I Can’t Breathe (The Day of Pentecost)

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One of the elements of Pentecost that has always resonated so profoundly with me is the rushing, whipping wind. In our Reading from Acts, the wind stirs the people awake, stirs them to a new consciousness, stirs them to action. As many of you know, I have a Hebrew word tattooed on my ankle –the word is “ruach,” which translated means for wind, breath, and Spirit. It’s permanently placed there to remind me of God’s action in my life, my part in God’s continued action in the world, and my complete dependence and inseparable connection to God. When we read that ‘suddenly there came a rushing wind upon the people,’ this is God’s Spirit, in the form of wind, descending upon the people and giving them the ability to breathe. Giving them life.

Indeed, our very lives are dependent upon the breath of God.

I’ve often wondered about the moment when Jesus stopped breathing on the cross – when his breath left his body – did the collective universe lose consciousness, without God breathing with them? Did they all lick their lips, trying to activate their saliva glands, because suddenly a tightness in their chest had over taken them? Did their hearts beat faster trying to compensate for a decreased oxygen state?

How does one live without breath?

Until a few days ago, none of us knew George Floyd. And, it’s fair to say, that none of us really know him today. We don’t know his dreams, his pains, his successes, his failures. We don’t know if he drank coffee in the morning or ate pancakes and eggs. What we know is that this 46-year-old African American man begged for his life and cried out for his mother under the knee of a white police officer.

What we know, and what we cannot ever forget, and must wrestle with ESPECIALLY on the Festival Pentecost, are his last words, “I. Can’t. Breathe.”

I can’t breathe.
Someone is taking the breath of God out of me.
The wind is stalling, slowing too much.
Here, next to me, the Spirit lays, dying with me.
When George Floyd said, “I can’t breathe,” that is what happened to him. 

Just two weeks prior to George Floyd’s death, Ahmaud Arbery, just 25 years old, was shot and killed while out for a morning jog. By two white people. For sport. I am confident that as Ahmaud’s breath left him, the Spirit curled his crucified body in her arms, and wept for him.

I can’t breathe.
Those are haunting words, spoken by all of our black brothers and sisters.
One race cannot fully live with another race standing on their neck.

I know I can’t begin to understand or comprehend what it is like to be black in America. I don’t believe I even have the right to pretend that I do. But, too often mothers and fathers of black children are on their knees and hands with tears in their eyes, praying with all the fervor they muster, “Please, God. Protect my son. Protect my daughter.”

Not from a virus. Not because they’re heading off to college. Not because they’ve just gotten their driving license.
No. It’s, “Please God, Protect them from white people.”
Lord. Have mercy.
Our black brothers and sisters can’t breathe.
This is no way to live.

We, I should say, white people, do not own the right to breathe.  And, what we have all witnessed was the actual life being squeezed out of another person by someone who thought the other didn’t have the right to breathe.

I feel guilty that we know their names – the ones who make the news, because we only seem to care about them after the fact. And, I know we will forget their names too soon. I feel guilty about all the ones who are nameless – who don’t make the news. I feel guilty that their lives become a metaphor for sin, and that it’s only after another inevitable tragedy occurs that I preach on the sin of racism.

But, I think I have to own that guilt. It is the only way to begin to do the deep work that Pentecost calls us to.

I used to be a bit more reticent and think to myself that we need to wait for all the facts to come out, before rushing to conclusions. And yes, truth and facts ARE important. But, you know what?
Too often the dominant ‘crime’ that has been committed is the person is black. That’s a fact.
Too often we focus on the looting or the anger that arises, with no real interest in knowing why those things occur. That’s a fact.
Too often we allege resisting arrest or past criminal records justify the means, taking no account for the fear and terror we white people have instilled in our black siblings. That’s a fact.
Too often we concentrate efforts on pointing out that most police officers are good and noble human beings. They are. That’s a fact. But, it doesn’t erase the brutality of some. That’s a fact.
We have systemically looted black bodies and black spirits for far too long. That’s a fact.
Too often the air black people breathe, isn’t as valuable as the air white people breathe. 
And that is a sin against God’s very life. That’s a fact.

Today our black brothers and sisters are experiencing yet another trauma that communicates to them that their lives aren’t valuable. Instead of waiting for MORE facts, our response should have been and should be, “Maybe I should try to understand their pain.”

If we are truly the body of Christ, if we have truly been knit together by the Holy Spirit, if Jesus has truly spilled his blood for all of us then this terrorization should enrage all of us; this pain should pierce all of us; this injustice should unstop all our tongues.

What will it take?
Is there something more than the very breath and Spirit of God that we’re waiting for?
Because, I don’t think there’s more than that.
And we have been gifted that.

Pentecost is the animation of the resurrection in humans.
It is when we are all given the ability to do holy work. Breath restoring work. Life giving work.
And all it requires is being a human, trying to love other humans well, working and speaking for justice, and trusting God.
This is what happened on that first Pentecost.
They each saw the other as a child of God, breathed into life by the Spirt, and forgiven and loved by Jesus. 
And they rallied.
Rallied for everything that Jesus was and is.
What a celebration!

We cannot continue to have Pentecost celebrations that celebrate language, but not struggles other races have faced. When the Spirit moves and breathes within us, we are able to hear the language of those around us, but what is the use of hearing each other if it does not change us? Move us?

We have all heard it: I. Can’t. Breathe.
We cannot unhear it.

White supremacy loves quiet voices, stopped ears, still bodies, and unexamined privilege. Pentecost, on the other hand, is loud and clear voices, opened ears, active bodies, and the understanding of others. Pentecost was and is a dismantling of systems which keep us in our ‘places.’

There’s one thing I know, despite how racism has marred us, despite how it has taken lives… somehow broken hearts continue to beat, justice sill peaks her head around the corner, and hope doesn’t slam the door. This can ONLY be the work of the Spirit. That life can continue to hope, despite it all:
That black people can continue to try to trust white people is the work of the Spirit.
That we can find a few words to string together to say we MUST do better and we MUST do more is the work of the Spirit.
That we can learn from our mistakes is the work of the Spirit.
That love is greater than evil is the work of the Spirit. 
That all of the world will breathe is the work of the Spirit.

I believe, I must believe, that the Holy Spirit is with us today, still burning like a hot flame and blowing like the wind…
And that all my words are insufficient and that white people have had the microphone for a VERY long time and so, I’ll say George Floyd’s Gospel words one more time:
I. Can’t. Breathe.

Lord, have mercy.