Like a Breath Psalm 144: 3-4, 12-15 June 26, 2022 – Eliot Church of Newton, MA Rev. Emma Brewer-Wallin
The gift of the psalms is that they hold within them the tensions of human existence: joy and pain, hope and despair, hunger for food and hunger for God. The psalms do not box us into one feeling: they enable us to experience complexity of our lives, individually and collectively.
In this psalm – and particularly in this translation – we see a portrait of a community of riches. The sons in their youth are like full-grown plants, whose vitality provides shelter and food. The daughters are like cornerstones, the sure foundation on which palaces are built. The barns are full, the sheep and cattle are increasing. The city is secure, and no one on the margins is distressed either. This community is thriving! And yet, this psalm does not box us into one feeling. This psalm does not force us to remain feeling contentedness or celebration, noting that humanity is like a breath. Humanity is fleeting. Humanity is part of a cycle – in and out, not stagnant. This is a thriving community, full of riches – but humanity is like a breath. Everything changes, nothing is permanent.
One way we could interpret the picture of a thriving community alongside a reminder that everything changes is something like the phrase what goes around comes around. When the psalmist says that humanity is like a breath, we could understand this as something like the wisdom from Ecclesiastes – for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to break down, and a time to build up. When the psalmist says humanity is like a breath, we could understand this as a reminder that riches do not last – there is a time for wealth and a time for poverty. Throughout the psalms, and elsewhere in scripture, we hear those in poverty, bondage, or exile yearning for what they do not have. They lift up prayers to a God of justice and mercy that they may be well-fed and liberated and returned to their homeland. These are the powerful texts we turn to in our times of trouble, knowing that we are not the first to travel a difficult path, and from which we understand God’s love for the poor.
Both we and the biblical wise ones and prophets live in a world with dramatic economic inequality, summed up with the truism that the rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer. This is not an accident, nor a law of nature. The rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer because the rich are exploiting the poor. A select few are benefiting from the labor of the many. Those few contract out their problems to the many – and due to systems that protect their wealth and power, the few are able to avoid uncomfortable or unpleasant tasks and burdens, everything from preparing food to living near landfills and toxic industries.
Throughout scripture, we see people living under the rule of various empires, in which the fruits of most people’s labors are exported to the elite few and the local leaders who colluded with authorities. Although we in contemporary New England may not think that we live in an empire, the injustices of our modern world are inextricably bound up in empire. The land now known as the United States was colonized by British, French, and Spanish powers as part of their sweeping empires attempting to rule the globe – attempts that involved the genocide and forced removal of indigenous nations. Those empires created the transatlantic slave trade, a massive source of wealth generated through the exploitation of coerced, stolen people. The modern United States is an empire, waging wars to build wealth off the labor and resources of foreign nations. The fossil fuel industry is its own kind of empire: one in which energy alternatives are not given a fair hearing and people and earth are exploited.
The empires of our time allow the prophets’ cry to echo across the ages, imploring us to see that our collective accumulation of wealth will be our downfall. Indeed, the psalmist tells us that humanity is like a breath: riches do not last. There is a time for wealth and a time for poverty. Throughout scripture, we see that the worshiping of material resources leads to the undoing of those who hoard their wealth – a pattern reflected again in the climate crisis. But I do not think that the psalmist’s declaration that humanity is like a breath is mere criticism, justly founded though it is. I think that when the psalmist tells us that humanity is like a breath, we are being offered a way out – not an excuse, but an opening. Yes, like a breath, humanity may be fleeting. But this is not all that a breath is – our breath is sustaining. Our breath is what enables us to be adaptable. Our breath is responsive. When our context demands it, our respiratory rate increases. In times of trouble or in situations where we must work hard, we breathe harder. Our breath is regulating. Breathing deeply allows us to settle down. We can control our response to a situation – how panicked we feel or how agitated we are – through our breath.
Humanity is like a breath – and our breath is responsive. Responding to the climate crisis surrounding us and looming over our futures, Gen Z-ers – that’s those under 25 – are increasingly engaged in climate justice, not only in their personal habits, but in their vocations as well. Young adults are taking on climate work in their educational and professional lives, and are joining together for collective action towards a just transition through the Sunrise Movement and others. In the vision this psalm presents, young people are like flourishing plants. What if the vision this psalm presents is one where their vitality is not due to the accumulation of riches, but to a vibrant ecosystem – an ecosystem that is responsive to the climate crisis? To promote the flourishing of young people within this climate crisis, how might we – as individuals and as churches – be as responsive as a breath? Might we be as responsive as a breath by following the leadership of children and youth, ensuring that there is enough air in their lungs as they proclaim the need for climate justice? Might we be as responsive as a breath by being a faith community that tells the truth about climate grief, giving people a place to turn so that they get life-sustaining oxygen as their hard work increases? Might we be as responsive as a breath by advocating for needed policy changes that remove carbon dioxide from the body of this earth, just as our respiratory systems remove carbon dioxide from our bodies?
