Tag Archives: Liminal Space

God the Liberator

Exodus 12:1-14

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

In the Jewish ritual of the Passover, this question is asked by the youngest child present. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” It is a scripted question, designed to help teach about the meaning of Passover, not all that different from the question and answer format of the Heidelberg Catechism. 

We reënter the story, again, after some time has elapsed. Last week we saw God call out to Moses from a bush that was burning but was not consumed. After some back and forth, Moses acquiesces to God’s call and makes his way to Egypt. And Moses meets Aaron, who will be his voice before Pharaoh.

But Pharaoh, thought to be a god in flesh, and the ruler of the greatest superpower of the region didn’t buy it. “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” And he hardened his heart and he made a horrible situation worse. Moses and Aaron return, and to try to prove his point, Aaron threw down his staff, and it became a snake, but Pharaoh’s magicians did the same thing. We are told that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. 

We then read of a series of plagues that God used to warn Pharaoh and the Egyptians, for God to show that Pharaoh is no god, that Pharaoh is no match for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Each time, Moses goes to Pharaoh and calls for Pharaoh to liberate the ancient people of God, and each time Pharaoh refuses. And so the plagues come. Water turned into blood, yet Pharaoh’s magicians could replicate this, and his heart was hardened. Second came the frogs, which covered the land, and Pharaoh’s magicians could do the same, and his heart was hardened. And the dust of the earth became gnats, and the magicians could not do this, and said, “this is the finger of God,” but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Then the flies, the livestock would become diseased and died. The people were inflicted by boils, and then hail, and finally locusts descended and devoured every living thing. Each time Pharaoh’s heart grew harder and harder. Until finally the final plague was announced, and this brings us to our reading today. 

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

***

This was the start, this was new beginning, this was new creation. This moment would be one of the most formational moments in the history of the people of God. 

And yet, this moment was not really one of celebration, it was not a moment of joy. It was also a time of great suffering. It was a time of chaos, it was messy, it was disorderly. And this is the paradox of the passover, which, in many ways, mimics the paradox of the faith. The tension of the journey of faith. The mixed blessing. 

To return to the Jewish passover ritual, some of the wine is taken out of the glass while they are recounting the story. A bit for each of the plagues, to always remember that while this was something that gained freedom for the ancient people, this also caused great suffering for others, and we ought not rejoice in the suffering of others, even while we remember the freedom for the ancient people, indeed for us, which is just on the horizon. 

And so in twilight, in the space between day and night, in the space between days, between today and tomorrow, lambs are sacrificed and shared while God finishes the showdown of sorts between God and Pharaoh. 

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

This moment, this moment is the liberation of the captives, the freeing of the slaves. Rather than a great and powerful nation, God called out to a nomadic herder in his old age, and made a covenant, God continued to stay with this ragtag group of people who were absolutely nothing in the eyes of anyone. Even in the midst of slavery, God continued to be the God of this people, this people who were beat down, who were captives, who were weak, powerless, poor. This people remained the people of God and it is at this moment that God will effect their liberation. 

And this is what God continues to call the people’s minds back to. God rarely called their minds back to creation, “I am the God who created all of this,” nor does God often remind them of Noah and the flood, nor does God even remind them that God approached Abram and claimed him before he even knew what was going on. No, God continually calls back their minds to the fact that God freed them from slavery in Egypt. And so God is the creator, God is the covenantor, but most of all, God is the liberator.

Time and time again God reminds God’s people that they — we — were slaves and that God brought them — us — out. We are to remember that we are not God’s people because we did anything to deserve it, not because we were strong, powerful, rich, mighty. But perhaps just the opposite. Because we were poor and enslaved and oppressed. 

Just as God brought the ancient people out of their misery so long ago, so does God visit us in the depths of our misery, in the depths of our Egypt and brings us out. 

This story of the ancient people of God can resonate in our lives in so many ways. Both personally and collectively. This is another liminal experience, quite literally, at twilight when the whole system is set into motion. Twilight, of course, is the space between days. And they find themselves a different people between the sunset and sunrise. But this space of in-between brings echoes of another time in which Israel, or at least the one who would become Israel, wrestled with a man/an angel/God through the night until daybreak. The liminal space is often one of struggle, tension, conflict. 

Freedom for Jacob from the captivity of his own self and ambition didn’t come without this battle, freedom for the ancient people of God from slavery didn’t come without this messy and disorderly experience to peel back the strong grip of Pharoah. 

