Sunday, November 8, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Winton's Children"

Romans 8:18-27

I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. 19 The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. 20 Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. 

23 And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. 24 We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? 25 But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience. 26 In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. 27 The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will.  (Common English Bible)

“With Sighs too Deep for Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8,” Week Three

669 children.

That’s an elementary school.  That’s several pee-wee soccer divisions.  That’s a Boy Scout camporee.

It’s the number of souls that one solitary British committee worker managed to spirit out of Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War, with Nazi Germany occupying Czechoslovakia ever since the country got sold out by the Western powers at Munich.  Taking advantage of a House of Commons law, passed after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, that allowed refugees who were minors to seek asylum in Britain provided a 50-pound bond was paid towards their eventual return to their homes once the war was over, Sir Nicholas Winton smuggled 669 children, in three groups of 200-250 apiece, across continental Europe and into England.  These children—now elderly adults, and some of them deceased, are known as “Winton’s Children.”

Rather than trumpet his goodness from the mountaintops, he instead never mentioned it, not to anyone, for over 40 years, until his wife found a scrapbook in their attic containing the names of every child he had saved back in the late 1930’s and gave it to a Holocaust researcher, ensuring he would indeed receive the acclaim due to him that he received all the way up until his death, this past summer, at the age of 106, 76 years to the day when the final train carrying over 200 children to life, freedom, and safety, left from Prague.

What drove one person to do all of this—and then keep it all a secret?  Christ tells us that is in fact what true goodness looks like—it is done in secret, so much so that one hand does not know what the other is doing—and sometimes, that too is how the Holy Spirit, with sighs too deep for words, intercedes in our own lives: in ways that only we can see them.

This is a new sermon series that will take us all the way to Advent—otherwise known as the Christmas season (holy cow).  Of course, we’ll be talking about the Christmas story then rather than now, which is still firmly rooted in the Halloween-and-Thanksgiving season.  In that spirit of not only looking at what we have to be thankful for but also what cause we have to be loving and to experience such great love, we’ll be taking on a verse-by-verse treatment of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Why this particular chapter?  Well, for one thing, it simply has been a while since we’ve had a series on Paul or his letters, and much like the USDA’s ubiquitous (when I was a kid, anyways) food pyramid, I strive to provide a balanced preaching diet for y’all; I’m like a spiritual lunch lady, doling out the religious Sloppy Joes. 

However, Paul is also a very dense, sometimes esoteric, theologian, especially in Romans, but when it comes to actually talking about the nature of God’s love, Paul’s prose genuinely begins to soar, and we’ll be spending this plus the next four Sundays trying to unlock exactly what the Holy Spirit has placed within Paul for this extraordinary chapter, beginning two weeks ago with the first eleven verses, and then last week with the subsequent five, all of which dealt with the nature of the Spirit and its fostering of selflessness rather than our prior and inherent selfishness.  Today, we thematically move on to the Spirit’s relationship not just with us as individuals, but with all of creation, with “sighs too deep for words,” as the New Revised Standard Version translates verse 26.

It is from the NRSV translation of that verse that we get the title of this sermon series, and it is really quite remarkable that we do.  The NRSV is a more academically-oriented formal word-for-word translation, as opposed to more dynamic thought-for-thought translations or paraphrases that might be more attractive or engineered towards the layperson’s eye.  And that’s to say nothing of the granddaddy of Bible translations, the King James Version, whose thee’s and thou’s contain within them a vast trove of soaring poetic translation—albeit of sometimes dubious accuracy.

But why does that matter?  Why translate Paul in this way if we could translate him in a more cut-and-dry way?  Because Paul himself does not long to be so cut-and-dry.  Read what he is saying here—phrases like “breathless with anticipation,” and “set free from slavery to decay.”  This is Paul at his very, very best, able to soar with such height and altitude that you cannot help but stare up at the heavens and envy him—until he reaches down to pull you up to that very selfsame loftiness.

