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Breathe

Texts: Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 2:1-11


My favorite Pentecost prayer is not from a Presbyterian. It is not even from a Protestant. Pope Pius V once prayed: “Have mercy on your people, Lord, and give us a breathing space in the midst of so many troubles.” Sick of camping in the wilderness, nauseated by a bland daily diet of manna, tired of navigating a constant drought, the wandering wilderness Israelites might well have prayed, “Have mercy on your people, Lord, and give us a breathing space in the midst of so many troubles.”

In the Pentecost story from Acts, the disciples of Jesus are huddled together in Jerusalem, waiting, sick with worry, confused, and holding their collective breaths about what will happen next. They too could well have uttered the prayer, “Have mercy on your people, Lord, and give us a breathing space in the midst of so many troubles.”

No matter how hard we try to make Pentecost festive and colorful; it begins in a breathless place, a claustrophobic place, a place where the air is stagnant and stinks. And, when there isn’t enough air, you and I don’t breathe well and when we don’t breathe well we don’t think well.

I have spent more than my share of time in breathless places. I have lived in that breathless place as a husband trying to understand or make myself understood when I was fresh out of words, out of breath. I have lived in that breathless place as a parent trying to understand or make myself understood when I was fresh out of words, out of breath. I have lived in that breathless place as a friend, watching someone I love dig a hole so deep that no one could ever climb out of it and the harder I tried to find fresh words to help, the more I found myself fresh out of words, out of breath.

I have lived in that breathless place as a pastor, trying to lead the church through an unprecedented pandemic as well as through a time of personal crisis that left me fresh out of words, out of breath. I serve a denomination that is stuck in a breathless place. Our own presbytery has great financial reserves right now, which is wonderful. Unfortunately, we have them because we keep closing churches and selling off church property. And, as we do, we often sound like those wandering Israelites yearning for the way things once were in the luxurious land of Egypt, unable to rejoice in the new things the Spirit was making possible, even in people like Eldad and Medad. Way too often we sound like those terrified disciples doubting God’s promised future, hoping that things will get better for the church soon even though we can’t imagine how.

I live in a nation stuck in so many breathless places, with some convinced that if we just omit from our textbooks any mention of the harsher chapters in our American history then we can pretend together that slavery and racism are over and really weren’t that bad after all. In our breathless national places, we live in fear and too often conclude that if we arm enough people and execute enough prisoners and restrict enough women’s rights, we will be safe, healthy, and secure.

Pentecost is a holiday about what God’s Spirit makes possible when you and I are stuck in breathless places. In Numbers, God conducts pre-Pentecost spiritual surgery extracting some spirit from Moses to spread across 70 leaders of the community. In Acts, God Spirit arrives like a tornado of fresh words spreading across a terrified crowd of silent disciples. And, with the arrival of God’s Spirit comes the gift of breathing space.

“The creation of breathing space,” writes Heidi Neumark, “is an act of conspiracy.” Most of us think of “conspiracy” in political terms, but Heidi reminds us that “conspiracy” is rooted in deeper soil. “It means, literally, con-spiritus, to breathe together . . . To be of one breath is to pray and to labor as one” (Breathing Space, p. 106).

“Take a breath. Now blow it out again. There! You have just launched a conspiracy” writes Barbara Brown Taylor. “Now take another breath. If you have studied earth science, then you know that our gorgeous blue-green planet is wrapped in a protective veil we call the atmosphere, which separates the air we breathe from the cold vacuum of outer space. Beneath this veil is all the air that ever was. No cosmic planet-cleaning company comes along every hundred years or so to suck out all the old air and pump in some new. The same ancient air just keeps recirculating, which means that every time any of us breathes we breathe star dust left over from the creation of the earth.

“When Jesus let go of his last breath – willingly, we believe, for love of us – that breath hovered in the air in front of him for a moment and then it was set loose on earth. It was such pungent breath – so full of passion, so full of life – that it did not simply dissipate as so many breaths do. It grew, in strength and in volume, until it was a mighty wind, which God sent spinning through an upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. God wanted to make sure that Jesus’ friends were the inheritors of Jesus’ breath, and it worked.

Barbara goes on to write, “I have seen it happen over and over again in large rooms full of people who have come together to make decisions or seek direction. One by one, they come into the room with their own agendas. Some of them come fearfully, ready to defend themselves. Then someone says a prayer, people begin to talk, and for no apparent reason positions begin to shift. People listen to each other and take each other seriously. They become creative together, coming up with ideas none of them had thought of on their own. It is as if a fresh wind blows through the room and clears everyone’s heads.

“You can call that anything you want. I call it an act of the Holy Spirit” (From “Home by Another Way”).

On Pentecost God pours out the Spirit on all flesh, not just on good church going flesh, not just on Protestant flesh, not just on faithful flesh, not just on well-tanned or well-healed flesh, but on all flesh. God pours out the Spirit all over those who are breathless and invites them to breathe in the love and justice of God.

Now I realize that when I talk about the Spirit of God, it makes some people uneasy. Not to talk about the powerful Pentecost, fresh breath Spirit giving presence of God makes me even more uneasy. I am tired of spiritual small talk, talking about matters of the faith that matters little. I am ready to talk about the Spirit of God wherever I go, the Spirit that cleans the air and clears our minds and inhabits our hearts and spreads out upon all flesh and invites every single struggling soul to catch their breath, or more precisely, for God’s breath to catch them.

And I want to do more than talk about the Spirit as if it were a curious intellectual exercise; I want to shout about the Spirit of God that refuses to leave us alone, refuses to leave us breathless, and refuses to let us keep quiet when God has so much for us to say, so much for us to do.

Barbara ends her Pentecost sermon this way, “Take a breath. Now just keep breathing. This is God’s moment-by-moment gift to us. We can call it air or we can call it Holy Spirit. It counts on us to warm it up, to lend it our lives. In return, it promises to fill us with new wind, to set our heads on fire, giving us tongues to speak of things we cannot begin to understand.”

So, now, take a breath. Take a long, deep sustained breath and then join me as we pray together the Pentecost prayer,

“Come, Holy Spirit, come!”

“Come, Holy Spirit, come!”

“Come, Holy Spirit, come!”

AMEN

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