"The Struggle and Beauty of Liminal Space"
This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on June 13th, The Third Sunday after Pentecost
The Parable of the Growing Seed
He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
The Use of Parables
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Just about a month ago I took my annual trip up to the top of the hill to the greenhouse to buy my spring plantings. This was the same greenhouse trip where I found the dandelion growing into the compacted gravel parking lot that I told you all about. Anyway, it was on this trip that I bought plant starts for all my usual favorite crops including tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, cucumbers, basil, eggplant and zucchini. I had them into the ground soon after I got home on the first sunny day after that stretch of cold, rainy days we had at the beginning of May. Every day after planting them, I watched them closely. Were they growing taller yet? Did they need more water? Was it going to be too cold at night for them? Was it going to be too hot in the day for them? Did I plant them too close together?
If I could have willed those plants to grow by my own worry and hard work and babying, they surely would have started growing vegetables within weeks, maybe even hours. The idea of being able to control not only the outcome of something but also the timeline of when that outcome happens is something I know I desperately want… most all of the time. Clearly, though, my own sheer willpower was not going to make those plants grow. Incidentally, this is probably why I also went to the grocery that same week and bought tomatoes, cucumbers, jalapeños and zucchini.
Gardens all aside, the struggle for control is evident in other parts of my life and may yours, too. It’s comforting: idea of control and progression from one step to the next step with a plan and a purpose, leaving no time for uncertainty or waiting around. Because being uncertain and waiting around can make us feel…. vulnerable and weak. When the plan and the timeline are outside of our hands, whether it’s growing tomatoes or healing from an illness or getting through grief, we can feel powerless.
With that in mind, our scripture reading today takes us to Jesus describing in a two very short and succinct parables, or stories, what the kingdom of God will be like. In other words, if everything could be finally be right and oriented toward God’s love, what would the world actually look like? I’m going to focus on the first one. The mustard seed parable gets a lot of air time and I’m sure we’ll be talking about that one again soon. In the first parable, Jesus says this: The kingdom of God would be like a gardener who plants seeds and then goes to sleep, and with no worrying or doting or tending on his part, the seed sprouts and grow and produces its fruit. And all he needs to do is harvest.
Good gardeners know this is ridiculous! Gardens that make good crops don’t do it on their own. They need a lot of tending. But that’s not Jesus’ point. His point is to take something that sounds ridiculous on its surface and make us see how extraordinary God’s perfect world is. In God’s kingdom, the gardener plants the seed and then sits back while the mysterious and ancient processes run their course. The soil, rain and sun all do their thing and the plant grow beautifully without any person’s worry. In God’s kingdom, the gardener trusts the process, waits in faith, stands back from her micro-managing, and rests her head and heart in that in-between space.
Another name for this in-between space is liminal space. It’s anything and everything that comes between the limits of other things. It’s after something ends and before something else begins. It’s by nature, awkward and uncertain space. It’s the space most of us want to do everything in our power to rush through so that there is no gap between one thing over which we have control and the next thing over which we have some control.
Do we find ourselves in liminal space right now? I’d say, yeah. And each of us in different ways, maybe. Collectively, too, though. When we were in the center of the worst of the pandemic it was pretty clear at the time. But as we inch our way out on the other side, what the end of this and the return to normal feels vague and fuzzy. I had always dreamed of the day when it would all be over and there would be hugging and dancing in the streets. But the space between the ending and the beginning has felt murky, at best. Masks in school point this week, sheesh. Case in point. So many people are so ready to be past this pandemic. I cannot lie, I’m one of them! Who isn’t, really? And that’s why the stress of kids and masks hit the boiling this week, almost quite literally. It was hot; there was a rumor that school mask policy might change; and parents everywhere wanted it to be true. There’s tension about who’s in control and I think it’s probably less about the actual masks and more about the stress levels everyone’s feeling as we desperately want to move out of a liminal space and back onto solid ground where we feel like we have some sense of control.
Layered on top of the stress from the pandemic are all of our other liminal spaces, the in-between passageways we’re stuck in trying to run from our grief or problem-solve our own way out of our healing or plan an exit path from our pain.
Jesus is here today to say not only can it not be done, don’t even try. Healing, grief, pain have a course to run that doesn’t need any action on our part. We can’t micro-manage our way of these some things. They just take time. God’s time. God’s mysterious and ancient processes of growth in the dark of night. Jesus is here to say, instead of worrying, take this in-between time to rest and recuperate for the harvest that is to come.
Some of you know that I have been wrestling with a back injury over the past several weeks. Rather than say I’m hurting, I’m choosing to say I’m in the liminal space between being well and getting better again. That said, I’ve needed to recognize that this liminal space is exactly the time for starting a major athletic adventure (that would be my husband!); it’s also not the time to do major DIY projects around the house; and it’s also not the time do all the gardening my heart longs to do. When we rush into bold plans and new projects during liminal times, we run the risk of cutting short the true potential of this in-between space to provide us the healing we need.
As we get permission to resume activities in a “normal” way, each of us individually must decide what our new life looks like. Do we pick up all the pieces just as we dropped them and start going again as if nothing had happened? Or do we consider the pandemic or any other life-altering event we’ve lived through as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reexamine our priorities.
Jesus is here to remind us to trust the in-between space. To use this time to rest and rebuild our selves. We can’t go from 0 to 65 in the blink of an eye. We are not a sportscar. We are humans. Transition takes time. And that’s okay. God is using this space for something new to happen.
Let us pray…
God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.
We pray, O God, that we might trust that you are working in the process of our uncertain times. Help us to loosen our grasp on the controls and to let you be you. To let God be God. We are scared because this requires managing our great anxiety and letting go of expectations. And that isn’t easy. Jesus never said this would be easy. But he did promise that a Love beyond our knowing would carry us through to the other side. O God, may we have the courage to be gardeners who take naps in faith that by your hands all will be well. All manner of thing shall be well. Amen.
Benediction: When you feel like you’re not doing enough and that you need to work harder to get back to some version of normal, I ask on behalf of Jesus to give yourself grace. You do not have to rush into anything. We have been through so much. Give yourself time to rest and heal as wait for God to present the clear next steps.
Grace and Peace,
Pastor Anna Blinn Cole