Sermon preached at Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity (11 August 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity (11 August 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

The Dean reflects on those moments when 'the world holds its breath' and the insecurity and anxiety we collectively feel. 

The phrase, ‘the world held its breath’ has been used to describe a large and different number of portentous events in history. If you search the internet for examples, you’ll discover that the world held its breath when there were huge wartime operations such as Hitler’s invasion of Russia or the D-Day landings; over political tensions such as the 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when nuclear war between the United States and Russia seemed imminent; or relating to media events like the 50 year ago landing on the moon, or the 12 children trapped for two weeks in a cave in Thailand; the release of Nelson Mandela; the moment that Prince William struggled to get the wedding ring onto Kate Middleton’s finger; and the 30 minutes in 2014 when the whole of Facebook crashed. All have been described as moments when the world held its breath.

And why do we use the phrase ‘the world held its breath’ to describe a crisis when things are in the balance, when the outcome is uncertain? I guess it’s because we have a sharp intake of breath (oops, there goes another cliché) when something surprising happens – we gasp in air, and we hold in our breath because we’re not sure whether to shout, scream, laugh or cry – and if the tension is resolved with a peaceful outcome then we breathe easily again: ‘Phew!’ we say, as our breath resumes.

And if we want to indicate that something is unlikely to happen quickly or at all, we say, ‘don’t hold your breath’ because, if you did expect that in the time you could go without breathing, your child would do the washing-up, or the government would cut taxes, then you’d die of asphyxia long before there was any chance of it happening.

Incidentally, how long do you think it’s possible to hold your breath for? The world record for holding breath without artificial preparation is a bit over 11 minutes while under cold water. But most of us couldn’t manage anything like as long as that. So don’t hold your breath till this sermon is finished! And brain scans of divers who specialise in not breathing for long periods show up abnormalities which may indicate brain damage from lack of oxygen, as you’d expect. 

We’re not made to hold our breath for long. We need to breathe so frequently that we don’t usually notice we’re doing it, even though without breath we’re dead. Breathing deeply is a sign of relaxation and health; shallow breathing is a sign of stress; and holding your breath is to be in a state of crisis-readiness which really can’t last for long without doing you lasting damage.

Why am I talking about holding our breath this afternoon? It’s because I want to relate our Christian faith to the current state of our nation and our world.

There are a number of big issues going on around the world, which we’re aware of through social media and instant worldwide news. In Britain, the Brexit crisis has been going on for over three years and seems to be getting more extreme as we go along. The spread of drug gangs and knife crime, and concerns about law and order, housing, schools and the national health service are worrying people, along with the question as to what the future holds for us as we seem to be entering a time when future generations will be less prosperous and more challenged than those that have gone before. In mid-April this year the group Extinction Rebellion began their protests highlighting the extent of the environmental damage humanity is doing to our planet, damage which is increasingly capturing the headlines with apocalyptic scenarios for the future of our world. 

In the wider world there’s ongoing violence, shootings and assassinations, war and unresolved conflicts; tensions in trade with arms treaties and agreements breaking down; massive issues about migration, populism and extremism, and conflict within and between nations as the pace of climate change increases.

These are anxious times. And the world keeps holding its breath wondering what will happen next, and how to respond. And we’re running out of breath to hold. Our lack of breath, our deep insecurity, is damaging the mental health and stability of so many people around the world.

Because this isn’t just about big events and politics. It’s about what damage these things are doing to individual people. Seven days ago a teenager allegedly threw a young boy from the tenth floor viewing platform of the Tate Modern gallery just a few hundred yards south of here on the other side of Millennium Bridge over the river. 

In April this year we had the second tragic death of a disturbed young person inside this cathedral in 18 months, which came a few days after a man with mental health issues had threatened staff in our cathedral shop with an imitation gun. 

Against the backdrop of a dangerous, insecure, changing world, people are understandably finding it hard to cope with the challenges of our world and the uncertainty of their lives. People are being driven to madness, both collectively in their politics, and individually in their own minds; and the madness is impacting the lives of so many around the world.

Both of the readings from the Bible we’ve had this afternoon are set in the context of suffering and insecurity. In chapter 11 of Isaiah the Jewish people who’ve been divided, conquered and exiled are promised that God will send his Spirit to anoint a saviour to come and restore them. ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’ promises the prophet. And it’s the saviour filled with the Spirit who will come and lead them. 

And our second reading, where St Paul talks about the suffering he and his companions have been through, concludes with the assurance that with God there’s no need to hold our breath, because God is our breath. The Greek word for breath is pneuma, which is also the Greek word for spirit: and St Paul tells us that God gives us his Spirit, his breath, in our hearts as a first instalment of the joy that is to come. 

Our physical breathing is related to our emotional and spiritual state: and in the Bible, it’s the breath, the Spirit, the deep breath of God, that moves us from breathless fear of what will become of us to a depth of trust in God which enables us to accept our insecurity, because all that happens is set in the wider context of God’s declared purpose of redeeming us and our broken world through our Saviour Jesus Christ...

On Thursday morning I went shopping in Cheapside, and on my way home I got into conversation with a homeless man who often sits on a bench by the cathedral garden. He asked me how I coped with life, and I said, by prayer. He said, as people do, that God hadn’t done a lot for him; and I replied that I don’t find prayer sustaining if it’s asking for God to give us things, but I do find hope through having a deeply rooted relationship with God who is within us and alongside us. Oh, he said, that’s interesting – Hope is my surname.

So: how to respond with hope to the world’s breathlessness? 

The first thing to remember is that phrase: Don’t hold your breath. Not as a disparaging comment, but as a spiritual strategy. Breath deep, physically and spiritually, be still and be open to God. Prayer is like drawing water from a well: God’s breath, God’s Spirit, is to be found deep within us, and sitting in quietness and breathing deeply invites God to well up within us and come to the surface of our lives.

Prayer isn’t about getting magic things to happen, or an individual pietistic withdrawal from the insecurities of the world. Prayer is touching base with God, joining our spirit with God’s Spirit, our breath with God’s breath. For whatever we may face, God has seen it all before, and is bigger than anything we can throw at him. 

The world may hold its breath many times in the days to come. But if you find yourself holding your breath, then start to breathe again, to breathe deep of God’s air, God’s breath, and share that depth with those around us. And so we can with joy draw water from the well of salvation; so we can find God’s consolation in the midst of suffering and sorrow, and share God’s love with the world around us; so we can have God’s breath in our hearts as the first instalment of his love for us. 

So may the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Love of God the Father and our sharing in the Holy Breath of God be with us all evermore. Amen.