Sighs Too Deep for Words. July 26

Sighs Too Deep for Words

Romans 8:26-39; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler; July 26, 2020

Catskill United Methodist Church; Palenville United Methodist Church; online


I’ve been doing a Vespers service online twice a week since we began staying at home to be safe.  Vespers is a simple evening prayer service, often with a short scripture reading, a hymn, the Magnificat, silent prayer and/or spoken prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Vespers is part of the Christian monastic tradition of daily prayers; some Christian communities pray together two or five or eight times a day.  The United Methodist Hymnal includes services for morning and evening prayer; our Vespers service is built roughly on the evening prayer service on page 878.  Before the pandemic, I kept a not-always-regular discipline of daily prayers with my husband, Rick.  And I’ve always led prayer in Sunday worship.  But rarely has my prayer life felt so exposed as it has in these evening prayer services, online, week after week.  It’s a good thing; I enjoy leading the service.  And I appreciate Paul’s language here in the end of the eighth chapter of Romans naming clearly what an intimate practice it is to be in prayer, in regular conversation, with the Lord our God.  I know that experience he describes, when, in the midst of prayer, whether spoken aloud or simply in our thoughts, we run out of words.  We can’t find the language we need to name what’s in the depth of our heart.  So we stop, but God doesn’t stop.  God listens so carefully to our prayers that the Spirit of God takes over where our words leave off.  The Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words, the text says.  God’s Spirit continues the conversation, even in our silences, and even when our prayers head off course.  You’ve done that, right?  Prayed yourself into an awkward sentence structure that stopped making sense three words ago?  And the Spirit of God is there, listening, stepping in, picking up and moving us on. 


I bring up Vespers because the extended regular practice of public prayer, that I then can watch as a video after it has happened, allows for an honest analysis of what prayer is.  The service follows a structure, beginning with a prayer of thanksgiving.  It includes silent prayer and concludes with a bidding prayer, which invites a response like ‘hear our prayer,’ and a suggested list of general topics for intercessory prayer, then the Lord’s prayer.  Together, across the technological wonder of the web, we pray for the church and for the world, for our neighbors and friends, for the sick and those who mourn, for our leaders and for people in difficult circumstances.  Most of the time, in that bidding prayer, I keep talking.  But there are times I stop, my heart moves faster than my brain and my tongue.  There have been times that I lose focus because something distracts me – but the Spirit of God that connects us all as we meet together, stays with us.  Silent prayer, too, is a time to connect with God in your own way.  Some people use the time for silent prayer to share their own thoughts and hopes with God; some use it as a space for emptying their mind, that a deeper place might be opened and available to the Spirit; some concentrate on listening – for the words, or the deep sighs, of the Spirit of God.  Silent prayer can be a rich experience, which is why I tend to extend its duration during worship.  That’s a little harder to do when we share worship online, because people can and do leave and come back to worship more randomly, but I encourage you to incorporate silence into your own prayer life.  And prayers don’t have to be regular or frequent to engage the Holy Spirit. God listens, God focuses on you and your heart and your hope as you focus on God in prayer.  It’s a wonderful invitation and a wonderful experience. 


I will warn you.  The bumper sticker that says ‘Prayer changes things’ is correct.  And the most basic ‘thing’ that changes is you.  The more you build your life on the connection you find with God in prayer, the more your life will look like God’s life and hope and vision.  The more you pray not only for people whom you love, but also for people who drive you nuts, and for people you disagree with, the deeper your love for them will be.  And the more you love them, the more you may understand them, and care about them, and sympathize with them and their own hardships and suffering.  Prayer has the power to pull us deep into our own hearts and lives, but if we are honestly open to welcoming the Spirit of God into our prayer time, then prayer will pull us into the world, that world that God so loves.  What I hear in Paul’s words of the Spirit interceding for us is God’s willingness to guide the conversation of prayer toward God’s ways and God’s love, a direction that only happens when we are willing to let go of our need to control our prayer time.  The Spirit will speak, in the Spirit’s time, if we allow that time to happen. 

Silently now I wait for thee, ready my God, thy will to see, open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit Divine.’


So we pray for people hit by hurricanes and people sick with Covid-19; we pray for protesters in Portland and for those who are threatened by uproar in the streets; we pray for those on both sides of controversies here in our own town, and we pray for friends and family dear to us.  And prayer changes things, God’s love touches them and us, and our hearts grow as we learn to understand.


God seeks to guide us into living the kingdom of God, the kingdom that Jesus talks about, that’s hidden in bread dough and buried deep in a field.  Our access to that kingdom may well be buried deep in our heart, waiting for the intimacy of prayer to open up its chamber, waiting for us to burst forth from our limited concept of prayer, controlled only by us, to prayer set on fire by the Spirit of God, speaking for us with sighs too deep for words. 


Prayer will change you.  It may change your priorities, because God asks you to break down walls that divide you from others.  It may soften your anger and encourage you to forgive and love your enemies.  It may well bring you peace and prod you to share that peace with others who suffer.  Prayer will change you, if you’re willing to embrace its power by welcoming the Spirit into your heart, by welcoming God’s grace into your prayers, by welcoming Christ’s love into the life you live.    


May your prayer life grow and deepen as you welcome the Spirit of God.   Amen. And Amen.


Romans 8:26-39

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. 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 his purpose.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor 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.


Psalm 105:1-11, 45b


O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered,
O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones.

He is the Lord our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.
He is mindful of his covenant forever,
of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant that he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant,
saying, ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance.’

Praise the Lord!

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”


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