A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Pentecost ~ Acts 2:1-18
I blame Andrew! It’s all his fault – well, his dad’s actually.
You see, Andrew is one of my very best friends. We were the best man at each other’s wedding – and when we were in high school he and his dad invited me to be crew on their sailboat for the local weekly races. I think they had a 28 or 30 footer.
That’s when it started – my absolute infatuation with sailboats and sailing.
When I sit and dream of what I’d do if I had a million dollars (anyone else singing the song in their heads?) I dream of owning a sailboat. My wife keeps telling me that I really chose the wrong profession if I wanted a sailboat – but I figure some preachers seem to get private jets, and a sailboat is puny by comparison, and after all I’m a man of prayer so I’ve at least got a shot! Right?
Man, when I’m on a sailboat and I’m riding the wind I feel like I’m on top of the world!
I am the man. It’s my ship! I am the captain!
Ok, someone who really knows what they’re doing is letting me play captain for a little while, but I feel like the captain! There’s nothing like it.
And even though I have very, very little experience as a sailor, sailing has taught me a lot – especially a lot about faith.
Let me share 3 of my sailing stories with you.
One day Andrew and I and some friends were out for a sail – not a race – and the wind started to come up a bit stronger. I’m a little bit fuzzy about the day and I may have some details wrong (you’ll see why in a second) but I’m pretty sure I was the one holding the tiller (just in case you happen to know even less about sailing than I do, a tiller is the stick that attaches to the rudder that allows you to steer the boat) – well, I was holding it when it broke off.
As I recall we were riding the crest of a giant, 10 foot Lake Ontario wave (!) and having a great time as I kept pulling on the tiller to maintain our angle and speed, and the force was too great, and it snapped.
So there I am – standing there with a tiller in my hand.
“Um, Andrew – what do we do now?”
Andrew leapt into action – barking out orders. We had to get the sail down in a hurry because we couldn’t steer.
In the midst of the confusion, while undoing the sheets (the side ropes – see, I know stuff!) undoing the sheets that would release the tension on the sail – while I was doing that the boom (that’s the long, heavy, horizontal part of the main sail – did I mention heavy?) well, the boom came flying across and bonked me on the head and knocked me semi-unconscious. (Did I mention these are all true stories?)
A few years after that Cynthia and I were married and we had our honeymoon in Jamaica. We were at one of those all-inclusive resorts where your food and fun were part of the package – which meant we had access to all their sporting equipment at the beach – which meant I was finally able to try my hand at windsurfing. I went down to the sail shack and signed up.
[Jamaican accent] “’Ave you ever done the windsurfing before, mon?”
“No, but I have a little experience sailing boats!” (It wasn’t really a lie.)
So I got up on the training board on the shore and learned how to manipulate the sail, and scoot around to the other side when you wanted to turn, and all that stuff. When the guy thought I was ready he set me up with a board and lifejacket and I headed for the ocean. In the little bay where we were it wasn’t that windy so I was able to begin to maneuver the windsurfer a little and make a couple of little turns.
And then, full of confidence, I moved out a little further – and the wind got a little stronger – and I was still making good little turns.
But then I noticed that as I was concentrating so hard on my turns and my sail that I had kept turning back and forth in one general direction.
I was moving further and further down the beach. So I tried to tack back. And I ended up even further down the beach – and beyond the area of the resort.
Thankfully, the guy from the sail shack took pity on me (or he wanted his windsurfer back, I’m not sure which) and he came out in a boat and brought me home. Cynthia managed not to tease me too much about that one. I guess she thought we were only a few weeks in and she didn’t want to scare me off!
Then when we lived in Ottawa we made friends with a couple of families who had sailboats. (You see – God keeps hooking me up with sailboat people – it’s a sign!) One day our family was invited out with our friend Mark for a sail on the Ottawa River. There we were – 5 of us in a little 16 foot sailboat – setting out on the river. But there was a problem. As luck would have it, we were out on one of the only dead calm weather days of the year – which meant we spent most of our time not sailing the boat but paddling it!
So – how does any of that teach me about faith?
Well, what it teaches me is that the power of the “wind” is awesome. (And yes, you’re supposed to hear this as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit.)
In the first story I fought too hard against the wind and paid the price with a bonk on the head.
In the second story I let the wind blow me around too much and didn’t do enough to work with it.
And in the third story I learned that without the wind travelling is very slow and exhausting.
The mighty wind in today’s reading from the book of Acts is the Holy Spirit.
Acts 2:1-4 When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
In Hebrew the word is ruach – in Greek the word is pneuma – and we translate that as Spirit – as breath.
