Sunday, January 20, 2002

Breath of God

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Genesis 1

1. Three Existential Rituals

This year I am extolling the blessings of three, simple existential rituals. They probably do not reach way up to the height of Acute Sacramental Piety. Apologies to the Jesuits. Nor do they, perhaps, plumb the depths of Anabaptist Piety. Apologies to the Fundamentalists. They may work, though, for the broad middle stream of life, personality, temperament, culture, tradition and experience with which, for all our messy middle of the roadness, we have the most experience.

Breathe. In and Out. It is a refreshing pause, and brings a healthy reminder that we are all creatures of our God and King - sheep in another’s pasture. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are more human than anything else.

Listen. Hear and Overhear. While this is a matter of the ears not the lungs, of the soul not the body, it is the one single posture, a kind of relational bending of the knee, that represents our faith, the faith of Jesus Christ, who has listened to us, who has forgiven us, that we might, in Him, listen to others, that we might, in Him, forgive others. (Now look at that. Just like a preacher. Talking...about listening. Has there ever been a preacher who could listen?) We are Christians. American Christians, not Christian Americans. Methodist Christians not Christian Methodists. Human Christians, not Christian Humans. Listen. It is who we are.

Smile. Laugh and Sing. It is the response most befitting those made in God’s Image and those forgiven in Christ’s Death. We have nothing to defend and everything to share. It is what happens when you finally realize, catch the Spirit, get religion, find love, learn to sing, recline into God in Christ, become aware of what God has done for us. It makes us the singing Methodists we most want to be.

2. Breath of Life

How hard it has been to watch our close friend laboring to breathe. At last he is able to breath again without a tube. What a lesson to us about the simple, essential blessing of breath.

The other night we stopped at Rochester General Hospital to visit our friend. In the hallway we became surrounded by a dozen young couples, evidently pregnant, carrying pillows and booklets, being led on a tour that apparently was to conclude in the birthing room. Those of you who have been “lamazed” know that they were about to be taught to breathe. Breathe. The trained breathing of the mother, rhythmic, panting, pushing, blowing, following the increasing strength of each contraction, and with the assistance of her coach (!), finally gives way, in that miracle moment, to the image of God, the likeness of God, born again. And the nurse holds the child, spanks the child, and the child - breathes! Every single one of the six billion breathers now on Earth carries that unmistakable patent, the imago dei.

With our morning breath, may we concentrate, may we find wisdom, may we recall in Whose shape we have been formed.

O Lord, our Lord,
How majestic is thy name in all the earth!
Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted
By the mouth of babes and infants (!)
Thou hast founded a bulwark because of thy foes
To still the enemy and the avenger

When I look at thy heavens
The work of thy fingers
The moon and stars which thou hast established
What is man that thou art mindful of him?
And the son of man, that thou dost care for him?
Yet thou hast made him little less than God
And dost crown him with glory and honor
Thou hast given him dominion over
The works of thy hands
Thou hast put all things under his feet
All sheep and oxen
And also the beasts of the field
The birds of the air
And the fish of the sea
Whatever passes along the paths of the sea

O Lord our Lord
How majestic is thy name in all the earth!

3. A Baby Boy

How distorted this image has so largely become! We treat people roughly, forgetting that each one is “a little less than God”! How easily we do so, until we are brought up short.

You remember, I expect, a time when the utter misery of others at last permeated your spirit. You drove by the South Bronx, safe on the highway, riding in a new car, and looked down on the city and saw PS 131, with 6 year olds coming out, and you thought, “How do we do this? How do we let this happen?” Or you had to stop at the emergency room in a small town hospital - a toothache, a broken limb - and you looked around and for the first time the hidden poor of the land were real. You served in the dining center or suited in the storehouse or read books in the daycare. You heard Marion Wright Edelman or the United Methodist Bishops or both, really heard them, when they said that 20% of our American children are raised in poverty. You saw something, of all places, on television, and it made you weep. You crossed the border into Tijuana and all those brown little faces and browner little hands reaching for coins sent a chill through you on a sunny, hot day. Your club offered a day of service and you ended up, not on the sunny side, but on the slummy side of the street.

