SERMON 9-20-20 Pentecost 16A, Proper 20, St. Paul’s Clinton, OK

Liminal Places

The 1983 blockbuster movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation” portrayed the adventures of a unique American family and their summer road trip vacation.  In the film, this Midwestern, suburban family led by Frank Griswold, (played by Chevy Chase) made a cross-country journey to “Wally World,” a fictional theme park that seemed a lot like a Disney World vacation spot.

As the family prepared for the trip, tensions were on the rise, tempers were short, and anticipation of the long journey ahead, overshadowed any dream of a joy-filled, relaxing, and fun vacation for which, they hoped to experience. Throughout the film, the family faced a lot of challenges: lost credit cards, terrible hotel accommodations, a major car breakdown, and a brief visit with some strange cousins.  When they finally arrived at Wally World, things were not as they expected and as a result, the leisurely family vacation transformed into an escapade of criminal proportions.

Maybe the movie Vacation sparks a connection to a family vacation we remember.  Maybe we connect with a silly story of a journey and its related pandemonium.  Maybe we identify with it because it reflects our own life journey. Maybe we understand what can happen when a group of folks on a journey to reach a particular destination, find themselves reluctant to change, unable to seek assistance from someone else, and possesses a perception of powerlessness to choose a different route, an alternative path, or another mode of transport.

All this makes me wonder what would have happened to the Griswolds, if they had just stopped their journey when they lost their credit cards, the car broke down, or they lost their luggage, and just called a friend for help.  Imagine the story if they had just stop thinking they could do it all themselves, and reached out to a neighbor, a friend, or a relative.    Would they have made it to their final destination?  I bet the movie would have ended differently because the chaos and uncertainty would have diminished, and quite possibly the vacation they dreamed of would have come to fruition.  I wonder how our journeys in life might be different if we considered alternatives, opportunities, and truly sought God’s will.

Tough Journeys with God

Toilsome journeys are difficult sometimes because we become so focused on the destination and our desire to control the outcome that we ignore the reality of what is going on around us.   Life can be frustrating because we are not in the comfortable space of where we were, and we are not yet where we would really rather be; we are somewhere in-between.  These in-between places are the “liminal” spaces of life.  These places are where we have to realize we need help, because we are really not in control and thus, we need to seek God’s will.

In today’s Old Testament lesson we hear, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  The desert journey of the people of Israel was one of those liminal places.  Moses led the Israelites out of their bondage of slavery, and into a newfound freedom, and a new way of being.  The liminal place was the long desert hike, which at best was uncomfortable and at worse, life-threatening.  However, this trip was absolutely necessary, in order for the Israelites to be ready for what was to come later on, the 40-year trip served as a time of preparation in action.  In the desert, the people had to wrestle with their identity as a community, they had to grapple with what they really needed to change in themselves in order to become a new nation.  Finally, they had to struggle with what they themselves had to do, which was to not merely wait for God to intervene, but to take action themselves in order for God’s will for them to be realized.

The story of the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert was not only about God’s demonstration of God’s benevolent power in action, it was a story of how a community of people had to take responsibility for the circumstances around them and then, take action, so that God’s will for them would become a reality.  It is in these liminal places of difficulty and unsettling reality that we grow, change, transform, and become better able to move forward; that is, if we accept the new reality and then, partner with God in the midst of the changes, God is making apparent in our midst.

Change is Not Easy

God’s creation is not a static system that we can enter into and not expect change.  Consider all the cycles in the universe, because 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.  Changes like these test our faithfulness to God who is working in our lives. Let me share an example. There was a small, rural town in Florida, who a few years ago hired a new city manager fresh out of graduate school.  The young woman came to her new position with lots of new ideas, energy, and imposing excitement.   The new city manager, after several attempts to make changes, soon realized that there was going to be many difficult problems with which, she and the city council would have to wrestle.

Homes were being sold left and right because families, frustrated with the lack of city identity and sense of mission, were moving further out into the suburbs and thus, revenues were declining. The spirit of service to the local residents beyond the urban area, which had been a core value of the city for years, had all but disappeared.  The city, rather than shining as a lighthouse of possibilities and hope, became an island focused only on self-sufficiency, resulting in further isolation and decline.  In the midst of all this change, the city council members were spiraling into hopelessness, putting their heads in the sand to the problems all around, and just waiting for a sign that God would intervene soon.

This was a liminal time of uncertainty, doubt, stress, and yes, there were tensions.  The young city manager cast a new vision, a new spirit of hope that would affect the community for years to come.  She said, “We find ourselves in a desert place, where our city seems isolated, stuck in our own circumstances, and we have abandoned the people around us to whom we are called to serve.”  She continued, “We can continue on this journey, self-absorbed, and without hope, or we can take action, seek outside assistance, reconnect with our suburban diaspora, and redefine our mission as a city.”  An epiphany happened on that day, and the council realized that they had to do something and take an active part in developing the future of the community.  They realized that this change required the community to literally, prayerfully, and faithfully work toward a new way of being.

Soon that small town began to experience renewed life, simply because they agreed that God was doing a new thing there and they had to partner with God and respond.  Others in the town began to catch the spirit of new ideas, energy and excitement and the earlier discomfort, doubt, stress, and tension became peace, hope, joy, and a sense of renewed cooperation.  Together that little town has a new reality of revitalized life and peace and harmony and growth they had not seen in years.  They realized that the vineyard in which they had been planted was not their own, but God’s.  They realized that they as faithful stewards of the vineyard owner, who had work to do in God’s Kingdom.

Vineyard Workers

The Gospel Reading today is a metaphor for God’s vineyard.  God called workers to work the vineyard and yet, some came to work at different hours of the day.  Each of them though were promised and agreed to the daily wage, regardless of when they started.  In other words, the bargain was that God would feed the workers, if they agreed to show up and work.  The point of the story is that God is generous to all and yet, sometimes we become uncomfortable in the liminal places of this work, where God is teaching us a new way of life.  The in-between time of showing up and getting fed is the liminal place where God is transforming us.

For many of us as individuals, and for all of us as communities of faith we must find a greater tolerance for discomfort, a renewed desire to explore fresh possibilities, a willingness to seek help from folks beyond our community, and a commitment to serve those folks outside our four walls.  We can only do these things by remaining faithful to God and to each other in the in-between times.  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 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)

Planted for Service

When we consider the desert sojourn of the Israelites, I wonder what would have happened if they merely decided to sit in the desert and wait for God to move them.  They did not do that did they?  They got up and walked, they moved, they traversed the liminal challenges of the desert.  The Israelites, under their own foot power, moved into the land promised by God.

We can be assured that as we embark on these long arduous, challenging, and yes uncertain journeys as communities of faith, we will face overwhelming obstacles.

Through prayerful discernment, through visionary and prophetic planning, and through apostolic action with God, we too can move from the desert places, the liminal places, the in-between places, and grow into the communities that God is calling us to become.   The local church, wonderful faith communities are called and planted to become incarnational partners with God.  When we join the work of the Kingdom, we are to the Spirit’s nudges to pray, hope, and yes, to act through word and deed, bringing about the Kingdom of God, right in the midst of the place we have been planted to serve.

You see, the Griswold’s forgot one key point to the whole trip to Wally World.  The fun and family time they were really seeking was not to be found on the rollercoasters and rides at their destination.  The real joy, peace, and purpose of the trip was to be found on the road.  Imagine, if they had spent time enjoying the journey, being open to the challenges they faced, helping each other through those difficulties, and maybe, just maybe, helping others on the same road and path all along the way.

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