Learning to Listen in the Liminal
Sometimes when we don’t know what to do, when we’re face to face with mystery, or something unknown, vast, greater than ourselves, we clean. When we’re expecting a baby, we nest, when the Titanic is going down, we rearrange the deck chairs, when that dissertation or thesis is looming, we refinish the basement.
Turning to details, to tasks and duties gives us comfort.
Creating societies and structures, being effective and logical, gives a kind of security and order to our worlds.
The whole book of Acts is a hilarious back and forth between wild Holy Spirit encounters of pulling people out of their security and comfort to things they’ve never done before in ways they’ve never done them, things that might involve fire and strange languages, prophecy, miracles, public speaking and touching strangers, and then tidying up, figuring out logistics and details, creating order and structure, assigning KP duty.
In fact, most of Paul’s letters throughout the rest of the New Testament are people figuring out the nitty-gritty of how to be church, with the piddly details of messy human beings seeking order, and Paul continually calling them back to this cosmic, big-picture mystery that has transformed the entire earth and claimed them individually for a life that transcends death. And also, quit fighting at dinner, you guys.
But I love this story because of that. Before anything else starts to happen, they must replace Judas to round out the 12 apostles. It only makes sense. Getting a 12th Apostle nailed down feels like the pressing job at the moment. Very imperative.
So they pick between these two people, Joseph, aka, Barsabbas, aka Justus, on the one hand, and Matthias on the other. It’s down to these two because both of them have been around from the beginning, and they want someone who can witness to the resurrection with them.
Jesus didn’t tell them to replace Judas; they came up with that one all on their own. Because what else should they do after they see dead and risen Jesus float off into heaven right after telling them to wait for some kind of “baptism of the Holy Spirit?”
There is a move coming here, Pentecost is around the corner, when they will, as biblical scholars like to say, go from being disciples to being apostles. In other words, they will are in the midst of shifting their identity from followers to sent ones.
But right now they are in the in-between. The not yet. The liminal space.
And oh, how God loves liminility! It’s the 9-month pregnancy of the thing! It’s the Sabbath shift! This pocket of space in-between is so important that God likes to use it a lot. The Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus in the wilderness, for that matter, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, Esther, Moses’ stint as a shepherd, the Apostle Paul – knocked down, his sight taken from him, at the mercy of those he came to kill while he waits to find out what God will do next…
Liminal space - on the threshold of change becomes a kind of waiting, like Advent or Lent, or being engaged or in hospice, or unemployed, widowed, or released from prison, adjusting to some new reality that is coming but you haven’t figured out what it will mean or how to live in it yet -
these times are God’s rich soil in us where something dies and something new is born, when most of what you knew before gets taken away, and what is coming has not yet come, when you are stuck in the awkward middle, trying to figure out how to stay still and move at the same time.
In these times we are redefined, life is redefined.
Tectonic plates are shifting, and we feel suspended – what can we expect?
Or do, Or hope for?
How do we just be?
And now imagine this - not since the garden, as in, the very beginning of it all, or since Noah, perhaps, has there ever been a time in all the human living and God-following throughout countless centuries, when the people did not have a flesh and blood mouthpiece for the divine – someone right there in front of them telling them what to do, what to believe, how to act. God had a representative, a priest or prophet or judge or king. Rabbis and teachers interpreted scripture – talked to God on the people’s behalf, and to the people on God’s behalf. They made sense of things, told the people what it all meant.
And Jesus had fit into this model for these disciples.
When God came and walked among them in the flesh, they followed him as students to a rabbi, disciples of a beloved teacher.
But when the teacher is killed everything crumbles.
And then it all crumbles again in an even bigger and more impossible way when he doesn’t stay dead. Now they are disciples of a resurrected God-with-us who has thrown the definitions of life and death up in the air; now heaven and earth are kind of mixed up, and all bets are completely off. So they have about 40 days of getting used to that, except now he’s leaving again. So, now, they are followers of… what, exactly?
So they stand, stunned and staring up into heaven after Jesus, and what are we supposed to do again?
So God gives them a gentle nudge in the form of two figures in white.
“Hey, you, men of Galilee? What do you think you’re looking at, standing there with your mouths open? Go back where you came from and wait like he told you to…”
So they do.
Only now, there is no one between them and God.
No rabbi to follow, no teacher to listen to, no mouthpiece or ambassador.
Nobody is telling them how this is supposed to go, what they are supposed to do, or believe, or do.
They are on their own, but also clearly not, somehow.
They are witnesses, they remind themselves: we are witnesses now. This is the only thing they know so far – we are called to tell each other and whoever else will listen, about what we’ve experienced. And beyond that, they’ve got no idea what else is next.
