To begin I’m going to ask you to take a deep breath and hold it for just a second and then release it. Let’s do this together – take a deep breath in… hold… and release it. Let’s do it again: breathe in… hold… and release. And one last time: breathe in… hold… and release.
In the name of our creator, our redeemer and our sustainer. Amen.
Now, as I continue, keep some portion of your attention on your breath. Just notice where it goes inside your body. Does it stop in your throat? Does it fill you deeply enough to push your shoulder blades apart? Does it fill your belly?
Does your breath flow in and out of you evenly, or does it remain shallow for as long as possible before forcing you to heave a massive sigh? Does it catch anywhere?
Keep paying attention to your breath. Is there a wall where it wants to stop? Do you know the place where your breath stops of its own accord, knowing that there are feelings on the other side? Do you know what those feelings are? Are there wells of tears, or embers of smoldering anger, that you are keeping at bay with your shallow breaths? Can you imagine what it might be like to let your breath in just a little farther – to let the thin, spiraling current of wind that keeps you alive tap the wall of that reservoir of buried emotion, so that some of that energy might be allowed to leave your body? Can you imagine what sound those feelings might make as they depart?
Keep paying attention to your breath and listen again to the words we sang from the 23rd Psalm.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
We have been immersed in some very challenging scriptures this summer. In June we began a cycle of readings from the prophets of Israel and stories from the gospels that reveal God as a passionate force for justice. Salvation is a natural process of God’s creation, springing from something as fragile as a mustard seed, but growing large enough to shelter us all together. God joins us in the storms of our lives with the power to calm seemingly unstoppable forces. God heals the rich and the poor, revealing a concern for health and restoration regardless of race or class. We’ve thought about what these stories about God mean here and now, today in Logan Square. We’ve asked where God is in the current state budget crisis, in the current debate on health care. We’ve been confronted by the prophetic voices of Israel, the prophetic voice of Jesus, even the prophetic voice of the liturgy – the rituals that remind us week after week that all are welcome and there is always enough. Then last week we were reminded in graphic fashion that the voice of the prophet is not generally well received. The beheading of John the Baptist foreshadows the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and we cannot help but wonder if we, too, will pay a price for our prophetic witness.
Remember your breath, notice if it has changed at all. How have your thoughts, your feelings, changed the quality of your breath? What would happen if you decided to slow your breathing down a little bit more, or to breathe a little deeper?
Many people cherish the 23rd Psalm because of the peaceful images of green pastures and still waters, comforting rods and staves, safety in the presence of enemies. This morning we hear this psalm in the context of Jeremiah’s prophecy that God will raise up a righteous shepherd who will gather together all God’s scattered sheep from all the world’s flocks, and the apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesians about the peace of Christ that reconciles Jews and Gentiles to one another – making one family out of former rivals. This is the good news that Jesus was teaching and preaching and dramatizing with powerful miracles throughout his ministry.
No wonder then that people rushed to meet him wherever he went. We are hungry for this kind of peace, the kind that finally puts to rest old rivalries between former friends, that reconciles ethnic enemies to one another, that gathers us all into one fold, one flock. We are worn down and tired of the conflict that fills the world. We long for greener pastures.
And God wants to provide green pastures. God passionately desires a world of peace with justice for all. A world without borders where “the one who has much does not have too much, and the one who has little does not have too little” (2 Cor 8:15). And the hands God has at God’s disposal to craft that kind of world are ours. God’s work, our hands.
But as we go about the work of shaping peace with justice, we discover or remember that the world is filled with people who don’t share our vision, or who do – but think there’s a better way to go about it than the way we might first choose. And soon we feel that this prophetic word and holy work is being attacked by enemies. We get weighed down by hurt feelings, and angry exchanges, and bitter jealousy, and sometimes even hopeless despair. We attach all those feelings to the people who surround us, making them into enemies. We give up on them. And then, somehow without fully realizing it, we have become the source of the problem we set out to solve. We become those who have divided the world into those who are on “our side” and those who are not, which quickly becomes those who are with us and those who are against us, which is just another way of saying friends and enemies, insiders and outsiders.
Our modern American prophet of peaceful reconciliation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
Take a breath, and now in your next breath see if you can find the place in your body where you hold your anger, your resentment, your wounds. Let your breath go there the way clean water goes into a wound to clean it out. Let your breath wash your old hurts and release some small portion of them.
In the middle of a set of texts that point to God’s plan for reconciling the whole world to itself, we are told in the 23rd psalm that God makes us – not that God invites us, or invites us to consider – but God makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. Still waters, we know, are reflective waters. Still waters are the first mirrors of the world. They reflect our faces back to us, the allow us to see ourselves as we are. The God of peace with justice needs us to stop, to rest long enough to take a look at what we are doing with our lives and in our lives that contributes to the violence that fills the world. Remember that the last half of the 23rd psalm holds a very different image:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…
We are called to table with people who we have imagined to be our enemies, and they are called to table with us – who they imagine to be their enemies. And we have to figure out how to share a meal, so that we can figure out how to share a wo
rld. Which means we need to learn to forgive ourselves and each other so that each day we can rise to rejoin God’s mission to heal and reconcile the world to itself.
Take a deep breath. Let the coolness of new air fill replace air your body has heated. Let the worried thoughts, the persistent anxieties, the persistent resentments ride out on the back of your breath. Let your attention drift a little lower, to your diaphragm, the muscle that controls your breathing. Fill that muscle, which stretches across your abdomen like the skin of a drum, with energy. Use the energy in your diaphragm to push your breath out with a little more force. Consider that you might decide to add a sound to that breath – a forceful shout, or a cathartic sob, or a full-bellied laugh, or a sigh too deep for words. Imagine that such a sound is one more form of prayer, an offering up to God those things that we need to let go of so that we can give ourselves more fully to God’s shalom, God’s loving peace.
Let’s go ahead and make that sound. Offer that prayer. Are you ready? I’ll ask you to take another deep breath, let it go where it needs to so that it can clean out those tired, weary, angry, hurting, hopeless places. Let it wrap itself around the shape of that sound, and then on the count of three let’s do it – let’s release something that holding us down, holding us back.
Breathe in. One… two… three!