Original Photo by Mark Nelson
Original Photo by Mark Nelson

I spent last week in Les Cayes, Haiti with 32 youth and 9 other adults on a mission trip organized by Praying Pelican Missions. Since I didn’t have internet access, or even electricity for most of the week, I’m posting reflections this week with the hashtag #lastweekinhaiti. I preached a version of this sermon at the New Jerusalem Church in Les Cayes, translated by Pastor Joas. (I preached an earlier version of this at Adam Walker Cleaveland’s installation at Winnetka Presbyterian Church.) The following version of the sermon was preached at the afternoon jazz worship service this past Sunday at Fourth Presbyterian Church. The scripture readings were Genesis 28:10-22 and John 1: 35-51. You can listen to an audio recording here:

 Adventures in Liminality (7.20.2014)

I spent last week in Les Cayes, Haiti with 32 teenagers and 9 other adults. Through a mission organization called Praying Pelican Missions we were partnered with the New Jerusalem Church in Les Cayes. Their pastor, a wonderful man named Joas, graciously invited me to preach there last week. At the beginning of our trip, knowing some of what was in store for us yet obviously incapable of anticipating the twists and turns our week would take, I suggested that we were on an “in-between” journey.

Years ago there was an anthropologist and ethnographer named Victor Turner who studied tribal societies in Africa and other places. In particular, he studied rites of passage. Rites of passage are about transitions in time or changes in status and typically involve three stages. The most common rites of passage have to do with making the transition from childhood to adulthood. The first stage is a separation from parents and sometimes even from peers. The final stage is re-integration back into the community as a full adult. Turner called the middle stage a liminal period, an in-between time of transition and change, perhaps a time of testing. The word “liminal” is derived from a Latin word for “threshold.” Liminal people are those who find themselves standing on the threshold or boundary between what they once were and what they are becoming.

Maybe it’s because my family moved a lot when I was a kid, or maybe I have adult ADHD, or maybe I just thrive on the excitement and uncertainty of transition and change, but liminal space and liminal time is my favorite place to be. I’m sure this is one of the reasons why I’ve been drawn to youth ministry and consider it one of the most important functions of the church. Every young person is on a journey of transition, change, and growth. It’s an incredible privilege to walk alongside young people as they navigate the journey of figuring out who they are and how they fit into the big picture of what God is doing in the world.

All of us on last week’s mission trip were on a journey together. It took us a full 24 hours to get to Les Cayes, and some of us didn’t sleep at all during that time. (Fortunately for me, one of my gifts for ministry is the ability to sleep in pretty much any circumstance.) We spent time waiting in three different airports; the most grueling experience involved spending the night at our gate in Miami. We flew in two airplanes to get to Haiti and took a harrowing five hour ride on two school buses older than our youth to get from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes. We slept in mosquito netting on the floor of a public school with no air conditioning. We used recently installed drip showers that on more than one occasion ran out of water before everyone in our group of 42 had the opportunity to take a shower. The electricity in the compound—and throughout the entire city—was inconsistent and mostly didn’t work. We ate foods we had never eaten before. We drank from jugs of treated water. We learned the hard way that Hatian plumbing does not respond well to toilet paper.

We were in a liminal place, missing our homes while experiencing an entirely different world in Les Cayes. But it wasn’t just that we were in-between two very different places. We were becoming very different people.

In today’s first scripture reading, we encounter a liminal figure on a journey of his own, someone becoming a new person, someone very much on the threshold of what he once was and what he is becoming. Jacob “the heel”, the Bible’s greatest and most devious trickster, is on the move.

But Jacob isn’t on a casual journey. He isn’t taking a vacation or a spiritual retreat or vision quest or a mission trip. He’s basically running for his life. You might remember that he managed to trick his older twin brother Esau out of both his birthright and the blessing of their dying father, Isaac. You can imagine that this made Esau—his much bigger and stronger brother—pretty mad. When their mother Rebekah learns that Esau is planning to kill Jacob in a rage of red hot revenge, she suggests that now might be a good time for Jacob to visit his uncle back in the old country. So he goes. He flees for his life with his trickster tail tucked between his legs. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s embarked on a liminal journey.

At sunset, itself a kind of liminal period between one day and the next, he comes to a place called Luz and stops for the night. Then he does something that might sound strange to you if you’ve ever done any camping. Instead of clearing away the rocks on the ground to make a comfortable place to sleep—you know, what normal people do—he takes a big rock and puts it right under his head. Now, rocks don’t exactly make the best pillows. Neither, we discovered, do airport chairs, backpacks, or the benches of school buses careening down a two lane road packed with people and vehicles with the incessant sound of the loudest, shrillest horns in the history of school buses. But sometimes sleeping on a rock does in fact help what scholars of religion and mysticism call “dream incubation.” You see, it may have been the case that Jacob was trying to have a mystical experience, trying to provoke a dream that somehow connected him with the divine.