So they tidy! They organize. Fix a problem; mend a structure. We’ve got to fill the empty session seat!
But since Jesus had picked the rest of them, how would they know how to pick Judas’ replacement?
So they do it in a really unique way.
They don’t take resumes or ask the two to make campaign speeches. They don’t vote or argue for their favorite candidate. There are no Roberts Rules of Order here. They figured out a way to let God choose.
Here we see the very first, baby steps into trusting God in a new way that comes to be called Church, or Christianity: Jesus is between us and God, breaking down that barrier and opening up that relationship, drawing us right into connection to God. We can’t see Jesus, but he’s there, somehow bringing us right up close to God. So we are going to try to listen to God. All by ourselves without someone doing it for us; we are going to ask God to lead us.
So they choose the 12th apostle by saying, Lord, you know everyone’s hearts. You know who would be best for this. Show us who it should be.
And then they draw straws. They literally cut a piece of hay or break a stick shorter than another, pray to God to guide them, and then draw straws.
The Lord will show us, they trust, and then they go with it.
Matthais it is, then!
Because of this story, today there are some traditions that do this when they choose leaders- for example, I’ve heard of a Mennonite practice of placing certificates in a few hymnals, shuffling them, and then those who select the hymnals with the the certificates in them are appointed to leadership. It isn’t meant to be a game of chance, a random gamble; it is meant to take human error out of it and leave the decision up to God.
It’s a way of listening to God.
There are lots of ways of listening to God – maybe as many as there are people in the world- and as the church became the church, and spread throughout the world, more and more ways of listening to God as Christians come to be practiced. But right here at the beginning, in this in-between time, before the Holy Spirit has come and the preaching has started, but after Jesus has died and risen and left them, these people took their job as witnesses seriously. They sought, even in the midst of a lot of unknown, they sought as faithfully as possible, to follow this God who was calling them, Them! Ordinary, regular old them! – to lead, to witness, to tell others what they’ve experienced of Jesus, to speak for God to the people and to the people for God.
And they sought, as faithfully as they could figure out how, to live in this new, unknown, upside down reality they find themselves in, where God’s voice really speaks, and God’s hand really acts, and life and death and limits and boundaries do not hinder God’s plans, and you - you! - are part of this great big thing you are just barely starting to get your mind around.
We believe we are in a liminal state right now, like, humanity is, all of us, suspended in an already, but not yet. Christ has come, Christ has died and risen; Christ will come again.
We wait for the day when the promises of all things returned to God and life as it was meant to be – the triumph of love and life over destruction and death – when that is fully realized. We wait in this time when we know it is coming, because Christ has broken the bonds of death, but we often stand gazing up into heaven with our mouths open, not quite sure what we’re supposed to do in the meantime.
The space between. Where life leaks in from the future, and hope is hidden but real, when the Kingdom of God has come and is here, but we miss it so much of the time because it is not all in all yet.
And in this in-between time, where we are not face to face with God, we still say God’s hand really acts and God’s voice really speaks and our lives really are part of God’s plans that cannot be stopped or hindered by life and death and limits and boundaries. So how, then, do we listen?
This summer we are going to practice some ways of listening to God. In our worship we are going to gather and try out different ways of praying, of listening to God, of connecting to God, ways that someone thought up and tried out a long time ago and generations of Jesus-followers have been doing ever since. And we are also going to talk about how, in our own lives, we find ways of listening to God that make sense for us – things that help us hear from God, see Jesus in the world, share in ministry with others, draw us closer to God, in the transcendent things and the practical, ordinary things.
Sometimes I think we tell ourselves we should have this down, somehow; or that church or faith should go a certain way and we are messing up if it doesn’t look that way for us.
But remember, these first witnesses began “in joy, still doubting and disbelieving.”
They let themselves be in the awkwardness and the newness, in the bumbling and the trying.
They told each other when they saw Jesus.
They sat in the discomfort of waiting for God, embracing the liminal and all its mysterious promptings and newness.
And they trusted God to lead – even in the very practical tasks and details, even more than they trusted themselves.
We aren’t supposed to do faith right or perfectly; Jesus already brings us right up close to God. We are supposed to live right where we are, in whatever in-betweens we may find ourselves, to seek God’s direction and to listen, in whatever ways we might learn, or try out for the first time, or fall back on again and again.
And in the midst of both the great spiritual mysteries, the life-changing encounters that draw us up and out of ourselves, and the everyday, organizing tasks, structures and details that ground us, together we get to practice trusting God, however that might look for us today, and tomorrow, this moment and the next.
And if in doubt about how, we’ll do like they did, and try to get out of the way.