TO THOSE WHO CAN’T BREATHE
A Sermon delivered December 14, 2014
3d Sunday of Advent
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
©Wendell Griffen, 2014
61The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 5Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; 6but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory.7Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. 8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
“I CAN’T BREATHE!”
When compassionate people hear those words we rush to help the victim. We loosen collars. If there is reason to suspect food is lodged in the person’s throat the Heimlich maneuver is performed. When we hear someone say “I can’t breathe!” and when we see someone appear to have trouble breathing we rush to help.
We rush to help because we know humans can’t survive without oxygen. Although the human brain makes up less than five (5) percent of our body weight, our brains require 20 percent of the oxygen our bodies need.
Decrease of oxygen to a part of the brain is called cerebral hypoxia. When oxygen is cut off from the entire brain the term is anoxia. When oxygen flow is completely cut off to our brains (anoxia) we lose consciousness in ten (10) seconds.
Brain damage depends on how long we are without oxygen. If oxygen flow is restored momentarily people usually make a full recovery. But the longer the victim is in an unconscious state the lower the chances are for recovery because brain cells begin dying after 4 to 6 minutes without oxygen.
This is why performing cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on a person who can’t breathe is so important. That is why we call 911. People who can’t breathe die without immediate help.
“I CAN’T BREATHE!” were the last words Eric Garner gasped as Daniel Pantaleo of the New York Police Department choked him from behind and as other police officers tackled him. “I CAN’T BREATHE!” are the words we hear on the video filmed by an onlooker as Eric Garner was assaulted by the police on Staten Island on July 23. “I CAN’T BREATHE!” is what Eric Garner said 11 times—11 times!
“I CAN’T BREATHE!” was Eric Garner’s desperate final struggle to be treated as a child of God.
“I CAN’T BREATHE!” was Eric Garner’s desperate final struggle to be treated as a child of God.
Meanwhile Daniel Pantaleo was choking him. Another police officer was pressing his knees onto Garner’s torso. A police supervisor, a black woman, was watching. Their collective response to Eric Garner’s gasps for help amounted to “WE DON’T CARE!”
They didn’t treat Garner’s words as cries for help from a suffering person. They didn’t protect or serve him. Eric Garner wasn’t treated like he mattered to his wife and children, to his community, to humanity, or even to God!
Eric Garner was treated by the police—people sworn to protect and defend life—as a threat simply because he was standing on a Staten Island sidewalk and the police claim he was selling loose cigarettes. Police killed Eric Garner. Other police watched him suffer and die without doing anything to stop their colleagues from killing him.
A Staten Island grand jury refused to charge Daniel Pantaleo with a crime for choking Garner to death. When other people choke their neighbors to death we call it murder. Daniel Pantaleo, a policeman, choked Eric Garner to death, but the grand jury decision amounts to an official declaration that Pantaleo was simply doing his job when he killed Garner, an unarmed black man.
But Eric Garner’s death and the official response to it isn’t about one notorious tragedy. Eric Garner’s death actually represents what is happening across the world in the “ordinary course of business.”
In the ordinary course of business Palestinians are being killed, starved, attacked, robbed, and otherwise brutalized as a matter of official policy by the Israeli government. Palestinians can’t breathe. The U.S. is doing nothing to help them, but is, instead, actually bankrolling their oppressor. U.S. corporations are making profits by selling equipment and services to the Israeli government so that Palestinians can’t breathe. Every day, Palestinians are saying, “I CAN’T BREATHE!” Can we hear them? Will we help them?
In the ordinary course of business wealthy people decided to sell defective cars with safety defects that maimed and killed people. Every day, people who’ve been killed, wounded, and left grief-stricken are saying “I CAN’T BREATHE!” Can we hear them? Will we help them?
In the ordinary course of business agents of the U.S. government tortured people. In the ordinary course of business, people are being held hostage in Guantanamo, Cuba. In the ordinary course of business innocent civilians are being killed and maimed by U.S. drone attacks. Every day, the tortured, captured, killed, and maimed people and their families are saying “I CAN’T BREATHE!” Can we hear them? Will we help them?
In the ordinary course of business, black and brown men, women, and children in Arkansas and elsewhere throughout the U.S. are racially profiled as criminal suspects. In the ordinary course of business they are stopped, frisked, humiliated, and insulted. In the ordinary course of business they are beaten, shot, electrocuted by Tasers, chemically assaulted by tear gas and pepper spray, and killed. Every day, people of color in the United States are saying “I CAN’T BREATHE!” Can we hear them? Will we help them?
In the ordinary course of business children from families with modest incomes who attend public schools in rural and urban communities are receiving sub-standard education. Every day they are gasping and saying “I CAN’T BREATHE!” Can we hear them? Will we help them? Meanwhile, in the ordinary course of business people in power are refusing, every day, to finance early childhood education. Every day, these people and their functionaries in government are working to build new prisons and jails.
Every day and in the ordinary course of business men, women, and children who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender are being oppressed. Children are bullied, shunned, and otherwise mistreated at schools. Workers are fired from jobs. Families are evicted from places they live. Every day these children of God are saying “I CAN’T BREATHE!” Can you hear them? Will you help them? Meanwhile, in the ordinary course of business other people who are privileged in their sexual orientation and gender identity—including some who claim to love God—claim that it is right to discriminate against others based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In the ordinary course of business, lest anyone forget, the world’s drug manufacturers and the governments that allow them to operate stood by as the virus known as Ebola sickened, infected, killed, and then spread as an epidemic in nations within the continent of Africa. Every day the victims of Ebola and their surviving families and care givers are saying “I CAN’T BREATHE!” Can we hear them? Will we help them?
