St. Paul’s Congregational Church
October 11, 2020; Exodus 32:1-14; Phil 4:1-9 – Proper 23A
We all know the expression – in life, change is the only true constant – and so many of life’s changes occur over long periods so we sometimes hardly notice them. Yet at other times, we are brutally thrust into change without any warning – except maybe for some seemingly small news articles about the outbreak of a virus in China back in December -January. 2020 has been quite the year, hasn’t it – record setting numbers of hurricanes hitting our Gulf Coast – wildfires raging in the western states – melting of glaciers – climate change is real!
A global pandemic: schools closed, re-opening, then closing again – over 215,000 persons lost to COVID – a tanked economy with the worst job loss since the great depression – people in line to receive food from Food Banks longer than ever before! And there’s this election season – unlike anything we’ve ever seen before or could have imagined. In the midst of all this chaos are the “normal” changes of life: illness of loved ones, retirement, job changes, moving, weddings, funerals – easy to become overwhelmed, exhausted, tired of just trying to keep up. The list of changes we’re experiencing goes on and on, doesn’t it.
Even more distressing, the process of change can also linger for a very long time – making the experience even more unbearable. A theologian has described this change as “entering and inhabiting liminal space.”
So, what is a liminal space? The word itself comes from the Latin root word, “limen” which means “threshold.” Liminal spaces are transitional or transformative spaces. Liminal spaces are in-between spaces, where our former ways of being are challenged or changed. And so often, they are terribly hard spaces to live in, spaces of disorientation and discomfort and great sadness, even anger.
What do the people of God do we find ourselves in liminal spaces – when we have been waiting too long for resolution? What happens when we get impatient, when we worry all the time? Do we rush to action in anger? Do we work hard to muddle through, pretending that nothing has changed? Do we make rash decisions? Do we build golden calves and worship other gods?
Last week we heard another story of the Israelites journey through the wilderness – that of the Ten Commandments – and the people pledged to obey all that God had said. Then Moses went back up onto the mountain to get more instructions - the people were happy to wait and hear what Moses had to say in the beginning. They sat at the foot of the mountain and waited. And waited. And waited. They were at a standstill in the desert waiting for Moses as they depended completely on him. In faith, they had followed him. In faith, they committed to obey the word he said God had given him on the mountain. And he had been gone for over a month.
But today, we find the people still waiting but they’re becoming more and more anxious and impatient. They are in the wilderness – that space between Egypt and the Promised Land – in a liminal space and it’s getting old. The people call Aaron to do something – now. And we read of him making a rash decision under pressure. Their fear – that Moses’ delay means he is not returning with the word of God – causes Aaron to cave to the community’s anxiety. He yields to the temptation to create a false substitute for God – something bright and shiny and new – something that looks strong, and most importantly, something they can see, touch, and know is there with them right now.
The problem is that there is not and cannot be a substitute for God. God may be intangible, but God is also irreplaceable. The golden calf may calm God’s people in their anxiety, may bring Aaron peace from their complaining, but it is not a peace that can last. The people of God had a choice. They could have resisted the urge to make an idol and remained in their discomfort, not knowing when Moses would return from the mountain and letting their faith drive them to continue working toward inheriting the Promised Land. No golden calf can speak to and inspire God’s people, and no quick fix can ease anxiety and discomfort. Besides, at times, we need to sit in our discomfort.
For months now, we too have inhabited liminal space. We find ourselves in a wilderness of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. We are cut off from loved ones and experiences that brought meaning to our lives and we are waiting for our lives to return to some semblance of normalcy. Life in pandemic is truly liminal. Liminal spaces have a way of overturning the daily rhythms and practices that give our lives an element of cohesion, manageability, and meaning. They upend those rituals in life that bring us comfort.
But at the same time, while liminal space might put an end to or infringe upon our rituals and rhythms, they can also provide an opportunity to be more intentional and more creative, leading us to develop new rituals. Look at us: 7 months of gathering for worship virtually! Who knew!!! And the outpouring of help for others in our communities! I can’t help but think of the hundreds of meals provided to school children during the summer by Nutley Family Services – food provided, packed, given away by so many volunteers!
There is a healing ingenuity that can arise from fearful and anxious times. Life in a liminal space offers us the opportunity to be intentional about the way we worship and communicate with God. We can be intentional about our needs and also the needs of others. Life in liminal spaces offers us the opportunity for growth and transformation.
There is great spiritual treasure to be found in waiting – the practice of cultivating patience. It’s a practice that raises faith to a profound trust that God is working and moving even when things seem to be going nowhere. And that God’s good time is the right time. But, also in our impatience and worry, our relationships and our health suffer. Sometimes anxiety and uncertainty cause us to seek gods we can control and worship idols that we choose.
As both saints and sinners, we live liminal lives between brokenness and wholeness, between suffering and joy, between focusing on ourselves and focusing on God. It is in these in-between times that we can feel uncertain, frustrated, disappointed, or frightened. It is in these times that we can become impatient.
Yet, it is also in these times that we can find encouragement in the words of St. Paul, when he says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
God is always attuned to God’s people – always intimately aware of what is going on in our lives. God observed the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt and commissioned Moses to seek their freedom.
God saw what was taking place at the bottom of the mountain and became angry with the people for breaking the first and second commandments. They forgot about what God and done for them and the promises they had just made. God wanted to destroy them, but Moses stood in the breach, reminding God of the promise to Abraham – reminding God that the people were God’s people. And God listened – God seeks ways to restore and redeem us and was open to Moses’ intercession. Our God is a relational God who actually listens to people – listens to us and continues to love us always!
How do we get our heads straight? How do we get ourselves out of the mire of fear, of anxiety, of worry, of an insidious focus on what’s best for us and us alone?
One way is to look at Paul’s beautiful letter to the Philippians. Our spirits can be lifted by this elegant love letter to a church for which he obviously cares deeply – even and especially with the irony under this letter: Paul writes it from prison as he faces death for preaching the gospel, for disrupting the empire and its values. He’s not writing it on a good day – a day when he’s surrounded by friends, when things are going well. No – he’s writing from a deeper place, not a dark place though but from a deeper joy – because of his knowledge of and relationship with Jesus Christ. Christ is, among much else, the revelation that God cannot be contained or hoarded. It is this spilling out quality of Christ’s life that accounts for the happiness of Christians, for joy is life in excess.
Eugene Peterson in “The Message” translation of the Bible says it so well: “Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”
This certainly can make a difference in the way we think and act on a daily basis: But when we’re anxious, worried, afraid, we pull in – we feel small and overpowered by what goes on around us. We don’t have a prayer of knowing God’s peace, the peace that passes all understanding. The small “g” gods just can’t do that for us any more than they could for those ancient Israelites.
Jesus calls us to break free! Jesus calls us to a life of joy! Now, that certainly doesn’t mean everything will be great all the time, that sickness won’t strike, that death won’t come unexpectedly.
May we remember that even in our pandemic-driven, liminal time and space, God is with us – present in the changes and chances of our lives. Present in the outer darkness. Present when we are driven to weeping and gnashing our teeth in anger and frustration. Present even when we wander off to false gods and worship idols. God is present, patiently offering forgiveness, and comfort, - this is how we can get our heads straight!
Remember this: the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. The God of peace will always be with you. Let’s think about these things. Let’s thank God for all these things as we navigate this liminal space. So may it be. Amen.