"A Liminal Moment"
Scripture – John 14:15-21
Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, May 17, 2020
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Although Maundy Thursday was more than five weeks ago, today's gospel lectionary reading catapults us back to the Last Supper. We peer into a room somewhere in Jerusalem to discover the disciples sheltering in place as they share the Passover meal. In the previous four days, Jesus had heightened tensions with the authorities. The political rulers were on edge after his provocative entrance into the city when his followers hailed him as king. In the days following, he sparred with the leaders of the temple undermining their clout with the crowds. So today's passage places the disciples in a situation similar to ours today. They are tucked away in the safety of a cocoon, but wary of the threat lingering outside of their shelter.
Also, like us, they have no idea what comes next. Once the imminent frightening time clears, they hope to return to what they knew. Yet they suspect that it will not be entirely possible, so their thoughts drift to what might become their new normal.
What about you? What do you think will be different after Covid-19 is finally conquered? Will we be hesitant to shake hands, to hug, to stand too close to each other? Will our dread of catching a disease from someone else ever disappear? Will our desire to keep a physical distance from others make us emotionally distant? As people work and shop more online, how will that impact social relationships? Having fewer interactions with strangers, will people become more paranoid of others? Will those who rode crowded buses, subways, and trains, switch to cars thereby further clogging our roadways? Is the cruise industry finished?
On a brighter note, as people have become more mindful of our interconnectedness, will that prompt us to become more considerate of others? Will we be more appreciative of those who process, pack and deliver our food? Will we get more exercise and take better care of our bodies? There is a new awareness that the health of others impacts our own health. Will that lead to health care for everyone? Will people be more grateful for the gift of life? Will there be a spiritual awakening?
We are living at one of those junctures when we know the future will be different from the past, but we're unable to predict the ways it will be different. We are living in a liminal moment. Liminal comes from the word "limen" which means threshold. A liminal moment is when we are on one side of a threshold, but on the verge of crossing it to the other side.
We often think of a liminal point as marking an era before and after a tragedy. Life seemed more innocent before President Kennedy was assassinated. Life seems more jaded afterward. Every parent whose child has died marks time as before and after they crossed a dreaded threshold. 9/11 was a liminal moment awakening us to terror.
Liminal moments can also denote a period of time before and after something changes your life for the better. Life before you met the love of your life and life after you discovered your true soul mate. Every couple who has a child knows that you cross a significant threshold when you go from being childless to your first born.
At the Last Supper, the disciples were living on one side of a threshold, but they were about to cross it, and their lives would be forever changed.
As they share the meal, Jesus says, "Little children, I am with you only a little longer." The disciples grow still and brace themselves. Peter gives voice to what all of them are wondering: "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus responds by talking about laying down his life and going to be with God.
As his words sink in, the disciples become anxious. They wonder what they will do after he is gone. They know that life is about to change, but in what ways?
Today, many know they are living in a liminal space. I think about the young people who are graduating and had been planning to start a new career. They had spent years thinking about what they would do after school ended; then, without warning, the world flipped. Trying to perceive what comes next is more difficult than ever. A few months ago they had several options, now – who knows?
Millions are out of work and have no idea when or if their place of employment will reopen. Many fear being cut from the payroll. Business owners lie awake at night wondering if they will endure this crisis or become a casualty of this global pandemic.
Teachers are living in a liminal space. How will schools reopen? Will teachers resume instructing as before, or will they need to hone their online skills to teach virtually? How will teachers handle the anxiety of knowing that being around dozens of children every day raises the risk that they will be exposed to Covid-19?
Many should be able to relate to the situation of the disciples at the Last Supper. The 12 were anxious and afraid and bewildered by what would come next. Aware of their distress and knowing that the road ahead would be demanding, Jesus says, "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with your forever."
Any idea what Jesus was alluding to when he used the word "Advocate?"
The Greek word that some Bibles translate as "Advocate" actually has multiple meanings that cannot be encompassed by one English word. The word connotes Comforter, Exhorter, Supporter, and Counselor." Jesus is referring to what we know as the Holy Spirit or God's Spirit. To assure his followers that they will not be rudderless after crossing the threshold, Jesus assured them that God's Spirit would take his place and be with them forever.
Christ's words were heard by the original disciples, but spoken for all of his followers in every age. We are not cut off from the One who infuses us with energy and inspiration. We are not cut off from our source of meaning, guidance, and hope.
The current moment is an extraordinary opportunity that we should not let slip by. When sheltering in place ends, and we step out to rejoin society, we will have a chance to help forge the future. Each of us can go back to how we were thinking and acting before this global pandemic shoved us inside of our homes. Or, we can emerge as a changed-for-the-better person.
Fred Craddock was one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century. He was baptized when he was fourteen – not sprinkled, but dunked. The day he was baptized, his minister preached from the verse: "If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above." Craddock says, "As I walked home with my wet clothes wrapped in a wet towel under my arm, I tried to think what that meant. You know, after you've been raised from the dead, you don't look the same, sound the same, talk the same, do the same. But what do you do? How do you talk? What do you sound like?"
He continues, "I went to school Monday morning thinking: Is anybody going to know that I've been raised? Should I dress a little better? It wouldn't hurt. Do I talk another way? Do I throw in a verse of scripture now and then? What do I do at baseball practice? Are they going to say, 'Well, looks like he's been raised from the dead.' (After you have been raised) how do you talk? How do you relate to others?"1
God continually urges us to bring forth our best self – not the self that is focused inward and not the plastic cookie cutter self that is unrecognizable from others, but our best self.
Could there be a longing in your soul, a tugging at your heart, a whisper in your ear to come out of this crisis changed? Raised? More Christ-like?
How will you look? How will you talk? What will you do?
Prayers of the People ~ Gregory Knox Jones
Eternal God, in this moment, we need to breathe slowly and deeply. We need to recognize that, in this surreal time in which we are living, our confidence has diminished. We are not as steady on our feet these days because we are living in a time between what is known and comfortable, and what is unknown and uncertain.
We have worries. May we keep them in perspective and refuse to allow our anxieties to overwhelm us.
We have fears. May we have the courage to stand resolute and not allow the things that frighten us to gain the upper hand.
We have questions. May we have the patience to live with unknowns and not allow them to frustrate us.
Gracious God, we pray that in this liminal moment, we will seize the chance to reflect on our lives. May we affirm the ways are we living in harmony with Christ by: comforting others, seeking justice, speaking truthfully, extending respect, caring for your creation, being generous, showing humility, exuding joy, and inspiring hope.
Loving God, in the current moment many of us are enjoying the shelter and safety of our homes. But one day we will step out of our secure situations and step into a world that has been altered by this global pandemic. We pray that we may follow your guidance and seek to become change agents for a better world – a world that is less harsh and divisive; a world that is kinder and more supportive of others; a world that aids rather than ignores the least of these.
We pray that each of us may become more loving and forgiving and dedicated to affirming and working for the common good.
Now we remember what Jesus taught us to pray together, saying,
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
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