St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
If you were to have asked me three months ago, I would have thought that I knew a lot about breathing.
After all, I’ve been doing it my whole life.
It’s something that I could do without thinking. Something I witnessed in the first breath after my son was born and last breaths taken in hospital rooms. Through practices like yoga and meditation, I learned to notice it all the more – to allow the breath to expand within me beyond the shallow breaths in my chest. Breath is something I vigilantly watched for as my baby learned how to sleep in that delicate first year. I’ve been trained to watch it; I have exercises to strengthen it.
I thought I knew something about breathing,
but this week and these months have changed that.
I’ve learned that my breath has far greater power than I ever understood.
I’ve learned that my breath alone can be a vehicle for a deadly virus. I’ve learned that breath can reach 3, 5, 10 feet based on how I am projecting it. I’ve felt it grow more shallow when someone in the grocery store stands what I feel is too close.
This week I also learned that wearing a mask isn’t a guarantee that my breath won’t spread deadly contagion. I watched along with many of you as a mask-wearing dog owner used her breath to expel hate and fear as she used her place of privilege to threaten the safety of a bird watcher.
I watched the breath of George Floyde snuffed out by the knee of a police officer on his neck.
I watched as people across this country cried out for breath, cried out for the end of racial terror and discrimination.
Yes, I think we’ve all learned a great deal about breath in these past days and months.
And still I think there is something more we can learn about this thing we’ve all been doing since we were born. That God might have something to say about breath if we are willing to listen.
In our Gospel reading today we encounter the disciples locked away. You see they are hiding in fear because their world has come undone. The teacher they had followed, the one they believed to be sent from God, has been killed.
And it’s there, in fear, in a paralyzed state of unknowing, that the risen Jesus shows up. What does he do?
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
He BREATHS on them. A better translation would be he breaths INTO them. The breath of Jesus is breathed into this room full of followers.
You may be thinking, well that’s weird and a bit unsanitary, perhaps there’s something there to be curious about. Perhaps there’s a reason, and a rationale behind the things we can’t make sense of. And it does have a purpose.
It’s supposed to remind us of something – of another breath.
Of a poem that tells of an artist shaping a masterpiece
Of a creator digging around in the dirt, molding it together with the utmost care and attention, and breathing life into its nostrils.
It’s that ancient story of beginnings, the book of Genesis. Creation.
This human, made from the dust, receives the breath of God.
Dirt and divine mingle together in a way that characterizes the rest of humanity that comes thereafter.
Jesus BREATHES into his friends. Do you see what’s going on here? The artist is back in the studio.
A new creation is underway.
But here’s the thing about this new creation – it doesn’t start from scratch.
It doesn’t seek to replace that first creation, rather it liberates it.
A new, deeper breathing is possible. Those that have had the wind knocked out of them are given the breath of Christ himself.
And just like any breath; this gift of the Holy Spirit is not meant to be held in.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Jesus, the one sent by God to be light and life for all of creation, the one who before he dies promises another Advocate that will never leave his followers, breathes into the disciples this Holy Spirit, this Advocate, who is as near as their very breath.
The masterpiece of new creation is coming together.
The Spirit sent by Jesus who was sent by God, sends us to continue this work of new creation… with every breath we take.
Our every breath is tied up with that of all living and breathing things.
“As the Father sends me, so I send you.”
God’s healing mission in the world continues through us by the breath of the Holy Spirit.
I think that’s what Jesus is talking about when he talks about this forgiving and retaining of sins. In John’s Gospel sin isn’t described as moral failings, but rather those estranged from God.
If we’re sent like Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, we too have the capacity to be a conduit of relationship – of flourishing.
It is this Holy Spirit, this divine breath, that should drive us to the places where it is most hard to breath.
Because the very breath of God has been breathed into us.
It’s why in our baptismal covenant – that which we hold center to our Christian identity – we vow to: seek and serve Christ is all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
As ones who have this breath breathed into us, we must seek and act on behalf of the flourishing of all who hold this divine breath.
It’s why we cannot remain silent in the face of the deep racial injustices woven into the fabric of our society.
We must have our ear to the ground listening to our black, brown and native brothers and sisters struggling for breath. We must listen and follow where the divine breath that we have been given is moving.
This is not easy work. It requires that we examine the power that we hold; the way we turn a blind eye to systems of oppression. It will require more than a Facebook post, more than a tweet, and sentiments of grief and disapproval. It will require our very breath.
So where might this breath be leading you? Where and how is the Spirit calling you to extend your breath on behalf of those who cannot breath.
I cannot answer that question for you. That is the work that we all must do.
What I can do is be a conversation partner. I can be there to listen, discuss, discern and nudge. Know that we are here for those conversations.
And if you’re uncomfortable, if this sermon angers you, frustrates you – good.
God can work with that. The new creation started under similar circumstances in that upper room, and even there God was at work.
In this season when we have been unable to gather, one of the aspects that I have found myself most missing about our worship is the blessing. It’s a way in which we are sent out into the world, into our homes, work and neighborhoods, to be Christ’s hands and feet – the very breath of God – to all people. So friends, receive this blessing. It’s from artist, Jan Richarson.
THIS GRACE THAT SCORCHES US | A Blessing for Pentecost Day
Here’s one thing you must understand
about this blessing: it is not
for you alone.
It is stubborn
Do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself, thinking you can carry it on your own.
To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not believe precisely as you believe, where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.
Bring your sorrow. Bring your grief. Bring your fear.
Bring your weariness, your pain,
your disgust at how broken the world is,
by its fighting,
its penchant for power, its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses to rise above.
I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.
But in the place
where you have gathered, wait.
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you do not understand.
See then whether this blessing turns to flame on your tongue, sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom
or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining that comes as a knowing in your bones,
in your heart that tells you
this is the reason we were made:
for this ache
that finally opens us,
for this struggle, this grace
that scorches us toward one another and into
the blazing day.Jan Richardson, from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
Let us remember this Pentecost that the breath we have been given has far greater power than we could ever imagine, AND we have been called to spend it on behalf of those gasping for breath.