I Can’t Breathe
Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs / June, 2020
Another murder by affixation, this time over a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Soon after, shards of storefront windows littering the sidewalk; ingulphed patrol cars consumed by provoked flames; a nine-year-old boy screaming, “Stop killing us!” Then the noxious burn of tear gas. The blockade of militarized vehicles. The pounding march of police armed with disbursement explosives, riot shields, clips of rubber bullets. A nation ravaged by a centuries-old war waged against itself.
Before the first conflict in the Garden, a holy gust swept across the formless void, making sense out of the incoherent, pushing dry land above the watery depths, turning chaos into creation. Not done, that same Spirit started clattering dry bones in the desert, binding sinew with muscle until the sandy grave was abandoned. Then she located as Woman Wisdom at the city gate raising her voice to shout a word of truth. And with the disciples despairing in a locked away upper room filling out resumes for their next fishing jobs, a furious rush blew them out into streets of ministry to inaugurate the Church.
In Hebrew, its ruach. In Greek, its pneuma. Both the Old and New Testament describe this same soul, life force, and divine wind found throughout the Bible as the Third Person of the Trinity. On Pentecost, the high holy day we celebrate this week, our question for discussion is why, of all the possible ways, does the Spirit come to us as holy breath?
Acts 2:1-13 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
To initiate intimacy, to live inside us.
To defy definition, refusing to be pinned down or explained.
To be everywhere in everyone.
Connecting atmospheric sciences and incarnational theology, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor made a striking observation: There’s no new air. Because of the gases that surround our planet creating a protective barrier, the same oxygen that animated Adam and Eve has been recirculating ever since. What the Stegosaurus exhaled, the Wolly Mammoth inhaled; what the towering Sequoia produced… the African Violet absorbed; what the Neanderthal blew out, the caveman took in. And, says Taylor, “When Jesus drew his last breath, willingly, we believe, it hovered there for a moment until he set it loose on the earth. The very last exhale 2000 years ago, after preparing a place in paradise for the criminal beside him and forgiving his executioners, is the same one we all take deep into our lungs today.
The shared Spirit of Pentecost was in Minneapolis too on Memorial Day. Until at 8:17 PM when an officer with a thick file of complaints for belligerent tactics, obstructed a pinned citizen’s windpipe for over 9 minutes with the unflinching pressure of his wedged knee. Despite the frantic pleas, 16 in total, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe…” George Floyd died by homicide in police custody.
Incensed, America is reacting. Not just to another life lost but to the slow death of black lives by every available means, most of them legally sanctioned. The United States criminal justice system is the world’s largest. 70% of inmates are non-white and African Americans face a 1 in 3 chance of being imprisoned compared to just 1 in 23 among whites. Black grade school students overwhelmingly strain to learn in crowded classes with less skilled teachers, inadequate curriculum, and fewer financial resources. Just over 40% graduate from high school and only 10% comprise the student body of public institutions of higher education. Because of occupational segregation, unemployment rates are staggeringly higher regardless of the economy’s health and the passed over jobs come with fewer benefits, lower pay, and even less stability. After neighborhoods of color were redlined, credit was denied, and bigoted lending practices followed. Nearly 100 years later, poverty has concentrated and the primary way to accumulate wealth, homeownership, is still a stack of inequitable forms away. Even COVID-19, the virus supposedly void of prejudice, has a racial bias killing 3 times more black Americans. To be black in our country is to be denied and defamed and discriminated against, often times blatantly in the name of unfettered freedom to flourish for someone else.
Even more appalling than the statistics, for people of faith- from lynching high up in the tree to manslaughter face down in the asphalt- is the complete disregard for the divine breath pulsing through black bodies. It’s not just that Black Lives Matters, that’s a standard far too low for Christianity. It’s that black lives are sacred lives being massacred daily. While some may misappropriate the power, only God has authority over life and death.
The Spirit comes to us as breath because God, instead of locating in just the one body of Jesus, has decided to take up residence in everybody, to spiritually respire down to the cellular level in our very beings.
Our former associate pastor Rev. Darryl Dayson said this week, especially to white allies, we don’t need any more of your prayers. Instead, following the disciples on that first faithful day of Pentecost, let us gather our lives around the most basic of spiritual disciplines: inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling, committed to a Church that breathes new life into everything it does.