April 26, 2020
Luke 24: 13-35 NRSV
Now on that same day, two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
The Road to North Carolina
What kind of story begins with journeys? Road trips? A moving van, a rented car, a thumb up in the air for hitchhiking?
A GOOD story is what kind of story begins that way.
Growing up in rural America, I spent a lot of time in a car on my way to somewhere. Sometimes it was in the backseat with my parents taking me on a camping trip. Sometimes it was on a school bus on my way to a basketball game.
Most of my best stories begin with me headed somewhere.
When I was deciding to move to NC for seminary, one of my college professors and mentors in Great Falls was from TN. I was applying for a summer internship that began before my first year at school, but I had nowhere to stay in the time between orientation for the internship and the actual internship beginning. There was about a month of “downtime”.
One day, I walked into her office, and she told me that if I got into the program, she had a place for me to stay: with her parents in TN. (states are so much smaller out East and so much closer to each other!)
I was accepted into the summer program and soon was packing up my car to move across the country. My professor handed me a manilla envelope full of CD’s and letters.
”What’s this?” I asked.
”Your state line CDs obviously!” She responded. “When you cross a state border, find that state’s CD and listen to some local music while you travel.”
Each disc had a letter to go with it: a little word of affirmation. Maybe a story from when my professor herself drove across the same highways when she moved for her job in Montana.
As I got further and further away from what I knew and got closer toward a new life, an unknown life, but a new life nonetheless, the road became a strange, uncomfortable, unknown space for me, and those CDs and letters accompanied me. It was liminal space.
The concept of liminality is technically a stage of a rite of passage. It is a threshold. One is not really attached to the life prior to entering the liminal space...but they aren’t really attached to the unknown future. They are still in transition. Living in the liminal space can be challenging. They are often uncomfortable.
Victor Turner is one of the main voices on liminality in anthropology, and in the 1960s, he studied this concept from a societal view.
When we are in liminal space, we are in between the social structure, temporarily fallen through the cracks, so to speak. We are stripped of anything that might differentiate us from our fellow human beings.
Many things can send us into a liminal space. A person’s sense of belonging, purpose, and identity can be compromised if you have had a major life change. Marriage, divorce, graduation, ordination, moving cities, the death of a loved one.
Non-places (transition into roads)
Liminal space can be a physical space as well. In the world of anthropology, what makes a space a place is simply the level of human interaction that takes place there. Limbo isn’t really a place where we dwell. These are often places where a person remains anonymous, alone.
Stairwells, elevators. In-between spaces or thresholds. Their purpose is to get you from one place to another.
Buildings that aren’t in use for their normal purpose are described as liminal. What kind of space are church buildings right now? Or a school building? A place that can feel normal in other circumstances other than this certain moment in time.
The 2004 film “The Terminal” is the story of a traveler from the fictional nation Krakozhia (crackosha) to the U.S. through NYC. It turns out that the U.S. no longer recognizes Krakozhia as an independent country after an outbreak of a civil war. So, Viktor, the traveler, is no longer permitted to either country, leaving him stateless and stranded in the JFK airport.
Viktor is stuck in a non-place. A liminal place to most people. Other than employees of airports, they are anonymous spaces.
But that is not the case for Viktor. It is where he dwells for a while. He befriends and assists airport employees and travelers. This unimportant space has now become a place for connection and relationship and change.
Those spaces that seem unimportant and uncomfortable actually are really full of life and potential.
During the liminal space, things are fluid and malleable. It is a space for new realities and hopes to be imagined. New customs to be established. When discomfort sets in, our senses can be sharper, our attention span extends. We are more aware of ourselves.
There is even a feeling of camaraderie associated among a group experiencing the same liminal experience.
Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr describes liminal space as sacred space. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and headed toward a possible new answer.
Rohr reflects on the idea that we always pray that our illusions will fall away. That our eyes be opened. But we are often trapped in the “way things are”. And we spend our time problem-solving, fixing, explaining, justifying, and taking sides, avoiding discomfort.
However, if we allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into a liminal space, transformation happens. Vicious circles end here. The voice of advocacy is learned here. It is the place that the Old World falls away and a bigger world is revealed.
