“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:17
Earlier this fall, we spent nine long weeks wandering in the wilderness in that space in between Egypt and the Promised Land. That time of the “in-between” is what is often referred to as liminal space. We know liminal space as that which is the already and the not yet. It is a place of transition, a time of waiting, and it is often characterized by not knowing.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk and spiritual guru, says that liminal space is “where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our world left behind, while we are not sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.” Rohr believes that being in the “in-between” is sacred and challenges us to move beyond simply being normal. That may or may not sound like such a bad thing in the midst of a pandemic that has flipped our lives upside down and all we yearn for is a return to some semblance of normalcy—but it is in the midst of this liminal space that we discover all the possibilities and potential yet unrealized in our lives.
To stand in the liminal space is to stand in the threshold, to linger in the doorway, to watch and wait. At times standing in liminal space invites a sense of intrigue and curiosity but more often than not, when we stand in liminal space, we are plagued with doubt and anxiety. We witnessed that in the story of the Exodus—over and over again the Israelites complained against God and turned away from God because they allowed their doubt and fear to rule their hearts. They did not know how to wait faithfully.
Faithful waiting is difficult. We are a “just-add-water” culture that expects everything to happen instantly. We buy a box of cake mix, add some water, throw it in the oven, and voila! a cake. When our internet starts to buffer or it takes a few seconds for Facebook to come up, we start to get anxious and frustrated. When appointments run late or we catch every red light, our patience grows short. We aren’t that good at waiting in line or waiting for Christmas or waiting for the power to be restored or waiting…period. If we find waiting in our secular everyday lives to be challenging, it should be no surprise to realize that we don’t do a good job of faithful waiting.
Faithful waiting is expectant waiting. It is active, intentional, and knows there is something more to this life and this world. Faithful waiting remembers the promise Jesus made that he would come again. It doesn’t just give voice to saying Christ will come again. It recognizes the liminal space we occupy in our present circumstances when we proclaim, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” The human condition has lost the sense of the eschaton, the second coming of Christ. Maybe it is because we’ve forgotten that promise. Maybe it is because we are just lousy at having to wait for anything. Or maybe it is because our faith has diminished and our focus has been distracted by the ways of man.
The parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids offers us some insight into what it means to wait faithfully—not because either of them do a really good job of it, but because the parable reminds us that faithful waiting informs our choices and those choices establish our priorities and ultimately the central focus of our lives. None of the bridesmaids do anything wrong at the start of the parable, though the wise bridesmaids had obviously been boy scouts based on their level of preparation by bringing extra oil. No, its not the lack of oil that differentiates the foolish as such. What defines bridesmaids as wise or foolish is their response to the bridegroom’s arrival—the wise stay and greet him whereas the foolish leave. It doesn’t matter why they go. Whatever they thought they needed; it was not as important as the bridegroom. For in the moment of the bridegroom’s arrival—he is all that matters.
The foolish bridesmaids are foolish because they left; because their priorities are out of whack; because they are distracted by the ways of man and have replaced God as the central focus of their lives. The bridegroom is the reason they are there and yet as he approaches, they leave. This is what makes them foolish and why their entrance to the banquet was barred—not because they didn’t bring enough oil but because they left when the bridegroom came.
They were not faithful in their waiting. Not only did they show up unprepared, in their waiting they became drowsy and inattentive to the light. Instead of tending to their flames, they fall asleep to them. Because they are not faithfully waiting, they make poor choices and their priorities are askew. They are lousy at waiting, so when the bridegroom comes, they are nowhere to be found.
We are pretty lousy at waiting, too. Not only do we lack the patience to wait peacefully, few of us are committed to the development and nurture of the skills needed for faithful
waiting—not to mention the fact that most of us don’t even realize we are actually in liminal space awaiting the return of the messiah. As Christians, faithful waiting requires the cultivation of spiritual practice and discipline. We train, grow, and develop our spiritual life by getting baptized, going to church, taking communion, reading the Bible, and praying. It is more than preparedness; it is readiness for action.
In every way in our world right now, we are in liminal space. Nine months ago, when we were distracted by bishop elections and spring breaks and Easter candy, we entered into liminal space unprecedented in our lifetime. We remain in that space with no definite end in sight—wandering in our wilderness; wandering in the “in-between”—easily distracted by presidential elections and social justice movements, political agendas and football season. We are itching to put up Christmas but will we have an extra flask of oil? Will we have prepared our hearts and spirits by going to church and reading the Bible and saying our prayers? Or will we run to Facebook or Parler or Twitter searching for a dealer who might be open at midnight because we have allowed ourselves to be distracted, to make poor choices, to prioritize the things of man over the coming of God.
When the Israelites enter the Promised Land, Joshua tells them that, “for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” That is what faithful waiting is—it is not simply the declaration but the prioritization of serving God even when it seems like God isn’t here, even when we’ve been waiting for him for two thousand years. “Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Amen.
23 Pentecost 27A: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, November 8, 2020
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer