I am thankful to be with you this morning almost a year since I was with you last summer. I want to say a special thank you to your pastor.
Over the last year we have had the opportunity to be in conversation about the work that you are doing here and the work that God is doing in the world. During that time I moved from being a minister at Bethel AME Church where I grew up over the last 30 years, to now launching a new congregation – yet unnamed. Our church has 8 members including me and 6 of us are here today (including my amazing husband of soon to be 11 years on August 4th.) We are a multi-racial, multi-class group of folks seeking a radical move of the Holy Spirit to bring us together and to help us to be the Body of Christ in a time where, I don’t know about you, but I think the world could use some serious divine intervention. We are in the process of looking for a meeting space on the other end of the Red Line in Dorchester. So as we grow we hope to learn from and be in fellowship with the Reservoir community.
I come to you this morning in a time where so many people feel –
Angry and afraid,
Bitter and beserk,
Confused and crushed,
Defiant and discouraged,
Exasperated and enraged,
Fuming and freaked out,
Galled and grasping,
Horrified and huffy,
Incensed and intimidated,
In the midst of all that energy, this morning’s sermon encourages you to –
JUST BREATHE, JUST BREATHE
Our scripture comes from Genesis 1. The first book of the Bible, the first chapter and the first verse and it says –
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
2Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
The Spirit – The Ruach – The Holy Ghost – The living moving Spirit of God was hovering over the waters
3And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
And verse 6 starts – God said – and there was separation between the sky and the water
Verse 9 – And God said – And the dry land appeared
Verse 11 – And God said – And the plants grew out of the land
Verse 14 – And God said – And the sun and moon were hung in the sky
Verse 20 – And God said – And fish swam the seas and birds flew through the air
Verse 24 – And God said – And animals of many kinds began to walk the land
Verse 26 – And God said – And humans were formed in the likeness of God
Verse 29 – And God Said – this one I will read exactly as it because some folks won’t believe it if I am not exact – Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.
It says that God gave us every plant for food. Now, I just want to note that it says every plant for food and that bacon, fried chicken, filet mignon and even lean turkey were not on the list. In God’s perfection we were all vegetarian, eating only things that grow from the ground. That is not the focus of this sermon, but I’m just saying. I am not a vegan but for the sake of the planet and my own health I am working on bring my eating habits in better alignment with God’s perfect plan.
But back to our central point that when God speaks – things happen. When God exhales and makes sounds, worlds are formed. In the beginning the Spirit of God hovered and then it began to move and the creation came to be.
Who is this Spirit of God? We talk a lot about God as Father and Jesus as Son. Our praise songs are filled with adoration for God and for Jesus but the Spirit often comes in a very distant third in our thoughts, in our songs, and in our theology. The Scripture tells us that she was there in the very beginning and that she was putting in work on behalf of the creation. Some of you might have noticed that I called the Holy Spirit, she. You might be offended, intrigued or affirming of this choice of pronoun for the 3rd member of the Godhead. So let me take a moment to explain.
In the Hebrew scriptures the Holy Spirit is called Ruach. In this first chapter of Genesis, the Holy Spirit is described as the Ruach Elohim. Elohim – the word for God is a masculine word in Hebrew, but Ruach is a feminine word. The Ruach appears throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as the Spirit but also as breath, as wind, and as wisdom. In the New Testament it gets a little more complicated because feminine, masculine and neuter pronouns are used for the Holy Spirit. For centuries Christianity has debate the gender of the Holy Spirit but she was often acknowledged as feminine in the Catholic tradition until she wasn’t. There is not time to go fully into the politics of why the Holy Spirit went from being called she to he, but I will just say that it happened at the same time that efforts were made to reduce the power of women in the church. Now there are some of you who have been Christians your entire lives and may never have heard this information about the Holy Spirit. When I first learned about this I was wondering why I had never heard it before. In my divine imagination I asked the Spirit what happened to her, why her name was changed, why she has been overlooked and underappreciated as a member of the Godhead and I imagine that she simply says #MeToo girl, MeToo.
