Liminal Spaces

Sermon Title: Liminal Spaces

Date: 30 November 2014

Preacher: Kate Lord

Church Calendar Date: First Sunday of Advent 2014

Lectionary Reading:  Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Mark 13:27-36

 

In the name of our Trinitarian God.  Amen.

Today, I want to begin by talking about liminal spaces.  A limen is like a threshold, but rather than being at a door between the outside and the inside of a house, it is a doorway between two rooms within a house.  A liminal space is a period of time between two different realities, when we have left one reality, but have not yet arrived in the next.  Examples of liminal spaces include getting engaged, when we are no longer single, but we are not yet married: the old rules no longer apply but the new way of living has not been realised; or being pregnant: one is no longer without child (pregnant women are described as being ‘with child’), but we are not yet parents; changing jobs, moving house, going on holiday, being sick, grieving the death of a loved one.  These are all liminal spaces.  The old reality is gone, and we are in a state of flux.  Such times may be accompanied by feelings of grief for what has been left behind, or anger about the past.  We may experience relief, and even guilt.  But there may also be excitement about the future, as well as uncertainty, anxiety and even fear.  Often it feels like we no longer know who we are.  And that is quite normal and quite correct!  We are not the same person we were prior to entering a liminal space.

I am currently in a liminal space, where I have been accepted as a candidate for ordination, but am not yet ordained.  I am adjusting my thinking about who I am.  I am no longer just a family and youth minister, free to remain here or change jobs at will.  I have signed my life away to the Church and the Navy, and those two institutions will play a large part in directing my future.  But I am not yet a Deacon.  I have no authority to do any of the things that ordination will allow me to do.  Today I am wearing white, which is Susanne’s idea, to help you (and probably me!) visualise who I will become, but am not yet.

We as humans are not comfortable in liminal spaces.  We prefer certainty and control, neither of which are aspects of such times!  It is important, therefore, that we do not rush ourselves through liminality.  We will learn much more about ourselves and our world if we enter into it.  When we find ourselves in liminal spaces, as we inevitably will, it is good to slow down, to take time out, to be gentle with ourselves.  We need to find out who we are, reflecting on who we have been and where we might be going.

At the same time, we need to be gentle with the people around us.  As we change, so will all our relationships.  One of my lecturers this year warned us that people will treat us differently once we are ordained.  Some people will find that fact that I am becoming a member of the clergy alienating.  People modify their behaviour and speech around priests, and I expect that some people in my life will do so.  Likewise, we are treated differently once we are married than we were when we were single; once we are parents, people treat us differently; when we end a relationship or get divorced, people treat us differently; when we are sick or injured, people treat us differently; when a loved one, a parent, a spouse or a child dies, people treat us differently.  And this is to be expected, because we are no longer the person we were, and we see the world differently.  So as well as being gentle with ourselves, we need to be gentle with those around us.  As we change, so will the nature of all our relationships.

Liminal spaces call us to enter into not knowing.  It is often good to have a companion on this journey!  A spiritual director, a psychologist, a mentor: an experienced person who will journey alongside us, to whom we can talk about and with whom we can reflect upon who we are and who we are becoming.

Why do I talk about liminality today?  Well, today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is a liminal space!  The old liturgical year has finished; the new one begins today.  We are, once again, waiting for Christ.  It is not yet Christmas, despite all evidence to the contrary.

But Advent is not just about the historical waiting, by Mary and Joseph and generations of Jews, for the coming of the Messiah.  And it is not just about this four week period of wondering when we should put up our Christmas trees and debating how soon we can tuck into the mince pies.  Advent is a time when we take seriously our waiting for the second coming of Christ.  This is what today’s gospel reading speaks about.

We live in an in-between time.  Christ has come, in the person of Jesus, about 2000 years ago.  And the world is different because of that.  God-become-human in the person of Jesus Christ has shown us what God is like.  He has spoken to us about what is required of us as Christians.  In the past six weeks we have read the Beatitudes, calling us to be humble and meek; the two great commandments, calling us to love God, our neighbours and ourselves; Jesus’ reminder that whatever we do for the least among us we do for him; and, as again today, exhortations to keep watch!  We know that this is what is required of us, because Jesus tells us so.

And yet, the kingdom of God is not fully realised.  There is still poverty, homelessness, disease and war.  We do not yet live in the kingdom of God.  It has been inaugurated by the first coming of Christ, but has not yet been consummated in the second coming of Christ.  We live in this millennia-long liminal space.  And that liminality is accompanied by all the feelings I mentioned above: anger, fear, guilt, and grief about the state of the world.  We do no know who we, as a human race, are becoming!

