Sometimes fans of certain TV shows, musical artists, or sports teams will make very lame attempts at bringing those interests into conversations. 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 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. It’s more than a demilitarized 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 has 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, a consultant on transition management. 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 has now appeared. It’s the middle one, “the neutral zone”—in which things seem chaotic and unsettled—that can really unnerve and alarm us.
An example from the Bible would be Isaiah 62. It deals with the community who has returned from exile in Babylon. They are in their own neutral zone, so to speak.
For them, the “endings” would be the time of exile, as well as the celebration and relief of homecoming. That is disappearing, and in its place: question marks. It doesn’t yet feel like home. There’s a sense of drift, a feeling of limbo. The glorious future promised by the prophets—the “beginnings”—have yet to arrive. Or at least, the people don’t perceive it.
We can also see the people of Nazareth in Luke 4 as being in their own neutral zone.
As we begin in verses 14 and 15, Luke presents Jesus returning from the wilderness, having endured temptation. He says of Jesus, that 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).
What is in the background is a reference to the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee, which are mentioned in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15. In the sabbatical year, debts are forgiven, slaves are set free, and the land enjoys its own sabbath—it’s allowed to remain fallow.
In the year of jubilee, every fifty years, property is to revert to its ancestral owners. It’s a sort of land reform, to help prevent the extremes of the very wealthy and the very poor from remaining in place. But it seems that these measures were rarely, if ever, followed!
In any event, this “year of the Lord’s favor” is what the returned exiles were longing for. Now Jesus is telling the people in his hometown synagogue that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).
The people are astonished by the way he addresses them. They’re asking each other, “This is the son of Joseph, isn’t it?” Some say that this first reaction is one of rejection. Something like, “Who do you think you are?” However, Luke says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (v. 22). They’re surprised, but pleasantly surprised, by his eloquence and his insight.
Dennis Bratcher notes, “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.”
Jesus lays bare the sense of ownership and control the people would exercise over him. “Hey, he’s from our town; he’s one of us! He should do the stuff here that we’ve heard he’s done in Capernaum.”
Bratcher says, “We can almost hear them. Why, yes, we have blind people here in Nazareth. We are all poor and need good news… We are oppressed and carry heavy burdens! Yes, we want the year of the Lord’s favor, because we want the release from debts and taxes that it might bring. Yes, we welcome this future that will bring us all we want.”
When they hear how Jesus elaborates, their 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, if it’s the last thing they do!
Luke tells us that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff” (vv. 28-29). But apparently there was enough confusion with people milling around, since we’re told that “he passed through the midst of them and went 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 people of Israel. Their God is Yahweh, but they also believe that the gods of the other nations actually exist. It’s just that they’re forbidden to worship them or to follow their practices. 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 with the advent of Jesus (and absolutely with the early church), the barriers between Jew and Gentile begin to fall.
That evolution of the faith has continued, with many bumps in the road. Interfaith dialogue continues to explore the similarities, and to clarify the differences, among our understandings of God in our twenty-first century world.
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. Their faith must expand. 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 an opinion poll! Everything within us is screaming, “There’s no time to think! Just do it!”
The second force 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 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. With the “knee-jerk reaction,” we quickly pull our hands out of the fire. But the reptile 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.”
Having said all that, we shouldn’t get the impression that anxiety is a bad thing. It’s not that anxious people are bad people. As just suggested, 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.
Maybe we can see ways in which both those who’ve returned from exile in Babylon, as well as those in Jesus’ hometown synagogue, have spent some time in the neutral zone. In various ways, the winds of change have swept through their lives and communities.
That feeling of being in the neutral zone is not unfamiliar to a congregation in an interim period. Feelings of anxiety would be expected. I’m sure many can attest to that. To be honest, my efforts to learn new skills in being a non-anxious (or lesser anxious) presence never end.
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). He’s addressing a different matter, but I think his words can still be applied to the subject at hand.
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, in ever so slight a way, to belittle each other. And 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 future into which the Holy Spirit is leading us.
Remember, before Jesus deals with the hometown crowd, he is filled, not with the power of his own ideas, but with the power of the Spirit.
 Steinke, A Door Set Open, 2.8.8
(The image “The Neutral Zone” is by David Akerson.)
[originally posted on 27 Jan 2013]