Rev. Danielle K Bartz September 18, 2022
John 16:16-22 “Liminal Space”
About a month ago I was watching my friend’s 3-year-old daughter for a few hours as a last-minute babysitting need arose for them. The little girl doesn’t know me particularly well, and as she is not fond of new people, she kept asking me when her parents would be home. As both of her parents are clergy and they were each doing a funeral, I really didn’t know the answer (funerals have fuzzy time commitments around them). I just kept telling her they would be home in ‘a little while.’ Which was, as it always is, a very unsatisfactory answer. My friend’s daughter would look at me with frustration, try to demand a more specific response, and then pout for a few minutes until she would ask me again. We were both relieved when her dad got home.
I kept thinking about that 3-year old’s expression as I read today’s scripture. Jesus uses the phrase “a little while” four times in these few verses and the disciples ask what “a little while” means twice. It is not just 3-year-olds struck with an unfamiliar babysitter who find the idea of ‘a little while’ frustrating, adults do too. It is such an unspecific amount of time that it seems unending to children and difficult to plan around for adults. We all know something will happen or change, but we aren’t sure of the exact hour, so we are stuck with the uncertainty, the unfulfilled expectation, and the frustration that comes with waiting.
In today’s scripture Jesus says, “A little while, and you all will not see me, and another little while, and you all will see me.” With the perspective of history, we know today that Jesus said this a relatively short amount of time before his crucifixion, maybe weeks, and that the absence he was referring to was only three days. So, a ‘little while’ to us is not so ambiguous. But, let’s try to put ourselves in the place of the disciples, who were being told something both difficult to hear and with no idea of what it really meant. Despite his frequent warnings, the disciples never really accepted that Jesus would be killed and were seemingly genuinely surprised when it happened. And after the crucifixion they were equally surprised about the resurrection. They didn’t, couldn’t really, understand what Jesus was telling them. So, it is no wonder they asked over and over again, “what does a little while mean?” They wanted a day and time they could mark and set their alarms for. They wanted to know what would happen and when, with no ambiguity.
What they wanted was a point A to point B plan, with clearly marked times. A metaphor for today may be an airline flight. They wanted to know where they were leaving from, what time, how long they would be in the air, where they were landing, and, again, at what time. That’s what we all want when we are embarking on a journey – clearly defined timelines and destinations. And we all know how remarkably frustrating it is when that doesn’t actually happen. I was once on a flight from Cleveland to Portland, ME. There was a storm over Portland as we arrived, so we circled for about 30 minutes before the pilot said he was going to wait for the storm to dissipate before trying to land. After another 30 minutes or so, he decided that wasn’t going to work because the storm wasn’t going anywhere, so instead we were going to land in one of the New Hampshire airports, but we couldn’t fly there on the regular route because of this storm, so we would take the scenic route. Ultimately he said he really couldn’t tell us what time we would arrive nor how we would all get from Manchester to Portland. Looking back, the whole delay only took about 90 minutes or so (not including the bus ride to Portland), but it felt like we were just aimlessly flying around for an eternity. I distinctly remember pleading with the pilot in my head to just land the plane so I could get on with my life. I hated being stuck without a clear destination or timeline. That is what Jesus is telling his disciples – something is going to happen that you cannot really understand, in other words the destination is not known, and it will happen in an unknown amount of time. Prepare to be frustrated.
There is an increasingly in-vogue term for this in-betweenness that Jesus was referring to – liminal space. Liminal means a time of transition, when one thing has ended or is being left, but the new thing hasn’t arrived yet. What’s more, liminal space includes within it the acknowledgment that the new thing isn’t clear. It is a transition time with an unknown destination. It’s the ‘little while’ Jesus was referring to and the disciples questioned. Liminal space is being talked a lot about in church leadership circles right now. We know that church is no longer what it was in the 80s or 90s, or even 2019, and we know we are heading somewhere new, but we aren’t sure where, how we will get there, or how long it will take. We aren’t even sure we will know when we have arrived. Church historian Phyllis Tickle calls this period the 500-year church garage sale. Looking back on the history of the church since its foundation following the Easter miracle, Tickle noticed that about every 500 years the Church goes through a time of major transition. The Great Schism and the Reformation being the two clearest examples. We are in that 500-year mark right now, with the Reformation 505 years ago.
