I’ve always found Pentecost to be a challenge for preaching. It’s not that I don’t like the festival or the texts, but that the texts are so rich with imagery that it’s difficult to pin down, so to speak, the Holy Spirit. Is she a dove, like the one that descended on Jesus at his baptism? Or is she fire, like the flames that rested on the apostles, igniting them for prophecy? Or, is she water, like the water Jesus talks about flowing from the believer’s “heart,” though “belly” is a more accurate interpretation? Or, is she she the wind that, in Genesis, blows across the face of the waters before there was even light? Or, is she a cloud, like the one that rested over the 70 elders in the book of Numbers, enabling them to prophesy?
See what I mean? The Holy Spirit’s hard to “catch.” Just when you think you’ve got it, when you think you’ve figured it all out, it changes.A line from The Sound of Music comes to mind: “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?” Or a dove, or a flame, or flowing water, or the wind?
Corky, as you know, is a wonderful historian of Holy Trinity. Every day, it seems, she has a new story to tell. She recently told me the story, for example, of an experience she had with a woman Elizabeth Gray, who was a member here and who occasionally used to help her out in the office. One day, the two of them entered the sanctuary, and on the floor, right in the middle of the steps, was one white feather. Why was it there? How did it get there? They had no idea, but Elizabeth was sure it was a sign that the Holy Spirit had been there, dropping a feather like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs.
I liken it to being at camp, lying on my bunk bed and staring at the bottom of the bunk above me, at the names and initials of those who had so determinedly carved their messages into the wood: “So-and-so was here.” “H.S.–Holy Spirit–was here.” The Holy Spirit had blown through this place…come and gone, but was too elusive to pin down and keep in one place. We’re left to wonder about just who exactly was here and what it was they were up to.
I wonder if that’s also how those 70 elders felt in our story from the book of Numbers. I know it’s usually the Acts story we tend to focus on when we think of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, but it’s this story from Numbers that caught my attention this week. The story takes place while the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. Moses has led them out of Egypt–and slavery–and they’re making their way to the Promised Land, camping along the way. The Lord came to them in a cloud and rested on them and–I love this sentence–“took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders,” and they prophesied. But, we are told, they did not do so again. It’s hard to catch a cloud and pin it down, isn’t it? The Holy Spirit had come and gone. Left her mark, for sure, but otherwise, well, that was that.
Except that there were two people, Eldad and Medad, who were not part of those seventy, but who were prophesying in the camp. One of the Israelite leaders, Joshua, didn’t like this too much. Was it because of what they were saying? Did they look…strange? It’s hard to tell from what we’re given, but one thing’s for sure–just when you think the Spirit has left and has completed her work, she shows up again in unexpected places. And the opposite is true as well–just when you think you’ve pinned her down and get her all figured out, she escapes.
We can certainly see evidence of the Spirit, though it’s often easier to see it after the fact–the ashes left over from the flame, the branches knocked off the trees from the wind. Hindsight is always 20/20, right? I did not live during this time, but I certainly think of Civil Rights Movement as a Spirit-led movement. Those who were prophesying were not the elders–were outside of the tent. Had I lived at the time, however, in my Southern, white, small town community, would I have understood that as the Spirit? Or would it have felt much more like a forest fire, or a flood, or a tornado–threatening and totally destructive? I sure hope not, but there’s no way to tell for sure.
Maybe that’s why there’s so much imagery surrounding this third person of the Trinity–to remind us that we can’t really pin it down or control it. We can only trust in its work, whether or not we can see it at any given time or whether or not it feels comfortable. (Actually, I think a pretty good sign that the Spirit is at work is that, like Joshua, we feel uncomfortable.) We can’t chase after the Spirit to try to pin it down. Such efforts will only lead to fatigue, complacency, and frustration. A much better approach is simply to let the Spirit be what it is, whether it’s fire or wind or a dove or a cloud or water, and do what it does.
Just this weekend, while at our NC Synod Assembly, I heard someone describe her experience of walking what’s called the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Also known as “The Way of St. James,” it’s the route of a pilgrimage in Northern Spain to the cathedral in Santiago that supposedly houses the relics of St. James. You travel on foot, staying at hostels along the way for about $10/night.
It would be easy, on such a pilgrimage, to think only of your destination, that that which is holy lies at the end of the journey. It’s the way I imagine those seventy elders thinking, that you can only prophesy with the spirit under certain conditions. Perhaps Joshua thought that since those seventy hadn’t prophesied again, it wasn’t possible until they reached their goal of the promised land. What this person who walked the Camino discovered, however, which shouldn’t really surprise you, is that the journey itself was holy–that, when you slow down and pay attention, you’ll find that the Spirit is all around. It’s not that she’s come and gone and left her mark or that she’s yet to be found. She is all around. After all, isn’t that what Jesus promised? That he would not abandon those he loved, but that he would leave the Holy Spirit with them to continue stirring them from complacency, the same way Jesus had done while he walked this earth? It’s certainly the way I understand Jesus’ promise.
So what do we do with this insight, that the Holy Spirit has neither left us nor is yet to be found? Well, we slow down. We watch. We listen. We pay attention, especially, I think, to what makes us uncomfortable. We refuse to discredit it. We lean into it, explore it. We ask that bold question: “Is this the Spirit at work?” And then, perhaps the hardest part of this is that we prophesy, telling the truth of what we’ve seen, heard, or experienced.
I know what those places are in my life–the places of discomfort that are worth paying attention to. Do you know what they are in yours? In the life of our congregation? Here’s to the journey of being stirred by the Spirit who was, is, and will be…and trusting in her work.