The video above includes the full service for today. You can click on the four arrows in the bottom right of the video to make it full screen. Clicking the three lines next to that will pull up the menu.
Special thanks to Elisa and Matthew Leahy for video production.
Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859
Worship in Place | Central District Conference Sunday | June 21, 2020
Welcome and Call to Worship | Chaska Yoder
Peace Candle | Erin Leatherman
As we worship in place today, we light a Peace Candle in our home, inviting you to light a Peace Candle in your home. The flame joins us in spirit across distance, along with our sister church in Armenia, Colombia.
HWB 295 | Christ is Coming! Let creation | Phil Yoder
Children’s Time | Martha Ruggles
Pastoral Prayer | Chaska Yoder
Special Music | Creation Groans | By Phil Yoder
Mission Moment | Central District Conference | Barbra Gant
Scripture | Romans 8:18-27 | Eliza Graber
Sermon | Spirit bless our souls with yearning | Joel Miller
Hymn | Holy Spirit Bless | Katie Graber
Benediction | Chaska Yoder
Every two years the leadership of Central District Conference chooses a theme. Our current theme is worded as a prayer: Spirit, bless our souls with yearning.
The language comes from a liturgy in one of our hymnals, Sing the Journey, otherwise known as the green one, #124. It says, “I will light a light in the name of the Spirit, who encompasses the world and blesses my soul with yearning.”
It seems to me that this is a prayer for adults - we adults who have forgotten how to yearn, how to long for something good.
Children are so, so good at transparent longing. A baby cries for milk, for comfort. Their yearning is for the most basic of human needs, and they communicate it very effectively, at high volume, regardless of the hour.
A bit older, children are clear when they want something. A purchase denied, or a playdate delayed, or a treat deferred can result in what feels to us mellowed adults like a disproportionate response of inconsolable outrage. All the while, inwardly, we may be wishing that we too could be so open about how much we really want that ice cream cone we can’t quite justify buying.
As we mature, our appetite grows, our longings intensify, our sexuality awakens, and this whole inner world emerges that is all-at-the-same-time chaotic, powerful, delightful, scary, unpredictable, wondrous. Always just beyond the scope of language to fully describe or understand. Our yearnings. Our longings. Our desires.
The question of what to do with all this goes all the way back to the earliest stories we tell of ourselves - Genesis, Adam and Eve in the garden, allowed to eat from any tree except that one, which of course becomes an immediate object of desire. In that story, eating the fruit is both what makes us human, and what puts us in conflicted relationship with God. And we have a conflicted relationship with that story itself. Isn’t it OK to follow our curiosity? Doesn’t God bear a good part of the responsibility for having set up that whole scenario in the first place? Not to mention the way Eve, and her daughters through the ages, have taken the brunt of shame and blame for enticing male desire. Isn’t it by eating the proverbial fruit that we emerge out of childhood into adult responsibility and interdependence? Not merely God’s always-obedient children, but God’s conversation partner.
Spirit, bless our souls with yearning.
The book of Exodus begins with another dimension of yearning. Eve and Adams’ descendants through Abraham and Sarah are in slavery in Egypt. They are oppressed under the hand of Pharaoh, who builds his kingdom on the back of their unpaid labor. But the more they are oppressed, the more they multiply. And the more they multiply, the more Pharaoh’s fear is multiplied. And so he is even more ruthless in order to maintain control over the enslaved population.
The first hinge of this story, the initial disruption to this deadly cycle, occurs at the end of Exodus chapter 2. It says, “The Israelites groaned under their oppression, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” (vv. 23-24).
In this story it is the groan, the cry, the yearning just beyond the scope of language that causes God to remember the Israelites and the covenant for their well-being. As if human yearning and divine justice need each other in order to be fully operationalized. The Israelites groan, God remembers, and the story that follows is one of emancipation from enslavement into a new order, a liberated community.
Spirit, bless our souls with yearning.
There are two spiritual paths that have been pursued when it comes to yearning and desire. One more in response to the Genesis story. One in the spirit of the Exodus story.
