Many of you know that Gary and I vacationed in Mexico after Easter. Although I took four years of high school Spanish, my current ability to speak is limited to some practical phrases – like asking where to find food, water, and the bathroom. During this particular trip, however, one of the less practical phrases I remembered came in very handy.
I was waiting in line for the restroom (el bano!), which was somewhat long because of some kind of commotion at the front of the line. When I leaned forward to investigate, I saw a young woman, whose appearance and accent suggested she was American, trying to speak to an elderly woman who was clearly a native Spanish speaker. The young woman, near tears, appealed to the line asking if any of us spoke Spanish. When no one else responded, I stepped forward and asked what was going on. The young woman said she had accidentally opened the stall door while the older woman was inside and the older woman, highly offended, had started yelling at her in rapid Spanish. “I keep trying to explain that it was a mistake,” she said, “but she won’t listen.” I turned to the older woman and, in my rudimentary Spanish, took my turn trying to explain – to no avail. “What shall I do”? the younger woman cried despairingly. I thought for a moment and then told her, “Look her in the eye, put your hand on your heart and say, “Lo Siento.” Without even asking me what it meant, the younger woman immediately took my advice, and, sensing that this was important, said it not once but twice – with great sincerity. And the older woman stopped yelling. At that moment a third woman, who was a native Spanish-speaker, arrived and things were resolved in seconds. The younger woman, now on her way out the door, turned to me and asked, “What did I say”? “You said,” I told her, “that you were sorry.”
Although this happened in Mexico, it could easily have occurred in the United States between two English-speakers. As our nation becomes more and more polarized on a number of political and social issues, we seem to be less and less able to communicate with one another. Apologies are out of fashion. Defensiveness is in; civility is out. Social media lets us limit our social circles to people who agree with us, and its anonymous nature permits us to express our opinions in ways that we would never do if we were face-to-face.
We are not particularly good at listening either. Leisurely conversation around the proverbial water cooler is no longer the norm. We work at home, dividing our attention between zoom meetings, childcare, and housecleaning. We don’t have time to process the full sentiments of those who address us; we are happy if we just get the gist. And language is the least of the barriers between us, because what we do understand is often loud and hateful, with a small percentage of people arguing that they have the right to judge, exclude, and persecute others, often invoking the name of our God to justify themselves. We condemn them in our hearts and to our friends, but we are too exhausted to confront them directly. Just the idea of attempting to change our current circumstances is overwhelming.
I’ve been feeling overwhelmed myself lately, wondering if I have the spiritual strength to manage my personal and professional stressors and to follow God’s call for us. I am certainly not the first community leader to feel this way. In today’s Hebrew Scripture, we learn that Moses has faithfully led God’s people on a 40-year trek through the wilderness, fielding their complaints about the food and facing down God’s wrath on their behalf when they stray from the Lord, but now he is tired and lonely. So, Moses speaks to God– and God tells Moses that no individual can respond to the extraordinary needs of humanity alone. We must do it together. Moses must ask for help.
Happily, the people respond, taking on shares of both his burdens and his spirit. Yet even this blessing isn’t without controversy. Joshua reports to Moses that two men who have not registered are prophesying without permission. They have gone rogue! This is not the first theological argument about who has the authority to minister in God’s church and how “church” should be done – and we know it wasn’t the last. We still debate these issues. But Moses’s criterion for prophesying in the Spirit has nothing to do with hierarchy or liturgy. According to Moses, only one thing is required; the presence of the Holy Spirit – and there’s plenty of that to go around. Working together in the Spirit is energizing. It reduces our worries and increases our desire to do more ministry. But we must be open to hearing the voice of God in unlikely places and among improbable people.
That means we cannot afford to shut off the noise of the world around us, no matter how much it hurts our ears. We must learn to sort truth from self-interest, exclusion from morality, light from darkness. We have to listen for God’s call. I believe that Grace Martinez, the Diocese of California, and The Episcopal Church, are all in a period of discernment, needing to collectively determine how we are going to live out the way of Jesus in our own time and our own way. No one of us can do this alone, but we can and will do this together.
I know this because today is Pentecost - and the lesson of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is among us - and her gifts are abundant. The Holy Spirit is violent and powerful, confusing, and astounding. She is the creative force of the universe. She can unify the world. The Holy Spirit might roar into the room, floating on the strains of joyful and familiar music and bright colors, but just as often she will hide in plain view, requiring us to collectively gather to discern her whereabouts. But when we find her, the feeling is unmistakable, because to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit is to know the glory of the unknowable God.
We wear red on Pentecost to remind us of the tongues of fire that appeared to mark the presence of the Holy Spirit among the festival crowd. But the Holy Spirit does not just look like fire– she is all elements: rushing wind, humble earth, blazing inferno, and living water. As John’s gospel reminds us, Jesus promised that when the Holy Spirit came, she would be poured out like water, and that those who drank of that water would never thirst again– not just for physical water, but for anything we have ever wanted or desired. Jesus was telling us that if we access and act on the Holy Spirit within us, our spiritual thirsts will also be slaked. That means we will never again cry out for freedom, kindness, peace, compassion, courage, or love. Justice will roll down in a great flood of righteousness, drowning the evil in our hearts, and filling us with the hope and strength we need to guide this everlasting tide of love into the darkest, driest corners of our world.
Many of you know that my Spiritual Director, The Reverend Anne Jensen, died recently. I loved her very much. We were very different, but in the time that we walked together on this earth I learned a great deal from her. I learned that the fire of the Holy Spirit that burns in me complements the living water of the Spirit that lived in her. I learned that we must nurture the living water that is within us before we can authentically offer this holy refreshment to others. And I learned that we must always, always, seek to listen and communicate with one another in any way we can - because the Holy Spirit can translate anything into the language of “lo siento,” of forgiveness, of love - the language of God. AMEN.