SERMON 9/18/11 Pentecost 14A
Exodus 6:2-15 The comedic 1970’s blockbuster movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation” portrayed the adventures associated with a common American experience; the “Family Summer Road Trip.” In the film, a typical Midwestern, suburban family led by Frank Griswold, (played by Chevy Chase) were making a cross-country journey to “Wally World,” a fictional theme park that was a pseudo Disney style vacation spot. As they prepared for the trip, tensions were high, tempers were short, and the anticipation of the long journey ahead seemed to overshadow the joy, the relaxation, and the fun they would eventually enjoy. Throughout the film, the family endured the challenges of lost credit cards, terrible accommodations, a major car breakdown, a brief visit with estranged, or should I say strange cousins, and various and sundry surreal events. Nonetheless, when they finally arrived at Wally World a unique twist changed the whole movie. If you have never seen it, I will not spoil the ending for you. I encourage you to rent, download, or On-demand this classic movie sometime soon.
I imagine that many of us have been like the Griswolds, and have loaded up the whole tribe and traveled across the barren wasteland of the U.S. Interstate and Highway System. It is without fail that anytime we embark on a journey like this, things begin to fall apart soon after leaving the house, and usually it happens, within the first few hours of the trip. After the celebration of finally being on the road, something changes. It is as if we look at each other and say, “here we are, now what.”
Before long, things get uncomfortable and the grumbling begins, “I’m too hot,” “I’m too cold,” “I’m hungry,” or “I’ve gotta go.” From that point on, the journey includes times when all is pleasant and wonderful and other times when some in the care are just not happy. The “in-between” times of life seems to come with the natural tendency for us to be uncomfortable. When we find ourselves in a place of not being where we were, and at the same time, not yet where we would really rather be, there is a sense of discomfort. These are known as the “liminal” places of life and they can pose the greatest threat to our peace, the greatest threat to our relationships, and the greatest threat to our common mission.
Liminality is a common, re-occuring phenomenon we humans experience throughout our lives. We always find ourselves in the in-between places, when are no longer where we were before, and not quite where we are destined to be. Anthropological writer Arnold van Gennep defined “Liminality” as “in-between situations and conditions characterized by the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes.”
The road trip scenario of the “Vacation” movie is a rather simple illustration of a liminal state, but so is the desert journey the people of Israel took when Moses led them out of Egypt, from the bondage of slavery into their newfound freedom. As strange as it may seem, the liminal state of the desert was a shock and challenge for those folks, because it removed their sense of comfort they found in the established structure and hierarchy of their former bondage. In the desert with no signs of food and water, and a growing sense of being lost, the hope of a positive future outcome was beginning to diminish. When that happened, the people began to grumble. They began to long for the old days of bondage where they at least had stew pots of food and no threat of sunstroke and death. Fear and uncertainty in their liminal place, led to a discomfort that was so great, that grumbling and complaining about their circumstances, seemed their only response. God nonetheless, had not abandoned them to their perceived fate, because God was actively drawing them to the new place.
When things looked bleak, when hunger pangs were at their worst, when their thirst became too much, God was faithful and responded to their cries with bread rained from heaven, yet they still grumbled. God was faithful and responded to their cries with meat to eat, yet they grumbled still. God was faithful and responded to their cries with water from a rock, yet they grumbled still. The narrative of the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert was not only a demonstration of God’s redemptive nature, but it emphasized that redemption takes place in the context that God is always doing a new thing. God was moving an entire nation from slavery to the Promised Land, and the journey though long, hot, and uncomfortable, would eventually result in their arriving at a place of peace, love, joy, and goodness.
Grumbling, protesting, and complaining really are not unusual responses when we find ourselves in the “in-between” places, because it is human nature for us to protest in the midst of change. We just do not like it when things change from what we knew before. “We’ve never done it that way before” is a favorite axion for many Episcopalians when someone voices dissent when some tries something new. As much as we would sometimes like, change associated with the liminal places of life are unavoidable.
God’s creation is not a static system that we can enter and not expect change. Consider all the cycles in the universe; seasons come and seasons go. Science confirms that organic things evolve and adapt, weather systems are fluid and dynamic. The basic concept of the cosmos is that things move from one state, through a period of transition, and then into a new state. Change happens and the test of our faithfulness is how we respond. Imagine when we find ourselves in these liminal situations and circumstances of life, what it would be like if our response took on less the nuance of dissent, and more of a renewed commitment to pray for patience, encouragement, and the strength to endure the discomfort that comes with the “in-between” places.
There was a small, rural town in Kentucky a few years ago that hired a city manager who was fresh out of graduate school. The young woman came to her new position with lots of new ideas, endless energy and sometimes imposing excitement. Like most of us doing something new for the first time, she made a few mistakes her first year but at the same time, she made many good decisions as well. Most importantly, she learned a great deal from the people with whom she worked and lived. There were very trying decisions that she was required to address early on, and at times, she made them with some protest from her constituents. Nonetheless, they remained faithful to each other as they walked this new journey of life together. The town’s people and the city manager did not always agree, but they all agreed to support each other through the transition. For this community, it was a time of uncertainty, doubt, stress, and yes, sometimes there were tensions. In a few years, the small town began to experience renewed life, simply because they agreed that God was doing a new thing there. Others in the town began to catch the spirit of new ideas, energy and excitement and the earlier endured discomfort, doubt, stress, and tension became peace, hope, joy, and cooperation. Together they experienced a revitalized life and peace and harmony abounded in that little town.
Every day, we all live in the midst of the changes going on around us, and as fearful, uncertain, and tense as they may be, we must be reminded that it is also a time for renewed energy, generous grace, expectant hope, and celebration. We at St. David’s are not in the place we were even a year ago, and we are not yet where God is calling us to be in the near future. We are in a state of Liminality that includes moments of doubt, stress, and tension comingled with times of joy, love, and God’s grace. For each of us, the transition we are in will at times, require us to have a greater tolerance for discomfort, but we can only do that by remaining faithful to God and each other. We must pray for patience, forbearance and grace as we live into this new thing the Spirit is doing right here and right now. There is a modified prayer found in our prayer book that is comforting and encouraging as we traverse these liminal places of life:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the pride and impatience that infects our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggles so we may accomplish your purposes on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP p. 815)
Praying together, we can know with assurance that God is with us in all that we face. We can be assured that as we grow in a deeper love and commitment to Christ, we will be strengthened for our mission of peace, love, grace, and reconciliation.