And it worked. Sure enough, he has a dream of angles ascending and descending on a sulam. Most English versions of the Bible translate sulam as “ladder”—which is where we get the phrase “Jacob’s ladder.” But it wasn’t really a ladder. Rather, it was something like a ramp or a staircase. The ancient teller of this story probably had in mind a ziggurat, a Mesopotamian stepped pyramid kind of like the pre-Columbian Aztec or Mayan temples we are more familiar with in the Americas. It was like a manmade mountain designed to connect heaven and earth, to provide a nexus between the realm of the gods and the realm of humans. It was like a stairway to heaven. (I forgot to ask for a searing guitar solo to punctuate that.)

So on this stairway to heaven, Jacob sees not only messengers of God ascending and descending, but God is there as well. It was a bridge, if you will, between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm. Celtic Christians might have called it a “thin place,” a place where the separation between heaven and earth is especially thin. Jacob himself calls it the gate of heaven. In fact, he renamed the place beit-El, or Bethel as we normally pronounce it, the “house of God.” Jacob saw behind the veil, as it were, and was shown a profound mystery. The wording used to describe Jacob’s dream is very specific. The angels are ascending and descending—in that order—which implies that they are already here on earth. God is already here. God doesn’t live far away in heaven. God is with us right now, all the time.

Jesus talked about this as the kingdom of God. For Jesus, God’s kingdom wasn’t something far away that we work really hard to get to when we die. It’s right here, right now. It’s among us, it’s within us. It’s breaking into our lives and disrupting the kingdoms of the world.

We heard the story of Jesus calling his disciples as it’s told in the Gospel of John. When Jesus invites a man named Nathanael to follow him and be a part of this new thing God is doing in the world, he references this story of Jacob’s sulam, Jacob’s stairway to heaven. “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” says Jesus. An odd statement without the full context of Jacob’s story.

But knowing what we know, we see now that Jesus is like Jacob’s sulam, like the stairway to heaven in Jacob’s dream. Jesus himself is the bridge between heaven and earth, the nexus between the divine realm and the human realm.

To be a bridge between heaven and earth, a stairway to heaven, is to be a conduit of God’s love for a hurting world. It is to be a conduit of God’s justice and righteousness. It is to be a conduit of God’s grace and forgiveness. It is to be what human beings were created to be: the image and presence of God on earth.

And that’s the key: if Christ is the bridge between heaven and earth, then we can be too, if we follow him. We too can be conduits of God’s love. We too can be conduits of God’s justice and righteousness. We too can be conduits of God’s grace and forgiveness. We too can be as God created us to be.

Friends, we know all too well that the earth is full of brokenness. Last week I witnessed the most devastating poverty I have ever seen. Even before the catastrophic earthquake of 2010 Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Now they are even worse off. And I returned home to news of a Malaysian airplane shot out of the sky by pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine and a ground war between Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza. And we of course have enough violence and human suffering of our own right here in the city of Chicago, not to mention individuals and families going through a variety of difficulties and challenges. In each of these situations we have an opportunity, an opportunity to be a bridge between heaven and earth, an opportunity to break open the gates of heaven and let loose the power of God’s love.

Friends, our whole world is passing through a liminal stage. Across the globe societies are changing at an incredible pace, much faster than some of us can keep up with. Wars and revolutions and protests and discontent are all signs of the transformation we are experiencing. As cultures shift from premodernism to modernism to postmodernism to whatever comes next, it’s getting messy out there. And as children of God, as bridges between heaven and earth, we have a calling.

Of course, the church is passing through a liminal stage as well. Phyllis Tickle calls it the Great Emergence; Harvey Cox calls it the Age of the Spirit; Brian McLaren calls it a new kind of Christianity; Doug Pagitt calls it the Inventive Age; and Dianna Butler Bass calls it a new great awakening. Whatever you call it, there is no doubt that the church is being reborn into something new for our rapidly changing world.

For those of us who spent last week in Les Cayes, our experience was an important part of our journey together. We were changed. We returned to Chicago different from the people we were when we left. Each in our own ways, we were transformed. But it wasn’t because of anything we did or anything we brought with us. We certainly didn’t bring God to the people of Les Cayes. God was already there. We just needed to open our eyes to see God in a new way. Like Jacob sleeping on a rock, sometimes we need to be a little uncomfortable to catch a vision of God, to see God in a new way.

Of course, you don’t need to travel to another country to have this experience. When you look out into our city, when you read the newspaper or turn on the TV or open up your news app, your hearts should break. And when they do, when you start feeling uncomfortable and a little agitated, don’t be alarmed. It’s Jesus. He’s saying, “Follow me, and together we’ll see heaven opened up and the messengers of God ascending and descending, proclaiming the good news of God’s love, justice, and grace. God’s kingdom is here. It’s among you. It’s within you.”


John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

Reader Interactions


  1. John: I love the insight that the messengers of God were already on earth, given the order of the words ascending and descending. As always, you set forth new ideas for me to ponder.

    The posts about Haiti are illuminating as well. I’ll pray that the liminal space you describe will continue to haunt (in a good way) all of you as you re-enter everyday life. And that the “ritual” that the kids experienced will pave their paths to adulthood as people of faith.

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