As Close as our Very Breath

15 mins read

A Sermon for Those Who Feel Afraid

Text: John 20:19-25

Author Rev. Meg Peery-McLaughlin
Author Rev. Meg Peery McLaughlin

Ask a scholar about the word “breathe” and she will tell you that
this is the only place in the entire New Testament where this word shows up.
Surely they breathed more than once back then,
but maybe they didn’t always write it down,
or even if they did, there’s a lot of different words for breathe,
and this one stands out in a crowd. [1]

On Easter night, Jesus breached the disciples’ huddle of fear;
just broke right in. He spoke peace. And he breathed on them.

There are nights that I sneak into my twins’ room
and pick up one little limp lump.
I lay with her in bed just for a few minutes in the quiet,
and feel the tiny warm puffs of air make their way through the darkness.
I like to listen to her breathe.

___________________________________________

The disciples were scared. Scared by the state of the world they lived in. Scared of the system. Scared of what would happen next. Would they be targeted too? Would they be locked up?
___________________________________________

When I think about the disciples gathered on that Sunday night,
I don’t imagine their respiration being calm as a baby’s breath,
but rather, shallow, ragged, fast.
And I doubt sleep was anywhere in their near future,
exhausted though they must have been.

photo of the cross

They had just witnessed a state execution.
They had endured the crucifixion of their own hopes and dreams.
Their rabbi and friend who was pointing to the kingdom of God
had been cut down by the rule of the day.

So they were scared. Scared by the state of the world they lived in.
Scared of the system. Scared of what would happen next.
Would they be targeted too? Would they be locked up?
And they were scared, I’d guess, by what was happening inside them:
Wondering how they could have hitched their hope to the wrong dream;
Wondering if it was possible to survive the sadness, shock, and sheer evil of the weekend.

The text says the doors were locked for fear of the Jews.
Let’s be clear this is not a generic slur against a faith as a whole.
After all, these disciples were Jews themselves.
They were wary of the religious establishment,
who they feared would come to get them.

___________________________________________

But it’s not just the noisy fear that unsettles us, it’s the quiet questions that keep us trembling: Have we utterly failed at our mandate to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted? Is our witness in vain? Can hope actually disappoint?
___________________________________________

We modern-day disciples know something about fear, don’t we?
Fear isn’t just an abstract thought for us.
Some days fear very real, very personal, very close.
Some days it’s visceral;
we can feel it in our own breath.

On the campaign trail this fall, it was the wariness of who was coming to
asdfaareduce our rights,
asdfaatake our guns,
asdfaatax our income,
asdfaaundercut our jobs,
asdfaaoutsmart our kids.

Shutterstock Girl Just EyesAnd now, in the wake of the election, we have
asdfaaimmigrants hiding behind locked doors for fear of deportation,
asdfaaMuslim school girls not wanting to go to class for fear of bullying,
asdfaadiverse communities tipping around for fear of discrimination.

But it’s not just the noisy fear that unsettles us,
it’s the quiet questions that keep us trembling:
asdfaaHave we utterly failed at our mandate to bring good news to the oppressed,
bind up the brokenhearted? Is our witness in vain?
asdfaaIs the divide in this nation
asdfaaasdfaabetween Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female,
asdfaaasdfaaasdfaared and blue, rural and urban, black and white—is it just too wide?
asdfaaAre there things impossible for God?
asdfaaCan hope actually disappoint?
asdfaaHave those leaves on the tree life made for the healing of the nations,
asdfaaasdfaahave they turned brown and been trampled under foot?

It’s no wonder it feels like we are just holding our breath from one day to the next.
Do you know how long humans can hold their breath?
The underwater world record, officially and without any assistance,
asdfaais 11 minutes and 45 seconds.
Anyway, this is a trick question. For as a poet has said: “Breath is not ours to hold.” [2]

___________________________________________

Jesus doesn’t say there is nothing to be afraid of, but he shows up inexplicably in the midst of our fear and breathes.
___________________________________________

I said it only shows up in the New Testament once, but
ask a scholar where the word “breathe” is in the Old Testament
and he’ll tell you it’s there twice.
First, at the very beginning, when God breathes into the dust,
giving all of creation life.

michelangelo-god-and-child-pdsdfsdf

God breathes the breath of life into our dusty souls
in chapter 2,
but by chapter 3
the humans are hiding from God in the garden,
and fear has found its place in the human heart.

sdfsdf

My friend Jenny McDevitt rightly says that
“Fear can nightmare our dreams and dismantle our days.
It can drown you faster that Noah’s own flood,
asdfaait can trample your mind with lies;
asdfaaasdfaaand it can lay down in the doorway and keep you trapped inside.
Fear makes a prisoner of us all,
asdfaaand sentences us to solitary confinement,
asdfaaasdfaawhere everything is ‘fine’ but nothing is right.”

