Breathing & Groaning

September 08, 2019
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Romans 8:19-23

Yesterday the church council and pastorate met to look to the upcoming church year. As we thought about what is going well among us here at Hyattsville Mennonite, we also noted we are not immune to the stressors in society. Like so many folks, we carry worry and anxiety and it is hard. 

So I invite us to begin with a breath,
a deep inhalation creating space –
that expands the belly,
and then a long slow exhalation that sends that breath, full of grace,
into the world.
And again – an expansive breath and then grace
And again – space – and grace. 

Oh God, you have searched me,
  And know me.
Where can I run from your Spirit?
  Where can I flee from your presence?
My frame was not hidden from you
while I was being made in that secret place,
knitted together in the depths of the earth.

Psalm 139, beloved by many, reminds us that we are known; we are known, and we are loved, and we can never escape from that great love that holds us. And we are not separate from that which we live on and among. We are not separate from the earth: we are part of the earth, we come from the depths of the earth. The psalmist writes that we are:

  • knit in the womb and woven in the earth – NRSV
  • stitched in the womb, knit in the earth – Inclusive
  • covered in my mother’s womb, curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth – KJV

I love the traditionally feminine description of how we are created and known; the homespun nature of how we come into being from the womb, from the earth. These descriptions about coming from the earth connect us with the Genesis 2 story: adam is created from the adamah, the earth. In the Hebrew language, an “ah” ending to a word is feminine. So “adamah” is the feminine earth, mother earth we might say, from which “adam,” the earth creature, is created. We are all adam, earth creatures.

We are not only created, we are known. We are known in the womb of our mothers and we are known in the womb of mother earth. This psalm often feels very personal – and we might expand our understanding. In addition to this very particular, personal picture, being known in the mother’s womb, we are also part of a much larger womb, the earth. We are not just individuals with a creator. We are part of something much bigger and more glorious; we little hand-knitted creatures are part of creation. We come from the earth, we live and love on the earth and we go back to the earth.

Where does the poetry end and the science begin? It all gets a little mixed up. Thank goodness we are a congregation with both poets and scientists among us. We need all perspectives to understand what it means to be part of the great, wide, earth womb.

Former president of United Theological Seminary, and contemplative theologian, Barbara Holmes, writes this – “It is nothing short of a miracle to be situated in a cosmos that keeps its secrets but reveals just enough to keep us intrigued. Our conflicts seem insignificant from the perspective of an expanding universe.

As we struggle for justice, the universe invites us toward expanded options. We can incorporate the wonder of science in our liturgy and in our politics. We can strengthen and challenge theological precepts with information about the intricacies of a cosmos that defies our inclinations toward control. Finally, we can regard our differences as an intrinsic manifestation of a complex order. The quantum world is all expectancy and potential, and it includes us whether we know it or not.”

Barbara A. Holmes, Race and the Cosmos: An Invitation to View the World Differently (Trinity Press International: 2002), 172-173.

Barbara Holmes moves us from the comfort of the womb, whether uterine or earth, to science, to the struggle for justice, to the expanding universe. I hope soon someone else will preach a cosmic sermon on science. For now, I am heading back to this womb imagery, the womb as a place that nurtures us as we prepare for the struggle toward justice.

In an expanding universe there are ever expanding options for how we might be part of living into justice. How hopeful that our imaginations can keep changing and expanding even as the universe keeps expanding. We are not stagnant and neither is the way we can work for justice. We often think that holding on, that standing firm, “we will not, we will not be moved” (sing the protest tune) is the only way toward justice. What if it is more complicated than that? What if we must keep moving and growing into new forms of justice, even as the injustice moves and shifts, even as the universe expands?

The psalmist describes a creator that is so expansive, so undefinable, that light and dark are delightfully equal, of no consequence. This creator is beyond the heights of the heavens and beyond the depths of death. As creatures of this creator there is no where to hide, even as the mystery continues to expand.

For those of us who grew up with the idea that God is the one constant, that God is a rock that never changes, this can be hard to grasp, hard to wrap our minds around. Perhaps that is the point, it is beyond us.

Some of us grew up with a tightly defined image of what it means to be Mennonite, what it means to be Christian. Even as we quoted scripture saying we are made in the image of God, we restricted our own images in very narrow ways. And so we not only restricted ourselves, we restricted our understandings of God. Thank God for the psalmist, with us the whole time, reminding us that God is always bigger, uncountable, uncontainable. Oh, to stretch our own bodies even as we stretch our imaginations about what God is, what God is becoming.

It is not just the psalmist who challenges us to widen our perspective. Paul writes in Romans that the whole creation is waiting to understand. Paul harkens back to this image from Genesis of the adamah, the mother earth, that gives birth to all creation. We know that from the beginning until now, all of creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth. The groaning of birth is loud, it is uncontrollable, unpredictable, and it can go on for a while.

Maybe you remember hearing about Valerie Kaur, the Sikh woman who spoke at an interfaith service on New Year’s Eve, 2016. It was just weeks after the election of the current US president. Many people were in shock, and many people were very scared. The rabbi who spoke before Valerie Kaur said “the future is dark, we are heading into dark days.” Valerie Kaur called on her grandfather and her Sikh tradition and her years of schooling and her experience as a mother and she said, “Yes, rabbi, the future is dark. But what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb. We are in transition and the midwives tell us we must breathe. We must breathe and push.”

We are part of the earth, part of creation that groans, as we move forward giving birth to something new in an ever expanding universe. We are part of the earth, part of creation that is birthing new energy and new imaginings.  We are each part of this groaning from the womb, with our deep breaths and our various ways of pushing and expanding. We are known and we are loved and we are pushing toward new life and new possibilities.

Let’s return to the breath,
a deep inhalation of space –
that expands the belly,
and then a long exhalation that pushes grace into the world.
And again – expansion and then push out love
And again – expand – and then push out life and possibilities.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (NRSV)  

For all these mysteries I thank you –
For the wonder of myself,
For the wonder of all your works,
your ever expanding universe –
May our souls know it well. (Inclusive Bible, adapted)