Sunday, May 28, 2017

Not the Same Anymore: The Liminal Places

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. Acts 1:6-14 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.

Over these weeks of Easter, I’ve spent each Sunday preaching on our readings from the book of Acts--which we often call the second half of Luke’s Gospel. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the activity of the early church and, particularly, of God’s activity in the early church as narrated in Acts. It is activity that shows us just how intrusive God is. After the incarnated, crucified, and resurrected Jesus ascends to heaven, returning to sit at the right hand of God and to retain the same power and authority as the Father--it is after all of this has happened, that we have seen how, over and over, God continues to intrude into the world and to disrupt it by spreading the Good News.  

We have also seen how the people we’ve met in Acts have found themselves challenged by simply trying to keep pace with God. That sometimes--often--it is only in hindsight that the early Christians can even begin to make sense of the work God is doing. That only by looking backwards can they begin to see God at work building God’s kingdom on earth.

We saw, as we walked with the church, in its early days, that everything was held in common. No want, no need, no one considered an “other.” We also saw, as we continued that journey with the early church, that things began to fall apart. That, particularly, things seemed to come crumbling down with the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The first of many. 

We’ve travelled far with the early church. With our intrusive God. With the disruptive Gospel. But today, we are moving backwards in time. We are stepping back in time to the point before the ascension. Back to the days after Jesus’ resurrection.

As our Acts story begins today, Jesus has been with the disciples for forty days since he rose from the dead. In the verses that precede our text, we read ithat, after his suffering, Jesus presented himself alive to the disciples by many convincing proofs and appeared to them during that 40-day period, speaking to them about the coming kingdom of God and directing them to remain in Jerusalem until they would be showered with the Holy Spirit. 

It is here that our story today begins. And it just continues to amuse (and, yes, frustrate) me that, even after all the disciples have witnessed, after all of the things that Jesus has taught them, after everything they have been through, they still just don’t quite get it. After all of it, they still ask, “Is it now, Lord? Now will you restore the kingdom to Israel?” Still looking for that all-powerful Messiah to restore Israel and to restore their earthly power. They just don’t get it.

Jesus’ response is simply that it is not their place to know. That it is God, and not them, who is the one here with power and authority. That it is God who is the one who sets the times or periods of history, not them. Not as much as they would like to.

Then, shortly after saying this, Jesus is gone from them. Ascended up into heaven. Leaving them, seemingly, alone. And on their own.

This past week, I think most of you know that I was attending a conference in San Antonio, Texas. It was a Festival of Homiletics. (Homiletics is just a fancy word for preaching.) The festival consisted of five glorious days of preaching! (I can see how excited that makes all of you!) Five days spent with nearly 2,000 preachers from across the U.S. and Canada, listening to about 3 sermons and 2 lectures each day from some of the biggest and best preachers across the United States. For me, at least, it really was glorious. 

Yet, one of the oddest lectures I listened to was that presented by Jennifer Lord, who is a professor of preaching and liturgical studies at the Austin Presbyterian Seminary. The title of her lecture was “Way In and a Way Out: Preaching and Liminality in a Culture of Change.” Sound scintillating? Yeah, I didn’t think so either. But, since I was already in that particular venue and since it was hot outside and the other venue was about 10 blocks away, I decided to stay.

It was a pretty theoretical lecture. It felt a little over my head and, to be honest, I couldn’t really get the relevance of the topic she was presenting to preaching. So, after about 30 minutes of listening to her lecture on liminality and liminal places, I left. And I moved to the other venue to catch the second half of another, more dynamic, speaker.

Since then, though, the concept of liminality has popped up in several places--in readings and in a couple of programs I’ve watched over the past few days. In fact, it has kind of been in my face. Have you ever had something like that happen--when you dismiss a possibility and it just keeps coming back, again and again?

So, I decided to do a little more research on liminality. I found out that the concept of liminality was first developed in the early 20th century. It was first used in anthropology in the area of ritual studies. More recently, usage of the term has been expanded to include political and cultural places. 

Liminality, or liminal places, are those places in-between, places of transition. They are places in which those involved are standing at the threshold of something new. That place where there’s no going back, but you can’t go forward, at least not yet. Liminal places are those places where the old places begin to be dissolved and transformed into something new.

Many of us experience such liminal places in our lives. When something dramatic happens to in one’s life to change things, but the transition to a new place takes time. Such as the time in between the loss of a loved one and the new life that eventually comes forth. Or the time in between the diagnosis of a serious illness and the eventual result--either positive or negative--of such a diagnosis.

The disciples were in such a liminal place. Jesus had ascended and left them. But not before he directed them to remain in Jerusalem until his promise of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon them would be fulfilled. There was no going back. And, yet, there was no going forward. The women and men who had dedicated months and years of their lives were in transition, waiting for God’s next move. Waiting for God to intrude. And, as they waited together at this point of liminality, they devoted themselves to prayer.

I wonder if we would do the same. How often is it that we like to believe that we understand the grand pattern of history. That we are in control. That we know how God is at work in our world, how God is moving God’s kingdom forward. 

When we play this game, it is a dangerous one. It is nothing other than self-serving. There are no end of empires, theologies, churches or governments who claim that history is on their side. It is way too common in our own political discourse here in the United States, as we flip back and forth between the hope in some kind of messianic leader who will save our country or our panic from some kind of perceived armageddon. 

Claiming to know the pattern of history, to know how God is moving the world forward throughout history, doesn’t reflect faith in God, but faith in oneself and solely in one’s wholly inadequate knowledge of the pattern of history. 

In Jesus’ parting words, there are absolutely no hints about the course of history--whether for the disciples or for us. Yet, the disciples, in their liminal place, in their place of transition, knowing they can never return to where they were, yet, not yet fully knowing the way forward, are driven back to a familiar place, to simply pray, to be together, and to wait. To wait for their intrusive God to break in and to move forward. And, then to hold on as the Spirit would push them forward out of their liminal space into new experiences, into new places, into new lives.

We, too, here at Grace and Glory are in our own liminal place. Trying to figure out where we go next, to understand what God intends for us, or how God intends to take us there. Just what it is God has in store for Grace and Glory Lutheran Church. 

So, just like the early disciples, we wait and pray. We pray for the Holy Spirit and we wait for God to push us forward into those new places, into those new experiences, and into the new lives where we will never be the same anymore.

It will happen. Just as it happened for the disciples, it will happen for us. In God’s time. Not ours. And that is simply enough.

May God grant it in God’s time. Amen.

Preached May 28, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

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