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"I can't breathe" - Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2020

"I can't breathe" - Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2020
Published by Lisa Bewick on Mon, 8 Jun 2020 15:48

"I can't breathe" (video link)

Last week, Giles invited us to think about our breathing, to breathe in the life-giving Spirit of God.

Today, I invite you to think about breathing again: to think about the breathing that we’ve heard in the video clip, a piece broadcast on a number of American TV channels.  In total, it is 8 minutes and 46 seconds long.  The sound of breathing and the words, “I can’t breathe” are the sole content of the piece.

Last week was Pentecost – where the Spirit came and breathed life into the burgeoning new Church, where Jesus breathed the Spirit, the life, onto his disciples.

Now, it is Trinity Sunday.  The Trinity, that perfect unity; the three persons, the one God.

The life-giving, loving God.  The one in whom “we live and move and have our being”.

The one who, in Genesis, “breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life.”

The one who binds us together as one body, in whose image we are created.


Trinity season is sometimes called ‘Ordinary Time’, but there is little ‘ordinary’ about it!  It is the ‘green season’, a season of growth and life and flourishing.

And that growth, that life, that flourishing, is what I should be able to talk about in the coming minutes.

But I can’t.

The sound of breathing that I began with, the words “I can’t breathe”, jolt us into the stark reality that a police officer knelt on a man’s neck, on George Floyd’s neck, ignoring his words – his dying words – “I can’t breathe”.

And that police officer’s colleagues ignored them too.

George Floyd was denied the protection and justice that the law is supposed to give.   

He was denied breath; he was denied life.

 And the inescapable fact is that he was denied these most basic of rights because George Floyd was black.


That’s the thing about suffocation. 

It denies again, and again, and again.


Those who cause suffocation are inevitably those with power.  And it is a power that comes from privilege. 

The policeman kneeling on George Floyd’s neck had privilege – the status of his profession, his whiteness and his gender. This man has privileges that mean he was initially charged only with Third Degree Murder. 


 And this is not an isolated case. 


And suffocation is not always as blatant, as physical, as that of George Floyd.

Suffocation, caused by anybody – not just those with white privilege – denies opportunity, equity and even humanity. 

It silences, contains and deprives.

It means that you cannot breathe, even if no one physically has their knee on your neck.


Suffocation is a parasite, as widespread and as deeply ingrained as a pandemic.

It is rife in our world and even in our own society.


It is easy to say, in the case of George Floyd and indeed, many others, “That’s the USA” – and the things we see and hear are beyond awful…  But that is an incredibly low bar to set.  

To be able to say, “It’s not as bad here” is not cause for us to give ourselves a congratulatory pat on the back.


Suffocation, denial, silencing, containment and deprivation on the basis of race, or on the basis of gender, sexuality, class, education, profession and more, goes on everywhere and – uncomfortably – even here, in the places where we live and move and have our being.


But what can we do? 

It is hard to expose, undermine and overthrow deeply ingrained systems of injustice.

It is even harder to think that we might have an influence on the government of the USA… 

But doing nothing, staying silent, is not an option.  

How can we, with integrity, read and respond, ‘Thanks be to God’ and ‘Praise to you, O Christ’ to our readings today, if inaction is the way we choose?


Paul tells the Corinthians, tells us:

“Put everything in order, strengthen one another… Be at peace.”

In the Gospel it says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” – The Trinity.


In our Eucharistic Prayer, it says, “Blessed are you, Holy God, for people of every language and culture and for the rich variety you give to life”. 

How can we say that, if inaction is the way we choose?


We cannot stay silent, if we are to “put everything in order, strengthen one another and be at peace”. 

We cannot stay silent because everything is not in order; everyone is not strengthened; and there are people who cannot be at peace.


We cannot stay silent, if we believe that Christ is for all people, all nations and that all are made in God’s image.

That God breathed life into each person.  Into all people.


We cannot stay silent and say, “Blessed are you Holy God, for people of every language and culture and the rich variety you give to life.” 

These words are empty if we stay silent.


Then, there are those words we say when the bread is broken,

“Though we are many, we are one body, because we share in one bread.”

And this one body is not just about being friendly, it is not just about being together in church.

The one body in which we are united is Christ’s body.


One of my fellow curates, a black man called Darius, wrote this – which the Bishop of Croydon shared on his blog:

“There is no Black suffering that is not also the suffering of Christ.  Therefore there is no Black suffering that is not all of our suffering."

He goes on to say,

"Yet sadly, my experience has been, within the White majority Church, that Black suffering is something that is considered peripheral to the Gospel of Christ…  Countless well-meaning theologians have nothing to offer in response to Black suffering but silence.”

So, I say to you, we cannot be the body of Christ, if we do not recognise the suffering of others - those who endure injustice, suffocation and are denied, over and over again. 

And let’s make no mistake – Darius is not ‘unchurched’; Darius has not been driven out of the Church by abuse and maltreatment. 

Darius is a priest. 

And still, he finds himself to be on the edges of the Church’s consciousness; peripheral to their vision.


But what can we do?

It is hard to figure out. 

Darius suggests that:

“We need to take the metaphor of the Church as ‘one body’ more to heart.  Maybe we need to learn afresh what it means to share in each others’ suffering.”

For me, This does mean standing in solidarity. 

But it does not mean that knowing some of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech is enough, or the whole story.

It does not mean that our own experiences of feeling that we cannot breathe, that we are being suffocated and denied are the same as those of others.

When stories are shared, stories of suffocation, of being unable to breathe, of being denied opportunities, equity, even humanity; of being silenced, contained, deprived...

‘Sorry’ isn’t enough.


So what can we do?


There are many forms of suffocation, and the one that stares us all so fully in the face right now is that of George Floyd.  There are countless other stories too from the black members of Christ’s body.

We need to broaden our horizons beyond Martin Luther King, beyond Rosa Parks. 

It’s reading something by a black theologian (and some of it is not easy reading)

It’s Darius’ post on the Bishop’s blog….

Talk to someone we might not usually speak to or just exchange pleasantries with and really listen to their story.


And when someone shares their experiences, don’t suffocate; don’t deny the airspace, the voice, the opportunity.

Don’t, with your next breath, just say “Me too”, or “I feel your pain”. 

This is not a competition.


Don’t suffocate, silence or contain.


Instead, let your next breath give breathing space.

Let it be loving,

Let your breath be life-giving, and ask,

“How does that make you feel?” 







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