We learn patience and openness here. We learn new things. Maybe those uncomfortable places aren’t as useless as once thought.
So, how about roads? According to the experts, they are liminal space. They get us to one place from another place. Traveling we are often anonymous.
Remember, roads hold some of our most important stories, good or bad.
The gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are full of stories of roads and ordinary people meeting God. They are stories of people uncomfortable, facing tension, discerning what to do, how to live and love.
Let’s hear our scripture reading for this week. Our story picks up the evening of the morning the women found the empty tomb of Jesus…
(scripture reading by Anna)
The best stories begin with a journey. This road trip story has irony and misunderstanding. Drama, even a reveal. It also has fellowship, hospitality, faithfulness, and discipleship.
This will be the church: on the move, sent out by the Christ who walks alongside us even when we don’t recognize or realize.
What kind of rite of passage do our folx on the road to Emmaus face?
The road to Emmaus is truly liminal space: we don’t know why they left Jerusalem. We don’t know why they are headed to Emmaus either. Even the town Emmaus is often interpreted as a “nowhere place”. It is a road to our escape of choice. Frederick Beuchner interprets Emmaus as whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget.
That road and the destination are uncomfortable and in-between space. A cigarette, Facebook, a shopping spree, another drink. Ice cream, a football game.
You can feel the devastation in the travelers’ words when they are talking with the stranger. You could call their discussion with the stranger Jesus a therapeutic one. His questions and presence help the travelers name their struggles:
But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. (and the best part) Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’
Jesus is unrecognizable to these travelers. Has their grief distracted them so much so that they simply are not capable of expecting Jesus? Does he look different? Does his body look transformed? We just don’t know. Luke doesn’t elaborate.
The travelers eventually end up inviting Jesus to join them for a meal and to rest. It is a simple, hospitable act for a stranger that frankly they find pretty disconnected from current events.
And it is in the breaking of bread around the table that everything changes. Jesus is recognized.
The road trip moves the travelers out of liminal space and into a new, unknown future. These are the ones who continue the story, continue to be messengers and witnesses.
There has been major change in these travelers. They were tellers of a sad story, to conversation partners with the risen Christ, to seeing the Lord in the breaking of bread. They became people with burning hearts who return to the city of Jerusalem sharing their story just like the women at the empty tomb.
When you imagine Jesus, what is he doing? Is he preaching to a crowd? Flipping some tables? Healing a person?
For Luke’s gospel, Jesus is most Jesus when he is connecting with others. Walking and dining with them. Listening and sharing.
New Testament professor Eric Barreto describes this as the “most Jesus thing” Jesus could do.
Its significance comes from the infusion of power from the people connecting.
Our experience with COVID-19 is a type of liminal space. Shelter-in-place feels like limbo, whether you’re an essential worker, working from home, or unemployed. It is an empty hallway or stairwell. A road.
We have been drawn out of “business as usual” with COVID-19. It has brought to light the things we view as “normal” but really aren’t.
We have a glimpse of the end of this uncomfortable space, at least here in MT. Maybe you fear return to “business as usual”. Maybe you desperately need some “knowns”. No more surprises.
Maybe this liminal space has opened your eyes to your abused neighbor, to your unhoused neighbor, to your elderly neighbor. Or the need for better healthcare, better unemployment structures, better legislation.
Maybe your eyes have been opened to your level of self-care. Maybe you’re overworking, over-eating, under-valuing your needs.
Liminal space changes our lives. Even if the space is uncomfortable and seems pointless and without value, our lives are changed in that nimble space. The women at the empty tomb may not be able to call back the angels they met. Nor the travelers may never meet the stranger on the road again like they did, but it doesn’t matter. Life will never be the same.
Significance isn’t found in the meal or the phone call or the walk. It isn’t the menu or the scenery or the content of the conversation. Its significance comes from the infusion of power from the people connecting. From people being hospitable and sharing their lives.
So, may you travel in and out of liminal spaces with the knowledge that the risen Christ travels with you. And that the infusion of power through connection opens the kin’dom of God to you. Amen.
Go in peace and with gentleness and patience. Have a great week, and join us again next week. Good bye!