In May of 1992, in the middle of General Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, I got more than unusually lost, driving to church, an unfamiliar church, in that less than familiar city. I ended up somewhere I know not where on the other side of the wrong side of the tracks, driving on a peach of a spring Sunday morning, driving past row after row of terrible housing. Dirt where grass should have been. Rubble where porches should have been. Air where glass should have been. Peeling where paint should have been. And in front of this so-called housing, a range of quiet and taciturn children and grandparents. I guess this Louisville slum is not the poorest place I have seen but it stands out as the saddest poorest place, especially so on sleeping city sidewalk, and Sunday morning (coming down). Nothing as lonesome as that sound.

Imagine my shock to turn a corner, still irretrievably lost, to meet this sign: “The birthplace of Cassius Clay, Mohammed Ali, heavyweight champion of the world.”

Bishop Robert Spain preached a wonderful sermon that morning, when I finally found my way. The music, teaching, fellowship and love of the suburban Methodist church were real and good. But God’s Word, that Sunday, was in the drooping porches and rat infested squalor that somehow, miraculously, gave birth to Ali. How could such a voice, a face, a body, a spirit, an intellect, a will, a mind, a man ever, ever, ever have emerged from such abuse and neglect? Why, it would be like saying that the divine could emerge from cattle stalls, or wicked innkeepers, or Palestinian poverty, or neglected religion. Or minority life.

God loves all God’s children: especially those left out. History produces a reminder to us, of this, every now and then.

4. For Whom the Bell Tolls

One day, our own Rand Warner walked along similar streets here in Rochester. We have a little more here, even in our worst slums. There is grass and there are porches. But this is the same country, the land of lack, in which Rand walked. He was there to show us the exact place where a ten-year old boy, Tyshaun, riding his bicycle in the summer, was shot and killed, a victim of drugs and poverty. Rand showed us the school, pointed to signs of hope in a few neighborhood leaders, noticed some slight changes since his last visit, and concluded the tour with the makeshift shrine left for Tyshaun. You know that Rand has organized the city, on the 10th of each month, at 10 a. m., to ring church bells for his memory. Perhaps he kept in mind Donne’s well known verse:

No man is an island
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea Europe is the less
As well as if a promontory were
As well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were
Any man’s death diminishes me
Because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

5. The Miracle of Birth: James Weldon Johnson

And God stepped out on space
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely-
I’ll make me a world.

And as far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled
And light broke
And the darkness rolled up one side
And the light stood shining on the other
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars
Then down between the darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down-
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head;
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren
SO God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas-
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed-
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled-
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky
And the oak spread out his arms
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.
Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods
And split the air with their wings
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around
And God looked around
On all that he had made
He looked at his sun
And he looked at his moon
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down-
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God
Like a mammy bending down over her baby
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

6. A Question: Will You Breathe With Me?

The breath of God gives us the miraculous, wondrous mystery of life! With every breath we sing God’s praise! This is the wonder of which the psalmist and John Donne and James Weldon Johnson did write. Shall we not live, and breath, convinced that it is from this high peak of wonder that we should fashion our days?

I cannot yet perceive a final solution to the matter of cloning, but I am convinced that we should view the matter from this high peak of wonder.

I do not pretend to have all of the ultimate answers regarding ongoing issues of life and choice, but I am convinced that we should view the matter from this high peak of wonder.

I have not yet seen a perfect solution to our conflicts around the globe and their consequences for ourselves and others, but I am convinced that we should view such matters from this high peak of wonder.

I cannot fathom all of the complexities of state and city and school district budgets, nor do I claim to know their ideal shapes, but I am convinced that we should view such matters from this high peak of wonder.

It is the breath of God that has made us who and as we are.
Will you breathe with me this year?