Breath and Fire
Today is a day of breath and fire.
Breath, as Jesus looks around a room at his disciples, huddled together in fear, self-isolated behind locked doors for fear of what evil forces might do.
Breath, as he speaks a word of peace to their deeply-troubled souls. Breath as he speaks a second word of peace, sending these same shell-shocked disciples out into the world with his same mission of peace, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Breath — deep, deep breath — as Jesus inhales that same spirit that the Creator breathed into the human in Genesis, the same, sacred breath of life that God gives to each creature, the ruach of God spoken through the mouths of the prophets, the breath that carries God’s Holy Name “Yah-weh” at the first and the last — that breath, with that breath Jesus exhales the Holy Spirit on anxious, despairing, bewildered disciples.
Fire as the Holy Spirit whipped through the gathered disciples like a F-5 tornado of holiness and power, filling the house where they were, filling their hearts with a boldness to ignite Jesus’ worldwide movement for resurrection on a planet plagued by death, filling their bellies with a passion for the truth they had witnessed.
That same holy fire that had been on the lips of John the Baptist as he prophesied of Jesus, “This one will baptize you with Spirit and fire.”
That same holy fire in the hot coals put to Isaiah’s lips: “Whom shall I send? Here I am, Lord! Send me!”.
That same holy fire that set alight the bush calling Moses to march right up to Pharaoh’s palace and deliver the message, “Let my people go!”
That fire, divided tongues resting on each of them as if marked by God, “This is my person. I have set them aflame with the good news embodied in Jesus, that death cannot hold love down.”
With breath and fire, God’s wild, unpredictable Spirit does what she has always done since creation: gather up a people from the dust of the earth, breathe into them the breath of life, and send them out, consecrated for God’s redemptive purposes in the world. On Pentecost this Spirit is poured out on all flesh — ALL FLESH — sons and daughter and children, old and young and everywhere in between, even people enslaved by age-old oppressive arrangements, on ALL FLESH, Jews and Gentiles from lands, languages, and cultures the world over. In the presence of all the scattered peoples of the empire, in the face of the power of the empire, that Spirit runs loose. Her breath and fire will not be stopped!
Breath and fire…
Breath and fire on this Pentecost, too.
Breath, as a child of God, George Floyd, gasps out a final plea, “I can’t breathe,” which has become a rallying cry because this is the latest in a series of such racist murders.
Fire, as precincts in the Twin Cities and squad cars in Atlanta and dumpsters in Tucson. A headline from the Washington Post this morning: “A night of fire and fury across America as protests intensify.”
Breath, as angry, fed-up, “sick and tired of being sick and tired” people, to quote Ms. Hamer, take to the streets and SHOUT because they aren’t being heard in traditional halls of justice.
Fire, as an opinion piece in the New York Times, another headline reads, “America Is a Tinderbox.” Breath, as over 100,000 people in this country alone die horrible deaths, and thousands more languish on ventilators, and millions more stay locked behind closed doors in fear of infection.
In, with, and under all of this, the Holy Spirit is still speaking. The Spirit is still uttering God’s life-giving, death-defying word. The question is: are we listening?
In A Brief Statement of Faith, one of the confessional texts of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), there’s a line that stands out: “In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage… to hear the voices of peoples long silenced.” I believe that’s what the Spirit is doing with us in the midst of the chaos of the breath and fire of our own day: calling us to attention, waking us up from our slumber to hear, to really hear, the pain, the suffering of our fellow human beings. To listen, so we can clearly perceive the patterns and structures of society — the patterns and structures in which we participate and benefit from — that diminish, degrade, and destroy the life that God breathes into all God’s children.
Friends, whenever the monster of white supremacy rears its ugly head in the latest incident, I struggle with what to say on Sunday. I struggle to find the right words to name the injustice and fuse the headlines and the Scriptures in a way that is faithful, responsive, and actionable. I struggle to distill some of the immense wisdom that’s out there while also saying something that’s original.
But today, my calling as a white preacher, as a white person, is to “pass the mic.” Today, in a congregation like ours, in a denomination like ours that is vast-majority white and affluent by global standards, our task amidst all the breath and fire of this moment is to listen — comment, opine, argue, or defend, but listen. Listen with compassion to what our fellow human beings are saying, for as Dr. King famously said, “The riot is the language of the unheard.”
To that end, I’ll turn over this virtual pulpit to the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He’s not only a person I’ve known and looked up to for a while, but also a leader in our denomination and a prophet in our time. Let us, in the words of Revelation, “hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.”