“The pause that refreshes.” Does anyone remember that slogan for Coca-Cola? Anthropologists, who study people and culture, have a word for that pause that refreshes: Liminality. It’s the point at which the person on a journey, often through a rite of passage, is no longer who they were before, but not yet fully whom they will be. For your average Lutheran, this might be described as confirmation, only with most cultures it typically involves less pizza.
This midpoint, which you and I can find not only over and over again in Biblical narratives, shows up over and over again in pop culture as well, from Dante’s Inferno to Lord of the Rings, from Where the Wild Things Are to Star Wars.
I bring this up because that midpoint is where Joshua and his followers find themselves in today’s portion from the Old Testament. And it’s also the pivotal moment for the younger son in the parable that we hear in today’s Gospel reading. Gilgal, the location, the monument, and the name, all are heavy with meaning in ways that show us that the journey to the cross and to the empty tomb is the journey that you and I can make only when we become aware, maybe for the first time, of what it means to “come home.”
What does this mean? Speaking of confirmation, the fundamental Lutheran question: What does this mean? What does it mean for you and for me who hear often from our bishops and teachers that we are “an Easter people”? What does it mean to hear the story of reaching home, even if that home is a place where you and I have never been before? Robert Frost, a poet, has said: “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Or another poet, T.S. Eliot, said: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
This is what home means, with all its complexities and feelings that we cannot put into words, this is home. It’s the indescribable feeling deep in our bones that signals to you and to me that this is where we need to be, this is home. In other words, if you and I look around and see the place we started from, see that we are not yet at the end of our journey, but know that there will be an end … then you and I are exactly where God means for us to be. We have learned much, we are not yet to our final destination, but where you and I are, right here and right now, is the road that takes us home, along a path that informs us and transforms us so that when we get there we can know it again for the first time.
The story of the Exodus is a feel-good, happy-ending narrative. All the way up through this part of the Book of Joshua, which ends on an appropriately uplifting note. They stopped needing the manna in the wilderness because they were at last in the Promised Land and could farm it, harvest the crops, and eat the food that they had grown. What does that reading specify? They stayed in this place for a year. They were no longer wandering. They could keep their tents pitched in the same place for a full year, long enough to plant, tend, and harvest their own food. But God’s intention is never for them to just stop there for all eternity. In the same way – in exactly the same way – God’s intention is never for us to let the “pause that refreshes” be where we stay for all eternity. We have, in truth, been promised that there is more to the journey, even as we stop and catch our breath and rest our weary feet and eat a home-cooked meal that isn’t fast-food manna takeout.
Keep reading in the Book of Joshua and find that the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, is already settled. Other people are already living on this land. The narrative will continue with account after account of Joshua and his army conquering the walled city of Jericho, ambushing and slaughtering the village of Ai, Joshua’s advance scouts having to get Rahab the madam to hide them on the roof. That is to say, the Promised Land, the land that God promised them in the covenant he keeps renewing and resetting and recalculating … it’s not an empty lot in which they pitch their tents and live happily ever after. And yet! Even so, this land – this resting place for a year, this pause that refreshes – is them in the presence of God and God in the presence of them. It’s affirmation … it’s confirmation that they are on the right road, the road that leads to home.
And that’s the message of the journey to the cross, and beyond, our journey to the tomb, which we will find to be empty. This is what “we are an Easter people” means. For you and for me, coming home at last means being willing to live every minute of our lives along the roller-coaster ride from cradle to grave in that midpoint – together with God. You and I live knowing that we are no longer who we were before we were even born and not yet who we will become after death.
For Joshua and his people, this moment, this place, their tents only just pitched in Canaan – this is a time filled with both promise and problem. For the younger son in today’s Gospel reading from Luke, the midpoint of his journey flashes by so quickly in the narrative that you and I can miss it. Even if we are paying attention.
It’s not even a complete sentence.
Grammatically speaking, it’s an introductory clause.
The boy has asked for and received the bag of money. Traveled to the big city and had the big time. Until the bars closed and the money bag mysteriously became empty, and a famine hit, and he found that all of the people who were his best friends when he was buying rounds of drinks and picking up restaurant tabs were not who he needed to be with and that the pigpen in which he huddled at night to shield himself from the wind was not where he needed to be.
Midway through this parable, it says this: But when he came to himself.
His whole life, living in his father’s house, living under the same roof as his older brother, he wasn’t home. Which meant that he was just going through the motions and he wasn’t his true self. He had not even begun his journey. And it was only when he was at the midpoint of his journey – when he felt that he had hit bottom – that he came to himself. That’s when he encountered himself for the first time.
Like Joshua, like the prodigal son, each one of us knows that we are somewhere on our life’s journey. We’re not at the beginning. We’re not at the end. We don’t know when that end will be. But we know this: here in this place, here just inside the borders of Canaan, here in the pig pen where you and I come to ourselves and know that what we need is to be here, and that we can rightfully call here our home for now. Transformed by the journey to here, believing what lies ahead.
Paul writes, in Second Corinthians, in today’s epistle lesson: From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Behind us lies Ash Wednesday. Ahead, we know, will be the cross. And beyond the cross and the death and the grave will be the tomb. And like the cross we see right here, right now, in this place, in this moment, the cross is empty. Our hearts are full. We are home.