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October 9, 2022, Proper 23, Finding God in liminal spaces, by the Very Rev Dr Amy D Welin

Oct 9, 2022

Have you ever been in a place in which you were not sure exactly where you were? Not quite lost. But surely not in a place you want to be. Sometimes, there is not even a name for this place.  Being in this sort of borderland can be really unsettling.

Once upon a time, as we were driving from our old home in New Jersey to our new home in Michigan, not entirely delighted about the relocation away from most of our friends and family, one of our young children asked where we were. We were in the wilds of northern Pennsylvania on Route 80  –  on a cold and gray January afternoon, surrounded by woodlands –  somewhere between DuBois and Clearfield. We didn’t know the name of a town, and my spouse answered that the place had no name. The kid responded with serious distress: Do you mean that we are in the middle of Nowhere?

That went well.

In retrospect, this is a revealing story of what was a liminal time. Richard Rohr tells us that liminal time is ” . . . when you have left, or are about to leave, the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.” We were at the edge of what we had known, as we were literally between homes. Sometimes life really feels like that, doesn’t it? There are times when we travel through uncharted territory. These liminal times –  being in the borderlands of what we used to know –  can bring us amazing experiences. And this can be is an unsettling, disorienting place, which requires us to hold our anxiety, live with some ambiguity, and wait, trusting in God.

Today our scripture teaches us about navigating an experience of liminal time.

Naaman the Aramean is a warrior. He is, used to being in charge and knowing what to do, and he is plagued by a skin disease. Before antibiotics and dermatology, skin afflictions generated social isolation. Through the word of an enslaved woman, Naaman learns of the Hebrew healing prophet and goes to the King of Israel for a referral. The Arameans were Syrians, not Israelites, and the King is not exactly welcoming. Naaman is in a foreign land, almost the middle of nowhere, in an alien culture –  and he is seeking healing. Is it at all surprising that he is puzzled and offended by the prophet’s strangely prescribed river bath?

Ten lepers, cast out of society, encounter Jesus in the wild borderlands between Galilee and Samaria. The only people who dwell in this region are those who are prohibited from being anywhere else. Their healing happens in the middle of Nowhere. Only one, the Samaritan, expresses gratitude.

These stories push all sorts of liminal anxiety buttons.

In a diverse and uncertain world, who gets to claim spiritual authority?  Both stories uphold people who are not empowered in their setting. In 2 Kings, two nameless women, one of whom is an enslaved foreigner, speak truth to Naaman. An Israelite prophet offers a transformative healing to a powerful Syrian leader. In the Gospel, the lepers are literal outcasts. Jesus heals them in the wilderness. The only word of thanks falls from the lips of the Samaritan, who in Jewish eyes is a “foreigner,” yet whom Jesus identifies as faithful. Even if we are inclined to welcome scriptural stories of reversal of fortune, these challenge us to think outside the norms of our traditional religious context for wisdom and inspiration. What can the stranger, the silenced, the outcast teach us about the mystery of God?

In a confusing world, where can mortals encounter God? 2 Kings suggests that one may need to journey to a strange place, where our usual reference points do not exist. GLuke reframes the borderlands between Galilee and Samaria, changing the context of a forbidding wasteland into to a sacred place, perhaps even what the Irish might identify as a “thin place,” where the veil between the material and spiritual worlds lifts, and we become aware of their interconnection. The Holy One has come alongside us, even if we do not perceive that in our wilderness. Where is God for you when you are wandering?

What does faith look like when we feel as if we are in the middle of Nowhere? Are we willing to look around for a path toward new life? Or shall we exert our energy and power wrangling over fruitless words of anger and shame, as the Epistle says, instead of using our agency to do the work of God in this place? What can we learn in disorienting times after global pandemic and during transition of institutions? What is faith when our usual trail markers are no longer visible?

When shall we reach the place in which we can proclaim with the psalmist Halleluia! I will give thanks  –  great are the deeds of the Lord! Shall we wait until everything is worked out according to what we desire? Or can we get there while we are still traveling across a barren wilderness?

Our lessons seem to teach us that in the midst of the disorienting realities of our life, we can trust that God is willing to be with us, that there will be healing and redirection, that ultimately all shall be well. At the tail end of a global pandemic, as the economy feels like a dangerous roller coaster, as the political landscape resembles a mine field, as we deal with all the demands of our lives –  where do we encounter the healing, the strength, the serenity of God?

Look around and pray. Pray for a glimpse of the powerful goodness that offers you healing in unanticipated ways.

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