Jesus: The Liminal Gate

Year A
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

In Ch. 9 of John’s Gospel… the one before today’s… Jesus has just healed the man born blind… and he heard that this man had been driven out of the synagogue… and when Jesus found him… and the man professed his trust in Jesus… Jesus said… I came into this world so that those who do not see… may see… and so that those who do see… may become blind… it’s like saying… I came into this world so that those who are empty may become filled… and those who are filled may become empty… it’s like saying… I came to comfort the afflicted… and to afflict the comfortable

And some of the Pharisees standing nearby overheard this… and asked him… Surely we are not blind… are we… and Jesus answered… If you were blind… you’d have no sin… but now that you say ‘we see’… your sin remains… it’s like saying… you condemn yourselves

And in today’s Gospel… Jesus is talking about sheep and shepherds… he’s using an example with which everyone is familiar… and that has… on one level… a meaning that’s easy to understand… to protect your actual sheep from human or other predators… and on another deeper level… a more spiritual meaning… to not be led astray by false prophets or those who would cause you harm… the text says… in v. 6… that he’s using a figure of speech with them… so that’s a clear indication that his meaning is deeper… that the preferred way to enter the sheepfold… enter into community… is through the kind of spiritual shepherding that Jesus offers…

I’ve shared this quote before… and I think it’s pretty apropos today… The Rev. John Dominic Crossan said… it’s not that ancient people… told literal stories… and we’re now smart enough to take them symbolically… but that they told symbolic stories… and we’re now dumb enough… to take them literally…

So in the story about the man born blind… Jesus isn’t talking to the Pharisees only about physical sight… he’s talking about insight… he’s talking about second sight… what we might call it when intuition becomes as commonplace as common sense… it’s like what Jesus said in Matthew 16:3… You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky… but you cannot interpret the signs of the times…

In the story about the sheepfold… Jesus is talking about anyone who steals us away from listening to God’s voice… like false prophets and corrupt leaders… Jesus is using a figure of speech… a parable… to help us go beyond the limitations of our senses… to move from the literal to the symbolic… the sheepfold is where we find God’s safety… and community… and Jesus is the gate… the threshold across which we must pass… the liminal space through which we must pass… and which takes us back to the garden…

Richard Rohr write… the word “liminal” is related to the word “threshold”… liminal space is an inner state… and sometimes an outer situation… where we can begin to think and act in new ways… it’s where we are betwixt and between… having left one room or stage of life… but not yet entered the next… we usually enter liminal space when our former way of being… is challenged or changed… it’s a graced time… though it does not often feel “graced” in any way… in such space we’re not certain… or in control… this global pandemic we now face is an example of an immense… collective… liminal space…

The very vulnerability and openness of liminal space allows room for something genuinely new to happen… we’re empty and receptive… like erased tablets waiting for new words… liminal space is where we are most teachable… often because we are most humbled…

It’s no surprise then… that we generally avoid liminal space…. much of the work of authentic spirituality and human development is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough so that they can learn something essential and new… many spiritual giants like St. Francis… Julian of Norwich… Dorothy Day… and Mohandas Gandhi tried to live their entire lives in permanent liminality… on the edge or periphery of the dominant culture… this in-between place is free of illusions and false payoffs… it invites us to discover… and live… from broader perspectives… and with a much deeper seeing…

Paula D’Arcy… who lost her husband and young daughter in a tragic car accident… wrote… one afternoon… I began sorting through my daughter’s clothes… a dress lay across my lap… a little piece of white cotton… it was such an innocent and common thing… a child’s garment… yet even as it broke my heart… that dress became an opening… the soft cotton tore at me from within… and began to empty me… “You are not the only heartbroken parent in the world…” it said… “the pain of loss is not yours alone… disappointment is the human condition…” I continued to stare at the cotton and lace… but something had shifted… the dress was somehow connecting me to the texture and mystery of greater things… and without fully understanding why… I began to soften… I saw life’s contour… its density and its brilliance… just as it is… nothing more… I saw how I’d been caught in a script of my own creation… and was totally caught up in my own world… my emotions… my wants… and my needs… now it was simply my turn to know the darkness… and discover whether or not I was brave enough to accept the human journey… and find a way through

John Shea writes… thieves and bandits always leave people “less”… than when they found them… true shepherds are the opposite… they leave people “more”…  than when they found them… they’re capable of this… because they know people by name… this means that they discern the inner potential of people and adjust their voice… so that this inner potential can hear them

Jesus is The Good Shepherd… and shepherds teach… teach us to discern who threatens us… and who protects us… and the thieves and bandits who don’t use the gate… who try to bypass authentic spirituality and human development… and climb in another way… are like those in Luke 17… when Jesus says… occasions for stumbling are bound to come… but woe to anyone by whom they come… they would be better off falling into the sea with a millstone around their neck… than to cause any of these little sheep to stumble

And Jesus is the gate between the safety of the fold… and the freedom outside of it… and we want both of these… but we want them when we want them… and not when they’re imposed on us… that’s why some Michiganders feel so angry… and afraid… because we’re chomping at the bit to get out of the house… and get back to life… and what we know as normal… but most of us… I think… don’t believe the benefit is worth the rising cost of human life…

We can resist liminal space… we can resist the threshold… but it will invite us over and over again into transformation… as Paula was transformed… and the Shepherd’s voice which calls us is always available… in scripture… and in the small voice we hear when we are still…

Jesus said he came… that we may have life… and have it abundantly… so is abundant life about quantity… or about quality… does it mean owning more stuff than anyone else… or does it mean owning a deep… abiding… and sublime peace… does it mean resisting social justice… or embracing it…

For now at least… we are on a threshold… and like the Pharisees… we may willfully insist that we can see across it… by returning to the way things used to be… or we may see… that we cannot see… and just be… just breathe… and Be Not Afraid… and willingly let the Good Shepherd guide us into making all things new… that is… into a new normal… Amen.

 

About the author: The Rev. Mike Wernick

The Rev. Mike Wernick is a second-career Episcopal priest who grew up in a Reform Jewish family; though he relishes his role as the Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Officer for two dioceses and affirms all faith traditions (he has this idea that diversity was never intended to be divisive). He serves on several diocesan and synod committees, including the N/W Lower Michigan Synod’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity; and is finishing the final year of a practicum to become a Spiritual Director.