“Learning to Breathe”
2 Corinthians 13: 5-14 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ June 7, 2020
There have been a chain of events that led to an eruption following the death of George Floyd. Riots, protests, anger, and many, many opinions. As a pastor, I am charged to listen for the voice of God speaking in the midst of all this. I must confess that I have struggled with how to approach the message this week because I am a person of privilege. As a person who is white; as a person who is male; as a person who is somewhat educated and middle class, I need to listen and hear the voice of the oppressed alongside God’s Word. Close friends of colour have shared with me the radically different experience they had of opportunities not available to them compared to me, of the watchful eye from storekeepers and even some police. Our experiences, I discovered, are profoundly different. Yes…sadly even today…they are different. While I believe, as a pastor, that I am qualified to speak to the gospel good news of our faith, I realize that I can not speak to the real-life experience that my friends of colour can. I thought of interviewing friends who might share their experience. Who might that be, I wondered? And then our very own Minister of Music, Gina Williams, posted heartfelt words earlier this week on YouTube. I asked her permission to share her deep wisdom, that we might share this sermon-time in partnership. And so, I would like to begin this week’s reflection with Gina’s wise and heartfelt words. (YouTube “Facing the Flames of Fear”)
As we consider the challenge before us, I want to first turn to a recently published book entitled Who Lynched Willie Earl? Preaching to Confront Racism written by theologian William Willimon. In his book, Willimon notes the challenge that preaching creates when it does not stop in-between and take time to breathe and examine. So much preaching, he argues, moves us immediately from cross to resurrection without stopping to breathe; it moves us immediately from sin to salvation without stopping to breathe. We need to stop…stop and pause and breathe at sanctification. Sanctification is a big word for something which we already know: the action of being made holy through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit breathing through us in our faith. My friends, at a time such as this, we need to stop and breathe…between the sin and the brokenness that is ours and allow for God to mend creation; we need to stop and breathe acknowledging the racism that is still steeped in our social fabric and allow for our world to be mended; we need to stop and breathe acknowledging the racism that is a part of our being and allow the work of the Holy Spirit to come upon us, further remaking God’s glorious creation in which He intends. We need to take time to breathe. Taking time to breathe is akin to the way many parents confronted their child’s poor behaviour. As parents, we acknowledge that behaviour, yet we do not allow it define who the child is. When poor behaviour is offered, we pause and breathe, as we help in further shaping our children into the kind of adults God created them to be. My brothers and sisters in Christ, this is a time that we must stop, amidst this time of brokenness, and learn to breathe. We must stop, amidst the anger, and learn to breathe. We must stop amidst the sin and hatred and learn to breathe…as the Holy Spirit further makes us into the creation God dreams of.
The 17th chapter of John is among one of Jesus’ longest prayers recorded. In the prayer, Jesus prays for the Holy Spirit’s gift of endless self-giving; a delightful deflection of attention away from attention upon one another in order for a joyful love to be found. John records Jesus praying this way: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one…I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” This is, indeed, a time for us to remember this prayer of Jesus as we learn to breathe, as we are sanctified, as we seek to be made holy through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us learn to breathe again. Let us learn to breathe.
This Sunday, the Sunday following after Pentecost Sunday, is one which the church lifts up as “Trinity Sunday”. Having focused last Sunday upon the coming of the Holy Spirit in the miracle of Pentecost, we gather as a church, pausing to assemble our 3-dimensional, Trinitarian faith. How does the mysterious three-in-one / one-in-three presence of God inform our faith? How does it make us whole? How does it sanctify us, moving us in the direction of holiness? The trinitarian faith is a unique form of faith expression can be conceived of as a theological juggling act of uniting the essence of three parts into the same divine reality. Perhaps an illustration might be helpful…When we watch a juggler move three juggling balls in the air, we eventually lose sight of which is the first ball, which is the second, and which is the third. All three balls move fluidly in the air; they are all part of the one whole. The action of God, the Creator, the Holy One, the Father / Mother of all creation extends back as Genesis puts it: “in the beginning”. Yet our relationship with God is not contained there. Our God is not a distant Creator; our God sends the Son. The incarnational mystery of God enfleshed / reflected in Jesus / revealing his vulnerability as a child and his glory as the Prince of Peace / teaching us the ways of love and inclusion, the ways of suffering and sacrifice. The Son of God is fully divine and fully human and ultimately demonstrates to the world God’s power over the powers of the world’s darkness. The Holy Spirit completes the theological whole; drawing us into completion with God and with one another. The Spirit plays a leading role in continuing to sustain people into the future by filling us with God’s presence. The Spirit is understood, alternatively, as the wind of God, as the breath of God. And at a time such as this, we are called to “learn to breathe again”.