These atrocities and injustices are not aberrations. They are the ordinary course of business across the world for people who can’t breathe.
These “I CAN’T BREATHE!” atrocities and injustices are moral and ethical issues that challenge our faith in the love and justice of God. We wonder how God can breathe in the face of pervasive and systemic disregard for love and mercy. We wonder how God cannot see the suffering. We wonder what God is doing to bring deliverance and justice for those who can’t breathe.
Isaiah 61 answers our concerns. There an anonymous figure declares that he or she has been endowed with the spirit of God and anointed to proclaim good news to the poor and downtrodden. This anonymous person has been commissioned to proclaim the jubilee year of release from bondage for all who are enslaved.
These “good news”—meaning gospel—words were originally intended for Hebrews in Judah who suffered the effects of Babylonian oppression and power. But they apply to oppressed people everywhere and in every age.
The good news for those who can’t breathe is that God sees! God knows! God cares! And God is acting to overthrow oppression and liberate oppressed people!
God sees every Eric Garner situation including those that go unreported, unrecognized, and unattended. God knows the anguish and sorrow of every wounded soul and every victim of injustice everywhere.
God cares that the ordinary course of what passes for business in our world is strangling the powerless and vulnerable to death. God cares that violence and viciousness has become our ordinary course of business instead of justice and mercy. God cares that people who should be performing physical, economic, social, emotional, and moral CPR in the world are instead using their power and privilege to help compress the throats and chests of people and a creation choking to death.
All the choking, strangling, suffering, and grieving we see, feel, know, and tolerate offend God’s love and justice. It’s a stench to God that people who claim to believe in love and justice will march for the unborn but won’t move a muscle to save living people who can’t breathe.
It’s an outrage to God that people sworn to protect and defend life use power and privilege to abuse and slay their helpless brothers and sisters. God is furious when a nation claims to be the leader of freedom and peace in the world on one hand while it enables genocide and viciousness against Palestinians and racial profiling against its own people and immigrants.
Isaiah 61 also shows God’s response to the plight of a world trapped in a stranglehold of violence, hate, and systemic injustice and oppression. Unlike the imperialistic responses that people get so fired up with patriotism about, God’s response to violence isn’t to train more killers. God’s response to robbery isn’t to create a religious order of better crooks.
God’s response to the toxic realities and threats of evil and injustice isn’t to let loose a religious version of the CIA, NSA, FBI, or the KKK!
Instead, the divine remedy and deliverance for those who can’t breathe, and for our strangled world, is the power of redemptive love made personal. The reality of redemptive love made personal is what we read about in Isaiah 61. The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, … the LORD has anointed me …; he has sent me to bring good news, … to bind up …, to proclaim liberty … and release … the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn…(Is. 61:1-2). God performs CPR on God’s strangling children and strangled creation by empowering persons as counteractive agents of divine love, liberation, justice, and peace!
This good news of redemptive love made personal is summed up by the life, ministry, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ! The good news of God’s redemptive love made personal is what Jesus presented the world and now calls us to embrace.
Jesus calls us to be divinely appointed agents of redemptive love. Jesus calls us to confront and counter the systemic and institutionalized violence and oppression that is choking people and the world to death.
Jesus calls us to do more than offer condolences to people who are being choked to death by the systemic violence and oppression that passes for the ordinary course of business. We are called to be more than religious funeral directors for casualties of oppression and injustice.
No! God has appointed us as messengers and methods of liberation, truth, justice, mercy, and peace. And God has appointed us as messengers and methods of divine judgment on the purveyors, practitioners, and apologists of systemic violence and oppression.
Finally, God promises that justice will triumph over oppression. Because of God’s redemptive love made personal, those who can’t breathe are promised a garland instead of ashes, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display [GOD’s] glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. (Is. 61:3-4).
The reason for that promise is found at Isaiah 61:8: For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Because God loves justice and hates oppression, redemptive love made personal will triumph over violence, greed, hate, and fear.
Because God loves justice and hates oppression, God will avenge those who are choked to death by agents of violence, greed, hate, and fear.
Because God loves justice and hates oppression, God’s people of redemptive love must not stand by as people and the creation gasp “I CAN’T BREATHE!” We must not be content with reading Bible lessons and singing praise songs and hymns. We must not, should not, and will not be satisfied with symbolic prayer meetings and vigils, goodwill and fellowship meals, time-consuming and pointless meetings filled with political excuses, posturing, and other commonly accepted pretenses for peace and righteousness while our brothers, sisters, children, and the rest of creation are strangled to death.
So as people inspired by the gospel of redemptive love made personal in obedience to the life, ministry, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, let us do moral, physical, intellectual, economic, social, emotional, and global CPR for those who can’t breathe. In God’s name and as people empowered to live out the gospel of redemptive love made personal let us intervene and stop officious and officially-sanctioned violence, robbery, and every other oppression.
Then those who can’t breathe will see themselves and be acknowledged as people whom the LORD has blessed (Is. 61:9). They will rejoice in the LORD (Is. 61:10). For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations (Is. 61:11).