Asterixes indicate where I would show the congregation a charmingly hand-drawn image on a large card to illustrate the point. Typically something silly or sarcastic. Use your imagination.
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Once upon a time, brothers Simon and Andrew were fishing—because they were fishermen, the Gospel tells us. And similarly, brothers James and John—the Sons of Thunder, the Gospel tells us—were mending their nets. And then this Jesus comes by, calls them to follow, and they do. No objections, no stalling, no complaints. Or none that the writer tells us about anyway. And we’re supposed to take this as some kind of model, I suppose, along the same lines as the saints. Look how obedient they were, look how much more they loved God than you do. Or something. God calls, we go, no objections, no stalling, no complaints. No, “my daughter’s still at daycare—let me pick her up and take her home to her daddy first”. No “but Jesus, I’m working at living out your message at my work and I’ve had a bunch of promising conversations with some coworkers about faith and I thought you’d called me here”. No, “seriously, Jesus, this is going to be difficult—I don’t think I’m ready for it.” Simon and Andrew and James and John just went and that’s what we’re supposed to do.
But I want to know what happened in that moment when Jesus called that switched those men from fishing to following. Had they already heard of this Jesus? Had they even heard him speak? Had they been wondering for some time if fishing was what God wanted them for? And that moment of change—switching from one worldview to another, recognizing a call from God—how does that happen?
I have a theory that it’s like magnets*. You’ve played with them, right? You put the two North ends together and they repel each other. You can force them to touch if they’re small enough, but you can let them just hover near each other, you pressing them together while they push each other apart. It feels like there’s something between them, something tangible, something bigger than just holding two magnets. It has energy and, it seems, life.
There’s a theological space that’s like this, one that’s difficult to express and sometimes difficult even to see when you’re in it. It’s called a liminal space, liminal meaning a threshold between two states—it’s a place where you’re not entirely in one or another space but between them—like standing smack in the middle of a doorway*. Liminal space—the space between—is like this:
• Have you ever had to sleep in a bed* with someone you didn’t care for much? Maybe at summer camp or a retreat, maybe on a family vacation with a sibling or snoring aunt. And you spent the night trying to be as far away as possible from them, stealing the covers but never touching. That space between you becomes almost tangible, especially in delirious sleepless hours.
• Or, closer to home, you may have noticed Pastor Jess hanging around over the last couple months—coming to worship, saying hello in the lobby, carrying the ever-present cup of coffee—and you might think, “didn’t we say goodbye to him? I thought he was going to Iraq?”* Well, he is, but deployment is a curious thing. You say your goodbyes to your community, but you don’t put boots on the ground til months later. You’re gone, but you’re still here. The space between being gone and being here can be awkward and it can be a gift. To live in that space between two things is sometimes to see the truth about both of them.
• I had a moment of this kind of awkwardness this week. I invited my next-door neighbors to church*. And, since I don’t do it that often, I stumbled a bit over my words. We are friends, my neighbors and I, our daughters play together and we chat about politics and the weather and things. But we’ve never talked about specifically religious things. And I found myself trying to cross the space between those things and floundering. I was nervous to be sure. I felt a bit like I was standing between two big magnets,* my body and soul vibrating with the energy between them, living in a somehow more real and more bizarre space. I’m not sure if I was able to cross over that space between us. Time will tell.
• Sometimes we can’t cross that space between us. When a relationship ends*—because of divorce, the break-up of a friendship, or even death—we still feel the presence of the relationship, but cannot cross the space between. What was between us to start with had grown large and intense and looms even larger at an ending. How can we reach across, even to touch a shoulder? How can we reach across and bring them back? Or when a relationship begins*, or is on the cusp of beginning, or when we simply want it to begin, that liminal space is there again. Our desire for another person—friend, romantic partner—is like a bubble of energy between us. I desire your friendship, but we don’t know one another well enough yet and so I can’t quite touch. I have a crush on you but you’re with someone else—so close and yet so far.
• One of my students at the Edge House at UC—who, incidentally, you’ll probably meet when you come to our NOSH at Good Shepherd event next Sunday as I know you’re all planning to do—one of my students struggles with being called by scriptural stories*. He reads and understands them, of course, but can’t quite cross over the boundary between story and self. Sometimes he recognizes himself in them but that recognition doesn’t lead him to a deeper understanding of the text or himself. I say he struggles, because he doesn’t give up—he lives in the space between.
• One of those stories we’ve been talking about at the Edge House is the Exodus, a story of God calling God’s people into the wilderness*, a liminal space. Consider that the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt and when God liberated them, they spent 40 years wandering and complaining about it. They looked backward to their bondage, to their homes and gardens, and whitewashed their experience of slavery. “If only we could go back, this desert liberation is terrible, we’ll never get to the Promised Land.” The wilderness is the space between Egypt and Canaan, the space between bondage and liberation, the space between known and unknown. God called them into something more, something greater than what they had been living, and they went. Mostly willingly.
But, you see, it’s more complex than God calling and our going. There’s this space that we can feel intensely, that we know is there but which we can only describe in story, where the very air is alive and we are both enlivened and frightened. This space between, this liminal space, is where we meet God. Our Celtic Christian brothers and sisters call this a thin place,* a place and time where the world as we know it is so thin that God almost breaks through, like pressing your fingers into a balloon or the place in your pb&j where the jelly soaks almost through your bread. God seems more real, closer, more intense here than anywhere else.
And sometimes we notice it and sometimes we don’t. It’s not like everyone who’s been through a divorce* says “yup, that last, worst argument, with the throwing of vases and the hurtful words, what a liminal space that was” yet God is there, unseen but almost tangible like the space between the magnets.*
This is what happened for Simon and Andrew and James and John—what happened between the moment of fishing and the moment of following Jesus? What shifted in their minds and hearts that they were able to just walk towards him? What has to shift in our minds and hearts that we can do the same? It’s this: the world is not an either/or proposition. It’s “YES, and…?”. The world we live in is not cut and dried, it’s in process, and the call of the good God who created everything is always “YES, and…?”. Maybe Simon and Andrew and James and John were aware of their competing urges—stay home and fish, it’s what you know, you’ll never be anything else vs. there’s something amazing/entrancing/transformative about this Jesus. And in the space between those things, they saw God standing before them, calling them into something greater. Calling them to follow—YES, and to be fishermen for people.
Consider, today, what spaces between you’re living in. Consider how we might be wandering in our own deserts and what Promised Land we’re walking towards. When you’re overwhelmed or anxious or delighted, listen for God saying, “follow me, follow me,” especially when you’re not ready. And listen for God saying “YES, and…?” with a delight that we cannot resist. Watch for God showing up in the spaces between and saying, “come and see!”