(Psalm 137: 1-9; Luke 15: 1-7)
In his book A Room Called Remember, Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner tells the story of a dream he had years ago. Listen:
I dreamt that I was staying in a hotel somewhere and that the room I was given was a room that I loved. It was a room where I felt happy and at peace, where everything seemed the way it should be and everything about myself seemed the way it should be too.
Then, as the dream went on, I wandered off to other places and did other things and finally, after many adventures, ended back at the same hotel again. Only this time I was given a different room which I didn’t feel comfortable in at all. It seemed dark and cramped, and I felt dark and cramped in it.
So I made my way down to the man at the desk and told him…on my earlier visit I’d had this marvelous room which was just right for me and I’d very much like if possible to have it again. The clerk was very understanding. He said that he knew exactly the room I meant and that I could have it again anytime; and all I had to do was ask for it by name. So then, of course, I asked him what the name of the room was. Ah, he said. The name of the room is Remember. And it is yours, now and forever.
This morning I want you to think for a moment about how you would finish this sentence:
How would you answer that? Tell you what, turn to your neighbor either beside or behind or in front of you and tell them how you’d finish that sentence. I’ll give you thirty seconds. Go….
Last week I sought input on this from the highest echelon of cultural crowdsourcing – which is to say, I posted it on Facebook. Finish this sentence in twenty words or less, I asked – Home is. Here are some of the responses I got:
Home is where everybody knows who you are.
Home is where the pizza is.
Where I don’t have to filter who I am.
Where they catch you when you fall.
Home is a haven of open arms, mugs of nutritious liquid and everlasting love
Home is where everyone has a seat at the table
Wherever my people are
Where the dog is (this one came up a few times)
Home is not a place, it’s a feeling
The place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” (quoting Robert Frost)
The place where you should feel free to be your most authentic self
Home is where you claim and also are claimed
Where the door is always open.
Where you are loved.
I wonder if those are similar to yours? Here’s what I found fascinating – within 24 hours of putting this on Facebook, a hundred people responded. Within two days, it jumped to well over a hundred. Now Facebook can be finicky at times – you post something and it barely registers in the collective consciousness. But this – something about this caught people’s attention and imagination; and they felt compelled to respond. All from just two words: Home is……
We are prone to wax poetically about home – the smells of sugar cookies and meatloaf coming from Grandma’s kitchen, or being somewhat isolated on the family farm and looking forward to Sunday afternoons spent with other families and children, or college dorm rooms and new towns that eventually take on the feel of home, even homes with doors that always stayed unlocked.
And yet home is a place not always remembered fondly by everyone. Promises made but not kept, or an unsafe place, or deep pain that lurks beneath the surface until it bursts forth. Do you remember the scene from Forrest Gump, when a grown-up Jenny returns to her childhood home with Forrest? The dilapidated structure sits in the middle of an overgrown corn field, shingles falling off, roof caving in. It is an ugly sight. But for Jenny, the ugliness extends far beyond what the human eye can see, to memories she’d long tried to forget. She stares at the house blankly, then in blind rage throws rocks at it, rock after rock after rock; screaming at the top of her lungs, shattering windows and eventually collapsing to the ground in exhaustion. Forrest takes all of this in, and we hear his voiceover summarizing the scene in a way only Forrest can: Sometimes, I guess, there just aren’t enough rocks.
Earlier, British read a scripture that picked up on this same vibe. It’s not an old house that’s revealed to us, but trees. And not just any kind of tree, but willow trees. Amazing, isn’t it, the little details the human mind can recall when saturated with emotion.
Something is hanging in those trees, we are told. Musical instruments, small harps and lyres. Instruments that were crafted for the purpose of being played. But they’re not being played anymore. Instead they’re just hanging there, suspended indefinitely; hung there by the people lying underneath them.
This memory comes from the Israelites in Babylonian exile, and they are the owners of those harps and lyres. They’ve hung them in the trees because they cannot play them anymore. They haven’t forgotten how to play, their hands and fingers haven’t suddenly lost their musical ability. They just don’t have the heart for it. They are emotionally and spiritually bankrupt at the moment; the musical muse has long left town.
Actually, they are the ones who’ve left town – ripped from their beloved Jerusalem, their homeland; now existing as exiles in a strange and foreign land. They have made the journey from familiar surroundings into the unfamiliar wilderness. They are underneath the willow trees by the waters of Babylon, but all they can think of is where they are not. And even as their captors mockingly ask them, dare them, to “sing us one of the songs of Zion,” in no way are they up to the task. Oh, they could make themselves hold the instruments and press flesh on metal strings and strum, but the sound that would come from that would not be music.
That’s what happens when the song leaves you; when home is gone. And many of those Israelites – most of them, in fact – would never see their home again. They are suffering the worst kind of mourning. And they are angry. Full of rage. So angry that they even contemplate the unthinkable to the children of their enemy. Would they actually do such a thing? Maybe the more important point is that, in that moment, lying under the willows and its useless instruments, that is what they are feeling; and in giving voice to that feeling they show that they believe they have a God who is big enough to take the full brunt of their pain and loss.
For all of us who have fond memories of home – of safety, of family and comfort and open doors and yes, even dogs – there are those whose experience of home is quite different. There are the Jennys of the world, whose memory of home is fraught with pain. There are those taken from their home, be they Israelites in 500 BCE or Africans crossing the Atlantic in slave ships. There are those driven from their home searching for a new one; refugees and immigrants we read about in the daily news, fleeing violence in their homeland looking for a better life. And there are those who simply cannot afford home, like the 55,000 right here in Charlotte who lack affordable housing – which, for the record, would fill up three-quarters of the Panthers stadium.
All of which is to say that all of us, wherever we come from, whatever our lot in life, we are all longing to find home. Longing for a place to belong, to be safe, to be loved. The need for home is built into our very DNA.
Jesus talks about this in our other scripture today. There is tension in the gathering he’s speaking to – tension between those who, as The Message translation so delicately puts it, are of “doubtful reputation,” alongside others of power and prestige who did not like the kind of company Jesus kept. Just like many homes today, tension abounds.
So Jesus tells a story with his audience front and center in it: Say you have a hundred sheep and one gets lost, Jesus poses. Who among you would not leave the 99 behind to go looking for the lost one? And when you found the lost one, who among you would not bring it home, rejoicing, and call all your neighbors and friends to come over and celebrate?
Jesus begins his story with a question, a rhetorical one; which means that everyone knows what the answer should be. Even the phrasing tips us off – “Who wouldn’t go” – implying, of course, that everyone should. This, even though doing as Jesus suggests really doesn’t make sense, if we think about it. Cost analysis and spreadsheets and good old-fashioned common sense dictate that leaving the 99 to find the one is a bad idea.
And yet, this is what families are supposed to do, right? They care for each other. They love each other. And when one among them loses their way, the search begins in earnest until they are found. That’s what Jesus tells them home – his home – is all about.
And for Jesus, his home is not much of a “where,” a physical place; the kind of home you and I are accustomed to. No, the home Jesus speaks of is more of a “when” – when all one hundred are back together again. It is when we are all together – not where – that matters most.
It is the community of faith Jesus is talking about here; what you and I know today as the church. This church is our home in every sense of the word – whether you’ve been here fifty years or thirty minutes, this is your home. And it’s so much more than a where. Even though this physical space is near and dear to us, it is a gorgeous place. This sanctuary, these buildings, this campus; they all have been here since the early 50’s. And we are attached to it, we are drawn to come here on Sunday mornings and Christmas Eve evenings and times of celebrations and mourning. This place is our home.
But our true home is not a where – it never really was. It is a when – when all of us gather together, including that one searching for home who finds their way back. It is then when we are at our most homefulness – and I would even say, when church is best at being church.
Let me show you what I mean. Check out what happens when I take some of those responses from my Facebook question and sub out the word “home” with “church.” Listen:
Church is when everybody knows who you are.
When they catch you when you fall.
Church is a haven of open arms, mugs of nutritious liquid and everlasting love.
Church is when everyone has a seat at the table.
Church is when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Church is when you should feel free to be your most authentic self
Church is when you claim and also are claimed
When the door is always open.
When you are loved.
Can you imagine, my friends, what it would be like if this described the kind of home people saw in our church? There are countless people outside our walls who are searching high and low for the kind of home that is here. It is them up to us to show it to them. And it is surprisingly easy how we do that. We make it so complicated.
A mid-sized congregation decides that they want to grow their membership. They pour time and resources into the effort. They are Presbyterian, so of course a committee is formed. They hire a consultant to work with the committee who helps them craft a survey, fashion listening groups, gather and assimilate data. They wonder to themselves what the data will show in their quest to attract more people: will they need to hire a younger pastor? Start an expansive children’s ministry? Make the worship service contemporary? Go crazy in marketing and on social media? What one thing should they do to help grow their church?
When the consultant turns in their final report, it contains a single sentence: “After months of study, discernment and visioning, our findings unequivocally conclude that the top reason people decide to attend a church….
…..is because someone invited them to come.
It’s true, actually. That really is what the data shows! There are many reasons people may come to a church, but there is only one reason they stay. And it’s not because of a program or ministry, not because of a pastor or a sermon. Not because of worship style or music. All those may be reasons someone comes to a church, but it’s not why they stay.
The reason someone stays is because someone invited them. Literally, took the time at work, in the neighborhood, even in the grocery line to say, “Hey, you really should come to church with me this Sunday.” That’s all it takes to welcome someone home.
For all the longing we have for home, may we find our true home right here – not just in this space, but with each other, and with those who are still searching.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
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