Gospel: John 17:1-11
1st Reading: Acts 1:6-142nd Reading: 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
Some people are fond of saying, “Whenever God closes a door, he opens a window.” It isn’t my favorite saying. I don’t think of God as closing doors or manipulating human lives like that. I know sometimes we wonder why certain paths are closed to us or why people cut us out of their lives or why people die. Maybe it gives us some comfort to attribute it to God. And maybe it is good that we look from that closed door to see what might be opening up in our lives in another area, knowing the path isn’t closed completely, but there are other ways to get where we are going, even though crawling through a window is kind of a weird way of getting someplace. Maybe it is just about getting some fresh air when the door gets closed!
Sometimes when a door closes, before the window opens, we stand in a kind of liminal space of disorientation and transition, a time of wondering what is coming next.
According to Wickipedia, “In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual's liminal stage, participants "stand at the threshold" between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.”
The Disciples are at a threshold or liminal point, an indefinite time of transition, in the first reading for this morning. Jesus ascends, and they stand there looking up with gaping mouths wondering what just happened to them, disoriented, and unclear about what might be next.
In the reading from 1 Peter, the author is writing to the Christian community which is in this liminal space of disorientation and transition. The author is telling them not to be surprised or lose hope, and the author knows something about being in a position like that, so has some authority to tell them that this disorientation and even suffering can coexist with gladness and even joy.
In the Gospel reading Jesus is praying for the disciples who will be in this liminal space, to strengthen them and give them everything they need to make the transition, the leap, the reformation to the Kingdom of God. We are actually overhearing Jesus praying for us, disciples still in that liminal space of disorientation, still waiting for the promised Kingdom of God.
We all deal with transitions, liminal space differently. Some of us go with the flow more easily than others. Some of us like to have all the answers. Some of us get anxious and protective. Others of us thrive. I tend to like to know where we are going, partly because people expect me to, and partly because I feel more secure knowing the answers. But lately I am more comfortable in the not knowing, and simply holding space for the transition to unfold.
One example of those in liminal space is The Church of God of Prophecy. They know that enforcement of immigration laws in our country are changing. They are wondering when they or their loved ones might be picked up or deported. They are wondering when paperwork might be completed that would grant Mexican citizenship for their children. When that paperwork comes, they pack up and move to a land their children have never known and have a different life than they have had. Many of you have asked me, where they are in their process. They may have received certain letters and completed paperwork, however there are some parts that are simply unknown, disorienting liminal time and space, threshold work that doesn’t reveal what is on the other side of the door or how long it will take to walk through it.
Another example of liminal space is grief. I have never been so deep in it as I am now. The world has changed. Something has been left behind. But what will be has not yet revealed itself. I have not idea how long it will take to cross this lake, this liminal space, but I can tell you I am disoriented. Thankfully, I find many of you in this space with me. I would never wish that anyone have to be here, but I can’t imagine us any other place, and here we are together, disoriented together, grieving our various losses and not having any answers.
The Christian church as a whole is in a kind of liminal space, too. While Christianity still holds a central place in our culture and values, many people are rejecting church as the way to express and live the Christian life. Maybe it is that Christianity is becoming more cultural than religious. It is hard to express, because we’re in this disorienting space which can be hard to define. We’ve left something behind, and we don’t know exactly what we’re doing or where we’re headed.
Here are some things we can learn from the disciples’ experience of liminality.
1. When we get in one of these kinds of situations, a good thing to do is to pray. Jesus prayed to help ground and orient and focus himself and his followers. He prayed for God’s presence. He prayed for awareness of unity and the knowledge that none of them would be alone. He prayed that we would remember who we belong to—God. He prayed to encourage and equip his disciples for living in this liminal time. Even his disciples devote themselves to prayer by the end of the reading from Acts.
2. Liminal time is a good time to be open. The apostles ask Jesus in the first reading, in their confusion, to get them out of it by explaining to them what would be next. They ask, “Is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” Basically, they are asking, “Jesus, is this the time you’re going to do what we expect you to do?” But Jesus asks them to let go of their expectations. They are focused too narrow. Instead of handing them what they think they want and need, God is trying to hand them and everyone something greater, New Life. Then as Jesus is ascending, their focus is upward, longing for Jesus, wanting him back. I picture them all gawking upward and these angels, just like at the tomb, come and ask them, “What are you looking at?” By looking up, they are missing the angels all around them. If they want to see Jesus in their neighbor, they are going to have to let go of their expectations of where he is and look around a little bit. They are going to need to be open.
3. Even during times of disorientation, some things are assured. God is God, powerful and loving. And God equips us, through the Holy Spirit, to meet the unknown with confidence and hope. Partly what gives us confidence is that part of the unknown is known, and that is the destination, the Kingdom of God. We don’t know what it is or where it is, or even when it is, except it is now, and it is among us, and it is about relationship and connection, and there will be no more crying and the wolf will lie down with the lamb. It is good and when it is fully realized it will be good beyond our imagination. We don’t know when it will be fully realized, but we know who leads us there, and we trust the good shepherd to get us there.