Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
May 31, 2020 Worship Sermon - "I Can't Breathe"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23
I can’t breathe!
Breath is one of the primary images on the Feast of Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. That’s because in Hebrew, the language that much of the Bible was written in, the word for Spirit and breath and wind is all the same word: ruah. So, in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples. This reminds us of God breathing the breath of life into Adam and Eve. And in the Psalm, we sang the refrain, “Lord, you send out your Spirit - your breath - and renew the face of the earth.” God’s breath is life. The Holy Spirit is the giver of life. And in the story of Pentecost from the book of Acts, a great wind from heaven, the very breath of God, blows through the upper room and fills the disciples with the power of the Holy Spirit. The breath that we celebrate on Pentecost is the breath of life.
So it is a profound irony to be celebrating Pentecost during a time when there seems to be a crisis of breath in our society and around the world. The words, “I can’t breathe” are once again echoing through protests across our country. They are echoing in response to what appears to have been the callous murder of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer. At the same time, the words “I can’t breathe” are also echoing in thousands of intensive care units as victims of the coronavirus struggle for breath.
Does the coming of the Holy Spirit offer any wisdom to our world as we endure this crisis of breath? I believe so. The crisis of breath has been aggravated by the divisions and polarization that are tearing our society apart. So, I hear wisdom in Paul’s words to the Corinthians about how the one Spirit produces a manifold variety of gifts. Paul wrote this letter to the Christians in Corinth in order to combat a spirit of tribalism that was tearing the Corinthian church apart. People were dividing into these groups. Some of the groups were based on who baptized them. “I was baptized by Peter,” some boasted; while others boasted about being baptized by Paul. People were also dividing into groups based on the kinds of Spiritual gifts they had been given: those who had the gift of tongues were boasting against those who didn’t. And of course, as always, people were dividing into groups based on wealth: the rich Corinthians had their own sacred meal separate from the poor Corinthians. All these little groups were bickering with each other and the body of Christ was being crucified anew.
To combat the tribalism that was rending the Corinthian church, Paul reminds them that in one Spirit they were baptized into one body. There are differences between people, but these differences should not be the basis for dividing into groups of us versus them. Rather, these differences are gifts that enable the members of the body of Christ to work together in a way that strengthens the whole body. My eye is different from my ear, but they both need each other. If either of them were separated from my body, they would die and my body would be diminished. It’s the same with the body of Christ: we all need each other.
Tribalism is tearing our world apart right now. It was there before the pandemic, but the pandemic is a stressor that shows just how divided societies are. In some places, like India, tribalism takes the form of religion as Hindus blame Muslims for the spread of the coronavirus. In the United States, tribalism revolves mostly around politics and race. White Supremacy is a form of tribalism in our country, but you don’t have to be a member of the KKK to participate in it. As most of you know, it’s usually way more subtle than that. Amy Cooper - the woman in Central Park who called the police on a man who confronted her for allowing her dog to run without a leash - she says she’s not a racist. But in the video of her phone call to the police we see how quick she was to use race to gain power over her adversary. That’s white tribalism and in the United States it all too frequently brings about the incarceration or death of black men and women.
If the United States is ever to heal from the tribalism that is destroying us, we need to stop seeing each other as other. We need to recognize the One Spirit that has drawn us into one body. As Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
King’s vision of our interconnectedness is beautiful, but not everybody buys into it. Rather than trying to heal our nation of tribalism, there are people who want to fan the flames of racism and bring about the race war they have been anticipating for decades. It doesn’t surprise me that there are anarchist groups and perhaps white nationalist groups trying to take advantage of the protests that are happening in response to George Floyd’s death.
Some people are seeking to fan the flames of tribalism, but there are also people working to overcome it. You may have heard of Daryl Davis. He is a blues pianist who has convinced over 200 members of white supremacist organizations to leave their hate group. He does it by listening to them. As they talk, the wounded soul buried beneath the racist rhetoric invariably comes to the surface and at that point there is an opportunity for healing.
Daryl Davis is doing the work of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” Jesus was giving the disciples the ministry of reconciliation. He was empowering them to be agents of healing in a world that is tearing itself apart. May that same Spirit breathe through us that we too might be agents of healing.