Sometimes fans of certain TV shows, musical artists, or sports teams will make lame attempts at interjecting those interests into conversations, or—God forbid—into sermons. I can assure you that this is not one of those lame attempts! I have a very good reason for the title, “The Neutral Zone,” aside from the fact that it exists in the universe of Star Trek!
For those who don’t know, and especially for those who don’t care, I will give a very brief explanation. Between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Empire there exists a region, established by treaty, which is called the Neutral Zone. Neither of those governments is supposed to send ships of any kind into that area without the consent of the other.
Now, here comes that good reason to speak of the neutral zone! It’s a concept presented in the book, A Door Set Open, by Peter Steinke. He’s done a lot of work with congregations, including those who are either in conflicted or transitional situations.
He uses the term in reflecting on work done by William Bridges, another consultant. His theory is that “change is an event. Our experience of the change is transition. He cites three movements—endings, the neutral zone, and beginnings—in the transition experience.”
We might think of “endings” as the chapter or the phase of life that is drawing to a close. “Beginnings” would be the next step or the new reality that is now appearing. It’s the middle one, “the neutral zone”—in which things seem chaotic and unsettled—that can really alarm us, even sending us screaming in the other direction! Or it can really have us confused.
We all know that caterpillars turn into butterflies. While that critter is still in the cocoon, strange, confusing things are going on. At some point, it’s neither caterpillar nor butterfly. It’s in a state of metamorphosis in which it’s neither one. That little booger is in what we might call a state of transitional goo. That is its neutral zone.
We can see the people of Nazareth in our reading from St. Luke’s gospel as being in their own neutral zone; they are transitional goo. (I should probably explain!)
As we begin with verses 14 and 15, Luke presents Jesus returning from the wilderness, having endured temptation. He says of Jesus, being “filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” It’s when he comes to his hometown of Nazareth that things really get interesting.
Jesus attends “synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom,” and he reads the beginning of Isaiah 61 (v. 16).
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (vv. 18-19). Jesus tells the people that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).
They are astonished by the way he addresses them. They’re asking each other, “This is the son of Joseph, isn’t it?” Dennis Bratcher says, “It seems at first that Jesus had won acceptance at Nazareth. They marvel at the gracious words spoken by Joseph’s son now become a man. But the people have not yet truly responded, at least not on the level necessary to engage the future that Jesus is bringing. Beginning in verse 23…Jesus drives to the heart of the issue, and to the heart of the people.”
It’s not long until Jesus reveals the feelings of ownership and control the people want to use over him. “Hey, he’s from our town; he’s one of us! He should do the stuff here he’s done in other places.”
But when they hear how Jesus elaborates, attitudes change pretty quickly. He speaks of beloved prophets, Elijah and Elisha, doing good deeds for foreigners. After all, he says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (v. 24). And it looks like they want to prove him right!
Luke tells us that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” In The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger. They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom” (vv. 28-29). But maybe there was enough confusion with people milling around, since we’re told that “he gave them the slip and was on his way” (v. 30).
I said earlier that the people of Nazareth experience their own neutral zone. Change is going on, but their experience of that change has them emotionally paralyzed. Families, communities, congregations: all of them can be seen as emotional systems. Verses 28 and 29 show us that the people in the synagogue are emotionally stuck—and they want to stick it to Jesus!
I just mentioned that change is going on. What change could that be? There are a number of ways to look at it. I want to mention something we see evolving throughout the entire Bible. Throughout salvation history, the faith gradually becomes more inclusive.
In the earliest times, each nation, each ethnic group, believes in their own god, and that’s true for the Israelites. Their God is Yahweh, but they also believe that those other gods exist. It’s just that they’re not supposed to follow them. As time goes on, they come to see that the God of Israel is the one true God. Other gods are simply idols.
With the urging of the prophets, the God of Israel is seen to be God of all the earth. Foreigners are welcome, and indeed called, to worship this God. And later, as the church of Jesus Christ expands throughout the Roman Empire, barriers between Jew and Gentile begin to fall.
That evolution of the faith has continued, albeit with many bumps in the road. Interfaith dialogue continues to explore the similarities, and to clarify the differences, among our understandings of God in the twenty-first century.
