The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through the the red-hot mess that is 2020. At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times. Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on September 13 as we heard James’ lament for his community in James 5:1-6. We also sought to be attentive to Proverbs 31:1-9.
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I preached my first sermon when I was sixteen years old. I’ve been an ordained pastor for three decades. And today, I’m breaking new ground in preaching from Proverbs 31. I’ve never been here before.
There are a number of reasons for that, but to be honest the truth is that I’m not really crazy about this book. In some ways, Proverbs is the “fortune cookie” book of the Bible. There are lots of wise sayings, an alarming percentage of which are about avoiding loose women and strong drink; most of the book is attributed to a man who’s the very personification of wisdom, King Solomon of Jerusalem… but my main reaction to Proverbs has been, well… meh.
And I surely wasn’t planning to preach Proverbs in conjunction with the series on the Letter from James, but I came across this passage from the last chapter in the book and I was captivated.
We’re told that these are the words of King Lemuel. OK, that sounds good to me. I mean, I don’t know who Lemuel was, but that’s a pretty Bible-y name for a king. You’ve got Ahaz, Hezekiah, Solomon, Rehoboam… why not Lemuel? It seems to fit.
Except that neither Israel nor Judah ever had a king named Lemuel. There is some evidence that an Arabian people called the Massa were led by someone named Lemuel, but the Massa were descendants of Ishmael, which means that by Old Testament standards, anyway, they didn’t play for our team.
So we’re not sure who Lemuel was, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter because the text that we have was not written by him, but rather his mother – a woman whose name has been lost to history. Why does that matter? Because it is very rare for a woman to have an authoritative voice in the culture in which the book of Proverbs was written, but here she gets, essentially, a by-line.
The one exception to the “women should be seen and not heard” policy seemed to be when a queen mother was given a voice during a period of transition or disruption. For instance, if the king were to die, and the child was not quite mature enough to rule, the child’s mother would be granted permission to help inform policy. There are examples of this in several Middle Eastern cultures, particularly Egyptian. The queen mother was invited or expected to make some comments of a didactic nature and that became a formal charge to the young king.
And here’s something else: Proverbs 31:1-9 are the only commands in this book to be directed to the leader of God’s people. The rest of the book is wise sayings from the king. This is a charge to the king.
So here’s the deal: when the people of God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, started sorting out what was scripture and what wasn’t, somebody went to great lengths to make sure that this wisdom from a woman who was outside of the community was incorporated into the Bible and passed down as a word from God. Now, see, that’s saying something. It is more than a little surprising to hear Lemuel’s mother’s voice as the Word of the Lord. And yet, here we are.
So what does it say? You heard it: essentially this charge from Lemuel’s mother indicates that those who have more power, authority, and resources than others are charged to yield their privilege to whose who possess less power, authority, or wealth.
But there’s more. There is a sense here that Lemuel’s mother is charging him to make sure that nothing so clouds his judgment that he forgets who he is or what he’s supposed to be doing. If people in positions of power, authority, and privilege lose sight of their call to be godly, well, bad things will happen. Injustice will emerge. Pain and misery will prevail. The role of those with great privilege, according to the Scripture, is to stand in solidarity with those who are at risk, to amplify the voice of the marginalized, and to attend to those who suffer by addressing the causes of that suffering.
It’s important for us to remember this morning that all of this advice is coming from an unlikely source: a woman who, under normal circumstances, would not be heard for a number of reasons. A woman at whom people would nod and smile… but to whom they would not listen. However, because there is a season of change, or loss, or grief, or tumult, this woman’s voice is heard, her wisdom is recognized, and her warnings are recorded.
The “oracle that King Lemuel’s mother taught him” was born in what we might call a “liminal season” – a time between that which has been previously known and that which is still to come. The Latin word limen means “threshold” – the strip of wood or stone that is underneath a doorway leading from outside to inside, or one room to another. Liminality implies a crossing over; if we were to say that someone was experiencing a liminal season, we would be implying that they had left something behind and yet had not fully arrived in their new place. You know something about liminal seasons.
You know that hardly anyone likes the feeling of liminality. It’s exhausting. Frustrating. Chaotic. And yet, it is often the space in our lives where it’s easiest to recognize and participate in the work of the Holy One.
And as we continue to read through the Book of James, we acknowledge that this book, like the book of Proverbs, belongs to the “Wisdom Tradition” of literature – and it is a voice that comes out of a liminal space.
Here’s what I mean. The first followers of Jesus thought that because Jesus was Jewish, that they, too, were Jewish. But as time went by, the leaders within the Jewish tradition looked at these Christ-followers and said, essentially, “not so fast.” The early Christians, as we’ve heard in previous weeks, began to experience persecution and oppression from both religious and governmental authorities. James is writing to help them make sense of this, and to follow in the Jesus way in a time of uncertainty and change. So far in this letter, he’s offered words of encouragement, compassion, and tenderness. He’s issued teachings about responsibility and godly conduct as well as a call to humility and the avoidance of arrogance. James challenges his readers’ selfishness and pride.