It is important for us to examine how theologians lift up the deeply social element that comes out of the trinity. Strictly speaking, the trinity is a “social trinity”, offering up a paradigm for what it means to be human as we relate to our fellow neighbour. If we have a triune God, then our God is certainly social in nature. In his book Being as Communion, John D. Zizoulas explains that the ultimate goal of God is social unity ~ divine and human unity. He writes: “the ultimate goal is God’s cosmic unity when love dissolves interpersonal boundaries so that all divine and human persons spiritually will be one.” Unity…oneness…connection is the deep gift coming from the triune God. Can we receive it? As human beings we are called to participate in this spiritual unity through our faith. In this time of racial separation can we stop and learn to breathe again?; in this time of anger and separation can we stop and learn to breathe again?; can we stop and learn to breathe again? Can we breathe as God remakes us, as God unites us…as we come together as one.
It is always difficult on Trinity Sunday, I find, to know which scripture to select. This Sunday I chose the passage from Second Corinthians that Marshall read for two reasons. The first is obvious. The reality of the Corinthian community, in many ways, mirrors ours. Different groups vying for our loyalty; different groups calling out leadership for their tactics; infighting among members of the community; uncertainty on how to move ahead towards becoming a healed and united community. The second reason I chose this passage is because it contains the closing blessing in the letter that Paul offers using the Trinitarian formula. The trinitarian blessing is something that we experience at the end of every worship service in many churches, including Northwood. Going forth in the name of the three-fold God is not just a cue to those who have nodded that it’s time to wake, it’s not the dinner bell for our next meal, or an invitation to now mingle over coffee. The trinitarian blessing contains POWER! Paul, as many leaders still do today, acknowledged the power and importance of the Trinity in helping us learn to breathe and live in the ways of God. The trinitarian blessing is a call to breathe in the Spirit; it is a call to take in the breath of God; it is a call to be made holy as we go forth into the challenging, broken world.
These past 10 days have been a profoundly challenging time both south of the border and here in our own country of Canada. The death of George Floyd seems to have been the final straw among the growing cases of racism and discrimination against people of colour. Floyd’s death has caused protests, anger, vandalism, tears…a whole range of emotions. No one, it seems, is left without emotion or opinion. Among my many friends of colour, they have a very different experience of being looked at ‘differently’ by storekeepers, by police, by potential employers, and so on. Sadly, while we are all God’s children, our world is not colour blind…and it has a long, long way to go towards the unfolding of the Kingdom. Among the last words spoken by Floyd, as the officers were forcibly restraining him upon the pavement were: “I can’t breathe”… “I can’t breathe”… “I can’t breathe”. I wonder if these painful words might be heard as a prophetic call. As a community we are called to unite and take time to stop and learn to breathe again. We must stop the violence that divides us and learn to breathe; we must stop the racism that divides us and learn to breathe; we must stop and breathe in the Holy Spirit…truly receiving the breath of God and learn to breathe. I can think of nothing else that will fix this divided time more than God’s uniting Holy Spirit that heals, that unites, that guides. We must take time to breathe; we must learn to breathe.
In the midst of a pandemic; in the midst of the uprisings over the past 10 days, I cannot imagine a time that the world is more in need of God’s healing presence. Jesus spoke about the power of God many times. I close with Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Mark: “for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27) May God bless our world with unity, that we be made holy, remade into the creation in whom God dreams and delights.