The first path we might call the disciplining of desire. We recognize that the chaotic, powerful, delightful, scary, unpredictable, wondrous energy within us is indeed all that and more. We have access to all the fruit in the garden, but some is perhaps best left untasted. Or at least tasted in moderation. Just because the advertisement says this next purchase will make us happy, or thin, or safe, doesn’t make it true. Just because we could pump all the oil out of the ground and burn it in the engines of development doesn’t mean we should. The appetite is a powerful force.
We develop disciplines about how we use our time. What we do and don’t eat.
This is all deeply personal.
Partners make commitments to each other about finances and sexuality and emotional intimacy. Whether or not parents are anywhere near doing this well ourselves, we feel a special responsibility to help our children develop good habits, good disciplines.
Parenting itself, along with marriage, and friendship, and work, brings certain demands on us that cause us to shape and reshape our desires. Mostly teaching us the painful lesson that we are not in control, that our lives are not about us, that personal yearning and collective wellbeing don’t always coincide.
The lead character in Herrmann Hesse’s book Siddharta encounters a merchant who asks him what the young monk has learned. To which Siddharta replies: I can think, I can wait, I can fast. The merchant sees little value in any of this, but Siddharta goes on to demonstrate that each one, rather than confining him to a small life, gives him a tremendous freedom. I can think. I can wait. I can fast. Three underestimated life skills. Disciplined desire can lead to emancipated living.
The Apostle Paul, facing all the constraints that came along with his status and mission, writes, from prison, to the Philippians: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” (Philippians 4:11-12).
Our yearning faces all kinds of constraints, and so the disciplining and channeling of those longings is a key part of the spiritual path.
The other spiritual path, which we’re really walking at the same time as the first, has more to do with the Exodus story. The challenge in this case, is to stay awake to yearning. To not completely shut down to those inner longings. For liberation. For abundant life. To allow oneself the risk of wanting and desiring, even though there’s a decent chance things might not turn out the way one desires. Those Hebrew slaves groan and cry out. The Psalmist spills out their sorrow and lament and fear and praise and thanksgiving.
We fall in love. We pursue the dream job. We join our voice in calls and actions for justice.
The default mode of children is to be fully identified with their longings. In our matured, disciplined state, or just after life has had its way with us for a while, we can become so disassociated with our longings that we lose out on the life that wants to be lived through us.
“Spirit, bless our souls with yearning”
For this, we turn again to Paul, this time his letter to the Romans. He’s writing to them about how to live within the sufferings of the present time without losing sight of the glory that is, as he says, “about to be revealed.” Perhaps with those ancient cadences of the Hebrew slaves humming in his mind, Paul writes that the whole creation is longing to be free, that creation itself is groaning, like labor pains.
This means that if you’ve been doing some groaning and some sighing and some longing recently that you’re in good company. Join the party. Join the chorus. Creation is groaning, and we ourselves are groaning, Paul writes. As if the ones who are really missing out are the ones who have gone completely silent and stopped yearning.
Paul goes on to connect this to prayer. “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.” (v. 26)
And this is where this second path leads us. When we stay alive to the yearning within us, then our yearning mixes with the Spirit’s yearning. And the yearning and sighing, and inarticulate groaning becomes our prayers. Like God is out there looking for bodies to sigh for God.
I’m imagining, just taking a wild guess, that many of us have a complicated relationship with prayer. But here is something I hope we can claim. That our very yearnings and longings and even groans are themselves prayer. And that, imagine this, it is actually the Spirit yearning through us. That’s enough. That makes a prayer.
The church father Augustine, all the way back in the 5th century said the same thing. He wrote: “For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, then so is your prayer.” (From a discourse on the Psalms).
That path of disciplining our desires, and that path of raw expression of our deepest longings converge in prayer.
And as Central District Conference considers this together, we can imagine all this yearning mixing and mingling together across geographical distance. And we can imagine it joining with all of creation. We can offer this as our collective prayer.
Spirit, bless our souls with yearning.