SUNDAY SERMON: “Just Breathe”
This is a sermon about breath. Breath is the thread that connects pandemic, protest, and Pentecost. One could say it is the theme of our entire year.
This year, we’ve learned more about breathing than we thought possible. Before that, we took it for granted, which is amazing considering it’s something we do 20,000 times a day. We’ve learned what sort of particles are in a breath and how far it can travel. We’ve learned that “wake up and smell the coffee” is a good test for COVID-19, because if we can smell the coffee, we’re probably okay. Friday night as I walked toward the church, I was thinking about how we’d normally be setting up for Clamfest, and imagining the smell of clams. When I opened the door I could really smell the clams, and I thought, “oh no, it’s the ghost of Clamfest!” But it was just Alan making soup.
COVID-19 has stolen our breath. As a respiratory disease, it attacks the lungs. Those who have it are often placed on oxygen or a ventilator. Those who don’t wear masks to protect themselves, and some masks make it difficult to breathe. But we still have to wear them to protect ourselves and others. As The Police say, “every breath you take, I’ll be watching you!” In a related subject, Ventilation has become an issue for malls and schools. It’s why in church, we open the windows and have the air conditioner running at the same time as the fans.
Breathing difficulties run in my family. My sister has asthma, and carries a ventilator. In the last decades of his life, my grandfather had a hard time walking because he couldn’t catch his breath. He’d say, “I’ll just sit on this bench, you go on without me.” I have a tendency to pass out, which you wouldn’t think would be related to breathing, but Lois identified the problem for me during therapy a few years ago. She was working on my hand, pressing harder than I wanted to, and suddenly the room started to spin and she said, “Rich, BREATHE!” Turns out pain makes me hold my breath, and out I go.
If I asked, “What’s the best breath you ever took?”, would you have an answer? Many would say their first. The best breath I ever took was at the beach. I had gone into the big waves a day after a hurricane, overestimating my ability to handle them. Everything was great until I realized at some point I had to get out. I ducked under a particularly big wave, and came up to take a breath, not realizing that I was emerging into the second part of a double wave. Instead of taking a breath of air, I took a breath of water and went under again. At the very last second before passing out, I resurfaced. That next breath was the best breath I ever took; I was so happy just to be alive. I was grateful for breath itself.
The other big story of the year is epitomized by the words of George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.” To be deprived of breath is to be deprived of life. As Toni Braxton sings, “How can I breathe when there’s no air?” The huddled masses yearning to breathe free are not only looking for wide open spaces, but for a place where they will be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or any other variable.
We all want to breathe free ~ to take off our literal masks and breathe in the fresh, clean air, to relax and stop worrying so much about so many things: a Congress that continues to argue while its constituents are running out of food; a virus that refuses to go away on its own; a power grid that keeps failing.
Martha had the same problem. She was worried about so many things: preparing dinner for one, getting her sister to help her, making sure everything came out on time. But there was Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, not even six feet away, not even wearing a mask. “Jesus!” she said, “tell my sister to back off and put on a mask!” But Jesus said, “Martha, you’ve got so many things on your mind, but only one is needed.” And this is where the different translations become very interesting.
In the Good News Bible, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the right thing. The New Living Translation reads, “There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”
What is this “one thing (New Revised Standard Version),” this “right thing” (Good News Bible), this “good portion” (Revised Standard Version), this “better part” (New Revised Standard Version)? It can’t be the activity, because people need to eat; so it has to be the attitude. In effect, Jesus is saying to Martha, “breathe; just breathe.” Jonny Diaz picks up this thread in his song of the same name. The chorus is “Breathe, just breathe / Come and rest at my feet / And be, just be / Chaos calls, but all you really need / Is to just breathe.”
Just breathe, Martha! Don’t pass out, Rich! Slow down your pace; slow down your thoughts; focus on what really matters.
Diaz isn’t the only one to sing about breath. The Hollies sing, “Sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe, and to love you.” Marie Barrett was leading worship one day when she started spontaneously singing, “This is the air I breathe; your very word spoken to me.” She recorded her own version, then others covered it, and one day she was driving around, heard her own song on the radio, started crying and then shouted, “Yay!” The All Sons & Daughters song “Great Are You Lord” includes the phrase, “You’re the breath in my lungs, so I pour out my praise to you only, God.” And perhaps most famously, our hymnal includes Edwin Hatch’s big hit from 1878, “Breathe On Me, Breath of God,” inspired by John 20:21-22: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even, so send I you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Breathe on me, breath of God
Fill me with life anew
That I may love as you have loved
And do what you would do.
Our breath is a gift given to us at birth, literally slapped into us. In Scripture, sometimes breath is just air, but other times it represents the soul or the Holy Spirit. The valley of dry bones comes to life when God breathes air into the skeletons. Elijah and Elisha both bring children back to life, the second by what appears to be mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
So what if God is the air we breathe?
