When I first came to Old South, a little more than a year ago now, the idea of praying out loud, in front of all you beautiful, faithful people, made me incredibly… anxious. Hearing Nancy and Anthony and John pray was like hearing poetry recited or a grand hymn read aloud—even the tone of their voices sounded like the pitch of piety to me. When I pray alone, it usually sounds something like, “Ok, God, so and so could really use a hand today…” or “Hey thanks, God! I see what you did there…” And that is when I have any words to string together at all. Sometimes I am just a swirling ball of emotions, praying prayers that I cannot possibly finish. “Oh God… Oh God… God…?” I could not bring those chit-chatty, half-baked prayers before all of you, so I studied up. I read the prayers of people like Howard Thurman and Saint Augustine and Barbra Brown Taylor. I boned up on some theory by reading books with titles like “A Preface to Prayer” and “Prayer Deconstructed.” I consulted the spiritual lives of the mystics and the saints—even looking to the Bible for a tip or two, and I learned a lot of really helpful information. I learned that prayers can be funny, but many of them are pretty solemn and contemplative. Having a wide vocabulary can be very helpful when composing prayers. Keeping up with the news is important. And Scheduling daily blocks of uninterrupted prayer time is strongly advised. There are many prayer models too, like the 4-point ACTS model, which stands for “Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication,” or “PPPT= Praise, Penance, Petition, Thanksgiving”. Most reference lots and lots of reflection time before and after in order to hear to God more fully and feel the spirit’s inspiration. There is individual prayer which can be vocal, mental, or meditative/contemplative, and then there is liturgical prayer, which is more public. And there are even spiritual practices that count as prayer, including activities like creating art or communal chanting or intentional walking, or reading the same scripture passage over and over again. There are many, many creative and uplifting ways to pray. There are prayer practices that center the soul, cultivate the mind, and strengthen the body. In fact, the Bible says we should actually be in a constant state of prayer. And the more I read and the more I learned, the more I was convinced that compared to all this beauty and discipline that should, that is supposed to structure a respectable prayer life, my personal daily prayer practice is… terrible. Pathetic. Not at all like it is supposed to be.
In our passage today, Paul is writing to a church that is also concerned with “should’s” and “supposed to’s”. You see, the church in Rome was worried; they were concerned because their lives as Christians were not playing out at all as they supposed to play out. It was a new era now. Christ had come and died and rose again, destroying the power of the sin that had been in the world since Adam. The power of sin some of their ancestors had worked so hard to keep at bay by following the law and offering sacrifices and staying in God’s favor. But if Christ came and conquered evil, why was the world not responding accordingly? Why were they still suffering? That laundry list of evils we just heard did not come out of thin air—hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, they were experiencing all that and more. If they were adopted through Christ, as Paul certainly assured them they were, where was this kingdom they had heard so much about? Had they done something wrong? Was God angry? They were suffering and were certainly still sinning, so they must be messing something up—or at the very least, some of them were. Some of them had to be doing something bad enough that they had fallen from God's favor. And so, the members of the church in Rome were turning on each other, trying desperately to figure out who was doing this new Christian thing wrong. The battle lines were drawn—The Jews wanted to reinforce the laws that had been passed down and cherished by their ancestors—it had always worked before, and at least they knew it had been vetted—and the gentiles, well, this old law was completely foreign to them. They really did not see how avoiding shell fish was going to carry them up that holy mountain. The church was divided. They were drawing party lines, lines thickened by the pressures of the world closing in. They wanted to know—they needed to know—who was right and who was wrong.
And So Paul wrote them a letter, a letter meant to settle the question once and for all. And how does Paul land on the issue? Well, not how you might think. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.... that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words, he writes. Paul chose to settle the argument by talking about.... prayer. And he must have known his audience pretty darn well to put forth as his only example, perhaps the most tender and undeniable aspect of an established Christian life, the believer’s personal relationship with the Almighty God. The Creator, our very Maker, the almighty, all powerful mother of all creation— but also our mother, individually, personally—how could we help but love her and ask for advice and cry to her when we feel hurt or have done something wrong? But in the face of all that Power, all that Glory, all that life force we do not even have words to name, Who are we? Small, insignificant, whiney, cookie cutter people, who are we to talk to God? When it comes to right versus wrong, when it comes to figuring out who was failing at faithfulness and who was not, what could strike a nerve just so much as prayer.
The church in Rome was divided into two camps, but Paul does not pick a side. Paul does not name which group is on the right path up to God. In fact, he presents an entirely different theological vision of what God is like. You do not have to make your way to God; God is coming to YOU. You have the direction all wrong, church in Rome. God is pursuing YOU. In Romans 8, God is the subject. God actively accomplishes the redemption of all things in creation. God works with us, who are the first fruits of God’s redemption, and joined with God’s spirit for God’s good work. God is the actor; God is the one orchestrating our relationship. God knows every hair on your head; God is holding you in the Palm of God's hand. Paul is saying you cannot accidentally make God stop loving you. You cannot even do it on purpose because God has planned ahead for our weakness. There is a mechanism in place— the intervention of the Holy Spirit—that God has set up to make sure our prayers get through, even when our language fails us, even when our thoughts betray us.
Paul is saying that all that stuff I said earlier, all that pressure I was putting on my prayer life—a waste of energy. My dis-jointed, ineloquent prayers are not terrible, nor do I need to pretend to pray in some better way, nor can I pray in any better way. My chatty prayers are fine just as they are, and when they fall short—not if, Paul says, but when—God completes my prayers. God not only understands my bumbling sentiments, but even tries to understand them, wants to hear them, strains to know them.
And of course God's pursuit is not limited just to my prayer life or just to any of our prayer lives for that matter. Paul starts by saying the quality of your praying cannot keep you from God, but the point Paul is making goes far beyond the piety of prayer. Paul is convinced that Nothing can keep you from God: not 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.
Not cancer or bankruptcy or addiction or divorce or losing a child or the bigotry of the world—nothing. Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God is there when you are making a decision between two people you love dearly. God is there when you just cannot get yourself to write another cover letter. God is there when just another stranger on the train shames you for your size or shape. In the receiving line at your mother’s wake, in the checkout line when your EBT card just will not go through, when it seems like your child is the only one in the class not invited to that birthday party, when you are sitting down to dinner for one, again, God meets you there. Because in everything, in every nook and cranny of our lives, at the highest highs and the lowest lows, God meets you where you are. Nothing can keep us from the love of God in Christ our lord. Not our prayers, not the world, not ourselves. Amen.