“Groaning with Hope in the In-Between Time”
Year A, Romans 8:12-25, Psalm 139, Matthew 13:24-30
Sermon to Pohick Church, MP II in the Courtyard, July 16, 2020
The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi
Today’s passages from Romans and the Psalms paint some of the most earthy, intimate, and reassuring images of God. They evoke the myriad, mixed emotions of a woman in labor – one of the most challenging, and most rewarding, experiences in life.
Now I’m aware that at least half of you have never, and will never, labor to deliver an infant! But you may have accompanied someone – and you’ve certainly experienced birth yourself — whether or not you remember it!
Whatever our role in the birth process, we know that transitioning from labor to birth can be painful and frightening. And not everyone is helpful. I knew a young woman whose labor and delivery nurse cried out, just as the baby was crowning, “My God, that baby has a big head!”
We don’t tend to dwell on the pain. We barely even remember the disruptive feeling of waiting for a new baby – as if our lives were suspended between what was, and what was to come.
Did you experience pregnancy as a time of transition? Did it dawn on you that life would never be the same as it was before, but had not yet revealed what it would be?
Biblical authors use birth language to evoke the sense of transition we feel when we experience change or loss. Although we’re not usually aware, it’s when we’re suspended in that interim time, that God seems to be doing his best creative work.
It sure doesn’t seem like God’s around and doing great work when we’re in the midst of it! Today, a tectonic shift is happening in our world, church, and ourselves. Feeling abandoned at times, we are tempted to fall back into fear.
St. Paul passionately reminds the persecuted and fearful Christian community in Rome that they are God’s beloved children. He says:
“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.”
This means that we are joint heirs of Christ, and we suffer with him, so that we may also be glorified with him. The pain of the cross and the darkness of the tomb lead to resurrection.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
By characterizing the process of suffering, death and resurrection with the language of labor, Paul is communicating that God’s great labor of love is to glorify all of his beloved creatures:
“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.”
How does Paul suggest we endure in the in-between times? He says we wait in hope, “with eager longing… for in hope we were saved.”
He also points to a unique quality of Christian hope: you don’t have to see or even sense God’s presence and action to believe that He is at work redeeming us.
“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.”
Countless Biblical stories attest to a seeming absence of God in dark times — then waking up to a dawning hope in God’s presence. God revealed his presence to Jacob in the middle of a dark night. Jacob dreamt of angels ascending and descending on a ladder to God.
“Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!’”
Do we not know it? Do we tend to miss God’s presence and action? Or, do we cling to a distant memory of a divine parent we’ve never seen, one who knew us even before birth?
I’m reminded of the story of a dream that a patient dying of emphysema shared when I was a chaplain. She had suffered much, abandoned by a husband, divorced, then excommunicated from the church of her childhood. She confessed she carried shame and felt abandoned by God.
She revealed a recurring dream she’d had since she was a child: in it she was not yet born, suspended in a dark place. She described it as soft and warm, with a loving hand gently holding her. She never wanted to leave, but would wake up after the hand had gently set her in her mother’s arms.
In a deeply moving prayer, today’s Psalmist seems to remember the distant dream of a loving God who knew him before he was in his mother’s womb. He realizes no matter what happens, there is no place where God is not present. No place so dark that God’s light doesn’t penetrate. No place where we can hide from God’s indwelling Spirit of Love. Even when God seems absent, he is intimately present:
“Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar…Where can I go then from your Spirit, where can I flee from your presence?”
Do you tend to flee from God’s presence? In seasons of transition, I admit I haven’t always felt God’s presence. I’ve even been disillusioned by the church at times. I’ve wondered where God was and wondered what the future of Christianity would be.
In those times, I’ve often missed how God was laboring to create something new, even in me. I’ve missed glimpses of the glory he was revealing. And I’ve awakened to a tugging on my heart. To a dream of being loved, of being tenderly held even before I was born. No matter how disruptive life gets, no matter how I stray, I know there’s nowhere I can flee from God’s Spirit.
I wonder what God is laboring to create here, as we transition from the way the Church used to be, to the way we’ll be in the future? One thing we can count on: Hope resides in what is not seen. God is not limited to four walls, nor to what used to be.
As Fr. Ron Rolheiser says, “God has given us two Churches: one is found everywhere, and one is found at select places. Some of us prefer one and struggle with the other. But both are sacred places where God can be found and worshiped.”
He says most of us think of Church as a building – a cathedral, shrine, synagogue or holy site. For Pohickians, Church is our colonial structure built in 1774 by patriots like George Washington. They built this church to experience God’s presence. It was holy to them and it is holy to us, and rightly so.
We’re not alone. Remember Jacob’s dream? When he wakes up, he realizes he has had a privileged experience and sets a stone to commemorate that spot. Holy places are important.
The reality is, the Church is within and among us. In the story of the Samaritan woman, Jesus tells her the real privileged place where a ladder runs between heaven and earth is inside her. She is the place where the Spirit of God dwells.
God has given us two real churches: One physical and concrete, and the other spiritual and indwelling. During this interim time — when Church is no longer what it used to be, but we can’t yet see what it will be — we can remain confident. For hope is not what is seen! If we hope for what we do not see, we can wait for it with patience.
Hope resides in all creation. And God’s creation is in the process of groaning in labor!
As we endure this current time of transition, let’s remember: God is everywhere we are. There is no place we can flee from God’s Spirit. For as we share in God’s dream, God is always within us and among us, birthing something new. Amen.
This week, please reflect on the following poem as it relates to your life during this time of great transition: John O’Donohue’s For the Interim Time
LRonaldi+ July 2020
For the Interim Time – by John O’Donohue
When near the end of day, life has drained
Out of light, and it is too soon
For the mind of night to have darkened things,
No place looks like itself, loss of outline
Makes everything look strangely in-between,
Unsure of what has been, or what might come.
In this wan light, even trees seem groundless.
In a while it will be night, but nothing
Here seems to believe the relief of darkness.
You are in this time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.
The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.
“The old is not old enough to have died away;
The new is still too young to be born.”
You cannot lay claim to anything;
In this place of dusk,
Your eyes are blurred;
And there is no mirror.
Everyone else has lost sight of your heart
And you can see nowhere to put your trust;
You know you have to make your own way through.
As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow confusion to squander
This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free
From all you have outgrown.
What is being transfigured here in your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.
from: “To Bless the Space Between Us” by John O’Donohue. Pub in 2008 by Doubleday.