Sermon Lent 2 Finding Our Breath: Listening to Our Bodies
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 God’s purpose… 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. Romans 8:26-28, 38-39
When we lived in the country we were often invited to share a meal with one of the ranching families. The Hanna ranch was one of my favorite places in the valley, where we held Pentecost services under their open-sided barn, sitting on hay bales, and where two of my confirmation classes were baptized in the Hanna’s horse trough. When we shared a meal with there, the husband, Skip would say, “I think the professional at the table should say grace.” He was kidding, but my response to his comment was that I learned to pray as a little girl… that my mother prayed for us and with us… that I learned words of prayer as a young child.
Almost every day I read what Bishop Karen Oliveto, our denomination’s openly lesbian Bishop, has written about the United Methodist Church, following last month’s General Conference. One of her recent posts is titled “For Those Contemplating Leaving the United Methodist Church.” She writes, “I stay because I know that the actions of General Conference are not a reflection of the church that has raised me, enveloped me in God’s grace, nurtured my walk of faith as a disciple of Jesus, and encouraged my call. Most United Methodists in the United States are appalled at the turn our denomination has taken. For them and for me, it is an affront to the very ethos of Methodism itself. We are not biblical literalists, as this vote implies. Nor are we a tradition grounded in rules and punishment. We United Methodists have always been about grace, grace and more grace.“
Grace, like breathing in and out, is a physical. During Lent our theme is Listen, and today we’re listening to our bodies and our breath. Grace is sometimes referred to as the breath in, and breath out of love. We breathe in God’s love, and our spiritual practices help us access that love… practices like prayer, being thankful, seeing God in nature, being together in worship, singing, and reading and hearing scripture. And we breathe out God’s love, to those we love, and to those we could love better, and to those in need, through spiritual practices of giving our time, sharing our resources, serving others, and acts of kindness, justice, and compassion. We breathe in God’s love, and we breathe out love to the world. Unlike breath, which happens whether or not we think about it, grace needs practice and community and support. We are inherintly spiritual beings, and Methodism affirms with our emphasis on grace. Grace is not just God’s mercy given or forgiveness offered; it is God’s partiality and lovingkindness for each one of us. We Methodists believe that God’s grace is for the youngest child and the most blatant sinner and all of us inbetween; a gift freely given to us, and a gift we freely give to others. Being here, and welcoming everyone who comes, is a practice of grace. When you breathe in God’s love, imagine that grace fills you, reassuring you that you are unique and wonderful, crafted in the divine image, with gifts to share that bless and help heal the world. And when you breathe out love, imagine that grace is a blanket of warmth and compassion given to a world sometimes numb with misery and indifference. As you beathe in grace, and breathe out grace, imagine that God’s Spirit is breathing in you… with you.
I learned the words of prayer as a young child and then in college I learned transcendental meditation (I had to pay someone to learn to sit quietly and breathe.) I thought of TM (transcendental meditation) as a very groovy, mysterious Eastern practice… having no idea that Christian spiritual practices also include mindfulness, mediation, and breath-prayer. Sometimes there are sometimes no words to say in prayer… no words to express before anyone, or to tell God, our anguish, our heartbreak, and our fear of what is known, and what is unknown. Sometimes to sit in silence, trusting that we are in the presence of the Holy, is the prayer we need.
The Apostle Paul, that obsessive Pharisee who became that zealous Christian, and who seemed to have an answer for everything… said this about prayer, that when there are no words, “the Holy Spirit intercedes with signs too deep for words.” Prayer is more than words, and morethan silence. Prayer is breathing, physically breathing in fresh oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide, and spiritually breathing in joy and peace and gratitude and releasing stress and anger and fear.
The day that my mother was taken off life support, she was given morphine to help release the fear of no longer being able to breathe on her own. Before then I didn’t really realize that breath is our primal function… from our first gasp of air out of the womb to our last, and that even when the body shuts down we fight to keep breathing. We were born to breathe… both air and grace. Our culture lives largely in our heads, which is why Eastern religions and meditation have come as a “breath” of fresh air. The philosophy we inherited from ancient Gnostic thought that the body is inferior to the soul, or that the soul is is held captive by the body, has given way to spiritual insight that soul and the body are one, that this human body really is, as scripture tells us, the temple of God’s Spirit. Paul often wrote about the frailty and unreliability of our flesh, which has caused and cursed people of faith to believe that the soul is good, and the body is bad. A better word than “flesh” is probably “ego” because Paul was not referring to our arms and legs but to our will and our desires. In the scripture we heard today is an invitation to listen to God within: to listen for the activity of the Holy Spirit’s love and compassion in our breath, our sighs, our wordless prayers.
This is the season of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, which is not completely unlike the childhood activity of playing dress-up. Lots of preschools have a “dress up” area where children are free to try on firefighter’s hats and princess crowns and fairy wings and other real and imaginary occupations. Trying on different ensembles might spark something in a child that speaks to the heart of who they are and what their life’s calling is. Lent is a time of trying on spiritual practices to see what speaks to the heart of who we are. It’s a time to try on spiritual practices that might lead us to our life’s calling, or that might lead us out of our comfort zone. If you’re an introvert, a helpful Lenten spiritual practice might be to interact more with others… breathing out God’s love, engaging the world with love and activism. A spiritual practice for an extroverted person might be the “breath in” of contemplation and silence, of listening for the still, small voice of God. Lent is a time to play with spiritual practices, as if you’re playing dress up, remembering that play for children is their work… it is mind and body and soul work.
Last week our communal spiritual practice was to be still. Psalm 46 invited us: “Be still and know that I am God.” This week’s practice is to listen for God in our breath, in our sighs, in our wordless prayers. Let’s practice a breath-prayer using Yahweh, which is made up of four Hebrew consonants and represents God’s name, which to our Jewish siblings is too holy to be spoken. Yah-way. Say the first part “Yah” as you breathe in… and breathe out “way”. Breathe in “Yah” and put your palm in front of your face so that you can feel your breath as you release it, now saying “way.” Yah… way. This breath prayer reminds us that God, the source of life, as close to us as breath, as close as our beating hearts. The breath-prayer is sometimes called the prayer of the heart.
And when we can find no words to pray… the Holy Spirit breaths in us and prays for us. This means that prayer – attentiveness to God, mindfulness of the Holy Spirit within, joy, gratitude, sorrow – all aspects of prayer is not just us alone but us participating with God, and God’s dreams, for us and for the world.
Paul wrote in this letter about prayer that “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, [those] who are called according to God’s purpose.” Because of the grace we have received ~ God’s lovingkindness and mercy, God’s tender partiality to us ~ we don’t need to withhold grace from anyone. Grace, we Methodists believe, is a gift for everyone, not just for some.
Lent is a time for us to receive and to give grace… to breathe in God’s healing and transforming love, and to breathe out compassion, kindness, and care for those we love, and for those we could love better. Lent is a time to listen to love.
Paul ends his letter with what’s become my favorite words in the bible… a reminder, a reassurance, that nothing has more power than love. In these days of intolerance, of divisions, of hate speech, and hate crimes… you and I need to be reminded that nothing is stronger, and nothing has more power than God’s love. “For I am convinced” Paul wrote, “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.”
Listen, in this sacred season of Lent, listen to and breathe in that love… let is fill your heart and satisfy your soul… and then breathe out that love so that every person you come in contact with feels and hears the sound of grace. Amen.