Texts: Mark 7:1-23 and James 1:22-27
I experienced one of those moments this week that educators often call “teachable moments.” I decided to walk to an appointment I had scheduled near downtown. I thought the exercise would be good for me and at the same time I would be saving gas and doing something good for the environment by being one less car on the road. When I started out from the church, I didn’t think about the fact that it was one of the hottest days of the summer. My teachable moment came at the intersection of St. Mary’s and Hillsborough streets as sweat rolled down my face and back. (And for you Southern belles, I was not glistening. I was in a full sweating meltdown!) Realizing that I was only about half way to my destination, I thought, “This was a bad idea.” In my panic, I thought, “Maybe I should turn around, go back to the church, and get my car.” But as soon as I had that thought, I also thought, “You’re half way there crazy lady. Keep going.” Later, as I reflected on that moment, I remembered having heard of this idea of liminal space: the place between two worlds. I thought about my experience there at the intersection of St. Mary’s and Hillsborough. For a moment I stood between two worlds-that of going back or moving forward. Liminal space some call it.
Liminal is not a familiar word to most of us. It comes from the Latin word limen meaning “threshold.” It is that place between two different spaces and is most often characterized by ambiguity as well as openness. It is also characterized as a period of transition where normal limits to thought and self-understanding and behavior are relaxed and the mind becomes open to new perspectives and new possibilities. Some people talk about twilight as being liminal time-that time between day and night-the middle ground between light and shadow. In science there is an actual zone observable from space in the place where daylight or shadow advances or retreats about the Earth-we have come to know this place as the twilight zone-but it is known to scientists as liminal space. Noon and, more often, midnight can also be considered liminal, the first transitioning between morning and afternoon and the latter from one day to the next. Another example of liminal space is that in-between time when someone wakes from dream sleep and is unable to distinguish if a vaguely recalled dream actually occurred.
For those of you who have traveled to Iona, you have heard the folks there talk about liminal space as that “thin” place between God and us; between the ordinary and the sacred. I have heard several of you talk about experiencing this thin place while standing among the ruins in Iona. But the truth is that we don’t have to go to Iona to experience this thin place. All of us have those moments when we know that we are standing at a threshold-a thin place-and there we are faced with the decision of whether or not to step across into the unknown and the unfamiliar and risk discovering what is on the other side, or stay where we are.
When I read our lectionary text for today, I thought about this idea of liminal space-of standing between two worlds trying to decide whether to cross over into the new and unknown or to stay with the old and familiar. This question of living between two worlds is at the heart of the Mark text. If you listened closely to the text as Tom read it, you noticed that there was a lot going on. Just so you will know, I am not even going to attempt to address all that’s happening in the Mark text. On the surface, though, what is basically going on is that the Pharisees and scribes are calling into question the disciples’ table manners. They noticed that the disciples were eating without first washing their hands as well as eating food that had not been properly cleaned. Such behavior violated the traditions and practices of the elders. Noticing this, and staying true to their righteous tendencies, the Pharisees and scribes couldn’t help calling into question the behavior of Jesus and his disciples. If you will remember, they are always trying to catch Jesus and the disciples doing something wrong. It just seemed to be their mission. And on this day they thought they had them. But once again Jesus turned their thinking and their questioning on its head. He responded with this retort quoting Isaiah: ” This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Standing between two worlds-human tradition and the commandments of God.
How often do we in the church stand in that place-at the threshold-of trying to decide if we are going to hold to human tradition or follow the commandments of God? And how often, when standing on that threshold, do we make the decision to turn back instead of moving courageously into the possibilities and promises and hope of what could be on the other side? How often do we cling to human tradition-to what we know-instead of moving forward and discovering what God might be unfolding within us and among us that is new and life giving? Indeed, it is the human tendency to cling to what is familiar, to what is known, to what feels safe and secure. But eventually that tendency to hold on to familiar becomes a barrier to stepping across the threshold and discovering the hope and promise and possibilities of how God is waiting to transform our lives, if only we would open ourselves to following God’s commandments instead of our human traditions.
I’m not just talking about our personal lives. No, the church-our church, every church-is forever standing at a threshold facing the question of whether or not we will simply hold to human traditions or follow the commandments of God. To simply hold to the human tradition is to cling to what we know, to the familiar, to what feels safe and secure, to the way we’ve always done it. I will admit that there are times when such is necessary. Sometimes our very survival depends on the familiar and staying where things feel safe and secure. But most of the time, in order to follow the commandment of God, that is to care for those in distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world, we must have the courage to step across the threshold into the unknown and the unfamiliar and risk discovering what is on the other side.
In some significant ways, our church is experiencing this place of liminal space. We have expanded our physical building with a vision that we would share it with those in our community. And now we stand at a threshold of trying to discern what that really looks like-how to share what we have with others. We have created a place called the Hope Center at Pullen-a part of our vision to care for those in distress-and now we stand at the threshold of deciding how we will support the ministry that has already begun there. We continue to preach a message of inclusiveness and openness and diversity. And yes, we stand at the threshold of trying to discern what that means for us now, right now in 2009. Long ago we made a commitment to the poor and the marginalized and the oppressed. And now, we stand at the threshold of discerning what that means to us now, right now in 2009. It’s not enough to simply hold to the traditions of the past as we do the work that is being set before us. No, God is calling us to live more fully in that thin place-in the liminal space-where there is the possibility and the promise of something new and life-giving; where there is the possibility and promise of the ordinary meeting the sacred and of us meeting God. But first we must be willing to step across the threshold into the unknown and the unfamiliar.
Close your eyes and picture this with me. You are standing in a room that you know so very well. You are familiar with all the furnishings in the room. You know where each item is placed. You know the color of the walls, what is on the floor, and the pictures that hang on the wall. Now imagine standing in the doorway of that room. Just on the other side of the doorway is another room. It is not a familiar room to you. From where you stand you can’t see much of anything in the room. And what you can see doesn’t look like anything you are familiar with. Do you dare risk having the courage to step across that threshold? To risk the unknown and the unfamiliar? To open yourself to the possibility that in that room is what you need right now to be who God is calling you to be? There is always the temptation when crossing the threshold to simply try and recreate the room you just left. But liminal space invites us to open our minds and hearts to new possibilities; to see from a different perspective; to let go of all our trappings and traditions that have us stuck for something new and hopeful. I wonder: Do we dare trust the liminal space as a threshold for hope?
Just so you will know. My decision at the intersection of Hillsborough and St. Mary’s streets was to keep moving forward. I walked all the way to my appointment and afterwards back to the church. Walking along the road that day, a path I travel several times a day in my car, I saw things differently. For starters, I noticed things around me-the trees and flowers and buildings and animals. I breathed in the air and soaked up the sun that earlier had sent me into a panic. I slowed down and cleared my mind and enjoyed feeling my legs beneath me. The moment of decision that day, standing at the threshold of deciding whether to turn around and go back or to move forward and continue on my journey, was a teachable moment for me. When we find ourselves in that place of liminal space-of being between two worlds-we can decide to cross the threshold into the unknown and unfamiliar trusting that on the other side we will discover something new and hopeful and significant about ourselves and God, or we can stay in the room where things are familiar with all our routines and traditions and risk not living into the promises and possibilities that God has for us. It is my prayer that as we stand at the threshold of a new church year, we will make the choice to keep moving forward and open ourselves to experiencing that thin place where the ordinary meets the sacred. Indeed, that place where God meets us and we meet God. There is always a threshold to cross.