Sophia & Spirit in Liminal Space

Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31

Does not wisdom call,

   and does not understanding raise her voice?

On the heights, beside the way,

   at the crossroads she takes her stand;

beside the gates in front of the town,

   at the entrance of the portals she cries out:

‘To you, O people, I call,

   and my cry is to all that live.

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,

   the first of his acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up,

   at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

When there were no depths I was brought forth,

   when there were no springs abounding with water.

Before the mountains had been shaped,

   before the hills, I was brought forth—

when he had not yet made earth and fields,

   or the world’s first bits of soil.

When he established the heavens, I was there,

   when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,

when he made firm the skies above,

   when he established the fountains of the deep,

when he assigned to the sea its limit,

   so that the waters might not transgress his command,

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,

   then I was beside him, like a master worker;

and I was daily his delight,

   rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world

   and delighting in the human race.

Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

John 16:12-13a

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. [But] when the Spirit of truth comes…”

            Today is Trinity Sunday on the liturgical calendar – a time when churches all over the world will celebrate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: God in three persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost. The Church spent a lot of centuries arguing over the Trinity: Was the Son always God or did the Son become divine at some point? Some said God the Father existed first and granted divine status to the Son. Others said the Son was always with God and was always God and to be sure that Christians in every successive century following the fourth would say the same they put it in the Nicene Creed, saying that Christ is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Maybe a bit overstated, but can’t be too careful.

            A few hundred years later, there were more debates about the Holy Spirit. Did the Spirit proceed from God the Father or did the Sprit flow forth from God the Father and the Son? Well, this one split the whole Church apart as one of the primary theological divides leading to the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in 1054. The Western Church said the Spirit’s origins were from the Father and the Son, the Eastern Church said from the Father alone.

            In the mid-1500s, a whole movement began to get rid of the doctrine of the Trinity altogether in what became known as “Unitarianism” (Harvard was a hotbed of Unitarianism, by the way). Now that theological tradition is joined with another tradition to become Unitarian Universalism.

            I don’t imagine there’s ever been a much more divisive doctrine in the history of Christianity than that of the Trinity: fifty years to argue over this question, a decade to work out that debate, a thousand years of world-wide Christian unity down the drain because of another disagreement.

Aren’t you glad you came to church on Trinity Sunday? Sorry we didn’t bring in the chamber orchestra for this one.

            The Catholic feminist theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, warns us, “Clear and distinct Trinitarian terms give the impression that theology has God sighted through a high-powered telescope, with descriptions of the interactions between three persons intended to be taken in some literal sense.”[1] But I imagine that most of you are a lot less concerned with who preceded whom and who proceeded from whom than many who preceded you in the faith. Some of you may even be inclined to think the Unitarians got it right. So I wonder, if we loosen up on the descriptions of interactions as if we had God sighted through a high-powered telescope, how the metaphor of Trinity might take on renewed meaning for us, not as a doctrine to be codified in creedal form, but as a metaphor helping us to experience something taking place among us. And there’s a lot taking place among us today – in our lives, in our congregation, and in our world.

There’s a particular notion that’s come up this week in both conversation and in reading – none of which had to do with these scripture texts. The first time it came up, I didn’t think much about it. A day or so later when it came up again in a different place, I started to think more about it in relation to today’s texts and our times.

It is the concept of “liminal space.” You may be familiar with the term. The concept of the “liminal” is used to describe “threshold experiences” or “in-between times” when there’s movement being made from one location to another, but when you’re in the “liminal” space or time, you aren’t in the place you’ve come from and you’ve not yet arrived at where you’re going.

In its use in the field of anthropology, the concept of liminality or liminal space was first used to describe rites of passage like coming-of-age rituals or initiation rites or marriages or even the transition from life through death and into afterlife – thresholds from one status to another: from child to adult, from one who is an outsider to one who is fully in the group, from two individuals to one union, from the here to the hereafter. There’s always a separation from one’s former location or status or identity, followed by a liminal period of in-betweenness, of being neither quite here nor there, and finally a transformative assimilation into one’s new status.[2]

You’ve known these spaces of liminality in some form, haven’t you?

Sitting by the phone, between having the tests done and waiting for the doctor to call with the results: What will become of your life on the other side of this medical ritual?

A bride in your dressing room on your wedding day, betrothed but not yet wed. Just on this side of a ceremony – an ancient ritual – that will change your status in your family and your community.

Sitting at the bedside of a loved one who is quietly slipping from this life, not quite fully alive, but neither have they yet died – a process of translation from one life to the next underway, but not complete.

Standing on the edge of the baptistery, committed following the ways of Christ, but not yet immersed into the waters and raised to walk in newness of life.

You well know these spaces of liminality in your own lives.

And in each of today’s lectionary texts, I came to see see liminal space described.

In the Proverb’s Ode to Woman Wisdom – in the Greek, we call her “Sophia” – it is in her very location: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out.” And then Sophia herself speaks: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”

One commentator says of ancient city gates, “These ‘openings’ of the city are places of encounter, where life’s basic transactions and transitions occur. Here decisions are made and people ‘enter into’ new situations and embark on new journeys. Where thresholds are crossed and the issues of life decided, there Wisdom takes her stand and speaks.”[3]

In the Romans text, Paul writes to a church fully committed to the ways of Christ, immersed in the Baptismal waters, but awaiting the fulfillment of a promise. Fully committed the way of Peace taught by Jesus through Paul, but currently suffering as a church in the heart of Rome, knowing only the peace wrought through violence at the hands of the Empire, and hoping against hope for a greater Peace to come.