The people Jesus is addressing understand all too well what he is saying. He’s letting them know that their claim on him, and at a deeper level, their understanding of themselves as “the” people of God (that is, the only people of God), can no longer be defended. This produces anxiety within them, but instead of handling their anxiety, their anxiety handles them! And as we’ve seen, they want to handle Jesus!
Jesus would like to lead them in the change that is inevitable. But as our friend Peter Steinke comments, “Leading change brings out both reactive forces and responsive ones.” That first one, reactive forces, is when we become defensive. Sometimes people speak of instinct, the “lower brain,” or the “reptile brain.” We sense danger; anxiety kicks in. Anxiety is an automatic reaction to a threat, whether that threat is real or imagined.
What happens when we’re anxious? Are we relaxed? Or perhaps, does our chest tighten up? Actually, “anxiety” and “angina” come from the same family of words. When we’re anxious, we want instant answers; we see things in terms of yes-no, either-or; we literally become narrow-minded. When we feel threatened, there’s no time to take a survey! Everything within us is screaming, “There’s no time to think! Just do it!”
That second one that leading change brings, being responsive, is when we are reflective. This is learned behavior. We are free to exercise reason and creativity and imagination. We’re free to explore possibilities. We’re using the “upper brain.” And it also has a physical response. Instead of tightness, there tends to be a sense of calm. We remember to breathe!
Both reaction and response are necessary for human life. Without the “knee-jerk reaction,” we wouldn’t pull our hands out of the fire. You know, when any body part is on fire, that’s not the time to assemble a focus group and brainstorm various options!
So for all its benefits, the reptile brain, the lower brain, is not very useful in building community. We need response that’s more elevated. In a similar way, we’re reminded that “once anxiety runs a high fever…one can never rely on insight or reasonableness or even love.”
Here’s a note about the reptile brain. At the conflict mediation training a few months ago at Stony Point, the presenter gave us some advice. Never tell someone that they’re acting out of the reptile part of their brain. For some reason, that usually doesn’t go well!
Having said all that, I hope I haven’t given the impression that anxiety is a bad thing. As I just said, anxiety is a normal part of who we are as humans. But it’s a part of us that can easily overwhelm us and drive our behavior.
Speaking of being driven by anxiety, maybe you heard about the poll that was recently released by Monmouth University. It dealt with people’s feelings about the presidential campaign. The question was asked if this campaign has brought out the best in people or the worst in people. A large majority, 70%, said it’s brought out the worst in us, 4% said the best, 20% said neither the best nor worst, and 5% said it’s both the best and worst. That last 1% said they don’t know!
When asked if they’ve lost friends because of the campaign, 7% said yes. Though in fairness, 7% also said that happens in every presidential campaign.
Again, this is one poll, so take it for what it’s worth, and remember, there really aren’t right or wrong answers. This is just a snapshot of anxiety among us today. Still, I would be willing to hazard a guess that it’s not every campaign in which 70% say it shows us at our worst.
Okay, I’ve touched on ways in which those in Jesus’ hometown synagogue are spending time in the neutral zone. A good example would be Jesus’ refusal to allow them to “claim” him, and to call them to a wider vision. In various ways, the winds of change have swept through their lives and community.
That feeling of being in the neutral zone is not unfamiliar to a congregation in an interim period. Feelings of anxiety would be expected. What does the future hold? What will we do next? Or better, who are we, and who is God calling us to be? How is God calling us to emerge from transitional goo?
A moment ago, I spoke of how anxiety can overwhelm us. In Galatians 5, the apostle Paul warns his sisters and brothers, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).
The neutral zone can be a scary place. We can learn the wrong lessons there. We can learn how to bully each other. We can learn how to belittle each other. That can be expressed in a thousand different ways.
So it’s true, the neutral zone can be a scary place. But it’s also necessary, though not in the Star Trek sense of keeping enemies apart. It’s necessary because that’s the time and place to re-orient ourselves. We hold on to what is good and true from the past, but not so tightly that we cannot embrace the hopeful and hope filled future into which the Holy Spirit leads us.
 Steinke, 2.8.8
 Steinke, A Door Set Open, 2.8.8
(The image “The Neutral Zone” is by David Akerson.)