I think about us, as a people, as a nation, and wonder if we find ourselves in a similar liminal space, with something on the horizon. At the same time as there are cries for order and civility, those who are struggling under the weight of centuries of oppression remind us that freedom never comes without a struggle against the powers of evil that brought about the oppression in the first place. 

I think about us as individuals, as we so often find ourselves in liminal spaces of varying sorts. New life does not come easily into the world, but never without struggle, pain, tears, sweat, and blood. The liminal spaces are never easy places to be, but we are never left alone in them. The point is not to fight against them, but to cling to the God who has promised to lead us through them into the next chapter of the grand story. 

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

God continually reminds the people that God led them out of slavery so that they would remember, that they would have compassion, and that they would also join God in the work of justice and liberation. “Do not oppress a stranger,” we read, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We are to remember that God is the God of all, but in a special way, the God of the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed, the wronged. And because God has brought and is bringing us out of Egypt, we are called to visit other people in their Egypt, those people who are enslaved spiritually and emotionally, or those people who are literally enslaved, still today. 

That just as God stands with the poor and the oppressed and the captive and the wronged, so must we. 

And this is who we are, we are a people who were enslaved, but have been freed. We were a people who were captives, but have been liberated. We are a people who have been given a new start, a new beginning, a new identity, something else to form our identity around. Whereas the ancient people may have counted their calendar from their slavery, they are now to begin the calendar, to begin their year with liberation, albeït a mixed blessing. And so, we, too, are invited to find our identity not in those things which torment us, those things which hold us captive, but we are invited to find our identity in Christ, who came to us and led us out. And to live as liberated and freed people, we are called to join God in God’s work of liberation. Liberation for the lost and lonely, liberation for the poor, liberation for people in our own nation who are both oppressed, held down, and people here and around the world who are in modern day slavery. 

And at its core, this is what the church is. The ministry of the church is one of liberation, of freeing people from what which constricts, that which binds, that which hinders, both figurative and literal. And just as we are being loosed of our chains, we also help to remove the chains of others. 

And this, sisters and brothers, is the good news of the gospel. Good news into which we are invited. The question is phrased, “why is this night different from all other nights?” not “why is that night different…” It is something into which we are invited not only to remember, but to experience anew, that when we gather and we hear the scriptures, and we see the font to remind us of our baptism, and when we see the table around which we gather when we commemorate another night when Jesus gathered with his disciples for a meal, and both of these remind us of that freedom, that liberation which God has and is accomplishing for us, for others, truly, for the life of the world.

The Thin Place of Liminality

Genesis 32:22-31

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Louis Leloir, 1865.

I have heard from people in some form of recovery, usually from alcohol, and often they share a similar kind of experience. The first time that they are on their way to a meeting, or to a substance abuse counselor, is usually the most terrifying moment. It is a time in which one is in transition from dependence to sobriety, from an old life to a new life. It is a time in which something is going to be different, but the individual has no idea what that different way of being will look like. It is the space between spaces, it is a threshold experience. It is a liminal space. 

This is one of the clearest examples of such a space, though it is certainly not the only one. You have experienced many liminal spaces. Perhaps it is the morning after college graduation and you realize that you don’t have class to go to, or papers to write, or the first time you bring a new baby home from the hospital and you sit down and look at this tiny and helpless human, and you look around you and think, “okay, now what”, or the first day of retirement when you wake up early as you often do, but as you lay in bed you realize that there is no work to go to today, and there isn’t tomorrow either, and now you have to find a new way to exist in the world. These are but a few. The relative comfort of the known behind you, the uneasiness of the unknown ahead of you. 

Today we not only find a thin place, that is, a place where the Divine and human meet, and here in a very physical, tangible, and visceral way, but also a liminal space in many ways. It is the liminal space of the space between days, and it is the liminal space of a transition in Jacob’s life. Remember, Jacob had fled after he stole Esau’s blessing, and Esau was out for him. He has this dream at a place he names Bethel. He continues on to the land of the East, and the term “the east” is a recurring one. When the human progenitors were driven from the garden, the story goes, they were driven to the East. Abraham was taken from the east to the land of Canaan. And now Jacob travels to the East. He goes to Haran, to his mother’s brother–his uncle. There he falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel (for those doing a mental genogram, that is his cousin), and ends up marrying her sister Leah instead and then stays and works longer, and then marries Rachel. Between his two wives and two concubines he had a boatload of kids while there, and those kids will be particularly important a little later in the narrative. I know, this is a really dysfunctional family. Jacob cuts a deal with Laban for a subset of his livestock, and through a really strange breeding program that Laban, apparently, found to be unfair, though to be fair, Laban wasn’t quite so honest and forthright with Jacob either. 

So there’s a bit of a family rift there, and he packed everyone up to head back home, though the departure was something of a surprise to Laban. Laban finds out that Jacob high-tailed it out of here, and he chased him for seven days until he, and his entourage, overtook Jacob and his entourage. They met, had a heart to heart, and made an agreement with one another, and both went their separate ways. Jacob is coming home, and he sends messengers to tell Esau and gifts to Esau ahead of his arrival. 

And this is where we are right now. 

***

This is a hingepoint in Jacob’s life. He has spent his life fleeing from others, and now he has started to make amends. He had spent a good portion of his life away from home, and now he’s going back home. 

He sends across all of his family, all of his servants, all of his things, and for some reason, he stays on the other side of the river. The reason why is not really known, and not really our concern right now. But we are told he was left alone and that a man wrestled with him. This is particularly strange because we don’t know anything else. We don’t know where this man came from, or why he is wrestling, but simply that he is wrestling. 

Jacob is turning a page in his life, and leaving behind his life with Laban, and at the same time, he is leaving behind his life of cheating. Jacob has set his intent on going ahead, but has not yet crossed over that line, over the Jabbok river. He is alone, and it is night, that is, he is in the small space between days. In more ways than one, Jacob finds himself on a threshold, in a liminal space. And we are told that a man wrestled with him through the night. 

Day is breaking, and we are in that moment of twilight, the liminal space between light and dark. Daybreak, that is an important time on biblical stories as well as folktales.  Jacob wrestled with all his might and the man did not prevail over Jacob, and we are told that he struck Jacob’s hip socket and put it out of joint. The man asked to be let go because day is breaking, and Jacob replied that he would not let go unless the man blessed him. He’s not going to go through this wrestling for nothing, he is going to wrestle a blessing out of it. 

And the man asks his name, and the mysterious man, who we learn later is none other than God Godself, gives him a new name, Israel — to struggle or strive with God — for he has striven against God and humans and has prevailed. And this might just seem like a story to explain why the people of Israel are called such, but I think it’s much more than that. We see a few places where God changes someone’s name. Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Simon to Peter, and Jacob to Israel. And just as Jacob strove with God and humans, so also the people of God are the people who strive with God and with humans. Thinking of it this way makes us think a little differently, I think, of what it means to be the people of God. 

He named the place Peniel, which means “face of God” because he has seen God face to face. We are told that the sun rose upon him as he passed—having made it past and through that liminal space, the dawn of a new day breaking—limping because of his hip. 

***

This is one of my absolute favorite stories in the Bible, and has been meaningful to me for years, since I was in high school, actually. I found myself in a faith struggle of my own, and my church had a seminary student as an intern, and I talked to him about my struggle, and he encouraged me not to shy away from it, but like Jacob, to lean into it and to wrestle a blessing out of it. 

There is something significant about these liminal spaces, and, at least in my experience, we don’t pay much attention to them, we just seek to get past them. The Franciscan Richard Rohr describes liminal spaces as those moments when one has left the tried and true but has not replaced it yet with anything else. It is a time when anxiety tends to be high, when if you pay attention, your gut is churning, and you find you don’t know how to be. Some of these can be a good kind of anxiety, the kind that brings hopeful expectation. Others are the terrifying kind of anxiety, where you feel lost and alone. Alone. Like Jacob was on the bank of the Jabbok River. 

And those in-between experiences, those moments of standing on a threshold, those liminal experiences can feel like a wrestling match. Perhaps we are wrestling with ourselves, the part of yourself that wants to turn back, and the part of yourself that wants to step through that door wrestling together to see which path you will take. Maybe even you are wrestling with the Divine, as you seek to wrestle a blessing out of the moment, out of the situation, out of the struggle. 

And when the sun rises, as it does, if you look closely, in the twilight of the morning, you might notice that the place where you are standing is Peniel, and that you, too, have striven with God and humans. And like Jacob, you may find that you have not made it through unscathed. Though it will heal, and with time it may become more of a souvenir than an injury, a reminder of what you came through. 

And so, sisters and brothers, lean into the liminal places when you find them. Lean into the fearful and anxious. Lean into the times of transition, the times of in-between. Because if you look closely, it may be when the Divine is so close so as to touch.