I can’t breathe
Genesis 18: 1-14
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on–since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.’ Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
When I was a young minister involved with a couple of youth groups in Arthur, Ontario, one of the television shows that the boys in the youth groups watched was WWF wrestling. There was a certain degree of athleticism and sport, but it seemed to me it was like a soap opera for men and it was a staged drama, Names like The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Rowdy Roddy Piper, were names that were on the lips of the boys in my youth group. They even did a drama one time mimicking the wrestlers and asked me to play the part of King Kong Bundy, who was bald and fat. Go figure
One of the wrestling moves that was popular was called the sleeper hold. It was a choke hold where you wrapped one arm around the neck and grabbed your other arm which had its forearm across the side of the neck compressing that carotid artery restricting blood flow to the brain. If held long enough the person would pass out, hence the title: the sleeper.
It was brought to mind this week as I have been watching on the news on the various protests around the world and even here in Alberta, and many signs have been raised with these words “I can’t breathe” referring to words that a black man, George Floyd said multiple times when a white police officer’s knee was on his neck for eight minutes and fourty-six seconds.
It certainly wasn’t the first time I had seen video of a man choked to death. In July of 2014 a black man by the name of Eric Garner was put in a chokehold and restrained by multiple police officers. Eleven times he said: “I can’t breathe before he lost consciousness and died.
His crime. Selling cigarettes one by one and not collecting appropriate taxes.
These horrific over-the-top acts of violence against black men who were not doing anything violent, have galvanized people to complain about systemic racism, and people have protested and marched and raised signs. And many of the signs have these words: “I can’t breathe.”
Have you ever been in a situation where you found it hard to breathe?
I have a friend who has asthma and every once in a while, has a very scary and sometimes even life-threatening asthma attack and she cannot get her breath.
I remember having to work a bingo many years ago to support my children playing in a soccer league. This was in the days that smoking was allowed in bingo halls. I came home and found it hard to breathe, and I was violently sick. I was not used to being in a room full of smoke.
I think I must have an allergy to dust or something because I nearly always have a stuffy nose, so I hate going to the dentist and them working in my mouth, or having anything covering my mouth because I find it hard to breathe.
I cringe when I see on tv somebody put tape over somebody else’s mouth during a robbery to keep them quiet. That could kill me. And the truth is that has killed people.
I have had scary experience of reflux in the middle of the night where I aspirated and literally wake up choking unable to breathe.
Thank God for medications.
Maybe someone held you head under water when you were swimming and thought it was a joke.
Maybe somebody put their hand over your mouth trying to make you shut up.
Maybe you have COPD or something else that makes it harder for you to breathe.
It is a scary, scary feeling, this feeling of being unable to breathe…
And sometimes when life is bad…really bad…. You can have the same feeling.
I remember having a kind of panic attack one time. I was in seminary, I was working at a church on weekends, I had been sick, I was way behind in school assignments, and I was falling in love with a beautiful girl, and I couldn’t breathe.
It felt like there was a weight on my chest. I was just overwhelmed. I went to the minister, the Reverend Robert Jackson and he talked to me and helped me to breathe. He calmed me down and gave me some perspective. He had been in my shoes.
And while I have not been a victim of systemic racism most of us know what it is like to have someone apply pressure, to feel like we are being strangled or choked by sickness, or peer pressure, or prejudice or discrimination or poverty or homelessness, or addiction, or our own failings or sins…
The world as Paul the apostle writes wants to squeeze you into its mold…
And sometimes when there is a lot of pressure we feel that we cannot breathe.
What is sad is that even after thousands and thousands of years of human history the politics of greed and fear-mongering we still have a system that chokes the poor, those with different skin colours, those who are homeless, those who are different culturally, or religiously, or who are considered different because of their sexual orientation or identity.
Those who are too fat, too skinny, too talkative, too silent, too passive, too aggressive, too young, too old, too feminine, or not feminine enough…
We live in a world where there are millions and millions of people deprived of food, shelter, health care, education, employment and a non-violent community.
So, so many people cannot breathe…
Let me quote Joy Moore, Accociate Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary , St. Paul Minnesota:
Those in power, from the politicians to the police, wear the clothes of Christianity, wolves dressed in the name of the Lamb. Waving a Bible in the name of politics, they seduce the flock because they say they are against abortion or against gay marriage or against gun control. They publicize symbols of moral credit in the name of gender equality, racial justice, or reproductive rights. Yet behind all their talk remains a perfectly functioning system that plunders both the poor and the earth; treating women and children as sex toys; and maintains a glass-ceiling painted white above the efforts of persons of color in the United States and around the world.
You read correctly: none of us can breathe.
It wasn’t any different in Jesus day. And Jesus looked upon these crowds and had compassion for them
The average person in Jesus day according to this passage of scripture was harassed and helpless. They were like sheep without a shepherd. The average person was just a pawn to the rich and powerful. There was no middle class in Jesus day. The select few were fabulously wealthy and the rest were poor.