In John’s account of the Resurrection
Jesus busts through locked doors,
and saves us with his breath.
He doesn’t say there is nothing to be afraid of,
but he shows up inexplicably in the midst of our fear
and breathes.

___________________________________________

I started to lament the election results and my friend shyly shared that she voted for the opponent. My stomach dropped, and my neatly ordered categories crumbled.
___________________________________________

Ask me why this story about breath is intriguing,
and I’ll tell you that in order to feel someone’s breath,
you have to be close to them, really close.

If I understand this text, that intimacy is important.
Jesus must have been really close to those disciples.
That proximity is telling; that community is crucial.

Thomas wasn’t there for it, and he felt lost, he missed something
and it left him stumped and puzzled.

firefighters-breath-pic-pdHere’s what I think: I think we can best feel the breath of life when we are together.

I think the call of this text is that we get close enough to each other,
so that we are breathing the same air. [3]

The church that I serve has a serious space issue;
we practically have to hug each other to get our coffee in the narthex.
But overall, I think the church can do this well:
we can get close enough to our pew mate to notice when they tear up during a hymn,
we can get close enough to our neighbors to hear their bellies rumble,
we can get close enough to each other to read body language when someone’s opinion is different than ours.

The Wednesday after the election,
I sat down at the lunch table at church with someone I knew to follow Jesus,
someone who is kind, welcoming of GLBT persons and minorities.
I was visibly despondent. Pastors get that way too, you know.
I started to lament the results and my friend shyly shared that she voted for the opponent.
My stomach dropped, and my neatly ordered categories crumbled.
I was troubled and still am,
but I took a deep breath of that air that surrounded our soup and salad, and we talked,
talked like the two friends that we are.

___________________________________________

Next time you see someone who is filled up with fear, tell them that God breathes new life into us when all seems lost. Get close enough to feel their breath, to feel their fear, and tell them that what we are called to do is huddle close, to live in community and breathe in Christ’s fear-defying peace.
___________________________________________

Ask a scholar the second time “breathe” is used in the Old Testament,
and she will tell you it is when the prophet Ezekiel walks through a valley of dry bones,
asdfaa graveyard of fear and death.
And God says “Come, O breath, and breathe on these dead so that they may live!”

Breath gives us new life, friends.

When one of those little lumps of love that I snuggle with at night
when one of them was just a day old, in the hospital,
she couldn’t breathe. She was all clogged up and started turning blue.
Thankfully, a young doctor,
came in and, with her skilled hands, made it all better.

Meg and Jarrett with their 3 daughters: Naomi, Caroline, and Zana
The Peery-McLaughlin Family

sdfsdf
But later that night, still fearful that, try as I might,
there is nothing I could do to hold this tiny person’s breath in her body –
and still sorting out the anxiety of raising three kids,
I found my own breath going shallow and fast,
and my fear getting heavier and heavier.
sdf

Nothing would help. No one could help.

sdfsdf
sdfsdf
So my husband sent everybody out of the room and sat on my bedside.
And he said he would just sit there and breathe with me.
And we breathed in God’s peace, and we breathed it out.
Just one breath at a time.

In these coming days, weeks, months,
next time you see someone who is filled up with fear
asdfaa(perhaps even when you look in the mirror),
someone whose neck is strained, whose chest is tight,
who is struggling to find room for the air to get in,
breathe with them.

Tell them that it is God, not something or someone from our fallen world,
asdfaawho gives us the breath of life to begin with.
Tell them that God breathes new life into us when all seems lost.
Get close enough to feel their breath,
asdfaato feel their fear,
and tell them that what we are called to do is huddle close,
to live in community and breathe in Christ’s fear-defying peace.
Breathe it in.
Breathe it out.
Breathe it in.
Breathe it out.
Amen.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Jenny McDevitt, Don’t Hold your Breath, 2016 Thursday ARW Sermon.
[2] This line comes from a poem by Andrea Gibson in the collection Pansy.
[3] Again, Jenny McDevitt.

AUTHOR BIO: Meg Peery McLaughlin is delighted to be serving as Co-Pastor at Burke Presbyterian Church, alongside her husband, Jarrett. She is a native of North Carolina, graduated with a Bachelor’s in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and with a Master’s in Divinity and in Christian Education from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. Meg was ordained in 2006, at Village Presbyterian Church near Kansas City, MO, where she served for seven years in the role of Pastoral Care. Meg and Jarrett have three young daughters: big sister, Naomi, and twins, Caroline and Zanna. She has hitched her life to the promise that Jesus Christ is the light that overcomes darkness, is the love that is stronger than all fear, and is the sure and certain assurance that new life is possible, even when it seems otherwise.

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