Sunday, June 12, 2011

the giant's causeway


Sermon Whit Sunday 2011
May my words be in the name of the Holy & undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit – amen.

My family and I took a week’s holiday in Donegal last week. It was as far north as we had ever been, and we decided it would be a shame not go just a little bit further and visit the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. It is, after all, a world heritage site and in any case it was hard to resist the chance to see this famous place where the rock formations are so extraordinary that for thousands of years all who saw them found it impossible to believe that this was a natural phenomenon, but instead was something that must have been built by the giant heroes of the distant past.

It was about a three hour drive from where we were staying so we had to make a day of it and get an early start. The weather was miserable – overcast, chilly, with a lot of heavy rain-showers –so you can imagine that the car journey was a bit tedious even though we took the scenic coastal route … because with all the rain it was rather difficult to see the scenery! When we arrived the rain was torrential; so we decided to have our picnic in the car and hope for a break in the weather before chancing the half mile walk down.
By the time we had finished eating the rain had slowed to a drizzle. So it was on with the wellies and the rain coats – and with four boys you can imagine this was proceeded by the usual protests of ‘I don’t need wellies’ and ‘I don’t need a raincoat’; which was met with the usual parental reply of ‘if you don’t put them on then you’re not going’ - and off down the steep path.

By now the rain had cleared completely and there was quite a crowd heading down – a lot of others had also waited for the rain to stop before heading down. When we were about half way down a voice rang out loud and clear: ‘The Giant’s causeway is boring!’ You can imagine how embarrassing that was amongst all these tourists from America, Germany, Japan, and England! It was even more mortifying that the voice belonged to one of my own children! You may be sure I pulled him to one side & spoke some sharp words about not making a show of his family in public like that!

But embarrassed as I was, I could kind of see his point. From where we were standing there was a spectacular view of the coastline, but Ireland is full of spectacular coastlines. From where we were standing, it was hard to see what justified getting up early when we were supposed to be relaxing on holidays for a three hour car journey on a miserable wet day. Indeed, as we began to get closer I began to wonder if the whole thing was going to be a bit of a disappointment ... this was a place I had read about in my school books, heard all kinds of legends and stories about, had heard friends who had visited rave about all my life ... and yet here I was, standing practically on top of it, and all I could see was rocks ... rocks that didn’t a whole lot different to the ones you might see almost anywhere on the Irish coast without having to mount what was practically a military operation in order to see them!

And then, just as I almost felt like gathering the children together and apologising to them for all we’d put them through to get there – especially the one I had given out to for embarrassing the family and the nation before the tourists of the world – suddenly, I began to see it ... I was looking at the rocks and I suddenly realised that the ones at my feet had the famous honeycomb pattern ... I looked up and the whole landscape seemed to change before my eyes ... out of all the rocks that a moment before had seemed so ordinary, the Giant’s Causeway emerged ... it was almost as if the whole extraordinary formation simply melted into view ... basalt columns, some of them 50 or 60 feet high, soaring above our heads, each with its many sided shape nestling snuggling against its neighbours ... and in a moment it was easy to imagine why so many stories have been told about the place down through the centuries about how it came to be ... standing there it was almost impossible to believe that this was something that was not man-made ...

Today is Whit Sunday, the feast of Pentecost, the day when we remember the time when the disciples of Jesus, frightened and feeling abandoned, huddled together in a rented room in Jerusalem, wondering what the future might hold for them, only to have something extraordinary happen to them. The story is told at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, and since St Luke never mentions it again, we might be forgiven for thinking that it was not something that the early church hadn’t seen of being of very great importance, that maybe it is something that we make too much of a fuss about. However, when we begin to really immerse ourselves in the story that we begin to fully understand its meaning. We begin to see is that the story actually occupies a double position in the New Testament: Luke wrote both his account of the Gospel and Acts and intended them to be seen as a narrative whole ... that means that the story of Pentecost is actually set at the very centre of the story he has to tell us ... it is the lynch pin, the turning point ... his Gospel tells us what things were like when Jesus was there ... Acts tells us how they were once he was gone ... and in case anyone missed the point he was making, he begins Acts with the same event that he ends his gospel with, the Ascension. And the first thing that happens as he continues the story is what happened at Pentecost ... and the people who were afraid and hiding when Jesus was with them and afraid and hiding after he had ascended are suddenly changed ... they have the courage to go out into the world and proclaim what they have seen.

Pentecost sets the tone for all what follows in the Acts of the Apostles ... it is the lens through which we are to view and understand all that follows, both in Acts and by extension the whole history of the Church... without that moment of Pentecost it would be easy to see the Church as something that we did ... the work of generation after generation of people ... a remarkable achievement ... but something we can reduce to human terms ... and claim as the work of human hands ... but Pentecost reminds us it is nothing like that at all ... that our Church is something that by all rights should have collapsed and faded into obscurity almost at once ... but that instead the humble, frightened, confused people who were there at the beginning were filled with the Holy Spirit and went out into the world to do extraordinary things ... the church is no more the work of hands than is the Giant’s Causeway ...

Pentecost is the place where we must stand so that something that might otherwise be ordinary can emerge into clear view as something that is incredibly extraordinary ... Pentecost is the lens that takes the safe comfortable view that we have of the Church in the world and melts it into the almost unbelievable reality of what it truly is ... God’s power at work in the world to continue the work that was begun in Christ ...

On the way back up the path to the car, I asked the child who had declared the Giant’s Causeway boring on the way down what he thought ... ‘it wasn’t boring at all Dad,’ he told me. The ordinary had become extraordinary by drawing near and experiencing it for himself. Something that on this feast of Pentecost I pray that you and I and all people may come to know and understand within this church with which God blesses us everyday ... Amen.

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