I Can’t Breathe, Either

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | May 29, 2020

Service for Pentecost Sunday May 31, 2020 

Acts 2:1-4

Dear Friends:

We gather in the name of love, the love that God has for each of us and for the world, and the love that we have for one another.  God is love.

It is Friday morning, May 21st.  This is the service for this coming Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, but I am asking Tura to put it on the website and Facebook as soon as possible, given the timeliness of the subject matter.

As background for the traditional Pentecost scripture passage, Acts chapter two, please remember that in the original Greek the same word is used for spirit, wind and breath.  It is pneuma, transliterated P-N-E-U-M-A.  Pneuma is the basis for our words pneumatic, like a pneumatic drill powered by compressed air, and pneumonia.  Pneuma: Breath, wind, spirit.

I’m going to start with the New Revised Standard Version for the first three verses, then I will begin again, using Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase from The Message for verses 1-4.

Listen for God’s word:

Acts 2: 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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (NRSV) 1-4 When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them. (The Message)

Pentecost is often called the “birthday of the Church,” as the Spirit transformed a group of dispirited, frightened disciples (the word means “followers”) into a band of courageous apostles (the word refers to people being sent).  These inspired apostles proceeded to carry the amazing and dangerous message of the resurrection of Jesus throughout the Roman world.

This Pentecost passage is filled with pneuma (wind/spirit/breath) and marked by flames.  This week’s news is filled with the words “breathe” and then “flames.”

The video of the murder of George Floyd is burned into my memory forever.  

The video of the murder of George Floyd left me speechless.  

George Floyd again and again pleaded, “I can’t breathe.”

I can’t breathe, either.  I’ve hardly been able to take a full breath since I heard the news.  

One of my childhood friends, who now lives in Zumbrota, posted this on Facebook Wednesday:

Yesterday I woke up to the shocking video of another black man being killed at the hands of the police in the city I called home for many years. I felt sadness at first but then anger became the overwhelming feeling.

I saw social media posts calling for a protest. I waffled all day whether I should drive the 65 miles to participate. I decided I had to. I went into the garage to look through my protest signs…for the one that said “I can’t breathe” that I made for the Eric Garner murder 5 years ago. I couldn’t help but notice the awful reality of already having (a) sign for this.”

I can’t breathe.

As I said, for hours after the news broke of Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of the unarmed and handcuffed George Floyd until he was dead, I was virtually speechless about this incident.  

When words finally came, they included these:

Horror, incredulity, disgust, sorrow…

But these words are all inadequate.  Woefully inadequate.

Once again, we witness the killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer.  In the last two such cases in Minneapolis one could possibly, possibly see some mitigating circumstances, some “the other side of the story.”  But not this one.  

This was a lynching.  

Those of us in the faith community cannot keep silent.

When I was a teenager I worked in my older brother’s fruit and vegetable store along with half a dozen other teenage boys.  One day as we unloaded a truck, somehow we began talking about what we wanted to do when we grew up.  I remember none of the answers, including my own, except…except the response of one of the boys, who said eagerly, “I wanna be a cop, so I can beat up (black people).”  But of course, he didn’t say “black people;” he used the “N-word.”

“I wanna be a cop, so I can beat up…(black people).”

I was horrified.  

Horrified.  But, to my eternal shame, I was silent.  In the face of such evil, I said nothing.

My parents taught me better than that.  They taught me to do the right thing.  I have since vowed that I will never again remain silent in the face of evil.

How can we remain silent as followers of Jesus, who stood up for the poor and the powerless, who did not back down when the going got rough?  

So, I speak.

(Now, before I go on, let me be explicit that I am so grateful for the good work of the vast majority of police officers of every race.  I have four good friends who are police officers, and the finest people I’ve ever known.  I certainly am not making a blanket judgment about all police officers.)

Early yesterday afternoon (Thursday) I sent this email to the Minneapolis Police Chief:

Dear Chief Arrondondo:

I pray for you and for all the members of the Minneapolis Police Community. I am grateful for the wonderful job that most of you are doing.  

I certainly would not want to be in your shoes right now and I eagerly await actions coming out of your office to make broad and systemic changes in the Minneapolis Police Department.

What I don’t understand is why Derek Chauvin is not in custody right now?  What sort of law enforcement is that?  Can you help me understand, please?

While searching for the chief’s contact information I noted the Minneapolis Police Department’s motto: Trust/Accountability/Professional Service.

O for 3, Officer Chauvin.  Former Officer Chauvin.

Moments later an email came in from a pastor friend of mine, requesting faith leaders to sign on to a letter directed to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.  This was before it was announced that he was going to hold a press conference later in the day. 

