Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Journey Home

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
August 12, 2007: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Year C: Proper 14
Genesis 15:1-6
Hebrews 11:1-16
Luke 12:32-40
Psalm 33

The Journey Home

In a conversation years ago I remember my father saying to me that as we live our lives we seem to go from one random event to the next. But later as we look back on our lives these random events don’t seem to so random after all and we realize that we have been on a journey.

I can’t remember now why we were talking about that, but the image of looking back and seeing life as a journey – a journey with important landmarks on the way – has stuck with me ever since.

Sometimes it’s only later that you realize you’ve passed a landmark and other times you know you’re reaching a landmark as it’s happening. And today’s one of those times when Sue and I know very clearly that we have reached an important moment in our journeys.

You know, in many churches the preacher gets to choose the bible text that he or she is going to preach on. And on this bittersweet landmark day I know what passages I would have chosen. But in the Episcopal Church, like many other churches, we follow the lectionary so preachers have to deal with whatever texts are appointed for the day.

I’ve noticed, though, that almost always – or maybe even always, the texts that come up in the lectionary are appropriate for what we as a community are facing. In a remarkable way God seems to use the lectionary – something put together by people – God seems to use the lectionary to speak to us. And much of the preacher’s job is to listen carefully to these texts and hear what God is saying to us at this moment in our journey.

So I wasn’t surprised when I looked ahead to today’s readings – although they aren’t the ones I would have chosen, I should have known that God would speak loud and clear to us here today. We begin in Genesis with God saying to Abraham, “Do not be afraid, I am your shield.” So far Abraham has trusted God. He left his home in Mesopotamia, he’s successfully battled some local kings, but still he doubts. Still he’s unsure. Still he’s afraid. And so God reassures Abraham of his presence and protection. “I am your shield.” And God also promises the future – God promises that Abraham’s descendants will be more numerous than the stars. And so, at least for now, Abraham puts his trust in the Lord.

In the gospel passage that we just heard Jesus also tells his disciples, tells us not to be afraid. And he also warns us to reflect on where we put our treasure. Once again we hear one of Jesus’ most famous sayings: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

For me today God speaks most clearly and directly in our reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews. The author of the epistle reflects on the story of Abraham leaving his homeland and celebrates all the good that was born out of Abraham’s faithfulness. For me and maybe for all of us today, the most important part of the passage comes at the end. The author of Hebrews writes about the holy people who have died: “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But, as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed he has prepared a city of them.”

In all three of this morning’s lessons God is reminding us that we are on a journey. We are on a journey to our true home. And our true home is life with God forever.

But, it’s so easy for us to forget this essential truth. It’s so easy for us to get so attached to places and things. It’s been so easy for me to get attached to Jersey City – to St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s Prep; to Wonder Bagels and Rita and Joe’s; to Lincoln Park and to the PATH train; to a little house on Highland Avenue. Yes, it’s so easy for us to think that the here and now is our true home, it’s easy for me to think that Jersey City is my true home, when in fact my true home – our true home - is life with God forever.

So it’s hard for Sue and me to leave Jersey City and to leave St. Paul’s. The word I’ve been using a lot lately is bittersweet, but to be honest these days it seems more bitter than sweet. So much of our identity is wrapped up in this place. Living here nearly all our lives we know the shortcuts, we know the stories, we know the people, we know the restaurants – we know this place. And now God is asking Sue and me to put our faith in him and set out for a place we barely know at all.

I know that many of us here have moved - many of us have left our homes. I know that many of us here this morning have moved distances far greater than from Jersey City to Madison. And I’m sure that in many cases leaving home was difficult, painful and sad. For Sue and me Jersey City seems like our home and all of you have places that seem like your home.

But the great truth we celebrate today is that our true home is not in Jersey City, or Belize, or Nigeria or Boston. Our true home is with God forever.

