Breathe: On George Floyd and the Trinity

We have now been a Cathedral family together, you and I, for a long time. I believe you know that I don’t prefer to preach sermons that can be construed, or misconstrued, as political. I abhor when I, or churches, are referred to with secular terms like “liberal” or “conservative.” I, and the other preachers I know, seek only to preach, and with feet of clay to live, the Gospel that defies such designations. Sometimes the world compels us to proclaim the Gospel when it isn’t comfortable to do so. I trust that you will hear the words I preach today as from someone who loves our Cathedral community and means it whenever we quote Psalm 46:5 and say that we seek to proclaim God in the midst of the city. This is also Trinity Sunday, and as such I’m beholden on this day to say something about the nature of that God. In other words, when we proclaim God in the midst of the city, just what God are we proclaiming? Our answer to that question makes all the difference.

I was downtown at the Cathedral this past Tuesday, when 60,000 people converged on downtown Houston to march in memory of George Floyd, who was murdered in Minneapolis on May 25 after allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill, by a policeman who asphyxiated him by pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. I’ve asked myself, why has this event sparked reaction and protest of such proportion compared to other incidents of unarmed Black men dying in custody or otherwise at the hand of white men?

The reason, I believe, is that George Floyd’s words (hearkening back to Eric Garner’s own dying words in 2014) gave universal voice. As he slowly suffocated, George Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.” A Black colleague shared with me this week that George Floyd’s dying words speak the felt truth of the daily Black experience in America: that anything that is theirs, or anything they might become, can be and is always at risk of being taken from them, as if liberty and even breath itself were merely on loan from a white majority.

For white people, at least this white person, George Floyd’s dying words—along with the look on the police officer’s face captured in photos—catches my breath with the realization that I can’t fathom what it is like to walk through the world that way. As I said in a blog post last weekend, “I am a Southern, white, heterosexual, cisgender male, which means that when making small daily decisions or large life-altering decisions I have never (literally never) had to pause and consider anything other than my hopes for my own actualization. Whether certain opportunities might be denied me; whether those in authority might treat me poorly; whether I might be profiled because I am somewhere I look out of place, [or whether my very breath is at risk]…I’ve never had to consider any of these things.”[i]

These two realities exist side-by-side in the United States. This was driven pointedly home this past week, by SMU professor Mark McCoy, who is white. The Dallas Morning News interviewed McCoy about a tweet in which the professor revealed that twenty years ago he’d been arrested for the same alleged crime as George Floyd. “George Floyd and I were both arrested for allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill,” McCoy tweeted, “For George Floyd, a man my age, with two kids, it was a death sentence. For me, it is a story I sometimes tell at parties. That, my friends, is White privilege.”[ii]

SMU professor's tweet about white privilege goes viral |

The God we proclaim is Trinitarian, and it is Trinity Sunday, but instead of an erudite treatise on the doctrine of the Trinity as such, I want to say a few brief words about each of the three persons who make up the one God. In the beginning, God the Father created; in each moment, God the Father creates. God looks upon the whole cosmos, the whole world, the whole human family, and says without degree or distinction, “It is good.” God raises up women and men and blesses them, but God does not bless any of us so that we may falsely understand ourselves to be worthier, or freer, or more deserving than others. God blesses us, as God first said to Abraham in the mists of prehistory—and I am quoting from Genesis 12:2 here—so that we may be a blessing. Those are, in fact, the very first words God ever says to Abraham. They are the words that launch the salvation story. They are the original lesson. Any of us who have anything at all in this world, if we believe in the Bible’s God, are blessed entirely and only so that we can be a blessing to others.

How do we do that? In order for us to know how, God had to come to us in the second person of the Trinity, God the Son. In Jesus, God shows us the way of love. It is not the way of triumphalism. It is not the way of dominating power. It is not the way of bravado. It is certainly not the way of ignoring, denying, or disregarding the needs of the other. If we believe that Jesus is God, then the only way for us to know how God loves, and how God calls us to love, is to look at Jesus. This is the basic Christian truth. And Jesus gives himself—his time, his voice, his power, his social capital, his life—for the lonely, the marginalized, and the voiceless. Jesus does not do so sometimes. He does not do so when it doesn’t hurt his own standing. He does not do so when there is no cost to acting. He does so always, all the way to the cross.

The Death of George Floyd in Minneapolis: What We Know So Far ...

George Floyd

Christ Church Cathedral is blessed, and I pray we always seek to be a blessing. I have known Jesus all my life, since I kept my denim-covered, red letter, Good News Bible on my bedstand as a kid. Like you, like all of us, I want to live like Jesus. I want to name my privilege, and wield it in order to render it obsolete. I want to help make the world a place where a policeman’s knee doesn’t press on George Floyd’s neck, and where the systems that allow and excuse that action are dismantled. I want, as St. Paul tells the Corinthians today, to “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.” But of my own I am weak, and I lack courage. And that is why we need the third person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit. Uninspired and un-empowered, we can only lament. We can mourn, and we can regret, but we cannot transform. With the Holy Spirit, the very creation which God called good from the beginning, for which Jesus died and rose again, for which 60,000 Houstonians marched this past Tuesday, can be fully restored.

The Holy Spirit in Old Testament Hebrew is ruach, in New Testament Greek is pneuma, in English is breath. In and through the Holy Spirit, we have strength and courage we otherwise lack. We can use our breath—the Holy Spirit within us—in service to finally remove the knee from George Floyd’s neck, so that all our sisters and brothers, who share within them the image of the Trinitarian God, can finally and forever breathe.