And in today’s reading, the author of this letter launches into a blistering condemnation of people who claim that they are following Jesus but whose conduct reveals an ignorance of the things about which Lemuel’s mother worried and of which Jesus taught. He describes a reality in which some people have far more than they could ever use – the piles of clothes that are literally rotting away, the precious metals that are gathering dust and tarnish, and a general picture of people who dwell in superlative abundance, in ignorance, and in selfish bliss.
Verse 4 begins with an exclamation: “Listen!” There is a warning for God’s people to pay attention to the cries for justice with which they are surrounded and to take advantage of the liminal season in which they find themselves as an opportunity to create new patterns of faithful living. James echoes the words of Proverbs as he pleads for justice for workers and freedom for the oppressed. He calls his sisters and brothers to recognize their positions of privilege and to yield that privilege for the sake of the larger community.
Perhaps this is one of the scriptures of which Pope John Paul II was thinking when he wrote that the goal of the Christian is not to have “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of many people, both near and far,” but rather “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, the good of all and of each individual, because we really are responsible for all.” He’s not wrong.
And that, beloved, brings me to today. This week I was privileged to spend some time with a young person who was trying to process the train wreck that is the year of our Lord 2020. This person moaned, “Why does saying ‘Black lives matter’ have to be a political statement? Shouldn’t that just be obvious to everyone?”
Had my young friend possessed more patience and energy for a burst of Pastor Dave’s wisdom, I’d have explained that it is a very political statement because “politics” is simply the way that people who live in groups make decisions. Politics is all about coming to an agreement about the way that we choose to live in our tribe, our city, or our country. So yes, “Black lives matter” is a political statement.
And if I was granted even more time with this frustrated young person, I’d have gone on to say that while BLM – Black lives matter, blue lives matter, or babies’ lives matter – are all political statements, they need not be partisan statements. As a body politic, we need to recognize the worth of each life.
And yet in this liminal season that is the great pandemic of 2020 it has become apparent that too many people, particularly people who have been invested with authority and power, have been living as if Black lives matter less than non-Black lives. In too many places, Black and Brown life is cheap. It’s not considered to be as consequential as White life. And that, my friends, is an abomination to the Creator and Author of all life.
This season of pandemic, tension, unrest, and dis-ease has opened for many of us who are not Black or Brown some glimpses into the struggles of those who are. We have seen grave injustice and great violence in ways that are often horrifying. And some of what we have seen and sensed has provoked even greater unrest, disorder, and pain.
This is, beloved, truly a liminal season. Nobody wants to be where we are. We want to move. We want to get out of this place… but to where?
The temptation to which many of my friends have given voice is simple: “Take me back. Can’t we just go back to the good old days? A return to ‘law and order’, or ‘common decency’, or ‘respect’?”
Many of the people that I love dearly believe that our call is to return our nation, our culture, our polis to some former glory or state of being. And I ask them, “How far back should we go? To the days when women were prohibited from voting? To the years when entire communities were redlined, making it impossible for people of color to purchase their own homes? To the era of ‘Jim Crow’, where non-whites were expected to ‘know their place’? To the time – which happens to be today – when 30 states in the USA have no law against involuntary “conversion therapy”, a horrific attempt to use pseudoscientific practices to change a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation?”
And if I ask that question, a look of shock and panic comes to my friends and they almost always say, “No, Dave! Geez, that’s not what I mean. But it’s just so hard now. It seems like everything is up for grabs, and it’s so hard to have to think through and decide everything. I just want it to be back to normal. I’m worn out, Dave. I’m exhausted.”
Yes. Yes, you are. So am I.
And so are the women, the people of color, and the LGBTQ people whom God loves. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and it’s not just to expect that my neighbor will want to retreat to my “normal” simply because I had grown comfortable with my neighbor’s oppression or dis-ease.
The call of the Gospel is to enter into this liminal space and to allow the new thing that Christ is doing to unfold, and to participate in that new thing to the end that the love, peace, grace, justice, and mercy of Jesus will extend more deeply into the lives of the people with whom I share my life.
Spiritual Director and author Richard Rohr puts it this way:
To get out of this unending cycle, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold”…where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence… It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.
Some native peoples call liminal space “crazy time.” I believe that the unique and necessary function of religion is to lead us into this crazy, liminal time. Instead, religion has largely become a confirmation of the status quo and business as usual. Religion should lead us into sacred space where deconstruction of the old “normal” can occur. Much of my criticism of religion comes about when I see it not only affirming the system of normalcy but teaching folks how to live there comfortably. Cheap religion teaches us how to live contentedly in a sick world…
Beloved, this has nothing to do with partisanship. This has everything to do with politics – the ways we decide to live together. Can we choose to listen, to learn, and to act with love? Can we agree that we are going to treasure the lives that have been too often devalued? Can we work to construct a society where the intentions of the Creator are evident by the ways that we treat each other?
Thanks be to God, who is merciful and just even as we struggle to find meaning in these confusing and liminal times. Amen.
 Sollicitudo rei socialis encyclical, 1987. Quoted in Plough Quarterly, Autumn 2020 p. 4.
 Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999), pp. 155-156, quoted in https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation–Liminal-Space.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=jd48qU30R0U