Catch Your Breath
The Spirit of God (ruach in Hebrew and pnuema in Greek) means breath, wind, and spirit altogether at once. What would a modern Pentecost entail in 2021? Who can’t breathe among us? Who seeks to feel the power of the wind? Who needs the Spirit of God? Come, Holy Spirit, fill us with your radical love and grace!
We invite you to wear something RED for Pentecost!
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
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.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
In the Presbyterian tradition, God is Triune, meaning that God exists as three persons in one. The Trinity can be broken down in a number of ways: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; or as Augustine suggested: the Lover, the Beloved, and the Loving. Of these, the Holy Spirit can be the most elusive person of the Trinity.
We can grasp a Creator God, and we understand the humanity of the person of Jesus. But what exactly is the Holy Spirit? In A Brief Statement of Faith written by the PC(USA) nearly 40 years ago, the church described the Holy Spirit this way:
We trust in God the Holy Spirit,
everywhere the giver and renewer of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the Church.
The same Spirit
who inspired the prophets and apostles
rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,
engages us through the Word proclaimed,
claims us in the waters of baptism,
feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calls women and men to all ministries of the church.
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
In other words, it is easier to understand the Holy Spirit by what she does rather than who she is. So what does she do? According to what we just read together, she gives us life, frees us, binds us together, inspires us, engages us, claims us, feeds us, calls us. The church, the Body of Christ, at work in the world today is made possible by the Holy Spirit. And it is altogether appropriate to call the Holy Spirit a “she.” According to the original Greek and Hebrew texts, the words ruach in Hebrew and pnuema in Greek are both feminine nouns that mean not just “The Holy Spirit,” but includes the meanings for breath, wind, and spirit altogether at once. Today’s scripture passages from Ezekiel and Acts both speak to the power of God’s spirit, God’s breath, that holy wind from the Holy One. The Acts story is the traditional Pentecost story. Pentecost is the day when we celebrate the Holy Spirit breathing life into the church, and with that breath of oxygen, a flame is lit on each person, to go and resuscitate all God’s creation. The Ezekiel story takes us to a pit of dry bones in the midst of the Babylonian exile.
All seems lost, and death surrounds the prophet. It is God’s breath that brings that which is dead and wasted back to life. And in one of the creation stories from Genesis, we read about God’s breath that fills Adam, and for the first time, humanity lives. One of our Catholic sisters writes, “The Holy Spirit is the actual breath of God.
It is what gave Adam life, from a lifeless form. It is what brings us to life, when we are dry spiritually. It is what happened during Pentecost to the apostles in the upper room. God’s breath brings life!” (Laura Hensley). So I invite you to take a deep breath in and out, to feel this life force, this ruach/pneuma moving in and through you.
That breath in, it fills us with God’s love, fills us with life. When I was in my own valley of dry bones, however, at the height of the pandemic, I learned it is the breath out that calms, settles, and restores our anxious souls. The breath in gives us life, but the breath out makes life livable. Perhaps that’s because as we breathe out and give back to the world, we can help bring peace and help breathe peace into the world. During the pandemic I learned a breathing practice for children to help with their anxiety. And I’ve actually taken it on for myself. [*five finger breathing example*] You trace your hand with the index finger of the other. And as you trace a finger up, you breathe in. As you trace a finger down, you breathe out.
In with God’s love and life; out with peace for those around us and for ourselves. Now, we are not in the practice of breathing together these days. I know that for me, due to the coronavirus, the thought of anyone breathing too close to me still makes me feel uncomfortable, even after being vaccinated. And the absence of choirs and singing together has really taken away opportunities for us to breathe together. They say singing in a choir not only synchronizes our breathing but also our heartbeats which is an incredible thought for churches as we consider unity and being one.
But, again, we just don’t breathe together as much as we used to these days.
And in some ways, I’m sure many of us feel like we’ve been holding our breath
for nearly a year. If this pandemic has taught us anything, however, it is that we are actually more interconnected than we ever could have imagined, that a virus can and does go global in just a matter of months, that the air I breathe is the same air that you breathe, and that your breath affects my breath.
In the year 2021, as we consider Pentecost, as we celebrate the new life given to us as individuals and to us as a church through God’s breath, wind, and spirit, it would be remiss to not note how Covid-19 primarily affects the lungs and our capacity to breathe. It would be remiss to not pause and remember the over 3 million lives this virus has claimed worldwide. We pause, remembering these precious and beloved lives,
as well as all those who have been affected by this disease – those who were sick but recovered or are recovering, those whose businesses were shut down or who were laid off during this time, those frontline healthcare workers who worked tirelessly to save lives and keep us healthy, and each and every one of us who miss our family, our friends, our classmates, our church community as we’ve practiced social distancing. Pentecost, in the midst of a pandemic caused by Covid-19, takes on a whole new meaning. What new thing is God breathing life into in the midst of death, in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of our altered, disrupted lives? Is it learning how to catch our breath? How to slow down? Is it figuring out who is essential to us, both personally and to our society at large? Is it the fragility of life, the preciousness of breath, the shared humanity of grief? And what has helped you breathe and breathe deep through this precarious time?
For me, it’s been watching my kids sleep, walking among the redwoods and nature, virtual therapy, and supporting local businesses by ordering and enjoying their delicious food. It has also been my touchpoints to something bigger and greater than myself, my connection to the church, to movements for justice, to scripture and stories written and recorded thousands of years ago, to giving back to the community with my time, talent, and treasure. This Pentecost, how is God breathing new life into you and into us as a community of faith? One thing this year has brought to the forefront, are the injustices that people of color face daily in this country. In the year 2021, as we consider Pentecost, as we celebrate the life given to us as individuals and to us as a church through God’s breath, wind, and spirit, we cannot do so without acknowledging those among us for whom breath is not guaranteed or taken from them. How our Asian American, Pacific Islander elders have had the wind knocked out of them or their breath taken from them through unprovoked acts of violence; how members of the AAPI community catch our breath when someone approaches us too closely wondering if we might be the next victim, how my breath quickens with anxiety when I hear that my mom or my mother-in-law are going out to get groceries on their own. And how, especially our black and brown siblings, have cried out again and again saying, “I can’t breathe.”
We heard it from Eric Garner before he died, from George Floyd as he died, Elijah McClain, and undoubtedly countless others whose last breaths were not recorded. We have seen it on signs at Black Lives Matter rallies and even at sporting events and retail stores, and we have heard it from our siblings when they are able and willing to share how painful it is to live in a society that considers your skin color as a threat and even a potential weapon. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. We must co-create a world where all can breathe, where all might have life and have it abundantly, where no one’s breath is cut short by the state, by racism, by poverty, or by murder. God’s creative spirit allows us to imagine such a world. And God’s courageous spirit allows us to act and co-create such a world. The Pentecost we need, the new life, the fire, the birth we need today is for the church to come alive and do justice in a world that so longs for it and so needs it. People’s breath are literally being taken from them. It must stop. And we the church must use our breath to speak out, to speak truth, to speak on behalf of love. So, come, Holy Spirit, fall afresh on us. Ignite us with your fire. Fill us with your breath. So that we might breathe love and justice into your beloved creation.