In a physical sense, everything that God ever created may be passing through our lungs with every breath. We may be breathing particles of peacock feathers, starfish, Spanish galleons, the molecules of our ancestors or even the first disciples. Matter is created, but not destroyed. Everything really is connected.
In a spiritual sense, the Holy Spirit arrives as breath and operates as air. Jesus tells his disciples to breathe in the Holy Spirit and breathe out the Holy Spirit. Breathe in love, breathe out peace. Breathe in goodness, breathe out kindness. Every breath has two sides. As Christians, we breathe in the blessings of God, but we are asked to breathe them out as well: to be vessels for the Holy Spirit. Just breathe doesn’t end with us; it’s like the airline instruction to put the mask on ourselves first, and then to help others in need.
And that’s what this whole year is about: making sacrifices so that others may have the ability to breathe. Wearing masks so that others won’t be put on ventilators. Marching and voting so that others won’t be killed. Letting the Holy Spirit fill us so we can breathe in goodness and breathe out kindness.
Breathe. Just breathe. God’s got this. According to Scripture, when Jesus returns, he will defeat the enemy with a single breath (2 Thessalonians 2:8). Knowing the ending, we can breathe easy once again. As King David writes in the last Psalm, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!”
SUNDAY SERMON: “Wisdom from the Psalms”
(Video followed by slightly remixed sermon in print)
This week, I reread the Book of Psalms to see if there was any material relevant to the pandemic. Turns out there’s a lot of stuff! But while I was reading, I noticed something else: the appeal of King David.
When we make prayer requests in church, they usually fall into two categories: 1) Prayers for people who are sick and 2) Small thanksgivings. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it leaves out the most personal prayers: the words we are afraid to say out loud, or even to each other. I feel like I’m losing my faith. Help me to stay faithful to my spouse. Take away the anger I feel toward someone in my family. Give me a reason to stay alive.
This is where King David comes in. David’s prayers are genuine, heartfelt and uncensored. He prays what we do not, so that when we see these prayers in the Bible, we feel a little less alone ~ perhaps a little less that something is significantly wrong with us.
Since I’d like to get right to the heart of the sermon, I’ve challenged myself to put the life of David in a tweet (140 characters or less).
The Life of David in a Tweet
Cheesemaker giant-killer harpist King of Israel
Saw hottie, gave in, had husband killed – My Bad!
Wrote Psalms, forgiven, died.
One of the most relevant things that David writes is, “Don’t put your trust in human leaders” ~ the line so nice he had to say it twice. The kicker is that he’s the human leader. He’s keenly aware of his own imperfections, and tells people not to follow him, but God ~ and as a result, he’s a better leader.
Our president has 84 million followers on Twitter, who hang on every word. That seems like a lot, but it’s less than Taylor Swift, Rhianna, some footballer I’ve never heard of, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Barack Obama. The Sayville United Methodist Church has 3 followers. So I should feel envious, right? Not at all. God might not be sending tweets, but using some old fashioned form of communication, such as speaking. Follow God ~ He’s got more important things to say.
When it comes to the Ten Commandments, King David was a nightmare. Coveting? Check! Stealing? Check! Check! Adultery? Check! Killing? Check! (King David might protest, “But at least I respected my parents,” to which I would respond, “How about that time when they told you to stay home and make cheese and you went out giant-killing?”)
But David also prays, “Save me from my sins and point out my hidden faults” ~ something we don’t like anyone to do. Underneath it all, he really wants to do what is right. But he has a real problem with anger. Granted, he has a lot of enemies: people trying to kill him, people talking trash about him (#wheresyourslingshotnow). And he lashes out: “Smite them, God! Smite them all! Smite their babies!” But he also writes, “Don’t let your anger lead to sin.”
The thoughts seem to contradict each other; it’s as if he’s trying to work something out. This brings us to the one thing I want you to remember from today’s sermon, so I’ll make a special section for it:
The One Thing I Want You to Remember from Today’s Sermon
When we read the book of Psalms, we are reading a book of someone else’s prayers.
Now back to the rest of the sermon.
David wrote most of the psalms, but not all. The psalms are internal thoughts: basically, a diary of conversations with God. The value of the book is that when we are angry, when we are depressed, when we are confused, when we sin, we can look to this book and find someone to relate to. So for example, when David is mad at the Philistines, it’s like when we’re mad at people in another political party. When David rails against the common people for not following God, it’s like when we rail against people having giant parties and not wearing masks.
It’s very easy to give in to the temptation to bad-mouth others, especially people we don’t know. In fact, I do it in the video version of the sermon! But after David has sinned, he prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Show me my hidden faults, he prays. Don’t let me become like those I hate.
David fights this temptation all the way through. Some people, he writes, are like, “We want more blessings! But the joy you have given me is better than all their grain and wine.” Some people “rush to other gods, but I won’t do it! All I need is you.”
But David also struggles with depression. “Why am I so sad? Why am I so troubled? God, are you there? God, have you forgotten me? God, are you ignoring me?”
He works his way through this challenge as well. David remembers the good old days, and how God was there for him. He goes even further back, and remembers that God was there for his ancestors as well. He remembers God’s promises, and comes to the conclusion that God hasn’t changed; he has. And he puts his trust in God. The very act of praying strengthens their relationship.
David faces a lot of challenges in his life. He has a lot to figure out: how to be a good husband, how to rule a nation, how to cut his massive collection of psalms down to 150. And we’ve got a lot to figure out too: how to open schools safely, how to deal with a storm in the middle of a pandemic, why we’re more afraid of sharks than chickens when our chances of being killed by them is equal.
At a certain point, David throws his hands up and in today’s vernacular says, “I can’t even.” He gives up trying to figure out impossible things. He writes, “Now my soul is at peace, like a child in his mother’s arms.” “Now I can sleep at night.”
Throughout the psalms, David is blessed by moments of great insight, lucidity and wisdom. “When I look at the stars,” he writes, “what is man that you think of him?” He is overwhelmed by the thought that God loves us more than the sun, the moon, the stars, the animals, the ocean, the trees. They’ve never done anything immoral; but we have. But we’re also capable of acts of love, sacrifice and creation; our potential is immense. We look at ourselves and see our faults; God looks at us and sees our promise. God knows us completely, yet loves us and believes in us. Can we look at each other through the eyes of God?
And finally, David realizes that “every good thing comes from God” and that all he has is a gift. He lacks for nothing, as long as he has God. The last words of the last psalm (spoiler alert!): Praise the Lord!
As it turns out, there’s not a single word about the pandemic in the whole book of Psalms. There’s anger and depression, joy and hope, sin and salvation, and at the heart of it all, a follower of God who never knew that his words would be collected. Thousands of years later, his prayers continue to lead the way back to the One who loves us most of all. Amen.
SUNDAY SERMON: “What have we learned from the pandemic?”
Have you ever seen a movie that starts at the end, then flashes back to the beginning? That’s what we’re going to do today. We’re going to start and end with this Scripture: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And I’d like to zero in on the words, “I CAN.”
This sermon is called, “What Have We Learned from the Pandemic?”
The first thing we’ve learned is that we are fragile. Our bodies are fragile. Our lives are fragile. Our families are fragile. Our economy is fragile. Our health care system is fragile. We already knew there were potholes in the roads; we didn’t know we could run out of toilet paper or beef or coins.
But we have also learned that we are resilient. Back in January, if we were told that by spring there would be no school, no church, no stores, no beaches, no concerts, no baseball, and no Starbucks; that 146,000 Americans would be dead of a new disease and 4 million would be infected; and that we’d all be wearing masks to go out, if we went out at all, what kind of mood would we predict? We’d likely imagine that we would be frightened, worried, anxious and depressed all the time. But we’re not.
Daniel Gilbert, in his book Stumbling on Happiness, teaches that we are terrible at predicting how we might feel given the possibility of a future event, good or bad. As it turns out, we can deal with more than we think. We are more adaptable than we imagine.
Paul tells us that there is a secret to this mindset. What’s the secret? I already told you! “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” or in the Good News translation, I have the power to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me. I CAN.
Paul writes, “I know what it is to be in need and what it is to have more than enough.” Most of are know what it is like as well. We have lived through good times and bad. We have been sick, lost loved ones, searched the couch for change, worried how to make ends meet, had relationships end badly, felt shame and remorse. But we have also enjoyed the love of friends, smiled at babies, received paychecks, bought a first home, been healthy, been full, sung at the top of our lungs, danced and rejoiced. We know all these things.
In the same passage, Paul writes, “I have learned to be satisfied with what I have, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little.” The pandemic has helped us to distinguish between our wants and our needs. As it turns out, we may want a lot, but we need very little. In the words of Sally Struthers, “Do you want to make more money? Sure, we all do!” But we don’t need to keep chasing a higher standard of living. We need God. We need shelter and clothes. And some of us need coffee.
This brings us to a related subject: gratitude. We have learned to be grateful even, or maybe especially for the small things: tiny blessings, moments of kindness, sudden insights. This week I treasured time spent on my front porch with a friend; the fact that TWO restaurants told me to keep the change because they didn’t have coins; and the opportunity to rewrite this sermon! We never know if the good things we have will disappear at a moment’s notice; and that makes them all the more precious.