Even though she is often forgotten, in the Jewish mystical tradition the Rauch HaKadosh IS the divine word – the embodiment of God’s speech in the world. It is this Ruach HaKodesh that is present at the beginning of time that brings the world into existence and this same Ruach HaKodesh that creates infinite possibilities in the present. As I mentioned before, the Ruach is also translated as the air or wind. The Ruach is the Holy Spirit — the omnipresent God force in our lives — and the Ruach is literally the air that we breathe the wind that moves throughout the world.
Inhaled air is generally about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% a bunch of other stuff including argon, carbon dioxide, neon, helium, hydrogen and an increasing number of chemical compounds that we don’t even fully understand. God created a perfect balance where animals like us take in this oxygen. We release carbon dioxide which plants take in process back into the oxygen that we need to live. Most of take in an average of 16 per min. That is 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 and if you live to average life expectancy of 78 years that is 655,948,800 breathes in your life.
Everyday we depend on the air to be there and most of us don’t even think about it until something makes us pay attention. For some of us it make be a panic attack that moment when the stress of life overwhelms you and literally takes your breath away. For others it might be that time when you go back to the gym or decide to run a race. You get the clothes, the shoes and the eco-friendly water bottle, but when you start running you realize that all the gear cannot make up for weak cardiovascular muscles. As you gasp for breath you would call out to God, for help but you are too winded for words. Like so many things, you don’t realize how much you depend on something until you realize that it might be gone.
We all get winded sometimes, but usually we can calm down and bring it back. If we work out, we can build up our body’s capacity to process air and strengthen our lungs. But then there are those of us whose breathing capacity is constrained by asthma. Asthma is a condition that causes your airways to narrow and to produce extra mucus which clogs up the passages of your lungs making it harder for air to get in. For some people asthma is a minor issue, for others is it a life threatening condition.
Science shows that asthma is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There are debates about which of those factors is more important, but what science does know is that as environmental factors and particularly pollution increases in our world, the rates of asthma are also rising. Scientists also agree that one of the most important contributors to asthma is the exposure of young lungs to toxins. This is why so much work has been done to get pregnant mothers to quit smoking but the reality is that if a mother is exposed to polluted air, those pollutants will go into the baby’s lungs. While adults breathe at a rate of 12-20 breaths a minute – an infant breathes at the rate of 30-60 breaths a minute – up to three times as much as an adult. Our babies are taking in the air at that rate and getting an extra dose of pollution at the time when their lungs are in a fragile stage of formation. Asthma is growing around the world and in our country the fastest growing rate of asthma is in Black children.
In 2015, Black people were 20% more likely to have asthma than their white counterparts. Latino children were twice as likely to die from asthma as white children. Asian Americans are actually doing really well in the United States around asthma, but in China asthma is the leading cause of hospitalization for children. Estimates say that in 2010, pollution contributed to more than 1.2 million deaths in China. Some estimates cite pollution as one the biggest killers, affecting more than 100 million people, comparable to diseases like malaria and HIV.
Just this past Tuesday we marked four years from the day when Eric Garner was standing on Bay Street in Staten Island. He was known for being out there many days selling loose cigarettes. In his book I Can’t Breathe, author Matt Taibi documents the life of Garner. At 6’ 3” and 350 lbs, Mr. Garner was a known presence in that community. A father of six, he spent most of his time trying to earn money to support his children. Folks said that he wasn’t the best dressed guy because he rarely spent money on himself, electing instead to give all his money to his children.
Mr. Garner was also known as a peacemaker, reminding people that violence is bad for business and encouraging folks to keep their cool. On the day in question he had just broken up a fight between two guys. The intervention left him out of breath when he was approached by the NYPD. The police knew him and he knew them. He kept insisting that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. One could argue he was actually helping the police by breaking up the fight. Nonetheless, the officers decided to arrest him and used a choke hold that was against official police policy. With their knees in his back they applied pressure to Mr. Garner’s lungs. His last words were “I Can’t Breathe.”
These words became a rallying cry around the world about the injustice of police brutality, but what many people did not know is that part of the reason that Eric Garner died is that he suffered from really acute asthma just like so many low-income people of color in this country. Eric Garner would not have died without the unjustified force by the NYPD, but he also might have survived if he did not suffer from a disease that afflicts so many people who grow up being exposed to chemicals and toxins we cannot pronounce and whose side effects we have not bothered to figure out. To maintain our lifestyle, companies make an economic assessment that pollution can be concentrated in low income communities and communities of color. We make a decision that these communities lives don’t matter – and thus many people, especially our babies, find themselves literally unable to breathe.
