I Can’t Breathe — Come Holy Spirit!

I Can’t Breathe — Come Holy Spirit! 

Phyllis Felton & Rob Hoch

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and First & Franklin Presbyterian Church

Phyllis speaks all bold font

May 31, 2020


Acts 2:1-21

John 20:19-23

            Maybe Zoom feels like it has helped us . . . or maybe it feels like a desperate measure for people of faith who are more accustomed to choirs singing and gathering; it feels like a necessary measure; maybe it feels like we’ve been intubated with a ventilator pushing air, breath, into inflamed lungs. Maybe this mechanical breathing apparatus feels artificial and labored.

Almost feels like you can’t breathe. And yet, to say that now, I can’t breathe . . .

There’s no symbol for the cry of the afflicted.

No poetry in, I can’t breathe. George Floyd’s gasp.

No spiritual meaning in, I can’t walk in Central Park. Christian Cooper.

No feeling of spiritual ecstasy or even spiritual gloom in, I can’t run without looking over my shoulder, worrying about whether someone will think I’m running from a crime. Because that’s just what a Black man running means when running in a white community. I can’t breathe freely in a world of suffocating whiteness. Maybe Ahmaud Arbery would have told us something like that if he had lived long enough.

And what about the CNN reporter, Omar Jimenez . . . reporting the news, his report as a black man arrested by a group of white officers, live on national T.V.

I can’t breathe. I just can’t breathe. Or maybe we’re just now picking up on our difficulty breathing. Here’s a thought: maybe the mechanical apparatus that preserves whiteness isn’t actually real breath . . . it’s a ventilator for some, preserving a partial life of privilege, a life that appears real, and unlabored, existing within the range of normal wear and tear; but then there’s that knee, on the neck of George Floyd. 8 minutes, 46 seconds.

America might be in an upper room this morning. Or a locked house. It’s hard to breathe in here. No light comes in. It’s close, close like damp skin, sour breath, and stale sweat. There’s fear in America. And it is night in this house. . . .

I can’t breathe . . . out of my sleep, I jump, vision blurred, brow covered in sweat, panting. I can’t breathe; I can’t focus, overcome with panic; my consciousness in a swirl; nothing’s making sense.

Switching on the TV, my contact with reality, I hear, “The pandemic claims 100, lives and in its wake millions are unemployed . . . Minneapolis neighborhood burns after a ‘brother named Floyd’ lies on the street with the blue knee of the law crushing his windpipe.

I can’t breathe. Somebody help, I can’t breathe.

I am caught in the aftermath of a nightmare. I want to cry, “Father, forgiven them, for they know not what they do.”

But I do not have the breath to exhale the prayer.

Come, Holy Spirit, and set us captives free!

Come, Holy Spirit, loose our tongues!

Come, Holy Spirit. . . .

Think about that prayer . . . the disciples of John were all together, in a locked room. Within their collective memory, the disciples share a dynamic story . . . but they feared letting it out. They doubted letting it out. And so, in a locked room, they sat, talking, grasping, griping . . . and then Jesus himself appeared. It doesn’t say that he used the door. (So, as an aside, the locked door doesn’t keep Jesus out, it just keeps them locked in). And he shows them his hands and his feet. His body . . . and his testimony:

“Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you. After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, so I send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 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.”

And then, Jesus breathed on them and told them they had the power to forgive. Now what was inside them was new breath (pushed into their lungs) — the breath of life, the same breath that God breathed into dust and clay, a new life-giving force replacing the dry stale air which had swollen their lungs. And Jesus instructed them to let it out. Exhale! Share! Spread! Act! Teach! Partner! Reach out!

When Phyllis speaks like this, I hear the story of Acts. Acts is a story of a people enabled to speak in public. The Spirit opens church by opening our mouths with testimony in public, accountable to one another, and in a debate. Our testimony feels different here, on the street. It was one thing being in the upper room; it’s another thing when the community of faith spills out of that lock-down ecclesiology, which is regular church as we know it, and into the world as we find it, as it finds us. Listen, Peter has to correct misperceptions. We’re not drunk on Zoom. We’re not living in fear. We’ve not suspended the call to reconciliation because of a financial crisis. The church isn’t closed. Far from it.

How do I know? Ask, Who are we today? Who is with us in this place? Are we in the presence of our future? Are we participating in the Spirit’s formation of the church that does not yet exist?

