I held on tightly to the sideboards of our boat as we raced across the waters of Lake Atitlan toward the village of San Lucas. Our group of confirmands, mentors, and parents had spent the day touring the villages on the coast of Guatemala’s largest, deepest lake. Our mode of transportation, understandably, was a small motorboat, seating around 15 people, yet capable of reaching racing speeds that flung water over the sides and whipped the wind against our faces.
I gazed around at the magnificent sights before me, the deep blueness of the water, the dark green of the forested mountains, and the stark white of the approaching clouds. Lake Atitlan sits in the middle of the Guatemalan highlands at over 5,000 feet above sea level. Those stark white clouds I saw in the distance were coming closer, and were resting right on the top of the water. Our boat slowed as we turned toward the harbor and soon we were completely immersed in the white fog that made its way down from the mountaintops. The air was thicker, damper. Maren and Gabe, who were sitting at the bow of our ship, were fading from view. I reached out my arm to the side of the boat, and felt the clouds as the sky touched the sea before me.
This space between, where I found myself that day in the middle of heaven and earth, is often called “the liminal.” The theory of liminality concerns those times and places of flux and tension in our lives, where the transition from what was to what will be is not yet complete. The twilight between day and night, the engagement between dating and marriage, that moment on a roller coaster where you’re just going over the edge, and you feel the stomach starting to drop.
Historians and sociologists see liminality in human history as well, noting moments in time where humanity is on a threshold, no longer living as they did in the past but not yet aware of how the should live into the future. These are days of great fear and disorientation, but also times of great optimism and creativity. Think of the years of both promise and chaos between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the signing of the U.S. constitution. Or more recently, the confusion and the hope in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. For those living in the middle of these liminal times and places, there is often a tension as well, between acting immediately to realize the future and patience and waiting, knowing that the future has yet to arrive.
In Palestine around 80 CE, there were Jewish-Christians gathering together in small house churches to hear stories of their Savior, Jesus. It was common for early Christian communities to write down their own Gospels, complete with stories, teachings, and parables, some taken from other gospels, others passed down orally, and some distinct to the community’s own time, place, and issues. The Matthean community, those who recorded and read the Gospel of Matthew, had a unique apocalyptic tale that isn’t found in any other extant Gospel—the parable of the bridesmaids.
This story, told to Jesus’ disciples just prior to his death and resurrection, is an intriguing one, no doubt. In it we have 10 bridesmaids, who are ready to celebrate a wedding. We don’t know where they are staying or for how long, but we do know this: their main task is to wait, through the night, for the bridegroom to come with his bride and the banquet to start. In 1st-century Judaism, wedding celebrations were weeklong affairs, beginning with the arrival of the bride and groom and the joyous opening banquet. In this parable, it is the bridesmaids’ task to welcome the couple with a procession of fire-lit lamps in the dark night.
But first, they must wait. They have their lamps with them ready to burn at the first sight of the wedding party. But times tarries on, the bridegroom is delayed, and the women grow tired and fall asleep. And it is here, in the midst of their sleep, in the midnight hour, as night turns over to morning that the bridegroom finally arrives.
They hear a shout in the darkness, “Look! Here is the bridegroom!” Quickly, the maids find their lamps and trim them, so they can burn brightly as the bridal party enters the banquet.
The Matthean community, who read this story under the shadow of Roman occupation, knew what it was like to be the bridesmaids in this parable. They were living through their own long, dark night, hoping for the arrival of their bridegroom, Jesus. In the decades that passed between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and the writing of Matthew’s gospel, Jewish-Christian communities experienced all the tension, conflict, confusion, and hope to be expected from a religious community in such a liminal space. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and devastation of their holy city Jerusalem, the Matthean community had been waiting in frustration and anticipation for years now. They, along with many other Jewish-Christian communities, were looking forward expectantly to what is known as the Parousia, the arrival of Jesus and the coming Day of the Lord.
This idea of Parousia has many different manifestations throughout Jewish and Christian theology. The prophet Joel wrote to the people of 6th-century Judah, “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” The prophet Isaiah says, “The day of the Lord is near! I will punish the world for its evil and lay low the insolence of tyrants.”
For many 1st-century Jewish Christians, this promise of the coming Day of the Lord was the return of their Messiah, to upend the rule of the Roman government, and establish God’s kingdom of justice on earth. It was a righting of the world, where the humble are lifted up, the mourners are comforted, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled. This was the world they were waiting for, the Day of the Lord just on the horizon.
But living in this liminal space, with their bridegroom Jesus on his way to the banquet, meant they couldn’t just wait. Like the bridesmaids in the parable, they needed to prepare, to be ready. As the women awake to the sound of the arriving bridal party, only five of the bridesmaids are prepared, with oil to soak the rags of their lamps. The other five, according to Matthew, were foolish and brought no oil with them. “Give us some of your oil,” they say to the wise bridesmaids who brought oil along. The wise women refuse and send the foolish away to buy more oil. By the time the foolish maids return, the party has already begun, and they are shut out of the banquet.
Now let me name a couple of frustrations with the telling of this story, the first being the fact that the wise bridesmaids refuse to share their oil with the foolish, when I’m sure we all recall one of Jesus’ most famous instructions that his followers give to those who ask them and do not turn away those who want to borrow. Or that the foolish bridesmaids, who no doubt knew the married couple and spent all night waiting for their arrival, were still shut out of the banquet just because they were late.