The tragedy did not stop with Eric Garner. In the aftermath of his death, his daughter Ericka raised her voice demanding justice not only for her father but for so many others. For more than 4 years she waited for the federal government to intervene to no avail. Just last week, the NYPD announced that it would do its own disciplinary hearing since it was clear that federal action was not coming. Finally Ericka’s calls were heeded. Unfortunately she was not able to see that justice.
Ericka was also a parent. In mid 2017 she gave birth to a baby boy and named him Eric after his grandfather. Due to the complications of her pregnancy and her own battle with asthma, Ericka suffered a heart attack. Then at the end of 2017, just as Christmas approached, Ericka had another asthma attack and a subsequent heart attack that put her in a coma. During the Christmas season, with Baby Eric only 4 months old, the Garner family said goodbye to Ericka, yet another family member who just couldn’t breathe.
In January 2016 Erica Garner wrote an oped titled – Black lives like my father’s should matter. In it she said:
If our lives really mattered, we’d have equal access to decent jobs, good schools and affordable housing. If our lives mattered in this country, we’d have equal access to clean air, clean water and real investment in black neighborhoods. If black lives mattered in America, those who routinely brutalize us wouldn’t be the ones paid, with our tax dollars, to keep us safe
Even with my own heartbreak, when I demand justice, it’s never just for Eric Garner. It’s for my daughter; it’s for the next generation of African Americans. When I think about this presidential election, I’m not just thinking about the next four years — I’m thinking about the next 40.”
As climate change exacerbates the effects of pollution we are at a crucial time in human history. The decisions we make now will determine whether or not our children will be able to breathe into the future. If we want to honor God’s creation, if we want to save our species, we must change. We must change our lifestyles away from gas guzzling cars and towards smaller cars, bicycles, public transportation and even more walking. It is time to change in our energy policy away from polluting energy sources and towards creation-powered sources like wind and solar. It is time to stop thinking of health-care as a privilege and ensure that all God’s children have access. Less pollution and better health care would have let the Garners breathe a little longer and they will help us to ensure that our children can breathe for centuries to come. Some people see these as political issues, I see them as the collective decisions that we make to create the kind of world that God would want or to ignore God’s call to take care of our neighbor and let everyone fend for themselves. If everyone is going to be able to breathe, we have got to make some different decisions to reverse the path that we are on.
But the truth is that we cannot change in our own strength. Getting humans, and especially Americans, to shift away from consumption will literally require an act of God. And thankfully we serve a God who knew we would be at this moment before the beginning of time. I believe that Holy Spirit knew of our predicament when she led the prophet to pen these words in the 42nd Chapter of Isaiah verses 5-14 where It says….
This is what God the Lord says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it:
6“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,
7to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
8“I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.
9See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
And down to verse 14
14“For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.
I look at what is happening in the world and I think we need a rushing wind to come in and disrupt things – to blow some things over and whisk away the covers to expose other things. I don’t know about you, but I want the Spirit to come in and fill me up. I want her to give me the ability to walk and not get weary to run and not faint.
If you know that we need the Spirit — if you know that you need the Spirit then I invite you to plant your feet and close your eyes.
Take in a deep breathe and exhale. Take a moment to just thank God for the fact that you can breathe. Let your heart fill with gratitude to God. And now imagine that the Spirit is filling your lungs with a breath of fresh air. Imagine that you are exhaling everything that stands in the way of being the person of conviction that God is calling you to be.
Imagine that the Spirit is filling you so that you can work with God, be used by God to give life to something new – to create to a world where we value every life Imagine you are about to give birth to a society that lives in harmony with the rest of the planet. Imagine that we are collectively giving birth to the best of what God desires for the world. Imagine that we create a world together where Baby Eric’s life is radically different than his grandfather. Imagine that as you breathe in the power of the Holy Spirit, that Eric and Ericka Garner, that Adam and Eve, that Jesus is looking down saying……