The Spirit that moved across the waters of creation in Genesis was the ruach of God – the breath of God – the Spirit of God. And that very same Spirit – that pneuma – is what Jesus promised would be given to his followers – to those who were anxiously, hopefully, faithfully waiting for God’s gift.
It came in a dramatic way at Pentecost; on the day that the Jewish people were celebrating their ‘Festival of Weeks’ – the remembrance of the time that Moses received the law from God – the 10 Commandments.
But this time – for the followers of Jesus – what God gave was not the law but God’s own Spirit, that seemed to them like a mighty, powerful, wind. God’s Spirit – God’s breath – revived, renewed, and animated the disciples who had been in hiding since Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it literally propelled them into the streets where they began to share the message of God’s presence, forgiveness, and love that they had learned through Jesus.
God’s Spirit – breath – the holy wind – brought them new life and new passion for ministry.
It was strong – it was powerful – it was awe-some.
Now think back to my sailing stories.
If the disciples were to fight too hard against the Holy Spirit, and resist or underestimate its power, they’d only end up frustrated and lose the ability to do the good they were called to do. If you dig in your heels the Spirit can’t take you anywhere.
You’ve got to work with the Spirit as it blows where it will.
But you also can’t just allow yourself to be blown around by it.
God doesn’t want puppets or robots that do whatever they’re told without question. God created us with free will. We have goals and ambitions and drives. It’s part of being human. Striving is good for you.
I frequently urge us to surrender to God – but to surrender to such a point that you offer nothing of your own will to the Spirit is – in my opinion – pretty useless for God.
I believe God wants our passion in conjunction with the Spirit – in partnership. It’s synergy.
We need the Spirit to animate us, and the Spirit needs us to animate.
Together we can do, as Jesus said in John 14, “even greater things” than he himself did.
If you just totally give yourself over to the praise, and worship, and reverence of God you can end up, as they say, “so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good!”
When we surrender ourselves to God and open ourselves to allow God’s Spirit to transform us we don’t give up total control of our lives.
No, instead we let down our defences and allow the Spirit to reorganize and redirect our lives.
Giving ourselves over to the Spirit doesn’t create “me minus” but rather “me plus”.
If anything, “me minus” happens when we think we can do it all on our own and forget to rely on the power of the Spirit to move us – and inevitably we find ourselves paddling around in a boat that was designed to be moved by wind. (!)
The ideal of the Spirit-filled life happens when we live in that holy tension of riding the dynamic wave of our will and the Spirit’s power.
Too much of me and the tiller breaks – too much of the Spirit and I stop being me.
What we need is that divine balance that propels the best of our gifts in the direction that the Spirit leads.
It’s another paradox of faith: the place where we are most at peace is the place where we have learned to balance that holy tension of God’s will and our will.
Do you know what the most efficient and powerful way to sail is? – the fastest and best way to get the most out of your journey?
You’d think that it would happen when a boat with its spinnaker flying (that’s the really colourful sail at the front!) – when it’s running purely downwind in the exact direction that the wind is blowing.
But it’s not.
When the wind is directly behind you it kind of pushes you – but it doesn’t lift you up and let you glide across the water.
A sailboat is actually faster when it’s running downwind at an angle – with some tension in the sails – not running only where the wind is pushing but working and striving simultaneously with and against the wind to achieve even more together.
Do you know what that’s called? (Yes, I looked it up!)
You’re going to love this!
In sailing it’s called a “broad reach”.
A broad reach.
Can you believe it?
When you get in tune with the wind – (the Spirit) – and move in the direction it’s blowing – but still create some tension by using some of your own will in conjunction with that wind (Spirit) you achieve something called a “broad reach”.
Isn’t that exactly what the church wants?
A broad reach?!
Yes, go where the Spirit goes – because without the Spirit you’ll be doing a lot of paddling – but go with that tension of being Spirit-driven AND being yourself too. A broad reach. I love that!
But I hope you notice that it isn’t exactly smooth sailing.
It’s wild, and powerful, and edgy, and keeps you slightly off-balance. It’s no Sunday pleasure cruise.
God’s message of presence, forgiveness, and love will “reach” most “broadly” when we work in holy tension with the Spirit of God.
That is the power of Pentecost.
That was what brought about the birth of the Church that day – when the Spirit blew through the disciples and propelled them – despite their prior fearfulness – out into the world to tell their story and the story of Jesus – not just to each other – not just to their town – but to the whole world.
A broad reach indeed!
The Spirit comes – we unfurl our sails and allow them to fill – and we head out on our journey – because sailboats weren’t made to look pretty in the harbour, they were created to sail!
May we all find that holy tension – that beautiful balance of our will and the will of God – and set sail on a Spirit-filled broad reach.