Even if you worked you were poor, and there was lots of corruption and the authorities hired tax collectors who were cheats.
The powers from on high came down on you like a ton of bricks if you crossed the line. There were no safeguards if you were poor. You could be killed outright by the Romans or the rich and that was it.
Remember Matthew tells it like it is. When Jesus was born, even at the rumour of a king, a threat, meant that children were just killed. Boy babies up til the age of two.
People had all the same pressures sitting on their chests. Lots of them couldn’t breathe.
And Jesus went around healing, relieving pressure, lifting burdens off chests. He forgave things that strangled people’s souls. He accepted the outsiders and the different and put his breath into people who found it hard to breathe.
And then one day he told his followers to get out there and do the job that he was doing.
Get out there and heal and help people to breathe. Go to the sick and the oppressed and those with burdens. Cast out the demons that constrict people. Touch the untouchables. Lift up to life those who seemingly are dead.
And take no bag, or extra clothes. Take no money and no weapons.
“Hey,” Jesus says, “I am sending out like sheep among the wolves, so be wise as serpents and harmless like doves.
And by the way, some people are going to hate you and hurt you and hit you, and betray you and persecute you.
You know. I like coming to worship. I like preparing sermons and writing the liturgy. I love going to choir practice and singing in the church.
I love the relationships made in the church and the sense of community.
I think the heart of the gospel is that we are loved, special, chosen and precious. That Jesus died for us so we can die to a selfish way of life, and be born again to service and love.
I believe in radical hospitality and radical inclusion and radical love for all people…
But when Jesus says: “Hit the road Harry. And don’t take money, or an extra change of clothes, or that trusty staff you use for a weapon to defend yourself.
Get out there Harry and leave your safe, comfortable pew…”
I gotta admit, I don’t like it.
All the things that keep me safe. Money, credit, house, friends, family, police, weapons, social safety net. Network of friends…
Jesus is asking us to trust him and take the message of radical love and radical hospitality and radical inclusion on the road and just not tell the message, but live it by loving, including, practicing justice, helping, healing, and raising those whom the world considers dead and worthless.
And do it even though people will hate you for empowering the powerless.
People will call you names if you help the nameless.
People will exclude you if you included the excluded.
People will be prejudiced against you if you break the ceilings of racism.
People will hurt you, not for healing people, but for healing or changing the system that hurts people, the system that chokes the poor, those of different colour, and those who are different in other ways…
You see that’s the thing about system racism and systemic poverty.
If I am racist, and if I cheat the poor or others, I can change that by staying at home and just changing myself.
But when the system if broke, I gotta get out there and work the system.
And here’s the thing.
Jesus says you can’t work to change the system that is violent by using violence.
You can’t work to change the system of inequitable wealth by throwing your wealth around.
You can only change the system that does a disservice to others, be being something completely different and radical…
That is by being a servant to others.
The tools at our disposal are not the tools of the worldly powerful, they are not the weapons of soldiers, or the rhetoric of the politicians…
They are different. They are humility, faith, love, forgiveness, longsuffering (hey I like that word even better than patience)
Healing, serving, helping, sharing, including….
We change the system by transfusing some of our own blood, sweat toil and tears and service into the system, and if enough of us do that, the system will change.
Last week I mentioned an icon that was painted by Andrei Rublov of the Trinity visiting Abraham at that oaks of Mamre….
Where Abraham gave food and drink to these three total strangers…
And whenever you show radical hospitality to others it is to do the same to God, to Jesus, to the Spirit…
Who is it that shows you that kind of radical hospitality…?
Who is it who meets the needs of your deepest hungers…?
Who is it that quenches your thirst for love and affection so that you can totally be yourself?
Who is it that feeds your soul?
Or in other words… Who helps you breathe?
And without using God, or Jesus or the Spirit, I want you to name someone in your mind, a human…
who helps you breathe?
Who helps you with your burdens…
Who puts no pressure on you…
Who lets you be you…
Who forgives you unconditionally
Who loves you extravagantly
Who radically accepts you…
Who helps you breathe?
The world is full of people who can’t breathe.
And Jesus wants us to get in there with those who are aching, suffering, bleeding, crying and dying.
And feed them love and offer them acceptance, and give them healing, and let them taste forgiveness, and take the knee off their necks so they can breathe.
And if this seems impossible. If it seems too much. If it seems that this will cost us big time….
Remember that Jesus gave us everything and it didn’t cost us a penny.
He gave his love, his forgiveness, his grace, his mercy, his life, his all.
But Jesus also knows that when he bids us go into all the world, healing what is sick, resurrecting what is dead, and casting our evil…and helping people to breathe.
We are not only saving the world and bringing the kingdom here on earth as it in heaven…
..we are setting our souls free…
…we are untangling ourselves from our sin…
…we are unbinding ourselves from the graveclothes of the system…
…we are learning to live abundant lives…
…we are raising ourselves from the dead…
For through the power and indwelling of Jesus and the Spirit
…when we help others breathe, we too are set free to breathe…