Psalm 137: 1-9; Luke 15: 1-7
June 2, 2013
That’s how I began our Bob Chilton Bible study a week ago - the dozen of us gathered around the coffee table at Pages Bookstore here in town. As is my custom, I’d given them today’s scripture in advance. But before we cracked open our Bibles that morning, I asked them to take a second and just tell me - tell me what they thought of when I said the word “home.
And this is what they told me:
Home is where I grew up.
Home is where my roots are.
Home is where my family is.
Home is where I find comfort and support.
When I’m not home, I feel homesick.
Home is wherever I can relax.
Home is where I find a sense of peace, comfort and security.
Home is where I always feel welcomed.
We talked about stories of home – of the smells of sugar cookies and meatloaf coming from Grandma’s kitchen, of being somewhat isolated on the family farm and looking forward to Sunday afternoons spent with other families and children, of college dorm rooms and towns that take on a feel of home, of homes with doors that always stayed unlocked.
We also talked about the fact that “home” may not be, for some, a place remembered so fondly. Like the college student who, at the end of spring semester, lamented the fact that she would have to return to the home she grew up in, where harsh words and broken promises were all that awaited her. For her, the new circle of friends on her sorority hall – that was her new family. That’s her new home. We talked about the fact that, for some, home may not be a place worth returning to.
So we talked a lot about home. But we did something else, too. Something more important. We remembered home. We put it back together, whatever it was for us, whatever it still is for us. Good and bad, blessings and warts. We re-membered home, right there in Pages Bookstore over a cup of coffee.
Which, I might note, was a much safer “re-membering” than the kind the Israelites engaged in in today’s scripture. And it wasn’t a coffee table that stood in between them. It was a tree – a willow tree. Nor was there a hot cup of jo resting on its surface. Instead, it was musical instruments hanging in the tree’s branches; small harps and a few lyres. Instruments that were crafted for the sole purpose of being played. But they weren’t. Instead they just hung there, suspended indefinitely; hung there by the people lying underneath who looked like anything other than people eager to play some music. One has her head in her hands. Another is hunched over his lap so you can't see his face. And another is leaning up against the second; their arm draped over his back.
They are the Israelites in Babylonian exile, and they are the owners of those harps and lyres. They've hung their instruments in the trees because they cannot play them anymore. They don’t have the heart. They are emotionally and spiritually bankrupt; the musical muse has left town. Actually, they are the ones who have left town – ripped from their beloved Jerusalem, their homeland; now exiles in a strange and foreign land. They have made the journey from familiar surroundings into the unfamiliar wilderness. They are there underneath the willow tree 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 a song of Zion,” they are unable to. They could make themselves hold the instruments and press flesh on metal strings and strum, but the sound would not be as it should be. The song has left them. And they wonder: how will they ever sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?
They cannot sing songs of home, because they are not at home. They are the furthest thing from home. And many of them – most of them – would never see their home again. They are in the worst kind of mourning. They stand vigilant, daring time itself to remove cherished memories of home from their minds. And they are angry, too. Full of rage. So angry that they even contemplate the unthinkable, of dashing a Babylonian baby’s head against the rocks. They wouldn’t really do it, of course. But in that moment – in that painful, rage-filled moment – they at least allow the horrific thought to enter their minds.
What does it feel like to feel that passionately, that intensely, about home? What is it like to miss home like that – or to hate, to despise home like that? Do you remember the scene in 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 not nearly as ugly as the memories Jenny has of the things that went on inside there when she was but a little girl. Memories she had spent an adult lifetime trying to forget. She hasn’t been back there in years. She stares at the house blankly, then in blind rage starts throwing rocks at it, over and over, screaming at the top of her lungs, shattering windows and eventually falling to the ground in exhaustion. All of this, witnessed by Forrest Gump; who muses in a way only Forrest Gump could: Sometimes, I guess, there just aren’t enough rocks.
Home does that to us, you know? This deep-seeded part of us at our very core. And it’s true – sometimes there aren’t enough rocks to throw, or willow trees to hang up our harps and our hearts. Home does that to us, because it’s so much more than a place. It is an inescapable reality at our most primeval level. It is, dare I say, spiritual.
So let me ask you, First Presbyterian: what does home mean to you? It is a place? Is it certain people? Is your sense of home something you are drawn to, or something you avoid? Are you like the Hebrews hanging up your harps when you’re away from home, or are you like Jenny, where there never will be enough rocks?
You know what home was like for Jesus? He tells us in our other scripture today. A story he shares; one of those wonderful “on-the-fly” moments Jesus specialized in. There is tension in the group he is with at that moment; those who, as The Message translation so eloquently puts it, were of “doubtful reputation.” And then those of prestige and power who did not like the kind of company Jesus kept. Tension abounds. Just another day in the home that was first century Palestine. Just like many homes today.
So Jesus tells them a story and puts his audience at the center of it: Say you have a hundred sheep and one gets lost. Who among you would not leave the 99 behind in the wilderness and go looking for the lost one, until you found it? And when you found it, who among you would not bring it home, rejoicing, and call all your neighbors and friends to come over and celebrate with you?
Jesus tells the story by asking a question, a rhetorical one, which means everyone knows the answer without him having to say it. Notice the phrasing – “Who wouldn’t go” – implying, of course, that everyone would. Even though going didn’t make a lick of sense, leaving the 99 to find the one? Cost analysis and spread sheets and good old-fashioned common sense say doing such a thing is foolish, a bad idea. Too great a risk. But this is what families do, right? They care for each other. Love each other. And when one is lost, the search begins in earnest until the one is found. That’s what Jesus tells them home – his home – is like.
In his book A Room Called Remember, Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner tells the story of a dream he had years ago that he’s never forgotten:
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. The name of the room, he said, was Remember. And it is your home, now and always. (Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember, pgs. 2-3)
Let me ask you something: is this church that “home” for you? Is this community of faith where you belong? Check out what happens when I take those responses that I got from the Bible study folks and plug in the word “church” instead:
My church is where I grew up.
My church is where my roots are.
My church is where my family is.
My church is where I find comfort and support.
When I’m not at my church, I feel homesick.
My church is where I can relax.
My church is where I find a sense of peace, comfort and security.
My church is where I always feel welcomed.
You know what? This church is your home! This is where you belong! This is where you are loved and cared for, where you are supported, where you can relax and be yourself. This is where your family – your church family is. And this is where you are always welcome.
And like home, there are also times when feelings can get hurt, when there are misunderstandings, when there can be pain. Like home, it’s not always perfect. But we are family; and we stick together and love each other no matter what. Our reason for being the church is not to be perfect, but to be faithful. Faithful to God and faithful to each other. That is what Jesus’ home is like for you and for me.
And that, my friends, is the beauty of what we get to do, every single Sunday morning and every time we are gathered together. We remember home! We tell our collective story; the one that talks about a God who would drop everything to come find us if we got lost; and then throw a huge party to celebrate our homecoming. About a God who gives us the strength and will to grab those harps and lyres off the tree branches and sing hometown songs in strange lands; about a God who weeps with us and provides all the rocks we need to throw at an ugly past.
So let’s remember home together, shall we? Let’s live together as the family of God, always searching for that “Remember room” where everything has its place; where everything seems the way that it should be. Let’s be the home of God together, and for a world that is so desperately looking for a place to belong. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, welcome home. Thanks be to God. AMEN.