Breathe on me, breath of God

Breathe on me, breath of God

By The Rev. Dr. Franklin E. Vilas
Sermon for Pentecost 20, 2001 (October 21)
All Saints' Church, Bay Head

"Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do..." -- Hymn 508

On the four Sundays of October, we are paying special attention this year to themes related to God's Creation-- the immense web of matter and life of which we are a part. We modern human beings in western society tend to live so far from nature, in our cities and in our towns, that we have lost touch with the God of Creation, and tend to think that some-how the context of human affairs is all that there is.

In a time when humankind seems turned in on itself, and the violence that we do to one another so fills our newspapers and our conscious life, it is vital that we open our eyes to the wider context which is our true environment. Our contemporary lesson for today is attributed to an Oglala Sioux Indian, Chief Seattle. In a letter written to President Polk in 1852, he explains why it is that ancestral lands are so important to his people.

I have drawn for the contemporary lesson this poetic rendition of Chief Seattle's words because they represent so well the mindset of indigenous peoples everywhere-- and of the ancient ties they have with the created order which we have lost in our modern civiliz- ation. The American Indian, like the ancient Greek, saw the creation reduced to four basic elements-- earth, air, fire and water. We are considering the elements in our meditations this October-- because they are also reflected as building blocks of the creation in the scriptures which inform the Jewish and the Christian faiths. Janet Johnson preachedabout the role of water in our tradition and in our lives last week. Today we are consider-ing another vital element-- the air that envelopes us.

Of the atmosphere around him and his people, Chief Seattle writes: "The air is precious to us.The air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life..."

These words echo those of the Book of Genesis, where in the story of Creation the role of the breath of God is essential. Over the primeval chaos, the raging oceans of the new planet which Janet described so well last week, our scripture reads "A wind from God swept over the waters.." In Genesis, this wind precedes the creation of light. It is the emer-gence of the pirmordial atmosphere, without which life as we know it could not have devel-oped.

And in our common scriptures it is directly tied to the emergence of the human race. In the second chapter of Genesis, we read, "--Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. The Hebrew word for breath used here is Ruach, and it contains not only the gift of life-- but of the spirit as well.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus confers with Nicodemus, a religious leader in Israel who has become attracted to this new young prophet. He comes by night to avoid detection, to listen to Jesus speak of life in the spirit. Jesus likens the spirit to the wind. He says, "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

And lest we miss this connection between the air and wind and the spirit of God, there is recorded in the Book of Acts the empowering of the early church after the Ascen-sion of Jesus, on the day of Pentecost. "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting..."

As we can see, our scriptures are filled with references to the spiritual dimension of wind and breath. Many of the Eastern religions recognize this fact, and include the disci-plines of breathing in their life of prayer. This is reflected as well in our Gospel hymn this morning, where we ask for the breath of God to breath in us, bringing life, love and the power for action.

In our day, we have come to recognize and to value the gift of the atmosphere that envelopes our planet, seen in the NASA photos of the Earth from space as a thin, blue film-- the very environment of life itself. But even as we come to value it, we are also learning that it, too, like the waters of the earth has been impacted negatively by the action of human beings.

This past week in a most radical and dangerous way, the atmosphere has been used by terrorists to spread the deadly disease of anthrax among unsuspecting civilians. Arriving in envelopes in the offices of news media and politicians, the spores have been released into the air and have reached the skin and the lungs of American citizens. In a most vicious way, the very air we breath, like the airplanes we fly in, has been turned into a weapon against us. There is righfully great concern about the spread of biological and chemical agents in the air of our country, heightened by the discovery that terrorists had been mak-ing inquiries about the use of crop-dusting airplanes in the west.

At ground zero in Manhattan, workers have been forced to use masks as they re-move debris, due to fibers of asbestos in the clouds of dust and smoke that still hang over that devastated area. In these ways the danger of the very air we breath which attack our bodies when polluted by human activity has been consciously experienced. Much less in our consciousness has been the growing degradation of the atmosphere over the past century from the burning of fossil fuels, and the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and polluting agents into the atmosphere. On humid summer days, the people in and around our cities have experienced more and more the bad air quality that is produced by inversion, as emergency cases of asthma-- particularly of pediatric asthma-- fill our hospitals.

The reality of the danger of polluted air has been brought home to us here in the Eastern United States in recent weeks-- but it has reached the awareness of many over the years. A 17 year old Polish Boy, Aleksandra Warzecka, reflected on the problem in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall in powerful prose:

"Crushed by burden of lead + I breathe in the black particles of in- visible death. + They are surrounding me, surrounding me from all sides. + I don't see them but they are still in terrible nearness + hidden in mysterious words: dioxins, phenol, nitrogen oxides. + Death is lurking, encircling every particle of air."

This young man has envisioned and caught in words one of the great threats to the human race, and to all of life-- the gradual poisoning of the atmosphere by human activity. This has been happening over a period of years-- not through the violence of terrorists, but as a natural byproduct of the life-style of affluent countries. It is ultimately as threatening to health as anthrax-- though not as obvious, or as immediately frightening.

I have much faith in the technology, will and courage of the American people-- and in the ultimate defeat of the terrorists. But what they have brought to consciousness-- the ultimate sweetness and value of the water we drink and the air we breath as a gift from God -- must not be forgotten. Long before they appeared on the scene we have been quietly and unconsciously poisoning ourselves.

In addition, we have been contributing to the growing phenomenon of global warm-ing. A growing awareness of this danger has caused religious leaders from all the great faiths in our country to develop educational materials relating the problem of climate change to spiritual life.

In an article entitled The Heavens are Telling the Glory of the Lord, protestant churches of the United States stated recently, "God created the world and declared it good. Creation contains many delicate balances including those within our atmospheric system. The sun's rays enter the atmosphere, warm our planet and provide us with energy and food. God has called human beings to the tasks of restoring and protecting creation-- main-taining the delicate balances of God's world." Thus, religious leaders are joining with others calling us to rediscover the import-tance of our stewardship of the atmosphere. It is in response to that call that many of us in New Jersey are working to create a market for renewable electric energy.

As I have suggested in this sermon, concern for these issues arises from the source of our faith, the Holy Bible-- and from our awareness that in the breath of life we find as well the breath of the spirit. These are not issues that belong to an environmental movement, or to some liberal political group. They are basic to our very existence, and to our calling to be faithful stewards of God's Creation

"Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do..."


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