And the Gospel text, Jesus tells the disciples, “I’ve been with you all this time, but soon I’m going away. A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me. You’re about to be in some real liminal space and so am I, he is saying: I’ll be gone but not for good, you won’t see me for a while but then you’ll see me again. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. [But] when the Spirit of truth comes…I’ll be gone, but another will come after me.”

“Threshold experiences” or “in-between times and places” when there’s movement being made from one location to another, and you’re no longer in the place you’ve come from and you’re not yet where you’re going.

Baptist minister, Mahan Siler, says of liminal spaces, “There we bring our isolation into a distinctively relational space. This space invites transformation, by our stepping back, clarifying, and deepening our calling before we then re-cross the threshold to the work that awaits us.”[4]

And we, too, as a congregation and as a community are moving through some liminal spaces:

For all who continue to work to cultivate a year of deliberate focus on racism and white supremacy at OCBC, there is a dream that has been birthed in our imaginations – a dream that is even older than we are – but we struggle to clarify the vision we’ve sensed, endeavoring to deepen our calling in order to move across the threshold toward the good and difficult work that awaits us, work that promises transformation in our lives and our community of faith.

And as a country, we move through another election year, perhaps more liminal and full of uncertainty than any before, wondering if our transformation will be wrought by the elevation of our most historic fears and besetting sins, or whether we’ll come out of the liminal space with our better selves and most cherished collective values in tact.

And on Trinity Sunday – remembering all of the attempts of our forbearers to institutionalize the Spirit and codify a description of the Trinitarian interactions of the Divine –the best we may be able to say about the matter may be that the activity of the Spirit is one that takes place in the liminal spaces. In fact, liminal spaces may be the only places the unruly Spirit of God is free to move – when we’re not tied down by the certitudes of our past and we’re not yet convinced that we’ll rest upon any stability anytime soon. These are the very locations that Holy Sophia, Wisdom Divine, calls out to us.

“On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out.” In every place of encounter, where life’s basic transactions and transitions occur, where decisions are made and we enter into new situations and embark together on new journeys, where thresholds are crossed and the issues of life decided, Sophia, Wisdom Divine, cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”

Our temptation in the liminal spaces can be to rush to a place of security and certainty – to quell the discomfort of uncertainty with easy answers and quick fixes. But then we’ve also removed any room for the Spirit to move about and the voice of Sophia ring out in our ears.

When at the cusp of a “threshold experience,” an “in-between time” of movement made from one location to another when you’re neither in the place you’ve come from and you’re not yet where you’re going and not even sure you’ll get there, says Paul, we boast. But we boast not in assurances or power grabbing maneuvers or things we know for sure and certain. “We boast in our hope,” Paul says, “and not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings,” in the midst of the uncertain in-between and all of the discomfort and pain that it brings. We boast in our hope that there’s something on the other side of the liminality toward which the Spirit is moving us, toward which the cries of Sophia is guiding.

 Hope is a tricky thing, though. We’ve often watered down the richness of the concept by equating it with the saccharine notion optimism – that all things will work out if we just look on the bright side. But hope, in a deeply theological sense, is a much more robust notion than that. That great old 4th Century theologian of the church, St Augustine, said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

In the liminal space of transformation between anger’s burning and churning within us and the time when courage finally propels us forward into action – there is where the Spirit is at work, helping us find our voice to speak anger’s message with prophetic intonation, emboldening us to re-cross the threshold to the work that awaits us, whether its in confronting our own faltering and failing at the work of racial justice or confronting the violent political rhetoric that threatens to undo us as a nation. Elizabeth Johnson says,

“Finding one’s own voice, however haltingly, imparts the power of the Spirit crying out. The boldness to hear the claim of conscience and follow its deep impulses even in the face of loss; the courage to taste righteous anger and allow it to motivate critical resistance to evil; the willingness to utter the prophetic word – these occurrences inscribe the movement of the Spirit’s compassion into the ambiguity of the world.”[5]

So pay attention to the workings of the Spirit in the liminal spaces in your life, in our congregation, in our nation. It’ll sound something like this:

It sounds like the voice of a woman in Divine Sophia’s call, “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live,” ringing out on the heights and beside the way and at the crossroads and the portals between where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

It’ll sound like being in the middle of absolute uncertainty and boasting in our hope…And not only that, but also boasting in our sufferings, knowing hope and her twin daughters of Anger and Courage will not disappoint.”

It sounds like a scripture ended mid-sentence, but knowing you’ve heard enough to get you through. Like, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. [But] when the Spirit of truth comes…”

[1] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1992/2002), 192.

[2] Charles La Shure, “What is Liminality?,” Liminality: The Space In Between (Oct. 18, 2005), online:

[3] Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” in The New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. V, ed. Leander E. Keck, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 89.

[4] Mahan Siler, AnamCara: Collegial Clergy Communities (Raleigh, NC: Publications Unltd, 2008), 13.

[5] Johnson, She Who Is, 126.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • May 21, 2016