I find that analysis a bit comforting, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find the uncertainty of this liminal time any easier. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr said, “Liminality [is] that space humans hate to occupy where the biblical God is continually taking us.” Nothing could be more true. Humans are, by our nature, uncomfortable with liminal space, yet as we look through the scriptures which are the foundation of our faith, God seems to revel in placing us in that space. From Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden, uncertain of where they will go or what they will do, to Noah living on an ark for an unknown amount of time, to Jonah being stuck in the belly of a whale not sure what would happen next, to Paul being struck blind and helpless on the road to Damascus unsure of what would become of himself, and of course Jesus in a tomb with resurrection an impossibility in the imaginations of the disciples. Liminal space is where God seems to love to place humanity. Perhaps that is because liminal space is where God can most easily get our attention.
I said last week that the church, both 1st Congregational and the Christian Church with a capital ‘C’, is in need of a re-set after the chaos of the last few years and that this season was a great time for that because, in North America at least, the end of summer and the beginning of fall is often thought of a time of more intentionality. And I meant what I said. This is a time for us to make space for something new. But this is also a liminal time when we aren’t sure of what that something new will be or when it will get here. So, the temptation is to fret and moan and float through the time hoping someone else will take care of things. The temptation is to be idle during liminality. But, what if we instead to pay closer attention to God and what God is up to in our lives. If we aren’t so focused on the old habits and we don’t quite know what the new routines are, it gives us the ability to pay attention to what is happening right now and to embrace the moment fully. It is a time when we can give our attention more fully to God.
The trick is to trust that God is active in this time, that God is leading us somewhere, and that God knows where that somewhere is. That trust, or perhaps hope is the word that better resonates with you, is likely something we will have to keep working at. I won’t pretend that it will be easy nor will I pretend that any of us will be particularly good at it. But, here is the thing my Beloved Community, if Christians are anything, we are Easter people. “We are Easter people and alleluia is our cry.” There is a reason I tell you that over and over again. Because as Christians we know that resurrection is the promise, that new life is our future, that the things that feel like death aren’t the end. We know it, though we don’t necessarily understand it, and at times it is hard to trust in it. But God is actively creating the world around us, God is actively at work in this moment, and God is pointing to something. If we can focus on that, if we can be intentional in this time of transition, not idle, if we choose to claim our call to be co-Creators with God and hold onto the hope of the Easter promise, then this period doesn’t have to be filled with frustration. It can be a time of great joy. The “little while” of Jesus’ guidance to the disciples may have left them unsatisfied, but let’s not forget the promise that came with it, “your hearts will rejoice,” Jesus told them, “and no one will take your joy from you.” Amen.
Gracious God, we know you work within your own time, but that you never leave us to contend with our time on our own. You were there yesterday, you are here today, and you will be with us tomorrow. For this continuous presence in our lives, we are grateful. And it is in this spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
It seems a bit unfair, God, that you created us to be creatures of schedules but that you seem to always place us in seasons that don’t conform to our need for those schedules. We confess to you this frustration, and ask for your grace as we struggle, rebel, or fall into apathy. Help us to open our eyes and our spirits to see that you are moving around and through us, that we are creating something new with you, and that you have pointed to something for us to work towards. Even though we aren’t quite sure where or what it is, give us the strength to keep walking the path with you.
In the midst of all of this, God, we hold onto one of the great constant comforts in our lives of turning over to you the prayers we carry, prayers for ourselves and prayers for others. Now in these moments of silence we offer to you those prayers…
Great and loving God, you are at work in our lives and in the lives of all, and it is in prayer that we can glimpse that work. We pray all of this, and so much more, in the name of Jesus Christ, who showed us what it means to live with intentionality and purpose, even in liminal spaces. And we pray now in the way he taught by raising our voices together…Our Father…