Longing, Hope, and Joy
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For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! God!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with Christ so that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 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.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 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. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
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 and groans too deep for words. 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. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God's purpose.
In our book group this past week we talked about how we reach out to God, and we talked about reciprocity: how, or if, we feel or hear God in return. For myself, I often meet God in music, and often God keeps a melody in my heart, that I begin to trust is God's reciprocity. So, in order to open myself to God, I sit down at the piano and play and sing my way through music. I would like to start our sermon time together with this song that has been on my heart often since I first found it. I'll start so you can learn it and you are invited to join “There is a Longing in Our Hearts” as you feel led. May it be both prayer and response for us.
Today, I want to invite you into a sermon that is both reflection and prayer, yours and mine. Find a pencil or a pen, and some blank space on your bulletin, or even on the back of your gold card. Now, this is popcorn reflection time, which means that you just jot down one word, the first word that pops up in response to these questions. We're getting out the kernels and we can explore them more later. So really, just jot down the first word, however silly or unexpected it is:
What brings a smile to your face? . . . What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? . . . What sustains you during a regular day? . . . What keeps you going during the tough times in your life?
What do you fear? . . . What knots up your stomach or tenses up your shoulders or makes your heart pound? . . . What gets you through the fears?
What do you crave? . . . What really satisfies your cravings?
What do you pray for, if and when you pray?
What brings you to church? . . . What keeps you away from church? . . . What is your hope for this community?
There are probably as many answers to these questions for each of us as there are minutes in our lives. Our longings, our fears, our sighs and groans too deep for words, our hopes, our joys, and our reasons for doing things and for coming here change from day to day, from season to season, and are different in each stage of our lives.
And yet, and yet . . .
Today I think there may only be one answer, or maybe it's the signpost for an answer, and that would be in the song we just sang: “There is a longing in our hearts, O Lord, for you to reveal yourself to us. There is a longing in our hearts for love we only find in you, Our God.” So, perhaps, it is just that we have a lot of names for this longing.
Some of us came here to OCBC because we thought that what satisfies this longing is the work for justice. It is, as Jesus taught us, and as Harvey Cox reminded us two weeks ago, what we do for the least of these. Jesus said that all that we do to “one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” When we see someone hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and do not take care of them, Jesus reminds us, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” How do we do and sustain the work of justice? We do it through love, not a love that we have for just one other person, but through the love that God has for us, and tells us to share with all of our neighbors. It is only justice when we act in love, not out of pity or superiority, and the work of justice satisfies our longing because it connects us to the love that is greater than ourselves. “For justice, for freedom, for mercy, hear our prayer.”
Some of us come here for prayer. One of the most powerful expressions of our longing for God is found in this community in our time of community prayer. It is indeed a time when “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 and groans too deep for words. 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.” As we try to express our longing, our fears, our joys, our celebrations and concerns, our very sighs and groans connect us to the love of God that we yearn for. “For wisdom, for courage, for comfort, hear our prayer.”
Some of us may not be at all comfortable calling this longing God, because we have been hurt or have felt abandoned by those who should care for us, and maybe even by God, and in our suffering, we've felt like God was not there, so how can there be a God? Some of us turn to cravings or addictions of various sorts to meet these needs, but those don't really satisfy us, but we don't know how to admit that we need more. Maybe we are afraid of reaching for that true deep wholeness, just in case it's not there in us, or we aren't worthy. Nonetheless, when I talk to people who feel this hurt or abandonment, who have been betrayed and abused by people or by churches, by whatever, and yes, I have been known to talk to myself, there is within each person, a yearning for connection to something bigger than ourselves, something good, something whole, something nurturing and sustaining. “For healing, for wholeness, for new life, hear our prayer.”
Some of us may have learned other words for that which satisfies this longing: we learned to call it salvation, and we asked and were asked, “Are you saved? What must I do to be saved?” And if so, you know the answer, even as some football quarterbacks have reminded us, is found in God's love. Surely, some of you learned John 3:16 by heart: “For God so loved the world . . . ” Say it with me . . . “For God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And it goes on in verse 17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” As Paul writes in Romans, we have been adopted into the beloved family through this love. Our longing brings us to hope, “for in hope we were saved.” “Lord save us, . . . be near, hear our prayer, O God.”