The letter reads:

Dear Mr. Freeman,

As faith leaders from diverse religious backgrounds, we join with the calls of our broader community in demanding the immediate arrest of Officers Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao, and J Alexander Kueng.  While Minneapolis burns and our city suffers collective trauma, the man who killed George Floyd and those who stood by and passively watched a murder are freee.  This cannot stand.  Any further delay stokes the fires of rage, despair, and hopelessness.

Let us be clear: while attention in the media and from politicians turns to the uprising we are witnessing in the streets, we know that these protests are a reflection of the breaking hearts of the Black community whose lives have again and again been treated as disposable by police, the legal system, and our elected officials.  What we witnessed last night in Minneapolis is the direct consequence of this generational pain—not just the pain of the present injustice, but of a decades- and centuries-long legacy of white supremacy.

Nothing will bring George Floyd back, but we are committed to fighting for the long-term solutions that bring real safety to the people: living wages, affordable housing, accessible health care, elected officials who prioritize people over politics and profits, alternatives to mass incarceration and criminalization.  And we follow the lead of people from the most impacted communities, knowing that they are the experts in their own experiences and they are the visionaries who can help us imagine a more just and equitable world.

But in this particular moment, we echo Mayor Frey’s question, “Why is the man who killed George Floyd not in jail?”  We urge you to immediately charge and arrest Chauvin and his accomplices, and declare unequivocally that the murder of Black people by police is despicable and utterly unacceptable.  There cannot be peace until there is justice.

We pray for our city and the trauma that is boiling over as justice has been denied for so long.  We demand action from the leaders who claim to see justice.  We invite our faith leader siblings near and far to speak boldly and prophetically toward collective liberation and justice.

And then a spot for a signature.

I signed.  

Your other pastor, John Mann, signed.

Then a bit later I watched the utterly befuddling press conference.  As speaker after speaker, remarkably all white, asked for patience, I once again had a visceral reaction deep within.  

I couldn’t breathe.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman noted that in the last police shooting of an unarmed person, Justine Diamond, his office got a conviction and prison sentence. I sat in front of the TV once again incredulous.  What he failed to note was that it was a black police officer and a white victim.  How utterly tone deaf and inane.  So blind.  And then he repeated it.

I was horrified.  Before the press conference was even over, I called my daughter Allie, a criminal defense attorney. I asked her if there is any legal reason that Chauvin is not in jail right now.  “No,’ she said. “The prosecutor can charge anyone… at any time… with anything he wants.  If, as the investigation goes on there is new evidence, then they can change the charges.”

Then she added what any thinking person would conclude, “The riots will be worse now tonight because of a press conference and no charges announced.  They are boarding up the Whole Foods store below us right now.”

Allie lives in downtown Minneapolis.  We worry for our daughter’s safety.  And through the night last night we worried and prayed for all involved, especially for several very good friends of ours who live just blocks from the Third Precinct police station.

Now, let me be clear, friends.  I’m not urging Chauvin’s arrest in order to prevent riots.  I am urging his arrest because he murdered a man.

“Justice delayed is justice denied.” First pronounced by William Gladstone, but famously quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., who also said this. 

…in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so, in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.  

That was from a speech by Dr. King at Stanford University in 1967, fifty-three long years ago.  We have made progress, but there’s a long way to go.

The protests are not related to one incident.  They are the natural result of 400 years of systemic racism and injustice, indignity and murder.

Tragically, anarchists and arsonists have stolen the attention away from George Floyd and from the peaceful demonstrators.

And it would be irresponsible to omit noting the glaring fact that the flames of division and hatred in this country have been fanned by the highest levels of political leadership.

As disgusted as we all are about the murder of George Floyd, I have to ask myself about the state of Derek Chauvin’s soul.  “What sort of psychic and spiritual wounding has Chauvin suffered in his own life that would compel him to act in such a heartless manner?”  I ask you to pray for Derek Chauvin and the other three officers involved, that they may find healing for their damaged hearts.

Let me finish with a letter from the Reverend Edrin Williams, senior pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in north Minneapolis, where my wife’s sister and her husband are regular worshipers.  It is an intentionally multicultural community working for justice for all, helping people to love God and one another.

Pastor Williams wrote this on Wednesday.

