Breath On Me, Breath of God
Spirit of truth, who moved over the waters in the beginning of creation, and who Jesus sent from God to be with us as our Comforter, Helper, and Advocate forever, guide us in the way of truth and light, we ask in Jesus’ holy name. Amen
Friends, this has been another tough week for us. Just as we started coming out of lockdown — out of quarantine in our houses — last week we all saw that awful footage of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, was detained by police, and for almost 9 horrifying minutes, the officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck, even after he said that he couldn’t breathe. As we all know now, George Floyd became unresponsive during those nine minutes, and bystanders pointed this out to the officer holding him down. But the officer didn’t let up, and George Floyd couldn’t breathe. He died — horribly.
And we have over the past week seen in the news the prayer vigils, peace demonstrations, and riots that followed. The prayer vigils and marches have even come to us here in Newport, with a rally yesterday at the MLK Community Center. This is a lot, right? And just as we have been mourning those who have died of — or during — this COVID epidemic, with our grieving all contained — held down and suppressed — by our quarantine requirements. Just as we were learning how to wear our face masks, and figuring out how we can carefully begin to move around again.
When I first saw the news of George Floyd’s death last week, I was horrified and saddened — of course. But my first thoughts were around the pandemic — Lord, how much more can your people handle right now? The strain on our hearts has been heavy — with loss, with grief, with fear, with isolation. The strain on our hearts has been so heavy that sometimes we felt like we couldn’t breathe. And from my own perspective of my very privileged safety of home and family — and expectations of an orderly and compassionate society where I really can breathe, I first saw George Floyd’s death — and all of our civil and societal factors that led to it — as a new heartache for our nation.
It was our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, whose Pentecost sermon at the National Cathedral last week helped me to see our systemic racism as a pandemic itself. And not just a parallel pandemic, but intertwined — completely bound up in our COVID pandemic. We have known since early in our COVID understanding that the vulnerable were more affected by the disease. We know that the elderly, and those with underlying conditions— or with insufficient access to testing, medical care, or sanitization — were getting sick at higher rates. And that “essential workers” — people working in hourly wage jobs as custodians, bus drivers, delivery people, and grocery store workers — had fewer options to protect themselves from infection or to work at home where it was safe. And so, we learned, our COVID pandemic intersects with the pandemic of racism in our country, and the poverty that walks alongside racism — systems none of us caused or invented — but that all of us were born into and participate in, like it or not.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. Trinity Sunday, and the Doctrine of the Trinity, are not specifically from scripture. The early church wrestled with the relationship among God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit and didn’t even start referring to the Godhead as the Trinity until late in the second century. The Emperor Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea in 325 to sort out the Church’s understanding of our one substance, three-person’d God, as poet John Donne referred to the Trinity in his Holy Sonnets. They were wrestling with the scriptural testimony of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in the context of Judaism’s monotheism, all against the backdrop of the multiple pagan gods of the Roman Empire.
Thomas Becket created the Feast of the Holy Trinity in 1162 as his first act upon his consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s the only major feast that celebrates a doctrine of the Church rather than a holy person or event. This doctrine is important to us today, specifically in the context of our pandemic pain — and how we can begin to breathe again. How we can learn to be allies to black and brown people and to be the gospel — the good news — in the world. Doing the work Jesus tells us to do in the reading from Matthew’s gospel today.
Walk with me for a minute here — there’s a little background, but we’re going to get to the basics after I fill in some details. Our gospel passage today is one of the sources of the Doctrine of the Trinity that was adopted later by the Church. It’s very short, but it relates directly to a series of passages where Jesus talks with his disciples about his relationship with God and the Holy Spirit — wholly separate as three persons but completely, inextricably related as one God.
Completely simple, but also really complicated, right? It’s beyond our comprehension and yet it just is — It’s one of the Church’s great mysteries that really engages our faith. Remember it took at least two councils of the Church to get it all straight, but after all the dust settles, it’s about faithful, hopeful, loving, right, relationship — with God, and with each other — all as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit model for us in their relationship as three-person’d, one-substance God, as Donne put it.
God the Holy Spirit
So who is God the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit doesn’t just show up for the first time in the Gospel of John, or even in the New Testament. She is the very animation of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, the wind from God that moved over the waters when the earth was a formless void. She is the breath of God. The Spirit interacts with Moses and Isaac, the prophets, the Proverbist, and all the movers and shakers of the Old Testament as God’s breath in God’s world.
The Gospel of John about the Trinity first introduces the Spirit as the Advocate — a kind of mighty Super Lawyer, there ready to help explain God’s will to us — to guide and advise us. And as the Spirit of truth, to help us listen hard and focus on the right thing. John’s gospel says, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. John’s gospel is telling us that the Word of God is a living Word. It always emerges over time, and is deeply embedded in context. The Holy Spirit, our Advocate, is here to guide us and help us see where God is leading us, and how God wants us to respond. So Jesus went to God and sent us the gift of the Spirit, the breath of our relationship with God in the world, to show us the way.
What we all have in common is our faith, which is really a form of courage, that allows us to listen as the Spirit explains what God wants from us in real time and in our context. Faith is a commitment, a promise to try, and an energy to keep on going even when things get hard. We live into our faith through baptism, guided by the Spirit of truth. Baptism is how we reveal and strengthen our courage, with our Advocate advising us along the way, in our setting and our time. What if it DID take the COVID pandemic for our nation finally to see the pandemic of systemic racism? What if it took the suppression of my own breath in the quarantine, and all of my fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and even economic insecurity for me finally to feel like I couldn’t breathe
— and to see the connection between systemic racism and my own feelings of confinement, anxiety, fear, and insecurity during the COVID pandemic
— and to see our structural racism in our society?
I know that the Holy Spirit is our advocate — a kind of a mighty super-lawyer — would point us to the contract. To the covenant — the baptismal covenant. And we can do that, right?
- -Can’t we continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
- -Can’t we persevere in resisting evil, and repent if we fail?
- -Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
- -Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves?
- -Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
And we can pray, in one of my favorite hymns, for the inspiration — from the Latin word for breathe — we can pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the holy breath of God:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love the way you love,
and do what you would do.