Pentecost May 23 sermon: Waving not drowning

Rev Neil Whitehouse

May 23 sermon

Waving not drowning

Readings: Acts 2:1-21 John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Today is the Birthday of the Christian Church, at least the occasion at Westmount Park United Church that we remember the momentus events of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the first Christians that changed their lives forever and gives us our origins as Christians too.

Birthdays! Do you like them? We sing Happy Birthday, or in Quebec ‘ Cher X c’est à ton tour’.   A time to feel special, for people to give us things, to celebrate with friends and family, because each of us is special, and this began when we were too young to remember.   It is a feel good moment, to be sung to, to have a cake, or even presents!

BUT….do you know that in Denmark when they sing and give a cake it is in the form of a person whose head gets cut off. I saw this with a Church visit I made in 1984 to Copenhagen and it was shocking, fancy celebrating like that and for children too. BUT…birth is often a tremendously difficult experience, for mother or child, it is a high risk experience.   My sister is more intelligent than I am, and for that reason, she took a long time to be born and I was relatively quick.   None of us would want to be born if we had a chance. Why move, risk, lose that all encompassing experience of warmth, security, food, and no responsibilities no demands.

The process of being born too, is arguably the biggest trauma any of us go through, and in the end none of us had a choice, we were not in control, we were overwhelmed by forced greater than ourselves and forced to lose this security and enter a world that requires us to breathe, decide, act.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, is our faith ancestors’ birth story, and just as with individual birth, it was forced, the disciples were overwhelmed: gathered to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, a routine Jewish festival of the first wheat harvest in the year, they had a tornado come upon them: the sound of a violent wind, and even stranger, tongues as if of fire, that became a force to praise and tell the work of God in a language each did not know as their own……this was truly an experience of being overwhelmed, not in control, and for that reason I thought of this title today ‘Waving not Drowning’.

My first job was truly hectic, new to me, new for my employers, and after three years it became two positions; Waving not Drowning was the title of a workshop for non-profit organisers to become better at managing all the competing demands. You are on the beach, you see someone in the water who was swimming, stop and look to the shore waving, or are they drowning? The workshop aimed to help you find your context was not overwhelming but supportive, it was to help you through a ‘birth’ process to become an adequate manager, are you managing?

BUT…any birth process, is just that, it is counter-intuitive, seems like the end when it is the beginning, the movement from being overwhelmed to being supported, think of your life and the many different births you have been through.   You have experienced the movement from Drowning to Not Drowning to Waving.

On this special day, Pentecost, we give thanks and remember, the real birth of the Church was like this. Why should our experience be any less?
Karen Armstrong who is a best-selling writer on God and faith and religions, has a book titled the Great Transformation, in which she presents the birth stories of several religions that took place in a relatively short time period, the so called Axial Age.   The implications she presents are: world religions though very different in beliefs, are responding to the same basic human needs, and secondly, we are living through a Great Transformation today. This is true globally and locally; you may think Westmount Park is a less significant corner of Western Christianity, but our life here is so typical, it makes our drama, our birth process as valid as any, including the original birth we read of in Acts.

Being faithful to that story, is to realise what is forced upon us, can be so different it is threatening, unpleasant, out of our control, but it does not have to stay that way.   God goes with us, through it all.   The phrase, let go, let God, is for our own Birth, at Westmount Park and like you and the first disciples, I do not know what it may mean. But wait, I have almost finished the sermon and did not give you a film illustration.

I have it: one of my favourite, the story of a young woman’s falling in love and struggling to accept it when her family has other plans for who she would marry. A Room with a View by EM Forster (Merchant-Ivory directed) includes the philosophy of St Augustine, ‘I taught my son to love and do what he likes’   the music of Puccini taking us to the first and overwhelming kiss in the poppy fields of Tuscany, and the clinching line, from the visionary Father of her true beloved, Excuse me for saying it but I think you are in a terrible muddle, it is George who you love and you have been lying to yourself, to George, to everyone,’   And she (Elisabeth Bonham Carter) hears it, like the sound of a violent wind ripping away her fears and self-deception, and she breaks…….to love.

So for our Birthday, in a time of Transformation, to be faithful is to accept Drowning to end up Waving, with joy, praising and telling all the things that God has done.