During the week I was having a Facebook conversation with some atheist friends.  One of them had posted a great info-graphic to help people picture the scale and vastness of the universe.  He asked, “Would someone please explain to me how they can, in light of this, believe in God?”  I made a good attempt at it!  The conversation, which lasted a couple of days, was very interesting.  One person commented that God has abandoned us.  God apparently did something special 2000 years ago, but has disappeared since then.  There are wars and natural disasters, and no evidence that God cares anything about the fate of humanity.  Such assertions are not uncommon, but I might also suggest that they are not entirely unreasonable.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is recorded as saying to his hearers, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”!  Christ’s return was expected imminently at the time this gospel was written, around 70 A.D.!  So his disciples waited, expecting Jesus to return in glory, ushering in the new heavens and the new earth, any day.  But Jesus didn’t return, at least not in the way they expected.  As the years and the decades passed, and those who had heard these words were dying out, the disciples would have wondered if God had abandoned them.

This speech by Jesus in Mark’s gospel is integral to our understanding of Mark’s worldview.  This particular gospel is unique in that it does not have a resurrection appearance of Jesus.  I know that it seems odd to speak of Easter during Advent, but there is a connection!  At the end of the gospel according to Mark, the risen Jesus does not appear to anyone!  Not to the women in the garden, not to Thomas in the upper room, not to the disciples on the beach.  Instead, a young man in white appears to women at the tomb, and announces, “Jesus has been raised!  Go and tell the disciples that he has gone ahead of them to Galilee”.  The women flee in terror, and say nothing to anyone.  And that is where the gospel traditionally ends!

Why is this important in the context of today’s reading?  Mark does not see the resurrection as the end of the story.  He looks to the second coming of Christ as the culmination of his gospel![1]  He makes us wait to see Jesus until he comes again in glory.  In the meantime, Mark tells Jesus’ disciples, tells us, to go back to Galilee, to the place where the gospel began.  We are encouraged to start reading the gospel again, to witness with fresh eyes the miracles of Jesus, to hear anew the stories of the kingdom of God.  Doing so will change us.  We will not be the same people after our encounter with Christ as we were before.  We may gradually come to realise that the fulfilment of the gospel of Jesus Christ will be in his second coming.

I wonder to what extent you and I look for that day.  When I was 16, I would spend lunchtimes with my Christian friends, imagining where we might be when Jesus returned.  But I suspect that most of us no longer imagine that that will happen.  Instead, we see this story as a metaphor, imagining that it refers to my meeting with Jesus as I step through that doorway we call death.

And I wonder if, in letting go of this understanding of Christ’s second coming, we, as Christians, have lost something.  Have we lost the diligence, the urgency, the passion that comes with expecting Christ’s imminent return?  Do we pray, with Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”?  Today’s gospel reading end’s with Jesus’ exhortation to keep awake!  We do not know, and not even he knew, when the second coming will be.  But we are called to watch, to be awake.

So I wonder if we are awake.  Are we ready?  Are we following the advice of our fridge magnets, and living each day as if it is our last?  Because whether our meeting with God is individually, in our own death, or corporately, in some heavenly extravaganza, our last day will come, and probably when we least expect it.

If we truly grasped this reality, I think we would live differently.  I think we would hold onto this life more lightly.  Because when we expect this life and this world to go on forever, when we live as if this is all there is, we build up for ourselves treasures here.  We buy nice houses, we invest for retirement, we spend money in ways that bring us temporary happiness.  Now, I’m not saying that we should not do these things!  But these things can easily become our purpose in life, the end rather than a means to an end.

If, however, we truly believed that Christ will come at a time that is unknown, and today’s reading points to this imminent reality, would we live differently?  Would we re-evaluate what we do with our time, money and energy?  If we truly believed that the Church has the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, and that this good news needs to be taken to all the world, would we invest more of our time and money into the work of the church?  Would we invest more of our emotional energy in the church?  I suspect that, if we did the former, the latter would follow, because where our treasure is, there our heart will be.  If we give to God sacrificially, so that we actually feel the pinch, rather than from our excess or leftover, we will find that our commitment will also increase.

You, as a parish, are in a liminal space.  You agreed, at last Sunday’s AGM, to enter into a time of discernment of where God is calling you.  Everything is up for grabs.  To what will you commit, you who are called to minister in this church and this community?  What are you willing to dare so that this place might thrive, and continue to point people to God into your second century?

Maybe, this Advent, we need to spend time meditating on the more fundamental questions.  Do we believe the good news of Jesus Christ, including the Advent message that he is coming again?  Are we working to hasten the coming of the kingdom of God?  Or do we wonder if God has abandoned us?  Do you wonder if God has abandoned you?  (This is a reasonable question, one that we all ask at some stage, and one that is worth sitting with.)  Do you need to find a companion for your journey through this liminal space, someone who will help you find hope?

 

The fig tree in my backyard has put forth leaves on tender branches, and I know that summer is near.  Likewise, I see signs in the world around me that Christ is near, perhaps as near as my next conversation.  I commend each of us to hopefulness, to gentleness, and to watchfulness.

The Lord be with you.

[1] Brendan Byrne, SJ, A Costly Freedom: