The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evening Prayer Online      31st May 2020
'I can't breathe'
Ayla Lepine

Joel 2.21-end
Acts 2.14-21
‘I can’t breathe.’ 
People all over the world are crying out ‘I can’t breathe’ today. They are crying weakly, quietly in hospital beds because of Covid-19, surrounded by people working tirelessly to help them. The danger is real. The risks are huge. The need for wisdom is urgent.
They are crying out with the anger of racial injustice in the streets of cities throughout America and, at this very moment, in London too, because of the last words of a man named George Floyd who was murdered by a police officer, when the officer pressed a knee brutally into his neck. ‘I can’t breathe,’ he said. ‘Everything hurts.’
We keep hearing and experiencing the stories of those who cannot breathe.
In John’s Gospel Jesus comes to the disciples after the resurrection, meeting them in their fear and in their confusion. He says ‘Peace be with you.’ He breathes on them. The breath he gives is the breath of God’s life, and the breath of the Holy Spirit for us all.
Those gathering in protest are not 2m apart, not in hexagons, and there’s more than 6 of them. Maybe it’s not right to simply point to a crowded beach and say ‘but what about them?’ or to point to Dominic Cummings and say that because he has been so callous and hypocritical, which he certainly has been, these rules no longer apply. This is about something else. The clash of needs for justice and safety have created a complex and fearful situation that we pray will give rise to the voice of God’s loving compassion.
Those who protest have run out of options. The processes of asking politely seem not to get through, and so oppressed people and those in solidarity with them, generation after generation, take to the streets and ask tough questions about who society values, or doesn’t value, and why.
Today the Church celebrates Pentecost. Today we give thanks for the gifts of the Holy Spirit: justice, compassion, mercy, and the gifts that bind us together as children of God and the Body of Christ. The Spirit comes like wind, like fire, like the restoration of a broken heart. When the Holy Spirit arrives, no one knows what’s going on. Peter has to explain that those who are inspired by God aren’t drunk, but are completely overwhelmed by the experience of new life. They cannot go back to normal. Their ‘new normal’ is a life lived according to God’s justice, mercy, and truth.
That’s not an easy life. Experiencing the power of the Spirit creates a major misunderstanding that Peter has to explain and interpret lest the crowds turn on them. ‘Don’t you see?’ Peter seems to ask. ‘This is God at work. This is God’s promise. This is fulfilment of the prophet Joel. The Spirit comes, the people are renewed, and God says, ‘My people shall never be ashamed.’ Shame is what society does to the oppressed, the poor, those who are not white, those who are not straight, and the list goes on. God’s promise in the Holy Spirit says that there is to be no more shame. All are God’s beloved. Every life matters. Black lives matter. That is why people are raising their voices in the memory of George Floyd and too many lost lives and filling the air with the phrase ‘I can’t breathe.’ And this man did not have to die. Should not have died. But now he rests in the arms of Jesus, as God’s beloved.
We are in a terrifying time. There is so much suffering. There are so many who are especially vulnerable, mentally, physically, and spiritually. And it is known that for complex reasons of systemic racist inequality higher numbers of BAME people are dying of Covid-19. This virus exposes injustice. I hope we listen. I hope our leaders listen, and act. We raise our voices with them too, in the memory of every single precious person who has died: ‘I can’t breathe.’ 
The black theologian Robert Beckford speaks about the quality of engagement this way:
‘we’ll visit men in prison, but we won’t tackle the criminal justice system – how race in sentencing works against [black people] – or challenge the media for its persistent criminalising of black youth. I think that is short-changing the community and it’s short-changing the Gospel.’
Another Christian leader says this:
‘Jesus was highly political. He told the rich that, unlike the poor who were blessed, they would face woes…He spoke harsh words to leaders of the nations when they were uncaring of the needy. He did this because God cares for those in need…that means action – and words.’
This are not the words of Martin Luther King Jr, but of Archbishop Justin Welby. Excellent. Let’s see this in action. To be Christian is to be in solidarity with the most vulnerable, the most rejected, the most oppressed. It is to be in solidarity with those who cry out, ‘I can’t breathe.’
And here is Revd. Jim Bear Jacobs this weekend, a white priest from the Council of Churches in Minnesota:
‘When white people cry for peace it is too often an appeal to silence Black anger to make room for White comfort. We don’t need peace. We don’t need things to return to normal. Normal is what got us here. We need leadership that will bravely face the truth of our white supremacist society and commit to change it.’ These are hard words. This is a hard truth.
We’re taught every day what love is. We’re also taught every day what injustice is. It’s not difficult to see, and it’s essential to respond.
At Pentecost we say that the Spirit has come, and God’s Spirit is with us. The Spirit flows through the voices of justice, pushing through air like wind, like fire, like hope. We need that breath of God more than ever.
Those of us who can breathe must raise our voices with those who are gasping for breath, who are not heard, who are breathless. Our oxygen can be used to speak truth to power and I pray it does, seeking the liberation of those in urgent and breathless need, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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