Yes, I am aware that this is not a perfect parable, no parable is. But if we read this story contextually, we can discern the message the Matthean community was trying to impart on its members: the Day of the Lord is coming and we need to prepare ourselves for it. The joyous banquet of Christ, where the hungry are fed and the mourners rejoice is upon us! Keep watch, prepare yourselves, so that when the day arrives, you are ready.
“This is the island. This is where you will die.”
The warden on Robben Island spoke these words to Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress comrades as they entered the jail where Mandela would spend 18 of his 27 years in prison. Each jail cell, designed specifically for political prisoners who challenged the apartheid regime of South Africa, was only seven square feet, with concrete walls, and a slop bucket in the corner. No reading was allowed, there was constant verbal harassment by white prison guards, and solitary confinement was a regular occurrence. “I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life.” Mandela wrote.
Amidst the solitude, the droning pattern of daily life, the denial of outside information or communication between inmates, Mandela found a hope. He gained the privilege to write letters to his wife. As the wardens changed he was given permission to check out books and study. He built solidarity between the black South African prisoners against the oppressive government and policies that held them there.
And outside the prison walls, change was on the way. The anti-apartheid movement, both in South Africa and abroad, was growing. A fresh movement of young activists was taking control, with Mandela communicating with them from prison. By the time he left Robben Island for another prison in Cape Town in 1982, Mandela was the most famous political prisoner on the planet.
Historians call this, the war of attrition, the patient, gradual actions of Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement to reduce the power and popularity of the National Party and its apartheid regime. I can’t even imagine the tension and the anticipation, day by day, as Mandela’s long walk to freedom and the black African movement toward equality and the end of apartheid slowly marched on. As the famous South African song we know very well here at First Church says, “Freedom is coming, oh yes I know!”
To sit on the threshold of a moment in time like that, to know that there is a justice and freedom that’s right within our grasp and yet still on the way, is what living in that liminal space and time is all about. To live each day, little by little, knowing that hope is coming, we can feel it in the air but not quite see it. That is what the liminal is. The Matthean community knew of this, as they prepared for the return of their Messiah and the Day of the Lord. The Suffragettes knew of this, even as they were spat on, knocked down, and hauled off to jail as they marched in numbers toward voting booths. Dr. King new of this, as he spoke of going to the mountaintop like Moses and looking over the Promised Land. Residents of East Berlin knew of this, as they picked away, piece by piece, at the Berlin Wall toward freedom under the watch of armed East German police.
And I think we know this too. Today, we live in our own liminal space, our own days of waiting and anticipation, on the threshold of something that we can’t even imagine. As followers of Christ, our parable tells us, we must prepare ourselves for the coming of the kingdom, that which is not quite here and yet already among us. We are called to live into the confusion, promise, frustration, and hope of this liminal space where we find ourselves. This day-by-day attrition, slowly, surely, toward God’s coming day of justice and peace.
I think this is one of the most challenging things about being a person of faith—the faith part. Living in that tension, knowing that the kingdom is here with us, and yet still on the way, that justice and peace are real and yet not fully realized. To be a follower of Christ is to live in the liminal space, to sit on that threshold where the reign of God is within our grasp and not quite yet.
So how do we do this? Well I think we start by waiting, which might be the hardest thing for Americans to do. There is a very real sense of helplessness in waiting. A sense of powerlessness. A realization that someone or something other than myself is in control, which means I have to wait for them; I have to give up the power that I’m so used to having over everything in my life. Whether we’re waiting for a bus that is running late, a doctor to tell us a diagnosis, a loved one to call so we can break our silence and make peace, or for justice to finally arrive and the world made right: the waiting times of our lives can be the hardest. The most lonely. The most vulnerable.
And yet I think there is a freedom in waiting. A freedom in the silence. A liberation about knowing that I can sit here in the stillness, doing nothing but simply existing, and know that God’s love still holds me, and God’s grace still surrounds me. That there is a power at work beyond my control. A kingdom coming, of peace and justice, that will get here no matter what I do. Sometimes we can only wait, and be assured in our stillness and silence that God is moving.
But we cannot just wait. We must also work. We cannot come to the banquet without oil for our lamps, and wait in the darkness, only for the bride and groom to arrive and find we are unprepared for the party. It is our job to welcome the celebration, the coming Day of the Lord, to live as if God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and joy is already here. We are called to work in this liminal space, standing in the threshold of a new day, whose light we are just starting to see.
And I do see it, do you? This past Tuesday four more states—Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota, and my home state of Nebraska—joined states such as Minnesota in raising their minimum wage to ensure more economic equality for lower income workers.
Cities in Texas, Ohio, and California voted to ban the destructive and dangerous practice of fracking within their city limits, which adds to a growing movement in the U.S. away from fossil fuel dependency and toward clean, renewable energy.
The passing of Proposition 47 in California that brings historic reform to their prison system by removing felony convictions for low-level drug and property crimes, and using the 150 million dollars they will save each year on schools, victims services, and drug abuse treatment.
These are only three examples; I’m sure you have your own. Your own places where you see God on the move, where the tension and anticipation is leading to a new way of living, a new creation, a realm of God we can see is coming but is just beyond our grasp. And yes, we are working. And waiting, here in the midnight hour, in this liminal space, right where the clouds touch the water.