein overcoat seems to have some mighty serious boundary issues. But it’s part of the good creation, along with all those other good things that have gone rogue, like politics and economics. Consider this possibility: that God gave us that little bugger called COVID-19 not to hurt us, but to help us. Not to close doors, but to open up the possibility of a new future.
Because ultimately it’s all good. As separated as we might feel these days, the truth is that we are not alone in this struggle. There’s no way to be in this struggle without getting into some kind of trouble. We just need to make sure it’s “good” trouble we’re getting ourselves into. Which for John Lewis meant “Jesus” trouble. And when we’re getting into Jesus trouble we’re never alone.
To believe in God is to trust that the future is open. We are living in the middle of the biggest opportunity that the world perhaps has ever faced. This, right now, is the very moment that all things are being turned to their good by God who cooperates with all of us who love.
* * * * *
Returning full circle, I want to close with a story. I don’t know if it actually happened, but I’m sure it’s true. A little boy had been acting up during worship. Finally, his father had had enough of the kid’s antics. He picked him up rather brusquely and started down the center aisle carrying his son under his arm. Just before they left the sanctuary, the little guy looked back and yelled out at the top of his voice. “Pray for me! Pray for me!”
May that be our plea as well.
COMMISSION & BENEDICTION
Go forth into the world in peace, remembering at all times to wear a mask and to maintain a social distance of six feet.
Be of good courage and risk getting into trouble, good trouble, Jesus trouble.
Hold fast to that which is good, knowing that you are partnered with One who is co-operating with you to ensure that all things work together for good.
Render to no one evil for evil, covering your face even when the person approaching you is not wearing a mask.
Strengthen the faint-hearted. Support the weak. Help the afflicted. And honor all persons—trusting that the future is open and that there is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
And rejoice in the power of the Holy Spirit —knowing that you are not alone in the struggle, but are embraced by the Source of all being who prays through you and with you and even for you.
Now may the grace of Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the power of the Holy Spirit,
be with you today, and always. Amen.