As simple as breathing.
I was in Connecticut on Friday, visiting a friend who had experienced a tornado in his neighborhood. You remember the storm we had on Tuesday, where the sky turned black and it rained crazy for a few minutes? Well up in Danbury Connecticut, it was a tornado, and two people were killed by falling trees from the storm. Trees were all over the road, smashed into houses, power and water was out for the whole week.
It reminded me of an experience I had a few years ago driving home with my sister's dog in the car. We were on a road rarely traveled--a narrow, winding valley road beside a meandering stream that went on for miles and miles between two long banks of mountains. Hot air was blowing in through the windows, making the ride noisy and hardly cooling us off. Suddenly, around a bend in the road, the sky turned dark: huge black and purple clouds seemed to be erupting out of some hole in the sky, angry billows of smoke with fire of lightning burning inside. We were heading right towards it. The air got suddenly cooler, almost cold, and came in sudden gusts, buffeting the car from the left and then from the right, and I began to have trouble keeping it on the road. Giant drops of rain began to fall, one then another, and then a wall of them, mixed with hard balls of hail, and I hurriedly closed up the windows. Now the sky was pitch black. I had to turn the lights on just to see the road, but I was afraid we'd be blown off or that I'd drive into a tree, so I tried to pull over and finally stopped. An ear-splitting clap of thunder burst right around the car, with a flash of lightning almost simultaneously, and the dog jumped in fright into the front seat right next to me, whimpering. "It's O.K.," I said, but I was just as scared, worrying to myself, is it possible, the wind whirling all around us, violent gales, is it possible for a tornado to happen in Connecticut? For a moment, I thought the car would fly, we were bouncing around front, back, sides, springs stretching, groaning, underneath the car.
And then, suddenly, as quickly as it came, the wind died. The rain stopped like a faucet had been turned off. The dog was in my arms, holding tight, breathing heavily, little hot breaths coming right into my nostrils, and mine into the dog’s. We were quiet, our tongues and hearts silenced, everything was quiet, and the only thing we could hear was our breathing-- in, out, breath of man into dog, dog’s breath into man. It was over, the sky was quickly lightening, rosy light filtered though the dissolving clouds, the ground wet with rain and melting hailstones.
I opened a window, a lovely breeze washed over us, and its air was incredibly sweet. Within moments the sky was cloudless and translucent with shimmering, purple-tinged light. I kissed the dog, and whispered to her, "Good girl". I started up the car and drove on, bathed in the exquisite beauty of a world made fresh and new by the passing power of wind and fire.
Later that day I went to visit the home of a wonderful elderly woman I knew. Her family was all there, and they had been with her just a few moments before when she breathed her last breath. They described how she took that last breath, one final breath of air surrounding our good earth. Breath of air, filling her lungs one last time, lifegiving oxygen for her dying cells.
In ancient days--certainly before television--when people faced the mystery of death, when they looked at the body of a dead person and tried to understand what terrible change had come over it, they noticed, first of all, that the dead person didn't breathe anymore. There was no movement of the chest, no great volumes of air going in and out of the nose. If you put a feather to their lips or below their nose, the feather didn't flutter. They concluded that to be dead meant to have no breath, and to be alive meant to have breath. And so they figured that breath contained the very force of life itself, there was something in the breath that contained the energy, the fire, the mystery and the power of life, and in Latin they called it 'spiritus', which is the word 'spirit' in our language.
And so at its root spirit and breath are the same thing, and that is the reason why, for instance, in the Bible, when Jesus died and breathed his last breath, it says that at that moment he gave up his 'spirit'. And in today's Gospel, when Jesus wants to pass on the Holy Spirit to his disciples who are huddled together in a stuffy locked room in fear of the storm of public anger and failure outside, Jesus brings the storm inside, and breathes on them and says "Receive the Holy Spirit". From his mouth, these hot little breaths went out to mingle with the fitful gasps of his disciples, and they breathed in, and Jesus' breaths went inside them, in and out, in and out, his breath, his Spirit, his life, burning, flashing fire, his raging gale of power, they took a deep breath of the life storm of Jesus, gently, lovingly exchanged, and it was so incredibly sweet... and... they were never the same again.
After a storm the air gets all turned upside down, and the freshest of air which is way up high in the sky where the clouds live is pushed down and it replaces all the stale old air we've been breathing for a while, and it's like, well, a breath of fresh air come down from on high, and a good thing, too, because we probably couldn't live too long on the same old air.
But the amazing thing is that the air we breathe is not really new at all, ever if it is freshened up a bit, the air on this good earth just keeps swirling around, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, century by century, and from person to person the air goes in and the air goes out, which is something when you're huddled tightly in a car in the middle of a tornado, or here in this house sitting side by side in a pew, and we forget the fact that we are all sharing the same air, at one time or another the same breath.
I'm breathing in what you've just breathed out, and it doesn't matter if you've just had some garlic meatball or I'm melting a tic-tac on my tongue, we're taking it in whether we know it or want it, and it doesn't matter if you're white and I'm black, or if you're female and I'm male, it doesn't matter if you're gay and I'm straight, or you're poor and I'm rich, or strong or weak or handsome or ugly, if you're Indian and I'm Italian, if you're a Republican and I'm a Communist, it doesn’t matter if we speak different languages and follow different customs, live different lifestyles. Whether we like it or not we're breathing in each other's life, and the life of our brothers and sisters long gone and living only in our dreams.
And for just about all of us, our very first breath, our first life-giving gasp in the world, was an exchange of air between ourselves and the one who labored us into the light—from our mother, into us and back again, a spirit-gift for which we are all grateful, our mothers, whom we honored last weekend, and still do here with prayers on this altar.
But the air can and does get stale and deadly. Left to ourselves, the world's spirit-breath would probably choke us--and ultimately--kill us all. The air we breathe also once filled the lungs of a Herod, a Hitler, the terrorists of 9/11, the warlords of Syria, a shooter walking the halls of a high school.
The breath we're taking now just hours ago was screamed out of someone's lungs in anger at something stupid, like, when someone blocked someone else in an intersection on 2nd Avenue, or maybe the breath you're taking right now carried some cruel word of ridicule to the ears and the heart of a husband or wife or child over breakfast this morning. The breath that we share with one another this morning may have been used to kill someone from within or without.
But thank God, the most amazing storm came up suddenly, a moment ago, in the last flash of an eye, stretching through 2000 years in a split second. The 'spirit-breath' of Jesus erupting out of some hole in the sky, a breath of fresh air come down from on high where the clouds live, come down gently with fiery, howling fury, it rages all around us right now in this house, whipping us left and right, up and down, stretching and creaking our life springs, and as we quake in fearful silence, it descends upon us and punches out all the stale and deadly breath that fills our lungs and hearts.
This is Pentecost, was and is ever, and our lungs and hearts are filled with the Holy Spirit of God, a breath of fresh air so incredibly sweet, that makes us and the world so exquisitely beautiful, shimmering, translucent, flaming from within. And all at once we can understand one another, no matter the language, no matter the background, Tower of Babel reversed, within the Spirit we are one body, one love.
On Pentecost, we become the church, this is our birthday, and we are commissioned to go out from here to love with the gentle fury of the love we have received, to unleash the power of the raging storm that has descended upon us.
Take a breath, for a moment, my brothers and sisters. Breathe in, deeply, and then breathe out. From the first breath your mama shared in love with you to this one right now. Our commission in the air we breathe, breathed into us, is, to love one another as brothers and sisters. It's as simple as that, it's as simple as... breathing.