Maybe there are days when we watch the news and we see the trouble in the world, in Minneapolis. For some of us, it’s like watching a storm far away. Others, it’s near us. It’s our little boy, we kiss goodnight. We worry about our teenage son. Is he going to flash that male temper of his when he’s out and gets harassed by a police officer?

It’s enough to keep your babies inside. Out of the way of wind. NT Wright says that it’s important that someone somewhere is tracking the hurricanes that bring destruction. But, he says, when it comes to Pentecost, it is far more important that you’re out there in the wind, letting it seep through your life, your heart, your imagination, your powers of speech . . . moving us from the clay of listless lifeless believers into a people on fire with the love of God.

Acts says that God’s holy breath has come into our world . . . blown into our lungs and through our lips as public witness. I see on social media that people are organizing to protest. There’s protest in Acts as well. It comes in the form of some feisty preaching. Will Willimon says of our scripture reading that “everything [in it] is by wind and fire, loud talk, buzzy confusion, and public debate.”

Our confession today wasn’t easy to write. Phyllis and I probably lost sleep over it. But it was necessary. As an explanation, as public accountability for who we are, who we aspire to be. We’re not drunk on Jesus; we are bold to pray in the power of the Spirit. And it is in fact debate, at its most basic level.

God breathes into clay . . . God breathes into our confusion and creates people. Do you think that at times, we think we’re clay, but in fact, we’re becoming new? Or we are new, but we choose cynically and complacently to live as if we were clay?

Kevin Johnson, a Presbyterian minister and a friend, went out to Minneapolis for the protests. Listen to what he says, as he explains his presence, his testimony in that place, which feels like clay and yet also like fire:

I’ve been young and now I’m old, and here I am… When asked by an 18 year old student reporter from the University of Michigan what brought me out today, I thought of the great cloud of witnesses and remembered Vincent Harding who described himself as being ‘a citizen of a nation that does not yet exist…’ I told her that I was here as a participant in the formation of America… We are in the presence of our future … What will America be…?

We can’t breathe, is the pandemic knocking at my door?

         We can’t breathe, is it the blatant violence of a blue knee on a black throat?

         We can’t breathe, is it the mounting tension which accompanies the smoldering fires and rioutous looting?

         We can’t breathe . . .

         And maybe we try to explain the ‘why’ behind it all. None of our answers seem to bring any real solution to the question. One thing for sure is this . . . in this moment of devastating pestilence, God is speaking. It is no accident that today, May 31, 2020, the Holy Spirit breaks in on the heels of death, violence, and neighbors and neighborhoods burning. It is no coincidence that today we are out on the virtual street of a smoldering, conflicted, unjust nation.

          And by God’s grace, our clay tongues and our sick lungs, are awakened by God’s breath: “Speak,” says the Spirit, “a Burning Word of Peace with a Designing word for those who have ears to hear, eyes to see, feet to move, and hearts to love.”

          Say hallelujah and open the door. Does it seem crazy? Sure it does! Know this, God’s way is far beyond our understanding but is always in our best interest.


         Trust in the Lord with all your heart

         And lean not on your own understanding;

         In all your ways submit to him

         And he will make your paths straight.

         Proverbs 3:5-6

Maybe God does things harder than we want. Maybe God changes us into different people. Say hallelujah and open the door. Step out! Speak out!

Your life and your story, your feet, and your hands are valuable. Open the door. The Bible is filled with invitations to humans from God that read . . . embrace life over death. Love wins. What you have inside is valuable — don’t keep it locked up. Let it out. It will transform the world. And humans!

         Anyway, even if we said, “I’m not ready to open the door” — we’ve been driven out of our self-imposed prison. Maybe the ventilator of white privilege is being taken from us and we’re afraid we won’t make it. Maybe the claustrophobic oppression of this nation feels as if its grip on us will never weaken.

         Even so, we are bold to pray, Come Holy Spirit! Breathe in me, breathe in us, so that we might sing a new song . . . speak



Kind of

Fire, and

New speech

Brought to voice:

Words that are flames

Through walls that divide;

Language that is praise sung

In harmonies of the Spirit;

Inclusive vocabulary of love.

Drink deep the new wine of

Freedom . . . Dream

As equals, world’s sons and

Daughters. See the visions

Of the kingdom of peace.

Wherever the wind blows

The Spirit will flow:

The fire that

Quenches our breathlessness

And fills us with new breath

Life-giving breath

Breat that engenders Peace

Peace that engenders Justice

Justice that Births hope

Hope filled with God’s Love.