Stories on the Threshold

Sermon for Easter 6 from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs


During this Easter season, the theme of Father Mark’s preaching has been that of Story—How the Great Story of creation and salvation relates to our story and our reading of The Story. So, building on that–sort of–; All I really need to know about reading the Bible, I learned from Sherlock Holmes. *

While that may not be quite the way my New Testament professor would put it, it does accurately describe an important way of engaging, and even wrestling, with Scripture. When reading a good mystery—my favorite kind of reading for relaxation—I enjoy watching the story unfold to its (hopefully) surprising conclusion; surprising because the author has invited me to look at things from a different perspective. Viewed through a new lens, the facts reorganize themselves into a different picture and I’m graced with an “aha!” moment: “Of course! NOW I see it!”

Of course, the purpose of reading Scripture isn’t to find the culprit in a crime, but to discover what God is saying to us, through this story, at this particular time. Engaging with a Scripture passage isn’t a one-time event. We are invited to come back to it over and over, and because life changes, our perspective changes, and we are invited to see it in a new way. This is a form of critical engagement that is vital to an effective and fruitful understanding of the great Story of God’s relationship with humanity and all of creation.

Take, for example, the three passages we have heard today. This particular time is the sixth Sunday of Easter. It is also the occasion of a baptism; so how nice that all three lessons are connected to water. In Acts, we encounter a conversion by a river. In John’s Revelation, we see a tree with healing leaves by the river of the water of Life. And in John’s Gospel Jesus heals a man by the Pool of Beth-zatha in Jerusalem.

Yes. All three share water in common. Undeniable. But a patient reading—that means reading a second and third time, offers a shift in perspective, and thus reveals that there’s something else happening here. Listen again: A conversion by a river. The tree of life beside the river of the water of life. A healing next to the pool of Beth-zatha.

It’s not just about the water. It’s where things happen in relation to it. By. Beside. Next to. These lessons all put us in liminal space.

“Liminal space” is a Seminary Phrase, probably because seminarians spend so much time there—in liminal space. It simultaneously connotes two things: both a threshold and being on the edge and/or the verge of things. When you think about it, ‘liminal space’ isn’t just for seminarians—it’s a place many if not all of us are familiar with at some point in our lives.

To be in liminal space is to be between; it is to be off-balance—almost off one foot before setting down the next—teetering between old and new, known and unknown. To be in liminal space is to find yourself with a choice. Forward, or backward. Remaining in the doorway is not a sustainable option.

Did Lydia know she was on the verge of something new? Nothing we know about her indicates that her life was at a tipping point; she was well-to-do enough to deal in purple cloth, which was a valuable commodity. She was evidently a free woman of independent means, possibly a widow since she had her own household. But something about hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ either beckoned from in front or nudged her from behind because there, at the edge of the water, she crossed a threshold into a transformed life in the Body of Christ.

What’s interesting is that you don’t always know you’re in liminal space until you’re faced with the fact of it; you just realize that something is about to change, and regardless of what you choose, life will not be the same again.

In a report on NPR a few weeks ago, I heard about a museum director in Ronneby, Sweden named Dagmar Norberg, who found herself at just such a liminal point.

She was walking beside the tracks at a train station on a cold November day last year when she observed a young man dressed only in a t-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. Thinking he was just some whippersnapper without the sense to dress properly, and being, as she says of herself, “now at that age where I can just say things,” she sternly exclaimed, “It’s winter!”

The young man didn’t ignore her; nor did he talk back. He simply replied politely, “I know, ma’am.”

Dagmar says, “That was the first time I heard Wali’s voice.” Perhaps it was his accent—the story doesn’t say– but she was prompted to look closer and realized that this young man was one of many Afghan refugees who had arrived in Sweden with little or nothing but the clothes on his back, certainly unprepared for a Scandinavian winter. She said that he was so stressed he was sweating in spite of the cold.

The young man, Waliullah Hafiz, was trained as an electrician and had been a successful businessman in Kabul before a severe beating at the hands of the Taliban drove him from his country.

Dagmar found herself on a threshold. As she put it, she could either go on with her life or help him. “I just knew I had this choice here and now,” she said, “and whatever I do will have consequences.”

This is where Jesus meets us; where the margins meet the thresholds in our lives; it is in this space where we are challenged; in this space where healing and grace can lurk both expectantly and unexpectedly.

Thanks to Dagmar’s help, Wali is now applying for asylum for himself and his family, he has a place to live and he is learning a new trade. He has found a new beginning because a stranger met him at the edge of the railroad tracks and the end of his rope, and walked with him through a threshold to a place of welcome and sanctuary.

The man at the Pool of Beth-zatha was on the edge in many ways; unable to walk, chronically ill for decades, he yearned to bathe in waters that had reputed healing powers. The pool was probably an artesian well that periodically moved and burbled as pressure equalized, and when this happened people believed that it was stirred by an angel’s wings. This was a marginal place in Jerusalem—a place of disease, infirmity, and desperation. Imagine the rush and the chaos to be first in the pool, the sense of despair as, once again, the man could not get there, lacking friends or family to help him.

This marginal place, filled with marginal people, was the kind of place where Jesus could often be found. And when he saw the man he asked a simple question: “Do you want to be made well?” The threshold; a future on tiptoe in the doorway.

“Stand up, take your mat, and walk. At once the man was made well.” The man wasn’t in the pool. His healing took place on the edge.

Lena Gates is on an edge too. I watched her last Sunday in the Stearns room, on the threshold of crawling—tottering on her belly like Supergirl, scooching and rolling her way toward mobility and a whole new world to explore (to her father’s mixed pride and dismay). And today she is about to be taken down the aisle to the water—the water of baptism, which will splash her head and welcome her as a beloved member of the Household of God. If we were Baptists we would dunk her right in and then back out to symbolize Christ’s death and rising to new life. But regardless of how we do it—dunking or sprinkling—the point is that Lena doesn’t stay in the water. She comes out of it, onto the proverbial shore—she has to because it is on the edge and in the margins where she needs to get to work as a member of the Body of Christ. She will grow up, and with God’s help live into her baptismal covenant to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

Liminal space isn’t just the stuff of individual story. John’s Revelation shows us that liminal space is a characteristic of the Kingdom. The tree of life, with its healing and fruitfulness, are found beside the river. This is the Great Story; the story where liminal space is the nature of things. It’s who we are and what we are called to; a constant process of transformation as God beckons and nudges us, expectantly and sometimes unexpectedly, across the threshold into abundant life.

*With apologies to Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

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