Our opening medley has a line that Jesus “fills my every longing.” Jesus came to show us God's love and tell us that we are to love God and to love our neighbors, so that we could do and hear those commandments. In the Flunking Sainthood book group this week, one of our favorite passages was about this. Let me share that with you:
. . . the Israelites get the Ten Commandments and promise to obey God. The odd part of the story is the word order of their response: “All that you have said we will do and hear.” Wait a minute, we think. Shouldn’t that be the other way around? How can we do what God commands until we’ve heard it first? . . . some rabbis have taught that we can’t really hear what God is saying, or let it sink into our souls and beings, until we have tried to do what God is saying. The practice precedes the belief, not the other way around. [Riess, Jana (2011-09-24). Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor (Kindle Locations 240-246). Paraclete Press. Kindle Edition.]
If we act in love, if we practice love as Jesus taught us, slowly Love's presence begins to sink in. We do love and then we hear God as love.
Now, as we journey through this time of transition together, today as we consider our choice of an interim pastor, and our budget for this coming year, I'm asking us to consider this longing that we share, because that is what draws us together. God's love, practicing the love of God and of our neighbors, will guide us now, and every day. And we are sustained as a community with the hope and joy that we witness in each other. As a spiritual practice, we need each other here to bear witness to that longing, and to the hope and joy we find in the love of God. We go to church not just for ourselves, but for others.
In one of my favorite passages, Kathleen Norris writes,
When I am so angry, or despairing, or simply exhausted, I forget that I don't go to church for myself. Church is the Christian community, and it exists in order to worship God and to live out the commandment given by Jesus Christ, to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. The part of this equation that the apostate, (the unbeliever) in me tends to scorn is that worshipping God means loving my neighbor. Mark 6:30-34 describes Jesus and his disciples trying to get away from people for a rest, but finding that people follow them, needing a word of encouragement, needing to be tended, fed and cared for. A Presbyterian pastor once reminded me, in an inventive take on this gospel passage, that we “go to church for other people. Because,” he added, “someone may need you there.”
I stopped doodling on my bulletin and began to pay attention, apostate no longer but fully present. “Someone may need you there.” And I may also need to admit that I need them. Wretched as I am, it may do someone good just to see my face, or share a conversation over coffee; wretched as we all are, in the private hells we dwell in, . . ." [Amazing Grace, p. 203-204]
. . . whatever the pain or trouble we find ourselves in, someone else may need to see us, or may just need to pray with us, “forgive me as I forgive.” As Doug Koch reminded us three weeks ago, someone may just need a hug, and yet they may not know it or say it. Even in this, we can act to be God's presence for someone who needs us to be here. “Be near, hear our prayer, O God.” As we just show up, we may find that God is speaking in us, through us, for someone else and that we hear or feel God in word or song or hug.
Last week, Meg Hess talked about journeying together toward the center of a labyrinth, and I think that what draws us toward that center is this longing, and it is that “hope for what we do not see.” But while we cannot see hope, “we see as through a glass dimly,” we can sometimes feel it. When we have those moments where we are able to set aside our fears, our doubts, our weaknesses, our busy-ness, when we give up or put aside whatever the things that block our relationship with God, when we open ourselves up to God's love, then God's joy and delight in our very being and in our very creation is ours to bask in.
Our longing for the love of God, for the love that is connection, leads to hope and opens us up to joy. Our longing, our sighs and groans too deep for words, move us to a place where we can hope. Even as we are taking these steps in this time of change, we get glimmerings of the joy that is ours in the love of God. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God's purpose,” yes, for all of us who yearn for connection, who come here to practice love and hope to hear God. “There is a longing in our hearts, O Lord, for you to reveal yourself to us.” God of love and justice, healing and wisdom, open us to your presence, to hope and to the joy that you also long to reveal to us.