Holy Breath

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on Pentecost Sunday.

Acts 2:1-21

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.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

***

There is a song we sing each year on Pentecost Sunday that I love. Lilting melody, beautiful words, teaching us about all the Holy Spirit has done. Spirit, spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness, calling and free. 

Usually one of our children waves the dove around as we sing, a reminder of the when the Spirit descended upon Jesus as the bird of peace. 

I was originally sad that we are not singing that hymn today, but as the week has progressed, the more I am glad that, for today, we are putting aside images of gentle breezes and cooing doves and focusing on how the Spirit came at Pentecost. 

In both the Hebrew and Greek, the word used to mean spirit can also mean wind, or breath, something invisible that nonetheless has great power, power enough to carve out landscapes, to cause hurricanes, to sustain life in the human body. In Greek that word is pneuma, as in the pneumatics, something air-powered. The Holy Spirit is God’s Holy Breath, breathing life into creation and resuscitating a broken and fearful world. 

The word breath has haunted the news this week. 

On the one hand, we have heard about the dangers of breathing, especially in enclosed spaces, about how breathing deeply runs the risk of drawing the SARS-COV-19 virus deep into our lungs. We have seen arguments over masks, that protect others from our breath, but may make us uncomfortable in the process. But on the other, we are seeing that breathing at all is a luxury not all are afforded.  

“I can’t breathe.”

Those are the words heard by doctors, nurses, and medical staff across the globe as COVID patients gasp for air, praying for available respirators. Those are the words heard by therapists, parents and partners as their loved ones suffer panic attacks from the weight of all that is harsh and hard in the world. And those were the words heard by Derek Chauvin as he knelt on George Floyd’s neck. 

As a friend put it, America is being stalked by two plagues: COVID-19, a respiratory illness that attacks the lungs, and racism, a societal illness that attacks the soul. I grew up thinking about racism as a choice: as long as I avoided certain words and symbols, I was fine. I was not racist. 

But I was, and I am. I breathed in racism like a virus. I breathed it in when I learned to lower my voice when I described someone as Black, as if it was a shameful thing. I breathed it in when I learned the police would always have my back, even when I was the one who had crashed into a black man’s car. I breathed it in when I thought racism was over, that I would never have to make the choice of pastors in the 60s and 70s, between preaching about prejudice and remaining silent. I breathed it in when my I heard jokes about lynching at Girl Scout Camp. I breathe it in even now, when I desperately want the protestors to go home and be quiet and not disturb me with their cries. I breathe it in when I have literally no people of color close enough to me to end up on my wedding guest list. I breathe it in when I worry more about what people will think of this sermon than I do about whether or not the Spirit is breathing through me today. 

Most of us don’t intend to be racist. We are good people, nice people, people who want to love our neighbor, who want everyone to be treated equally. I don’t know much about Derek Chauvin, but I imagine if you asked him straight out if black people were inferior to white people, he would have said no. Very few people still think they believe that. But somewhere along the way, he breathed in the idea that he didn’t have to be as cautious with black bodies, that he didn’t have to listen as carefully to black voices, that he didn’t have to care quite as much if a black man couldn’t breathe. 

I fully expect that Derek Chauvin did not set out to murder a black man on the morning of Memorial Day. But he did, and it was because his world had sickened him with the idea that violence against black men didn’t matter quite as much. 

Breath is a good word for us to hear this morning—to be reminded of the preciousness of breath, of how God’s Holy Breath filled the disciples with good news, and can still fill us with hope and power today. But there’s another word in this story, the word right next door to Spirit, and we should pay attention to it to.

Violent.  

It’s a word I usually gloss over in this Pentecost story, on days when we celebrate with streamers and cake. It doesn’t seem to fit. Yet the Bible says that God’s spirit came, not as a gentle breeze, but a violent wind. That word is very specific—there are other words to mean strong, but when this one is used, it usually refers to the violence of a mob. This is the kind of wind that can destroy, that any sane person would take cover from. This is the Spirit, the Breath, that sweeps through the disciples on Pentecost day. Far from being unable to breath, they are gasping with too much sudden breath. Do you know on TV, when someone takes that first gulp of air after almost drowning, and it’s both an overjoyed and painful moment? That is the Breath of Pentecost. Violent. 

It takes a wind of this force, of this magnitude, to empower the disciples. Despite the fact that Jesus just promised them the spirit a few verses ago, just told them to witness to all the earth, they are still huddled in their room, afraid of the crowds, afraid to say his name. It takes a wind of this violence to blow open the windows and doors, and let the fire in. It takes a wind of this violence to shake them from their fear and stupor, and start shouting the good news of what God has done, and can do, and will do.

The response to the act of violence against George Floyd—and the thousands of other people of color who have had their lives treated carelessly by white people in this country—has been violent. That’s the word in the headlines—protests turn violent. The violence seems mostly to be property violence, and at least in Minneapolis, jumpstarted by outside groups eager to capitalize on chaos and unrest. Like many of the protest leaders, I am grieved that a gathering meant to oppose the destruction of life has bred destruction of its own. 

But I want us to make a distinction between loss of property and loss of life; between the value of what can and cannot breathe. To grieve destruction of property is fine—but not if we do not grieve the loss of life even more deeply. And I want us to recognize that what looks like violence to us, simply because it is loud, or chaotic, or does not follow our rules, or—especially—because it is led by people of other races—is not necessarily violence. Loudness, and chaos, and even rage—these can be signs of the inbreaking of the spirit, not as the gentle dove, but as violent wind and fire.

I heard from a Black friend this week that she is exhausted—a word that broken down means out of breath. She is not a protestor or activist, not a preacher or newscaster. She works with special needs kids in a Texas classroom. She does not want to have to make pronouncements or take stands. She just wants to know that when her brothers go to the store, they’ll come home. She just wants to be able to breathe. 

The Spirit comes as holy breath. Breath that propels us to speak, just as it propelled those first disciples, to shout out God’s mighty deeds of power to people of all races, in a riotous, chaotic cacophony of sound. Breath that fills our lungs with courage, to admit where we have failed to love our Black neighbors as well as we love our peace and quiet. Holy breath that, if enough people breathe together, can cause a new hurricane of justice to break forth.

So I’ve asked myself this week, what air am I breathing? Not just at the grocery store, when I pull up my mask, but in what I read and watch, in whose voices I am listening to, in how faithful I am to the powerful, God-breathed words of scripture, that proclaims that God’s breath is poured into the lungs of all flesh, old and young, male and female, slaves and free, that each has a vision and a dream and a prophecy for God’s world worth cherishing. Am I breathing in the sickness of racism, that tells me violence is only a problem once it lands on my doorstep? Or am I breathing in the Holy Spirit, and finding courage to speak in whatever language I need to to tell the world about God’s powerful, world-changing love?

I don’t know how you are this morning, if your breath is caught in your throat, if you are sad, if you are angry, if you are despairing, if you think everything I just said is nonsense. I wish we were together, to talk about this, to work through this together. If you need to talk, you know my number. I can’t promise answers. I can promise to listen. 

But here’s what I do know: the church of Christ was created for just this work. To make one people out of nations, and carve love from generations of hate. To harness violent wind and carry fire unafraid on our heads. To lead the world in a new vision of what could be—a place where each person is seen as the bearer of God’s face, and the storehouse for God’s Holy Breath. 

The Spirit led the church once. It will lead us again. So take a deep breath. And another. And follow.

Amen.

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