Holding Our Breath, Exhaling Peace

Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
May 31, 2020 ● Pentecost Sunday Holy Eucharist II
Gospel: John 29:19-23

Mother Hymes’ sermon this morning on Pentecost Sunday. Gospel: John 20:19-23. Feel free to share!

Posted by Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church on Sunday, May 31, 2020

On Good Friday, April 10th, Americans were slowly coming to terms with the world coming to a sudden, eerie halt, having been blindsided by the coronavirus pandemic. On that night, from this pulpit, I offered how the once clear-cut movement from the wilderness of Lent to the joyful alleluias of Easter felt interrupted, rather, blurred. This year’s Lenten season was heavy with a shared sense of loss, grief and helplessness, compounded by the stench of sickness and death. And, yet, Resurrection Sunday came, even as Lent fought to linger into the Easter season. At that time, I asked, how can one stand firmly in Easter when one foot is still stuck in Lent?

On Easter Sunday, the Church celebrated the risen Christ’s triumph over sin and death. The soul-soothing alleluias came back, enlivening weary souls. For 50 days we have been floating in the Eastertide which has brought us to the shore of Pentecost—the celebration of the gift of the promised Holy Spirit to the Ascended-Jesus’ apostles, and is recognized as the birth of the Church. A clear-cut movement from Easter to Pentecost is intended.

And yet, today, not unlike the Easter season, still feels like Lent is hanging on. How can this be? Christ is risen, and indeed we are on the other side of the cross, but the wilderness of Lent and the terror of Good Friday felt very present throughout the Easter season as the novel coronavirus pandemic raged on; and feels very present on this celebratory day of Pentecost as the familiar plague of racism relentlessly rages in this nation. And the fires of frustration and helplessness burning in multiple cities attest to that.
And so, with a heavy heart and holding my breath, on this celebratory day, I ask, “How can one stand firmly in the gift of Pentecost, and freely exhale, when one foot is still stuck in Lent?”

Our gospel passage in John is a timely reminder of the hope that is in Christ when all one can do is hold their breath hope feels elusive, even absent, when holding one’s breath in the midst of fear, and anticipated terror. We enter into this passage after Mary Magdalene’s announcement to the disciples that she had seen the risen Lord. On that same day, the disciples were together behind locked doors, afraid of the Jews. They feared the Jews might do to them—what had been done to Jesus. Imagine the oppressive sense of helplessness, fear, anxiety and uncertainty which drove the leader-less disciples to collectively hold their breath, anticipating terror.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Jesus’ very presence brought Peace—and Jesus’ very presence was Peace. Jesus did some powerful exhaling of his own as he breathed the Holy Spirit onto the disciples, and instructed them to participate by receiving the Holy Spirit. As a response to the risen Christ’s presence, the disciples collectively exhaled with rejoicing, and they could breathe again.

Recall that many of the disciples had witnessed the brutality Jesus suffered on his way to the cross, and some had witnessed his public murder, and they were terrified—collectively holding their breath, not unlike so many of us.

As a nation, we are traumatized and we are collectively holding our breath, anticipating terror, so desperately needing to exhale. The constant barrage of images of extraordinary violence, suffering, the loss of life to disease, and the cavalier taking of lives at the hands of domestic terrorists and police brutality is terrorizing. The pandemic’s rising death toll numbers made manifest in the image of body bags and mass graves is traumatizing. Our children collectively hold their breath for fear of being slaughtered by gun violence in their schools. And, the systemic racism that continues to embolden, enable and absolve those who target and murder black men and women where they live, work, play, drive, bird watch, jog, exist—murder them simply because they can—is terrorizing.

As 21st century disciples, who truly seek to serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; who truly strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being, there is no way that we, as Christians, can turn blind eyes and hold silent tongues when a human being, Ahmaud Arbery, is hunted and shot dead on the street—jogging while black.

And, there is no way that we can hold silent tongues when yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd, is killed by police brutality—no way that our hearts don’t break seeing the officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck as he gasped for the breath of life, dying with the words on his lips, “I can’t breathe.”
The soul of this nation is in crisis, and its fabric has been stained with the blood of black and native American people since its birth. Behind the “locked doors” of the nation’s unjust structures that protect and elevated some, while caging and terrorizing others—based on the color of their skin—they physical, psychological and spiritual lungs of the oppressed can’t breathe. Slavery, Jim Crow, voter suppression, the new Jim Crow (mass incarceration), the school-to-prison pipeline which disproportionately targets black and brown boys, and the list goes on. But for too many, it is not a list; it is life.

America’s knee has been on the neck of black Americans for generations. And, as long as our black and brown brothers and sisters—MY black and brown brothers and sisters—in this society can’t breathe, none of us can breathe. How do we, as a nation, stand firmly in our claims to desire healing, reconciliation and restoration with one foot still stuck in hateful wounding, unrepentance and denial?
We all have some form of privilege in society, some more than others. Getting ourselves “unstuck” requires compassionate hearts that reflect the love of Jesus, and the guts of Jesus to stand up to power, using whatever privilege you have in order to bring about the Peace of God’s Kingdom in opposition to the reality of unrest and chaos. In the presence of the risen Christ, we, like the disciples, are empowered by the Holy Spirit to move from fearfulness to rejoicing. And, because Jesus exhaled with the life of the Holy Spirit, we, too can risk exhaling, with the life-giving gospel message to all people, who receive it, that the Peace, given by Christ, frees enslaved souls.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we are reminded that behind the “locked doors” of racial injustice, Jesus comes among us, stands with us, and sends us out, as God sent him out, to help others to stop holding their breath in fear—to exhale—to breathe in the breath of life. And, we celebrate that as the body of Christ, of which Jesus is the head, we are sent to speak life and to speak truth to power with the fire of the Holy Spirit poured out from our souls; poured out from our tongues; poured out as healing balm for this hurting world.

Filled with the Peace that only Christ can give, and the Peace of Christ that only Christ is, we are sent to move beyond the man-made locked doors, and the spiritual locked doors to be among God’s people—of all races, socioeconomic backgrounds, all nations—all of God’s people. The Peace of Christ be with you and within you with as you inhale the Holy Spirit, and exhale the aroma of Christ. Amen.