by David Baer, May 24, 2015
Take a breath. Hold it. Tighten your airway, and force the breath back out, so that the air escapes quickly through a narrow space. We all sigh. We sigh with impatience or exasperation—when a careless store clerk makes a time-consuming mistake when we’re already running late, or when the dog makes a mess on the floor. Sometimes exasperation crosses over into amusement—we sigh when confronted with the improbable or the outright absurd. We sigh with boredom, and we sigh when we’re overwhelmed, when we’re filled to the brim with with either grief or gratitude. The air escapes us, but with friction. The air leaves our body, and, shaped by distress or thanksgiving or contentment or anger, it resonates. It makes itself heard.
The Pentecost story is about a Spirit that made itself heard. It made itself seen too, in tongues of fire dancing over the heads of the gathered disciples. But with a mighty rushing wind, the Spirit blew them out into the street, filled them with breath, and shaped their tongues, lips, and voiceboxes to give voice to God’s good news in Jesus. With the Spirit’s breath sighing out of their lungs, rustic fishermen became eloquent speakers for Christ, and everyone who heard them was astonished at being able to understand. That wind, that breath drew people in and began to shape them into the church, the body of Christ. Faithful pilgrims from every nation of the world, divided by custom and language, became one united community of hearers as the Spirit spoke through the disciples.
And yet they still sighed, straining at the boundaries not yet thrown down that continued to separate them from one another, impatient with their weaknesses and worries, longing for wholeness in their spirits and in their physical bodies, pining for the return of Christ to make all things new at last. They suffered, and they sighed.
Our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning is a word about suffering. “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is about to be revealed to us,” Paul writes. It’s an incredibly bold claim to make to people who suffer from grief, sickness, injustice, poverty, and persecution. Whatever hurt you may feel right now, Paul tells his new friends in the Roman church, is nothing compared to the beauty and goodness that is to come. How can you make a claim like that and ground it in reality, how can you give it substance so that it’s not just “pie in the sky in the sweet by-and-by”?
Paul finds his hope, strangely enough, in the sighing that comes from suffering. He wrote in the Greek language, which has one word, στενάζειν, that means both sighing and groaning, one word to describe an escape of air resonant with emotion from the body. He describes for us, in our reading today, the whole creation as groaning or sighing in its futility, vanity, purposelessness. If we’re suffering, he says, we’re not alone. We’re part of a universe that hurts and sighs with us.
The suffering of the universe comes from something Paul describes as “futility.” The word that is translated as “futility” here is the same word that’s found in the Greek version of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, which teaches that nature and human life go round and round in circles, like a chasing after wind, accomplishing nothing. The Hebrew word for “futility,” in the original Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes, means vapor, nothingness, still air without purpose or direction which dissipates and leaves no trace. The sun sets, goes around the earth, and rises in the same place. The rain falls, gathers into streams, flows to the sea, and cycles back again in clouds to fall as rain. Living things grow and thrive, then wither and decompose, breaking down into their basic parts, which are used to form new living things of the same shape, and this churn and decay never ends, never arrives at completion. There is nothing new under the sun, and nothing that endures either, nothing that lasts.
Human beings suffer futility too. How often do our relationships circle back to the same old arguments and conflicts? How often do we cast aside old destructive ways of living or bad habits, only to find ourselves back where we started? The Greeks told a story about a man named Sisyphus who was condemned to push a boulder up a hill, over and over again, only to watch it roll back down. Maybe you know what it’s like to push and push a burden uphill, again and again. We’re part of a universe that’s stuck like a broken record, never finishing its song.
But Paul adds something to the picture of the world caught in cycles that go nowhere. Creation, he says, doesn’t quietly suffer in this futility. It sighs, it groans. What is happening is more than fog that dissipates into nothingness. There is a disquiet, a dissatisfaction in nature’s endless cycles that moves, that rushes outward, squeezed through a narrow place and making a sound. And these sounds are the sounds of labor pains, as God brings something new to birth. There is to be something new under the sun in God’s own good time. In the suffering of the creation something is making itself heard.
We groan and sigh too, Paul says, with a similar longing. We have received the first fruits of the Spirit, the appetizer to the main course, the promise of good things to come from God. But if you have an appetizer, you know the meal isn’t finished. You hope for more, even if it hasn’t been brought out yet, and you wait for it. Creation and human beings together groan and sigh for God’s promises to come true.
Where does this groaning or sighing come from? Paul says that they are a gift. They don’t come from us. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” he says, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought…” We don’t know how to call out to God in our need and in our hurt, he says. “But that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Think about what this means. When you sigh, when you groan, because you’re overwhelmed with sadness and missing someone you love, because you’ve had it up to here with indignity and injustice, because you don’t know how you can live with the diagnosis you just received, because you regret what you did once upon a time with every fiber of your being and you just don’t have the power to make it right—when you sigh, the breath that crosses your lips is the Spirit. Your breath is God crying out to God on your behalf. No sigh is wasted. Every resonant breath is a prayer that is heard, that carries your hurt and your hopes upward. Like a trickling stream that feeds a mighty river, it joins the sighs of all people and creation itself, ascending heavenward. Your sighing, your groaning, your hurt and impatience and longing, together with the longing of everything God made pleads urgently for God to make all things new at last. And this groaning, this longing that is as close to you as your throat and your lips is the Spirit, the very presence of God.
So Paul is able to say that, finally, nothing will separate us from the love of God. The sighing of the Spirit praying within us isn’t the only reason Paul can say this. He gives other reasons too. But the Spirit that came at Pentecost is here with us now; it’s here to stay. The Spirit speaks through us. The Spirit prays in us. The Spirit lives within us, and more than a vapor, it’s a sigh, a groan, a rush of wind that makes itself felt and heard, that joins us with all people and all creatures who suffer and who hope as we cry out to God together: “Loving God, Abba! Come quickly, and feed your hungry people. Come quickly, and heal your hurting world. Come quickly, and make all things new.” Amen.