Rev. Earl Gould, Westworth United Church, May 15, 2016
Acts 2:1-21 John 14: 8-17, 25-27
Imagine the church as a wheel: The hub is God, with spokes sustaining the outer rim.
Imagine the three main spokes as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.
Today – as you know – is Pentecost.
We are celebrating the part of our faith and experience: that God is with us. You don’t have to be a Christian – in our culture – to know about Christmas. For sure – Christmas is good for business – so Christmas gets good press. Fortunately the beautiful story of Christmas – God coming to us as a human – at first a baby – seems to shine through – despite the shopping bonanzas.
Then Easter – it holds the sense of the power and mystery of the divine. For sure Easter proclaims that at the end of our possibilities God creates a new beginning. Easter is the day to day reminder that with God all things are possible.
Today is the third main spoke – Pentecost. Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the church. The big deal about today is that today we celebrate God being with us – right here – right now.
I have suggested to the children here today – RED – Pentecost Colour – could stand for God is Right-here Every Day. (R-E-D)
The celebration of Pentecost has never happened to anywhere near the same extent as Christmas and Easter. Families that would never dream of not getting together for Christmas and Easter – might not even be aware that today is Pentecost.
I did a little research project on Friday. I went looking for a commercial Pentecost Card. First I went to a Dollar Store – one particular store I trust that will most likely have whatever it is my grandchildren or I are looking for. When I dropped by – a person was actually working on the card inventory. I asked about a Pentecost Card: she looked at me like I was from another planet!
Undeterred – I went to the Carleton Card Store in Polo Park. I asked the woman at the till about a Pentecost Card. She drew a blank – but was very courteous to me. She kindly offered to go and ask the manager. She disappeared – when she came back she said – “Sorry, we don’t have anything like that!”
Then, from another perspective I checked the faith page of this weekend Free Press: no mention of today being Pentecost, – but an exciting article about a Roman Catholic congregation in the city bursting at the seams. So, despite a lack of help from the secular world … today is certainly very, very worth celebrating – and actually a hallelujah that is has largely been saved from commercialization.
We have heard the Book of Acts reading telling the Pentecost story – how the already existing Jewish festival of Pentecost took on new meaning for those followers of Jesus who were terrified, confused, excited, joyful beyond description – that Jesus was raised from the dead – and was showing up here and there – and that this phenomena on Pentecost now was indicating the raised from the dead Jesus could not be confined: could be anywhere, anytime.
John’s Gospel makes a great effort to stress that God and Jesus are intimately inter-connected – and further – after Easter, after ascension of Jesus: Divine presence is still in our midst:
- No time limit
- No geographic limit.
Do you remember reading the faith page – local newspaper Saturday, Feb 27? A study asks non-churchgoers why they don’t attend: it gives “The Top Eight Reasons for Empty Pews”. So I bought the book!
The newspaper review is an accurate recap of one of the chapters dealing with this subject.
- The leading reason why interviewees set aside religious involvement or affiliation altogether is because they believe religious groups adopt attitudes and behaviours that are too exclusive and that separate “us” from “them”.
- The second main reason people fall away from their Christian faith in Canada is because of some transition in their life:
- family moving
- a divorce
- leaving home for university
- the death of a parent
- Third, religious decline occurs because parents give their teenage children the option to attend church.
- Four – Not uncommon in today’s culture – non-attenders say they just got too busy with other things.
- Fifth on the list – some stop going to church because they witnessed and experienced scandals, hypocrisy, and inconsistencies between teachings and reality.
- Sixth – Intellectual Disagreement: science over religion, competing religious views in society; personal tragedy leaving some to question God’s existence
- Conflict in the Congregation or attempts to get involved with a church but not receiving any response from the church.
- Last of the top eight reasons: friends or family left the church and so the person also stops attending to keep peace in the household – just don’t bother trying to go to church anymore.
So, I’ve read the book – followed the sociological research project. Well – I have my own take – and here it is: These are more excuses than reasons.
The primary reason people don’t go to worship (as I see it) is because they don’t know what they are missing, or what they are looking for is not there.
I believe this to be so because an encounter with God, with the wholly other, brings you to your knees, shakes your foundations …
If you have that kind of a spiritual experience – you don’t walk away from it; you want to grow in your relationship with the Divine.
