You may be taking some of your first breaths this morning, as you wake up on a cold January Sunday. Breathe deeply.
You may turn on the television, or turn to the newspaper, or turn up the radio. Morning has broken, a Sunday morning at that. Breathe deeply.
You may wonder, come Sunday, this morning, and wherever you are, whether you have the spirit to get up and get moving at all. You may be driving on the snowy Massachusetts Turnpike, just past Worcester. You may be looking out onto Cape Cod. You may be brewing coffee overlooking the Back Bay. You may be sitting in a pew. You may wonder. What is there that I awake to find, here, other than darkness, other than ignorance, other than corruption? Breathe deeply.
Sin is one Christian doctrine that is measurably demonstrable and scientifically provable. We have no lack of darkness and ignorance and corruption on January 11, 2009. Turn on the television, turn to the newspaper, or turn up the radio. Sin: darkness, confusion, corruption. It takes your breathe away.
Darkness takes your breath away. In the 21st century men are still killing each other in the name of religion, and smiling about it. Darkness. We run the risk of seeing things from fifty thousand feet, where the air is clear and the sky is bright. But at ground level, with children sitting for days in the presence of their parents, their dead parents, there is a deep darkness. I look at my grandchildren, who are here today, and I wonder, if someone so treated them, just what I would do. No, there is no simple path out of the dank dusk, nor are there easy solutions to intractable problems of violence and self-defense. But there sure is plenty of darkness. Darkness. It takes your breath away.
Confusion takes your breath away. Once we were a land of 12. Now we are a land of 8. Somehow, in a few months, we moved from a net worth of 12 to a net worth of 8. A land, a people, a 300 million member corporation, once thought to be valued at 12, now is more like 8. Speaking of 8, one out of 8 employable men is not. Employed. You may be one, or your grandson, or your neighbor. What is utterly remarkable is the pervasive confusion about how this happened, how we got here, where exactly we are, and how if at all we get out. Ask someone over dinner: “What is a hedge fund?” As one writer put it, we are a people who have a very hard time understanding and handling large sums of money, that is, anything over $136.00. Confusion. It takes your breath away.
Corruption takes your breath away. There is a lasting corruption under foot, what Gardner Taylor called the ‘gone wrongness of life’. In accidents, avoidable or not. In tragedy, explainable or not. In breach of faith, intended or not. In the breaking of laws, foreseen or not. If you, in person and in particular, have been present at the careening out of control, the plunging down hill, of one or another part of life, this week, you will think twice about getting up too early of a Sunday morning. Our deepest corruption is religion, as Blake so well knew: When Satan first the black bow bent, and the moral law from the gospel rent, he turned the law into a sword, and spilt the blood of mercy’s Lord. We want to go to a better place, to take the world to a better, non-religious place. That is our common hope, preached here at Marsh Chapel. Religion, per se, is not a good thing. It may be a popular thing, or not, but it is not a good thing. All of this makes for labored breathing.
For the preacher, a direct review of darkness, confusion, and corruption knocks the breath out of you. You struggle to breathe. And maybe just catching your breath, Sunday morning, letting your lungs refill after violence and violation, can be counted as a meager blessing.
Given the condition our condition is in, on 1/11/09, an inverted nineleven dated, we may or may not be attuned to the way our Scriptures mirror the condition our condition is in. Today’s readings are all about beginnings. Of creation (Genesis 1). Of church (Acts 19). Of Jesus (Mark 1). Beginnings all. We begin a new week. We begin a new calendar year. We begin a new semester.
How are we to begin?
Oddly, our lessons about beginnings, themselves begin with darkness, confusion, and corruption. The announcement of what is good occurs inside what is not so good. At least this from Neo-orthodoxy, and existentialism ‘its mistress’ (R Hart), we may plunder: the Scripture is truer to life than life is to itself.
In Genesis, the priestly writer, borrowing from Babylon, pronounces the beginning of creation—in darkness. The earth was without form and void. Even then. Darkness was upon the face of the deep. Creation, always and ever, comes out of darkness. Where does good come from? From bad.
Luke, the church’s cheer leader in Acts, sets right the nature of baptism. Paul has spent months in Ephesus. He comes upon other disciples who already have been baptized, say they. But they do not understand baptism. Forgiveness it is, but it is more than forgiveness, says the apostle. Even then. Even among the earliest of followers there is a fog of confusion.
Mark, the earliest gospel writer, at the beginning of the gospel, places Jesus in the roiling waters of the icy Jordan, under the hand of John, a baptism for repentance, a cleansing from corruption. For all the familiarity of these readings, there is nothing particularly cozy about them, nothing particularly warm about them, nothing particularly easy about them. They face in the face darkness, confusion and corruption.
How do they affirm creation, church, and Jesus at their beginnings?
What good news do they offer you for life on the cusp of a new beginning, good news on a blustery winter morning at the beginning of the year?
e gospel affirmation and offer today is slight. A mere breath, you might say.
Our lessons today offer breath. Breath.
Breath in darkness. The breath of God was moving over the face of the waters. Breath in confusion. When Paul laid his hands on them, the divine breath came upon them. Breath in corruption. The heavens opened and the breath descended upon him like a dove. Breath at the beginning of creation. Breath at the beginning of the church. Breath at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus.
Do you sense a pattern emerging here?
You veterans of Marsh Chapel preaching for many decades need no reminder that in both Hebrew and Greek the word for spirit is the word for breath and the word for breath is the word for spirit. I would not presume on your time to belabor what needs no labor, in your case. Spirit is breath. With our voice, our breathing is our most human feature. It makes or breaks a day, a season, a life. With breath, there is chance you can begin. So, breathe.
As we begin a new year let us extol the blessings of a simple existential ritual. It probably will not reach way up to the height of Acute Sacramental Piety. Apologies to the Liturgists. Nor will it, perhaps, plumb the depths of Anabaptist Piety. Apologies to the Fundamentalists. It may work, though, for the broad middle stream of life, personality, temperment, culture, tradition and experience with which, for all our messy middle of the roadness, you and I have the most experience.
You may call it a non-religious ritual.
Breathe to remember. 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.
Breathe to 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?) Listen. It is who we are.
Breathe to sing, to smile 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, catch your breath, 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 people we most want to be.
At the end of life. How hard it has been to watch our close friend laboring to breathe. At last he is able to breathe again without a tube. What a lesson to us about the simple, essential blessing of breath. To see him at the culmination of his breatherhood, his life, is perhaps to catch a glimpse of what the psalmist meant:
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!
At the beginning of life. One night we stopped at the hospital. 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 ostensibly helpful 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.
Yet how distorted this image has so largely become! We treat people roughly, we treat even children roughly, forgetting that each one is “a little less than God”! How easily we do so, until we are brought up short. When our breath is taken away…
We should make common cause with artists and poets like James Weldon Johnson:
And God stepped out on space
And he looked around and said:
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 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.
Breathe, consciously, mindfully, personally. Breathe.
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 the poet did write. Shall we not live, and breathe, convinced that it is breathing this rarified air, that we should fashion our days?
Begin by breathing.
Darkness. I cannot yet perceive a final solution to all the questions of violence and conflict the globe over, but I am convinced that we should view the matter breathing a rarified air. Begin by breathing.
Confusion. I cannot fathom all of the complexities of national and 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 breathing a rarified air. Begin by breathing.
Corruption. 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 breathing a rarified air. Begin by breathing.
It is the breath of God that has made us who and as we are.
As you begin, take a deep breath.
Will you breathe with me this year.
-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill