Monday, January 5, 2015

Welcome Home!

972 Hereford Dr. 

I did not know it at the time, but Christmas 1986 turned out to be one of the most important transitional points in my life.  I was at home on break before the beginning of my final semester of seminary.  It was six years after my father passed away and my mother was newly remarried.  That Christmas, she and her husband were preparing to sell the house where I had grown up.  I graduated in May, was ordained, accepted a job offer, and found a place to rent.  There was one problem.  It was the 15th of May and I could not move in until the beginning of June.  My boyhood home had been sold and my mother had moved out of the area.  I realized at that moment that I was “homeless”, not in the sense that I had to live on the street, but in the sense that I had nowhere to be.  There was no longer a home to which I could return.  I spent the next two weeks sleeping on a buddy’s couch.

Home is concept loaded with deep emotional meaning.  It is a place that is close to the heart and for most of us serves as the backdrop to our childhood memories.  It is where our artwork was displayed on the refrigerator and where pencil lines with accompanying dates charted our height as we grew taller and taller.  My friend with the couch, his parents also sold his childhood home.  Years later it came on the market and my friend took a tour.  While much had changed, much had not.  He was taken aback by a pattern of squeaking as he walked up the stairs to the second floor.  It was a sound he neither had heard nor thought about in years, but then there it was as if nothing had changed.  Susan Clayton, a psychologist, says that for many the childhood home maintains an iconic status. 

Pliny the Elder, a Roman author who lived in the time of Jesus, famously observed that home is where the heart is.  A stanza in John Howard Payne’s poem is almost universally accepted as true:

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

We all know what George Washington meant when he stated he would rather be on his farm than be emperor of the world.

The theme of home weaves itself through today’s scripture readings.  We hear Jeremiah, the prophet of the Exile, proclaim the good news that God will lead home the Jews displaced to Babylon.  After two generations in exile, these people had made a living in a foreign land.  They had found new ways to celebrate their identity and to perpetuate their culture.  For some, Babylon was the only home they had known, but for none of them was Babylon home.  They longed for Jerusalem, the place where they belonged.

In the Gospel we hear the story of the Magi who are exemplars of something George Bernard Shaw once said: “Home life is no more natural to us than a cage is natural to a cockatoo!”  There was a time when I lived out this sentiment; a time when I wanted to be free, to explore, to follow a shining star.  I know the impulse to see new things, to do new things, to learn new things; all of which are things you cannot do unless you leave home. 

There is in us something of the baby bird perched on the edge of its mother’s nest gazing out at a vast unknown world.  The urge to fly and fear of failure beat in its chest as it begins to beat its wings for the first time.  We are born to leave home and there is no better model of this than the exotic stargazers who appear in the holy land.  And yet even after all their adventures, even after being entertained by royalty, even after meeting the child promised by the sages of old, what do they most desire?  They desire to return to their own country, to go home.   They found out to be true something that John Ed Pearce once said: “Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.”

And did you notice a little detail from Matthew’s Gospel regarding where the Magi found Jesus?  He was not an infant wrapped in swaddling cloth, he was not lying in a manger, and he was not surrounded by shepherds and angelic hosts.  These are all details from Luke’s Gospel.  The Magi find Jesus and his mother in a house and Jesus himself is described as being a child.  Some time has passed since his birth, maybe as much as two years.  Perhaps Matthew calls it a house because it did not belong to Mary and Joseph, but I’d like to think it reflects a deeper truth that Jesus’ home is in heaven.  It is like what St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from our ultimate home with the Lord.  And yet we do live here, don’t we. 

A couple of years ago, archeologists uncovered a circular structure in North Yorkshire that dates back to 8,500 BC.  It is the oldest known house in Europe.  It had a platform made of hewn and split timbers, which are the earliest evidence of this type of carpentry in that part of the world.  Prior to this, human beings were nomads who moved with the seasons and the herds.  Eons of evolutionary history have hard-wired human beings with any number of traits, some of which don’t quite seem to fit in contemporary society, but one thing is sure: in a relatively short period of time, human beings have adapted to having a place to live and to the notion of home.

Someone once said that it takes hands to build a house, but only hearts can build a home.  The great poet Maya Angelou says, “the ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”  According to Vernon Baker, “Home is where the heart can laugh without shyness.  Home is where the heart’s tears can dry at their own pace.”  We all need a place like this, don’t we. 

Most of us will move multiple times over the course of our lives.  It may be from one house to another and then another within the confines of the same community, or it may involve moving great distances from one state to another or even to a different country.  More and more, the old saying that you can never go home holds true because there is no home to which you can return.  Like the Jewish exiles, home may be a place for which we long, but unlike them it is a place that no longer exists, at least as a physical location.  We must make home where we are.

Susan Clayton, who I mentioned earlier, also points out that our homes become a part of our self-definition.  They tell us who we are and shape how we think about ourselves.  They become an extension of our public face by letting others know what matters to us. 

In my house I display my grandfather’s tools and a workbench he built.  As a child I used them to construct and deconstruct all manner of things.  My parents’ wedding china graces my dining room.  My childhood dressers, beautiful pieces of wood furniture that belonged to my father, are in my bedroom.  One of my most prized possessions is a family bible handed down through five generations.  I sense and see in the environment in which I live cherished artifacts of home.  They are for me what Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”

The 84th Psalm, from which we read this morning, is one of my favorites.  A pilgrim has made the journey to Jerusalem and has entered the temple.  It is the place where he or she longs to be.  The Psalmist notices how various birds have made their nests within the confines of its walls and wishes to be able to do the same:

How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts!
    My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord;
         my heart and flesh rejoice in the living God.

The Psalmist has come into the temple and feels at home.

I think most of us here this morning would describe St. Paul’s Church as being our spiritual home.  For some it is the only church we have ever known.  For a few it is the first church we have joined.  For others, this is one of many churches we have attended over the different shifts and changes of our lives.  Other faith communities may still hold a warm spot in our hearts, but we are here week in and week out because we feel like we belong.  Right now, it is here that we feel at home. 

More and more I think this is one of the most important roles a church plays in life.  In our mobile society, many of us live, work, and even raise a family in a community where, perhaps like the Hebrews in Babylon, we feel like we are in exile from the home we knew as a child.  Many of us, like the wise men, do extraordinary things with our lives.  We may have jobs that thrill us and coworkers whose companionship is a joy.  But when it is all said and done, what we need most is to return to our own country, a desire we find best fulfilled when we come to church.

The readings during this season of Christmas emphasize that Jesus came to earth so that we might receive power to become children of God.  Think about that image: children of God.  From this theological perspective, church becomes for us that iconic emotional home.  It is the place of baptisms, weddings, and burials.  It is the place where we watch our children mature.  It is a place where special relationships deepen over the years as we grow into being bound to one another.  And through it all, it is a place where we are keenly aware how none of this happens apart from God’s comforting presence.  No matter who you are, no matter where you are from, no matter how far you have travelled, no matter what you have done, in this place we hear the Holy One’s voice say to us, “Welcome home!”