Humanity is like a breath – and our breath is regulating. There are older adults regulating the rate of this climate crisis, using the skills and experiences they've developed over lifetimes. In the vision this psalm presents, there are stores of resources, built up over generations. What if these quantities are not a stockpile, but an abundance shared with all? Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, who collectively own 70% of this country’s financial assets, are joining together as the ThirdAct movement to influence the banks that fund climate destruction – they’re ensuring their collective wealth is not funding our collective downfall. To promote an abundance for all people rather than the wealth of the few, how might we – as individuals and as churches – be as regulating as a breath? Might we be as regulating as a breath by being a faith community grounded in simplicity, slowing down the rate of consumption that fuels the climate crisis? Might we be as regulating as a breath by advocating for a transition away from a fossil fuel economy that is not only for the wealthiest communities, but for all, ensuring the removal carbon from throughout the system? Might we be as regulating as a breath by being a faith community that can raise a strong voice, crying out loudly, boldly, and consistently? In this psalm, we see a portrait of a community of riches. Some people are like full- grown plants, whose vitality provides shelter and food. Others are like cornerstones, the sure foundation on which palaces are built. The barns are full, the sheep and cattle are increasing. The city is secure, and no one on the margins is distressed either. This community is thriving! They have not arrived here by accident – they are people who are like a breath, responsive and regulating. The gift of the psalms is that they hold within them the tensions of human existence: joy and pain, hope and despair, hunger for food and hunger for God. Tension is what allows us to breathe – what allows our muscles and lungs’ cycle of expansion and contraction to continue. We are like a breath: respond to the climate crisis by dwelling in the tension between hopeful action and overwhelming grief, simplicity and abundance, the need for change and the need for steadiness. We are like a breath: regulate the climate crisis by dwelling in the tension between global scale and local specificity, youthful vision and age-earned wisdom, the need for change and the need for steadiness. This community has not arrived here by accident – you are made up of people who are like a breath, responsive and regulating. One breath at a time, we can bring about climate justice. One breath at a time, we are regulating. One breath at a time, we are responding. May it be so, may it be soon. Amen.
Psalm 144:3-4, 12-15 – translation by Wilda C. Gafney
Womb of Life, what is humanity that you even know them, or the woman-born that you think of them? Humanity is like a breath; whose days are like a passing shadow. Our sons in their youth are like plants full grown, our daughters are like cornerstones, cut for the building of a palace. Our barns are full, from produce of every kind; our sheep have increased by thousands, many thousands in our surroundings. Our cattle are heavy, there is no breach in the walls, no exile, and no cry of distress in our surroundings. Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall; happy are the people whose God is the Womb of Life.
In the church calendar, today is Trinity Sunday. It follows Pentecost which celebrates the arrival of the Holy Spirit last Sunday. The Holy Spirit makes the third person of the Trinity in orthodox Christian doctrine. It is also a good morning to catch us up on Gay Pride Month and anticipate Gay Pride Day on June 28. This is among the most important subjects for me, as a Christian, a minister, and a straight, white, married man.
Why did I choose those love lyrics between a heterosexual couple to read on a day when I want to celebrate Gay Pride? You’ll see.
Do you know the French expression, Chacun a ses sexes? I remember hearing this expression for the first time on a summer trip to France as a teenager. I thought it made sense, and there is no reason at that age that I should have. Yet, I caught the freedom of its meaning, the carefreeness, and the politics implied.
Chacun a ses sexes. It’s a play upon the phrase, “to each his own,” but it means “to each their own gender” —chacun a ses sexes. This would have been 1962, not exactly the age of Aquarius in the United States. Well, there is nothing like getting out of the United States of America, for sure!
America is finally coming to realize, ever so gradually, that sexuality ranges along a wide spectrum of experience and expression. Human sexuality is wildly fungible–there is not just one channel on this tv, or just two either, but many, perhaps as many as there are people. Christian doctrine has tried to fence it in–sexual behavior, sexual orientation, sexual ethics, marriage, children, divorce. And the Church has turned out to be wrong on every score.
Take divorce—of course, we want marriage to last “till death do us part,” as it is intended. But before there was divorce there was mayhem, abuse, contempt, neglect, self-abnegation, hatred, self-hatred, depression, psychosis, suicide, even homicide. The “Christian sexual ethic”—no divorce, no homosexuality, no sex outside of marriage, no sex that did not have procreation for its intent (Roman Catholicism), no contraception, no abortion–is neither Christian, nor about sex, nor an ethic, and it has abused the Bible to that end. None of this is biblical, unless you regard the Bible as a blueprint for society, which it is not. The Church developed an airtight system that perpetuated woman as the property of the male.
If the Church really wanted to promote satisfying, long lasting, and sexually exclusive relationships, there needed to have been a basic understanding of and respect for human sexuality, but the Church couldn’t handle it. It is hard to find such in the Bible, but there is a place to look, the Song of Solomon. The Church included this unique book in the Bible, but only grudgingly, without knowing really what to do with it.
It’s a short book of 8 chapters, made up of what seem to be bursts of 31 intense lyrics between two lovers, identified in some translations as the Bride and Bridegroom. This engaged couple are profoundly, almost painfully in love—they address each other in superlatives of tenderness and yearning. They are clearly in the throes of the “carnal consummation of love,” as Robert Alter put it. Yet their “unholy” love is sanctified by the presence of the Spirit.
Prof Renita Weems puts the poetry in focus—this is the only book of the Bible in which the female voice predominates, she is anonymous and she is black-skinned. Her speech is bold and un-self-censored, and perfectly reciprocated by her lover. This leads Prof Weems to observe that this is a counter cultural document—it honors the body, it honors woman and women’s sexual experience. Their sexual identity is outshined by the power of human love. Their gender identity pales in significance compared to their humanity. Their sexual drama reveals a snapshot of divine possibility in the human sphere—the intimate bonding of love is the incarnation of the Spirit. We know this is not confined to their orientation, because the body is the Temple of the Spirit. Spirits unite when bodies unite—this is the miracle of human loving. This is why divorce is so painful, or the dissolution of any intimate relationship. It is, however, the birthright of any two people who give themselves to each other in this way.
Sex is nature’s way of leading us to God.
Why did I choose those love lyrics between a heterosexual couple to read on a day when I want to celebrate Gay Pride? You’ll see.