The God of liminal places – a sermon

You can listen to today’s sermon here, or read on.


“The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.”  This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, though I’m pretty sure he never actually said it.  Twain and his wife Olivia had four children, and even if in his day men didn’t change diapers, there is no way that Twain wasn’t aware that not even a baby with a wet diaper likes the activity of change, even if they might like the results.[1]  Both of my girls were skilled in the alligator death roll to avoid a diaper change.  This is to be expected, I suppose, because they are my children, and despite almost nine years of experimenting with new things in this congregation, I’m not really a fan of change either.  Nobody is.  In fact, I’m pretty sure we are hardwired against change.

In a 2011[2] study, scientists proved the existence of something that we have all experienced in our lives: the Doorway Effect.  This happens to me all the time, maybe it does you too.  I’ll be sitting in my office when I notice that I’m using the last page of my notepad.  I know that the notepads are stored downstairs, so I get up, walk through the doorway of my office, down the stairs, and promptly have no idea why I left my desk in the first place.  Even if I have the almost empty notepad in my hand, I can’t seem to remember why I’m carrying it around.  Of course, once I return to my desk, I remember.  Our brains are so adverse to change, that the very act of crossing through a doorway is enough for us to forget what we were doing.  Social scientists might call it the Doorway Effect, but fancy seminary folk like to use fancy Latin words.  Liminal is Latin for threshold, and during my time at VTS I must have heard the word a thousand times.  In fact, I was so sick of that word that I vowed never to use it again, but sometimes the right word is the right word, and the Seventh Sunday of Easter is all about the stress that comes with living in liminal places.  Everywhere we look, somebody is standing at the threshold of change.

As has been the case for a few weeks now, our Gospel lesson has us back in the upper room with Jesus on the night before he died.  For four chapters in John’s Gospel, Jesus offers his disciples a farewell speech like none other.  The disciples don’t know it yet, but they are standing at the threshold of the Kingdom of God.  In less than 24 hours, Jesus will be gone.  He will be hanged on a cross.  He will die an excruciating death.  He will be buried in a tomb, and locked behind a large stone door.  Jesus knows all these things, and he stands at the threshold with his disciples, offering them advice on how to live in this changed reality.  He washed their feet, and encouraged them to take on lives of service to others.  He gave them a new commandment, that they love one another.  He told them that he is the way, the truth, and life; that no one comes to the Father but by him.  He assured them that the Holy Spirit would come as their advocate, guide, and comforter to be with them.  He promised peace in the midst of immense turmoil; peace that only the Father can give.

And then, as our lesson opens up this morning, Jesus prayed for his disciples.  He prayed that they might have eternal life through faith in him.  He prayed that God would protect them when he went away.  He prayed that they might be sanctified in the truth; that they might be made holy, set apart for God’s honor and glory.  Jesus prayed for his disciples as they stood at the threshold of his death and resurrection, but Jesus didn’t stop there.  He went on to pray for all “those who will believe in him through their word.”  There, on the night before his death, Jesus prayed for Paul, for Constantine, for Augustine, for Thomas Cranmer, for Martin Luther King, Jr., and for you and for me.  He prayed for all of us who live in liminal places.

Easter 7 is all about liminal places.  For the disciples, it was the threshold between Jesus’ death and resurrection, but our Collect for today invites us to think of another threshold moment: the long ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, the day, forty days after Easter, when the resurrected Jesus left the earth, rising on a cloud to be seated at the right hand of the Father.  Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the day, fifty days after Easter and ten days after the Ascension, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the 120 with power and might, propelling them out into the world to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Easter 7 falls right in between those two Feast days, in that liminal place between Jesus leaving the earth and the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, and so we pray, like Jesus did, for all who live standing at the threshold; that God might not leave us comfortless.

In the same Farewell Discourse, the Holy Spirit is promised to his disciples by Jesus. He calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, Counselor, Helper, or, as the King James Version says it, the Comforter.[3]  After Jesus left the earth, the disciples spent ten days praying, listening for God to give them direction.  For ten days, their anxiety grew and grew as they heard nothing in response.  I suspect most of us can understand how the disciples felt in those ten days because we too live in a liminal place.  Between Jesus’ death and his resurrection, the disciples spent three days standing at the threshold.  Between Jesus’ ascension and the Holy Spirit’s arrival on the Day of Pentecost, they spent ten days standing at the threshold.  Since then, the Church has spent nearly 2,000 years standing at the threshold, living in the liminal place between his ascension and his coming again.

