“Please, officer, I can’t breathe.” I can’t breathe.
George Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe. One officer knelt on his neck, one on his torso, and one on his legs. And they pinned him to the pavement so hard that he couldn’t move air through is airway – he couldn’t breath.
It’s tragic. It’s evil. When this happens over and over again throughout our country, unarmed black men killed in custody of the government, of the police, the racism that’s built into our systems of law and order is blatant. It’s blatant, and it’s appeared to be very stubborn. Because nothing changes. It just keeps happening again and again.
And so, yes, protests. And fires. Lots of fires. And with the fires, a lot of businesses burned. Minority-owned businesses. Community centers. Grocery stores. Beloved and important places of community. People living in these areas that are afraid. And that has made a lot of news lately.
But none of these things – Buildings. Businesses. Even order, are more important than George Floyd’s life. He couldn’t breath, because they suffocated him.
When I was growing up, I was both excited and terrified of the day when I could be an acolyte in church. The one responsible for lighting the candles and snuffing them out. The one responsible for giving the ushers the offering plates, and other duties as assigned.
But it as the candles, and the fire, that really drew me. Being in front of people, being in the center, that wasn’t so exciting to this shy kid from the farm. But the fire – that was exciting. And I always wondered how this this worked. I’d watch acolyte after acolyte put out the candles, and I’d analyze it – was there a lever in there somehow. Was there a little squirt gun inside? How does this upside down cup put out a candle, put out a fire?
But there’s nothing in there – no gadget, no mini squirt gun. Just an upside down cup. A snuffer. It simply chokes the air out of the fire. I can’t breath. That little snuffer is able to overwhelm a candle. And put it out in mere moments.
Every time an unarmed black man is killed by police – overwhelmed, either by gunfire or bodily force – and I think about some of George Floyd’s last words – please, officer, I can’t breath – now I think about that candle snuffer.
Now this day, Pentecost, we celebrate the giving of the Breath – the Spirit – to the disciples. The people. The church. Jesus breathes the Spirit on them and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
In acts, the Spirit comes as tongues of fire. Resting on the people. And giving them to the ability to speak in their own languages and understand one another in a way that’s never been possible. Let me say that again: giving them the ability to speak in their own languages and understand one another in a way that’s never been possible.
So maybe the protesting and more recently, the people rioting, that we’ve seen recently, are tongues of fire. Tongues of fire, resting in our communities – a way the spirit has moved in, so that people can be heard. A quote from Dr. King in 1967 that keeps popping up on social media, that Andrea, our youth director, quoted in her blog post on Friday, captures this:
“Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
A riot is the language of the unheard. And so the tongues of fire. The Spirit. The breath. The life. That cannot be so easily extinguished this time. That beckons to be heard. To be listened to. To be taken seriously. Tongues of fire. Of the Spirit. Of God – of Justice. Now I’m not condoning the harmful fires – the burning of minority-owned businesses or centers of community or grocery stores – those seem to have been set by people working to escalate the violence and divide our community even further. But the fires – the ones from the first nights of protests. The pent up rage from people who have had their dreams crushed, their sons killed and jailed, their kids given broken educations.
Another set of words I’ve been reading, that’s been shared a lot the last few days, is Harlem, by Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
It’s exploding. Isolated, innocent black men keep getting snuffed out, and so, you know what you need to do when fires keep getting snuffed out. Give them more air. More breath. More Spirit. Tongues of fire, so that they can be heard. So that we all can listen. And build a better world.
But to do that, to listen well, to understand, to comprehend, we need to do better, to dig, to learn about ourselves. To search our hearts. To understand our racism. To understand how the choices and decisions we make, the structures and society that we’ve build, continue to put the dreams of black and brown people on hold.
This week I was moving some furniture down in my basement that hasn’t been moved in a while, and I found 2 Easter Eggs. Not the plastic kind that you put candy in, but real, hard-boiled dyed easter eggs. Apparently, the Easter Bunny hid them really well and didn’t have a great accounting system for when Hilde was finding them.
But I thought it was funny, because Easter was our last big high holy day – before today. 50 days ago. Easter, we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection, and throughout the season, how Jesus keeps showing up with the disciples, with us, so that we can believe.
Today, Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit, is when we’re given the Spirit, the breath, something that is part of us in our daily life. That helps us discern right and wrong. That helps us learn and change and grow as human beings. That helps us change.
And so, Pentecost, the Spirit, is equipping us for what we need to do – to dig deep in our lives and learn, and to grow, and to change. To acknowledge our own racism and privilege. How can we do that though? Hard work. Loving work. Work that reflects our love for our neighbors. Stay tuned – but this time of Coronavirus seems like a great time to undertake this important work.
Ultimately, the Spirit is about generosity. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says, which gives us all the power and the ability to forgive others. Generosity of grace and life and breath. The opposite of snuffing out a flame, the Spirit comes to give breath, life, hope, healing, and justice. Generously. Fully.
How is the Spirit working in your life to bring generosity at this time? The Spirit brings us the energy and will to change, to learn, to grow, to engage in unlearning harmful beliefs and behaviors, like racism. The Spirit gives us the will to change.
And to give – to give a more generous view of the protests than we might. To give supplies or to volunteer – look for a flocknote today about where you can bring donations or volunteer if you’d like.
The Spirit is what enlivens this community of faith, this body of Christ, to be generous as well. The Spirit recently worked through the council to send some significant donations to local organizations. Check this out (play video).
May it be so with our spirits, with our hearts, with our time, as well. Amen.