Rejoicing is directly related to gratitude. Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!” Always? That seems impossible. So let’s try a thought exercise. Looking at the picture below, which circle would you say represents happiness, and which represents joy? (There are no wrong answers, except maybe “potato.”)
Most people answer that happiness is the dot and joy is the outer circle, because joy is larger than happiness. But here’s another way to look at it. Imagine the outer circle gone due to a never-ending array of bad circumstances, leaving only the inner circle: a kernel of joy. For the Christian, joy is what remains when happiness disappears. Joy is the knowledge of the eternal. We can be joyful even when we’re not happy. You may be saying, “I can’t rejoice always.” Paul is saying, I CAN.
During the pandemic, we have learned how much our thoughts control our emotions. In the same letter to the Philippians (Paul was having a good day), he writes, “Whatever is true and noble, whatever is admirable and right, whatever is pure and lovely, whatever is excellent and praiseworthy, think about these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
In contrast, ask yourselves if any of these statements are true of you:
“The more news I watch, the happier I get.”
“The more I talk about politics, the more I relax.”
“The more I think about how rude people are, the more I feel at peace.”
Paul’s statement is an “If … then” statement. A feeling follows a behavior. Can you turn off the TV? I CAN!
But why would you do such a thing? The answer is simple: we’ve learned that the news is not the news. Or to paraphrase, while there is real news (such as the fact of the pandemic) and fake news (Dr. Fauci invented the virus), all news is subjective and most news is disproportionately negative. In choosing a news channel, one chooses between different forms of fear: would you rather be afraid of the pandemic, or of rioters? Would you rather be afraid of losing your life, or your freedom? (That last one sounds like “Braveheart!”)
It may be better to think of news as a pop-up. Yesterday my screen kept alternating between two ads: Do you like Donald Trump? Do you want to buy these sneakers? Do you like Donald Trump? Do you want to buy these sneakers? I decided to clear my history, and I got rid of both of them. We can do the same with our thoughts.
During the pandemic, we have learned to find our own news. To some people, everything is political. I counter that thought with the proposal that everything is spiritual. And when we look at the world through spiritual eyes, we see everything differently. We may find our news in the Bible, which is filled with consistent truths, insight into human nature, and encouragement. We may find our news in nature: look at what God has created, and is creating. We may find our news in the people around us, seeing how inventive they can be (cardboard cutouts of actual fans at Mets games), how caring (pizzas and pastries delivered to health care workers), how supportive (neighbors checking up on each other). It’s all real news.
There is, however, one kind of media news that has been important during the pandemic. The pandemic has worked as a magnifying glass. Mean people have gotten meaner; kind people have gotten kinder; rich people have gotten richer; poor people have gotten poorer; and all of society’s problems have been exposed, from racism and sexism to social inequity. This rush of information has been accompanied by a cluster of new understandings. We’ve begun to value the undervalued, from teachers and health care workers to essential workers at 7-11 and grocery stores. We’ve realized that we have more in common than we thought: we’re all scared, we’re all anxious, we all want love, we all deserve dignity, we all want something to believe in. And we’re more connected than we thought, not only locally, but globally. These understandings may lay the groundwork for a better, stronger global society.
Now that our eyes have been opened, we’ve realized that we can no longer sit on the sidelines; and we’re not. We’re getting involved. People have surprised us again and again by rising to the occasion. We used to say, “the world’s problems are too big; I can’t do anything about it.” Paul is saying, “I CAN.” Mother Teresa writes, “I alone cannot change the world, but I CAN cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.”
We have learned a lot about churches, beginning with a statement that should have been obvious: “The church is not a building, the church is the people.” A numerical observation underlines this point. Over the past six weeks, even though we’ve been worshipping in person, more people have been coming to our church looking for low-priced clothing and affordable gifts, and to our local soup kitchen for food that doesn’t feel like a handout. They haven’t come for a sermon or a song or a prayer ~ and that’s okay. If our church ~ and by extension, all churches ~ become known for kindness and community service, the sermons will be superfluous, because we’ll be doing what Jesus asked.
What lies ahead? Will the pandemic continue to rage through the U.S., and return to New York? Will there be a second wave? Or will we have a vaccine by Christmas? Will schools open safely, or will we have another semester of online learning? Will they open only to shut again? After the pandemic, will churches be packed with grateful parishioners, or will they be empty because everyone decided they preferred to watch worship in their PJs?
We don’t know. But we do know this: whatever comes our way, we’ll be able to handle it ~ whether we are full or hungry, whether we have too much or too little, because we have the power to face all conditions through Christ who strengthens us. Can we do all things, endure all things, face all things? WE CAN. Amen.