Our true home is with God forever so of course that means that we’re not there yet. We are on a journey. Since our true home is with God forever, that means that all of us are like Abraham so long ago - we are on a great journey home. In a sense our journey is a great circle. We have come from God and now we are on a journey home to be with God forever.

Like any journey there are dangers along the way. We may get lost. We may grow tired. We may wonder if the destination is worth the trouble after all. We may even forget why we started out on this journey in the first place.

And this is where the church comes in. Why are we here today? Why are many of us here every Sunday? The church can’t be an end in itself. The church is not the destination. Instead, the church is sort of like the rest stop on the highway. It’s the place where we and our fellow travelers take a “safety break.” The church is the place where we stop to get fed. The church is the place where we get refueled so we have the strength and energy to continue on with the rest of our journey.

Talking about the church often we use word “home.” Maybe you’ve seen it - there’s a church downtown that has a banner outside that reads “Find a Home at Holy Rosary.” That’s fine and basically harmless – and we might even be tempted to steal their slogan - but the word home is not really accurate for the church. I love this place very much – I love this building and I especially love this congregation, but it’s not my home. This church has been a major landmark on my journey, but it’s not my home. It’s not my home, and it’s not your home either.

Our true home is with God forever.

Just because our true home is with God, doesn’t mean that the church – that this church – isn’t important. Far from it. We have very important work to do.

It’s here that we find rest and offer rest to others. It’s here that we find food for the journey and offer food to others. There is a whole world outside those doors that is tired and hungry. Worse than that, there’s a whole world out there that is on a journey home to God and does not even know it.

For those of us who are in the church, those of us who love the church, sometimes it can come as a shock to encounter people for whom the church is not a place of comfort but is a foreign or even hostile land. People who do not know that this is a place to rest and a place to be fed. People who do not even know that they are on a journey to the God who loves them.

Last week Sue and I were at a wedding reception for a friend who had gotten married a few weeks before. They asked if I would pray at the start of the reception. So I wrote some prayers, wore my collar, and waited to be called to the microphone. When the time came I said a few words about the occasion and asked everyone to join with me and say “Lord, hear our prayer.” After the first prayer the response was a little weak so I reminded them “Lord, hear our prayer.” And someone who was sitting to my right yelled out “Whatever…”

I was heckled! Now, I guess I should have let it go, but Sue and I had just seen the episode of TV show “Last Comic Standing” when the comics were challenged to heckle one another. So, maybe inspired by that, I went back at my heckler and said “Whatever?! Let’s get into the spirit of this occasion.”

Not the most clever thing I’ve ever said, but I think people were surprised that I responded, so there was some laughter and a few claps and then we continued with the prayers with some better participation. I’ve thought a lot about that incident. Probably this person had already had too many drinks. But the hostility I heard in that person’s voice has stuck with me. What happened on that person’s journey to make them so hostile to prayer? Has the church offered this person rest and food for the journey?

It’s just one story, but the bottom line is by the grace of God we have a big job to do. There’s a tired and hungry city outside the doors of St. Paul’s. We have rest and we have good food to offer every week. We must open wide those doors, go out and tell this city of 300,000 people that Jesus loves them and so do we. We must show that love by being a rest stop for all who are on this great journey. It’s a challenge but I believe all it really boils down to is my friend Father Carr’s beautiful definition of the Christian life: love, forgiveness and service.

Maybe our church’s job of love, forgiveness and service is a little harder than usual because this is a time of anxiety for many of us. Quite a few of you have noticed our declining numbers and have worried about the future of St. Paul’s. Many of you have been concerned about who will be the next rector. I’ve certainly been anxious about the same questions.

But, brothers and sisters, God is speaking to us loud and clear in today’s lessons. Just as he told Abraham, God is saying to us “Be not afraid, I am your shield.” God is reminding us that where our treasure is our heart will be also. God is saying come on, keep going, finish the journey home. God is saying I am with you every step of the journey. God is saying be not afraid. Be not afraid. Be not afraid.

So now let us continue our journey to our true home. Let us continue our journey to life with God forever.