I was first diagnosed with asthma in the second or third grade, as I recall. That feeling of not being able to get air into my lungs is still disturbing even today on those rare occasions when I have a full-blown episode, but as a child it was terrifying, and the fear only made the problem worse. In the fifth grade we tried me on some medication that I was to take just before lunch, but it made me so drowsy that I’d fall asleep when we came back in from recess. I can still remember my beloved fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Schlaack, coming along and gently pushing my head down onto the desk and pausing in her reading the chapter from The Yearling long enough to tell me to just close my eyes and rest. Clearly, that was not going to be a long-term solution.
So I learned various coping mechanisms—breathing exercises, heating pads, hot tea…and avoiding the things that would set me off. I lived that way for nearly 40 years, until 2004, when the Red Sox had made that amazing, historic comeback against the Yankees and were in the World Series. It was the day of game 4. I had been trying my hand at an unfamiliar recipe, and what I was cooking started to burn—I’m talking flames shooting out!—I slammed the cover onto the pot and set it outside on the back steps. A few minutes later I went out to see how it was going, and opened it—with my face directly over the pot. I breathed in two lungfuls of hot, black smoke and was immediately in trouble.
But it was the day the Red Sox were going to win the World Series, I was not going to risk missing it by going to the ER! (I wheezed my way through, but by golly I saw it happen!)
The damage was done. I ended up on an antibiotic, an oral asthma medication and two different inhalers.
But, in the end, I could breathe—like I had never been able to breathe before.
Now I know this is an odd way to start a Pentecost sermon, but there is a point to it. And not just the reference to flames of fire.
In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for spirit is the same word used for breath, and for wind. In the first words of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is the breath/wind/spirit of God that hovers over the waters, waiting to speak creation into being. It’s a beautiful image for the Holy Spirit, when you think of it only as the feeling of a loved one’s soft breath on your cheek as he or she whispers in your ear, or the gentle breeze that brings relief at the end of a long, hot day. So comforting to imagine the Holy Spirit as the breath rushing into my lungs again.
Let’s all just stop for a minute, and breathe. Take a good long breath, deep into your belly. Let it expand, and fill you up. Then gently let it out with a sigh. Let’s do that again.
Doesn’t that feel wonderful? Don’t you feel a little calmer?
Well buckle up buttercup, because this is Pentecost! The Holy Spirit is not going to be a quiet, gentle breath, but a mighty wind blowing the doors off the house, upending everything and causing a commotion!
And if that’s not enough to shake you up a little, remember the other image from today’s reading, the Holy Spirit appearing as tongues of fire, resting on each person’s head. How do you think you would respond, if you looked around here today and saw that? And what would you say if someone said, “HEY! YOUR HEAD’S ON FIRE!!!!”
You would probably not be inclined to stop and take in a slow, calm breath. You probably would not be feeling particularly calm or serene. You would probably be scared half to death.
A colleague of mine once said, “If you’re not half afraid of what happens on Pentecost, you don’t fully understand what’s happening.”
The Holy Spirit swept into that upper room that morning and set those disciples alight with the fire of God’s love. And the noise and brightness of that burning drew crowds. But God didn’t stop there. The Holy Spirit started her work that morning in that place—but since then, the Holy Spirit has been driving us out. Out of the comfort of our safe spaces, out of the familiarity of our own rooms. Out into the wider world. Out to the dark, airless places that need a little holy fire and wind to bring them into life. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now”—and the Holy Spirit is still there telling us both to breathe and to PUSH.
Earlier this week I warned the people who came to the Wednesday Eucharist that I was playing around with the idea that in too many places The Church has been suffering from spiritual pneumonia, infected with all sorts of stuff that’s preventing it from breathing properly. Perhaps a better analogy would be spiritual asthma. We have allowed the pathways for the Spirit’s movement to get narrower and narrower until suddenly we find ourselves choked off, unable to breathe. Unable to move.
Maybe that’s why we need to celebrate Pentecost every year—as a kind of spiritual nebulizer treatment. The Holy Spirit blows in afresh and clears us out so that we can get moving again.
The Most Reverend Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church—the same Michael Curry who preached at the royal wedding yesterday—has been using the phrase “The Jesus Movement” to describe who we are and what we do as Christians. We are the people who follow Jesus—even when, like those early disciples, we don’t really know where Jesus is going. We don’t stay safely hidden away in secret upper rooms, avoiding the things that are difficult. We are the people who go where the Spirit leads—or prods, depending on how quickly we are responding to that call to move. We are the people who, when we hear the roaring of the Spirit’s wind or feel the heat of the Spirit’s fire, take a deep breath, put on our walking shoes, and get ready to follow wherever the Spirit leads—or pushes—us to go.
Are you ready to be the local branch of The Jesus Movement? Are you ready to be set free to breathe deep of the Holy Spirit? Are you ready to be set on fire with the love of God? Are you ready to take that love out to a world that is gasping—GASPING—for it?
Well, I hope so—‘cause I think I hear the wind beginning to blow, and there’s a strange glow forming over some of your heads…
Buckle up, buttercup—it’s Pentecost!