The Pentecost component to our faith gives zip to our day to day living …
Pentecost is about God coming to us – where we are. It is not about us trying to get all excited, pumped. So, my Pentecost prayer for you is that at least once in a while you get a sense of the presence of God in your life: … wonderful if
- it is something that takes your breath away,
- brings you to your knees,
- makes you want to jump for joy,
- run and hug whoever is nearby.
But, if not that moving – at least gives you a deep quiet assurance in the depths of your soul that God is here – in your midst.
In preparing this sermon for today I am seeing three Pentecost type experiences in my life.
First – comes to me after returning back to Canada from a two year assignment in rural India as an agriculturalist. I was living and working among people who were mostly either of Muslim or Hindu faith. I grew very fond of them – very respectful.
Upon returning to Canada I asked myself “Am I a Christian?” So for two or three years, I worked in a Soil Science lab by day on the U of M Campus and went to Philosophy and Theology classes by night. The outcome: I sort of went overboard – and asked the United Church if it would check me out for ordination material!
Second – as an ordained minister of twenty-five years, I was not in a crisis of faith predicament – but I knew enough to know there had to be more.
Again – not an overnight transition – but over the next few years my searching took me to places and people who did open the heavens for me. I am forever grateful to being taught Christian Disciplines –and directed to readings of the saints of our two thousand year history of Christianity. That sort of experience creates in a person a thirst that never wanes. Albeit, you grow into an awareness one never arrives. It is trite but true to say that life is a spiritual journey. Every day with God is a blessing, a gift.
Third –It’s where I am currently “residing”, spiritually speaking. Again – not an overnight phenomena – but believe me – giving me new legs, new passion. I have been watching the United Church National membership numbers decline, M & S dollars drying up – with dire consequences for services provided for the local congregation and for a meaningful presence in the world. Recently our (regional) conference (Manitoba and Northwest Ontario) budget had to be slashed again, and this time the staff person with the children and youth ministry portfolio got a pink slip.
But what I am starting to see – is that our God is bigger than the United Church of Canada Structure. Sure, I would have said this – speaking intellectually – but now I am seeing it at a much deeper and reassuring level. So I am not feeling as discouraged about our Church’s future.
We say Merry Christmas.
We say Happy Easter.
But we don’t go around wishing each other a special blessing at Pentecost (so far as I am aware). So I am wondering what we might wish each other. Of course you can’t go wrong with saying “Blessed Pentecost”.
If we think about the wild experience recorded for us in the Book of Acts – and we want something like that to come our way – we might wish each other a “Whacky Pentecost”.
But that might not go over too well – be misinterpreted.
So I am suggesting we wish each other a “Jubilant Pentecost”.
This descriptive came to me, I checked it out in my Webster Dictionary:
- making noises and demonstrations of joy or triumph
- manifesting or expressing exultation or gladness.
That doesn’t need to suggest all our worries are behind us. It can suggest we have the wherewithal to deal with our woes – because we live and move and have our being with resources beyond our own.
Wishing each other a “Jubilant Pentecost” can remind us that there is no such thing as a dead beat Christian.
I know that I don’t always come across as the most lively person in the world: at least no one has ever walked up to me and tried to take my pulse – to see if I am alive. So, introvert that I am – I still say – there is no such thing as a dead beat Christian.
A week ago last Saturday night – there was no doubt about our Choir and their friends having zest for life – sending us home remembering to laugh at ourselves and the world and sing a happy song.
We do not carry the weight of the world on our shoulders.
The book I have referred to here today is The Meaning of Sunday – subtitled – The Practise of Belief in a Secular Age by sociologist Joel Thiessen from Calgary, Alberta. He concludes his research project about the future of the Christian Church in Canada by suggesting:
“the demand for religion is likely to continue to diminish in light of dominant Canadian values that are generally at odds with organized religious belief and practice as once known in Canada.” (p.190)
The author admits – the exception to this is the growth owing to immigration.
Yes- we need to hunker down so far as the United Church of Canada is concerned. Christianity was once the official religion of the Roman Empire, the so called “Holy” Roman Empire. But those days, (centuries) are coming to an end it seems.
But that does not mean the end to our Christian faith, our God known to us in Jesus and present to us in and through the Holy Spirit. It just means John’s Gospel is shining light on our way: “This Spirit of Truth whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees or knows” is our light. John assures you, assures me … “you know, because the spirit abides with you, is in you”.
John’s Jesus goes on to say “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
Peace I leave with you;
My peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled,
and do not let them be afraid.”
So it is, my friends in Christ, with our God right here with us in and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, I wish you a “Jubilant Pentecost 2016”.