In this way, Paul is doing exactly what we might expect of anyone who has had such a profound God experience: he wants to shout it out to the world, something has done for years now prior to his writing to the church in Rome.  But what of the Holy Spirit, whose words are not always spoken, whose voice is not always audibly heard, and whose presence, like the rush of the wind, can be impossible for us to see by itself?

Paul says that the Spirit intercedes for us when we do not know how to pray as we ought.  And that makes sense, because I think we tend to see our ability to pray or to not pray as a part of whether we are indeed feeling the Spirit--feeling in tune with God may make it easier for us to pray, but in truth, it is probably those moments we are least in tune with God that we need prayer but don't know how.

Yet Jesus taught us how to pray, rather famously, if you’ll remember, in Matthew 6, when during the Sermon the Mount, Jesus outlines the Lord’s Prayer for us.  But just a few verses prior, that prayer, Jesus tells us, is meant to take place in secret, unlike the hypocrites who love to pray in the most public places so that people will see them: “But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in secret.  Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.”

And in truth, that being seen versus unseen, visible versus invisible dichotomy is what life itself faces.  Only until recently did we see life come into this world—it was not so long ago that husbands were consigned to waiting rooms, and even further in the past, that mother and child were sequestered entirely for days on end.  But the provision of life is precisely what Paul is rejoicing in here—his constant references to creation, and to its breathlessness, it is a (I have to think deliberate) harkening back to Genesis 2 when God breathed life into Adam through his nostrils.

In the Biblical sense, breath is equals life.  And breath, too, is something we feel but cannot always see, not unless we have a glass in front of us to fog up with our exhalations.  So even the Bible’s oldest, most ancient symbol of life is itself in no small manner…invisible to us.

It is divinely appropriate, then, that someone such as Sir Nicholas Winton would keep entirely to himself the work of salvaging the lives of 669 children in the face of the most infamous evil of the modern era.  Counter-intuitive to us, perhaps, but appropriate.  Divinely appropriate.

The Spirit likewise intercedes for us with sighs—with groans—too deep for words.  Sighs and groans can be heard, they can even be felt on a visceral, gut level.  But are they seen?  No.

Sometimes, the Spirit’s most important, most life-saving work is done sight unseen by us, the beneficiaries of such great work.  And because we do not see it, we may well think that such work has not in fact taken place, even when it absolutely has.  Instead of if a tree falls in the forest, it’s, “If the Spirit works in a heart and nobody was around to see it, do we still think that it has happened?”
The usual way to do this in the case of born-again experiences would be to simply look at a person’s life afterwards—have they had that dramatic, substantial change in nature like Paul did on the road to Damascus?  And that’s well enough, but what about the rest of us who may not have such colossal experiences but who need the Spirit’s help in our everyday, week-to-week wobbles in faith, wobbles that nobody else might see but us?

That's what is tough for me in how we tend to treat testimonies of born-again experiences: those experiences are seen as a finishing line, not a starting line, and we sometimes hear less of how the Spirit works to sustain a newly Christian person's faith than we do about that momentous road to Damascus moment.  It's not to diminish those born-again experiences at all, it's to say that even Paul here acknowledges that the Spirit continues to intercede for him well after he has been forever changed.

So for the rest of us, look at how Paul ends this passage (well, it’s not the ending to the passage, we had to cut it off today lest the reading get way too long to do proper justice to): the one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks.  And I have to believe that for us, the searching of hearts must begin with our own.

Search your own heart then, in the midst of your own wobbles and stumbles, to see whether what your heart desires and what God desire are indeed the same.  For if they are, then continue to have faith, faith enough to live, faith enough to thrive, and faith enough to know, deep in your bones, at the bottom of your soul, and from the innermost chambers of your heart that the Holy Spirit shall indeed continue to advocate for you…with sighs far too deep for words.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 8. 2015

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