When Jesus prayed for all those who would come to faith through the testimony of his disciples, he was praying for all of us who will spend our lives trying to figure out how to follow him even though he longer walks the earth.  He prayed for all of us who will, from time to time, wonder if this life on the threshold is worth it.  He prayed for all those who will find the comfort of the Spirit hard to hold onto; all of us who will feel like God is absent from our lives; all of us who pray even though we sometimes wonder if our prayers aren’t just bouncing off the ceiling and hitting the floor.

Easter 7 is a chance to take a deep breath and remember that God is with us in every liminal place.  Every doorway we walk through, God is there.  Every change that happens in a world where the only constant is change, God is there.  Now that I think about it, maybe we are hardwired to resist change so that every liminal place can remind us of our dependence on God alone.  Every liminal moment, every threshold we cross, every change that comes our way is a chance to invite God, through the Holy Spirit, to walk with us, to guide us, and to comfort us.   Come Holy Spirit.  Do not leave us comfortless.  Come with power and might.  Be our comforter and guide as we stand here at the very threshold of the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain#Marriage_and_children

[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-walking-through-doorway-makes-you-forget/

[3] John 14:16

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What Exactly is Faith?

“Increase our faith!”

As our Gospel lesson for Sunday opens, we find the disciples imploring Jesus for more faith, but that leads me to wonder, “what exactly is faith?”  My wondering has been exacerbated by a question from a friend and regular commenter here at DT, WEV, who is in his fourth year of Sewanee’s Education for Ministry program.  The early part of this year’s program is dealing with faith, including reading a book by a guy with the best theologian name ever, Diogenese Allen, called Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.  His question came from the text provided by Sewanee, and I took as snapshot of it to remind myself of what was going on (you’ll have to pardon any inherent copyright violations, and if you get bored with academic wrangling over language, jump down to the *).

2013-10-01 18.02.08

The first thing that comes to my mind is, “why is Sewanee quoting a book copyrighted in 1979 that isn’t the Book of Common Prayer, and don’t say ‘because Urban Holmes was once the Dean of the School of Theology,’ because my brain will explode.”  The second thought was, “And why are we looking at the Latin forms?”  It is always best to go back to the original language in matters of Biblical study, so why this extensive block quote of a tertiary source evaluating a primary source based on a secondary one?

So, I dug deeper.  That one time that “belief” appears in the Authorized Version, it comes from 2 Thess 2.13, “But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.”  The argument of Holmes and Westerhoff is that this is somehow different than the 233 times that “faith” is used.  Except, when you look at the Vulgate, the Latin word isn’t “opinor,” but rather “fide,” which Holmes and Westerhoff already translated as faith.  Digging deeper, assuming we’re using different Latin versions (I don’t have an LXX handy), the Greek root is “pistos,” which is the same word used for faith all throughout the Greek New Testament.

As the New Testament made its way from Greek to Latin, translators attempted to put nuance to the Greek word “pistos” and chose to translate either as “fide”, as in fidelity or “credo”, as in creed. (Side note: my ability to search the Vulgate brings no mention of “opinor”).  In English, translators have attempted to do the same thing by using variants (something Holmes and Westerhoff ignore in their text) of “faith” and “belief,” but even in that most famous line from John 14.1, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God.  Believe also in me.”  Both times the Latin word is “credo” and the Greek “pistos.”

Marcus Borg, a man much smarter than me, has written a whole chapter on this subject in his book The Heart of Christianity, and I suggest you check out chapter two, “Faith: the way of the heart”, in which he expands on “fide” and “credo”.  Suffice it to end this digression by saying that there seems to be some real difficulty in getting into the mind of the Greek authors as we try to nuance their language for ourselves.

* Which brings me back to my original question, “what exactly is faith?”  The disciples ask Jesus to “increase their faith” (Gk “pistos” and VUL “fide”), so what are they asking for?  Do they want a stronger conviction that Jesus is who he says he is?  Do they want to be more loyal to him?  Do they seek a deeper relationship with him?  I’m pretty sure they are asking for all of the above, but most importantly, they want to know that they’ve got the chops to be his disciples.  To borrow from Marcus Borg a bit, they’ve given their heart over to Jesus, they have trusted him this far, but as Jerusalem looms, they’re pretty sure they’re going to need a double portion of faith.

Who of us can’t relate to that feeling?  Which of us hasn’t said, at one time or another, “God, I need you a little bit more today”?  As Saint Paul famously wrote, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is what carries us through when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Faith is giving our heart (And everything else) to God: credo, fide, pistos, or otherwise.  Faith is a relationship with the Lord.