Today presents us with yet another opportunity to be God’s people in the world, as we learn more and more about the killing of a Minneapolis man, George Floyd. Mr. Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police on Monday evening, and video of his death has been broadcast across the world by now. In a nearly 10-minute video, you can hear him pleading with officers for help, as an officer pins Floyd’s handcuffed body to the ground, using his knee to place the entire weight of his body on this man’s neck. As if he were a robot gone mad, the officer seems unmoved by Floyd’s cries. We can hear the unfortunate echo of Eric Garner, another Black man killed by police, as Floyd spends his last few moments of consciousness saying to the unfazed officer, “I can’t breathe.” As other officers look on without intervening, Floyd eventually goes unconscious after what feels like an eternity and dies shortly after. That’s evil to me!But this is bigger than just me. This is about us. Who will we be in this moment? What will we do in this moment? What kind of society are we if this is commonplace? What does it say about the state of policing if their best training leads them to deal with an allegation of forgery by killing a man? What does it say about the culture of policing when other officers stand by while one of their own takes the life of a citizen. What does it say about our economy and our morality when being poor can get you killed? It says to me that, perhaps, our most beloved systems – the education system, the justice system, the political system, the financial system, even the healthcare system – are actually one incredibly efficient system of injustice. It says to me that if we don’t do something about it, we’re all susceptible to being similarly victimized by it. I lie to myself if I don’t admit that what happened to George Floyd could very easily happen to me. Well, I’m not going to wait in line to die. I won’t wait for another hashtag, either. 
I want to set 4 challenges before you: Get Your Heart Right – Today, as has been the case too many times before, a family has had a loved one ripped away due to state-sanctioned violence. I challenge you to feel the pain that Mr. Floyd’s family must be feeling. I challenge you to feel something for what his life might have been like, leading him to that deli. I challenge you to see his humanity, his life, his personhood. What did he like? Who were his friends? When was the last time he hugged someone, told a joke, sang his favorite song? Make space in your heart for a child of God who lost his life on a hard Minneapolis street.Get Informed – Before treating this as an isolated incident, I challenge you to get an understanding of the historical context for this killing. I challenge you to see how America has used police for centuries to control Black bodies; a story that is far too familiar to poor people and other people of color. I challenge you to think critically about the prison industrial complex, which is fed a steady stream of people who are very similar to Mr. Floyd. Find a copy of Rethinking Incarceration by Dominique Gilliard and see how this is, indeed, an issue for Christians to concern ourselves with. Get Some People – Dismantling the persistent injustice of our current system is far too big for any one pissed off person or any one woke people group. It will take a vast, multicultural coalition to get this right. One of Sanctuary’s greatest opportunities is to see this situation and respond with compassionate, multifaceted action. I want to challenge you to see your presence among our church and within the community of North Minneapolis as no accident. You possess skills, insights, and resources that are essential for the work ahead of us. I challenge you to step forward to say, “Count me in!”(From Bill: And I urge all of us, even in Central Minnesota, in the little towns of McGrath and Wahkon, to step forward and say, “Count me in!)Get to Work – The work of justice is long-term work, but it requires us to start somewhere and stick with it, especially when things get hard. We commend Chief Medaria Arradondo and Mayor Jacob Frey for their decisive action in firing the officers involved, but the work is not over. I’m challenging all of us to do something now. Justice cannot be relegated to ideas, models, and concepts. If so, you’re cheating yourself and others. There’s a time for talking about justice, and then the time comes to actually be about justice. I want to challenge you to decide again and again to be about the work of justice. The work won’t look the same for every person, but there’s work for all of us to do. 

 It has been a strange day for me with many emotional ups and downs. Even more strangely, I’m absolutely hopeful that Mr. Floyd’s death will not be in vain. I don’t think we’ll let that happen. Without a doubt, his death matters because his life mattered. May we pray and work so that his death will be far more than another tragic murder of an unarmed black man. May it be a moment that moves us so deeply that we no longer tolerate this or anything like it ever again! 
In Christ, 
 Pastor Edrin

Pastoral Prayer

God of grace and love and peace,

We thank you for the life of George Floyd.  Our hearts are broken.  We pray comfort for his families and friends.

We pray for the city of Minneapolis, and now St. Paul and other areas.  

We pray for justice to be done, quickly and equitably.

We pray for all who are so justifiably angry.

We beseech you to help us bring systemic changes to all our institutions that they might serve people equitably and justly.  Forgive us for the ways we are complicit.

Guide all who are involved with the legal issues surrounding this case.

We thank you for the vast majority of police officers who serve with dignity and compassion.  We pray for police officers and firefighters now engaged in this dangerous situation.

We pray for safety and quiet for our cities.

As hard as it is, we pray for Derek Chauvin and the other officers, that the bitterness that obviously lives in their hearts may be melted.

Help us to know the concrete actions that each of us can take.  Help us to be faithful in prayer.

Help us be faithful this and each day to your Son Jesus, in whose name we pray.  Amen.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us now and forever.


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