Sunday, January 24, 2010


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
January 24, 2010

Year C: The Third Sunday after Epiphany
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
(1 Corinthians 12:12-31a)
Luke 4:14-21


As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to recognize the power of homecomings. Of course, part of the power of homecomings comes from nostalgia. But, it’s more than that. I have found there is something deeply emotional and even unsettling about visiting places from my past – the houses, streets, neighborhoods, churches and schools that helped to make me who I am today.

It’s emotional to see these places from our past, to stand on the same sidewalk where we played as children, to touch the doorknob we turned thousands of times, to feel again the wood of the banister. Homecomings are emotional. It’s emotional to revisit places that once seemed so ordinary, places that we took for granted, but now are loaded with memories and meaning.

Homecomings are emotional and they can also be unsettling. Many of us have experienced the cliché of returning to a place and everything looking so much smaller than we remember. Homecomings can be unsettling because we see the changes, often dramatic changes, which have occurred since the last time we were back. There’s a driveway where the garden used to be? They tore down the house next door and replaced it with a McMansion! They put aluminum siding on our house! Wow – the old neighborhood sure has changed! Homecomings can be unsettling.

But homecomings can also be moments of grace and clarity. Obviously, homecomings remind us of our roots and our history. Homecomings can also remind us of how we became the people we are today. Homecomings can also help to remind us of what’s most important in our lives – and to get us back on track if we’ve lost our way.

Since today’s lessons are very much about homecomings, I got to thinking about some of my own homecomings and how they were emotional and unsettling, but were also times of great grace and clarity.

A few years ago, just as seminary was wrapping up, I really felt like I had lost my way. I had left my comfortable teaching life behind and stepped into the unknown – and three years later it felt like I was still stepping into the unknown. Meanwhile my best friend and high school classmate and former teaching colleague had just gotten the job of principal at our school. I remember thinking, here we are both stepping into middle age and he can point to real achievement while I might have made some very big wrong turns and ruined everything.

With all of this anxiety swirling around in my head, I took a beautiful spring day to just wander and think, walking up and down the familiar streets of downtown Jersey City. Finally, I came to what had been my grandparents’ house – where I had spent a lot of time as a child. Standing on the sidewalk looking at that familiar red brick row house, touching the cold metal railings on the stoop, the memories seemed to wash over me.

Yes, that homecoming was emotional and unsettling – my grandparents are long gone from that house. But that homecoming was also a moment of grace and clarity – a moment when I remembered the unconditional love given to me by my family – a moment when I remembered that ultimately life is about sharing that kind of love - and all the rest just isn’t that important.

My second homecoming was more recent. I’m very fortunate to love my job, but like any other job the daily routines can make me stale, make it easy to lose sight of the big picture, to forget why I wanted to do this in the first place. Maybe some of you have had a similar experience.

Anyway, a few months ago I was back at our home parish, St. Paul’s in Jersey City. This was a sad homecoming since we were there for Sue’s mom’s funeral. I arrived very early to make sure I had plenty of time to get everything ready for the service.
As soon as I walked into the church, the sight of all that dark wood and the red carpet – and the slightly musty smell the church always had – brought me right back to why I fell in love with that church and felt called to the priesthood.

I especially found myself thinking back to my two role models – two very different priests who each in their own way continue to inspire me. I remembered the retired rector of the church, Frank Carr, warning me to stay focused on the Gospel and not to worry so much about my career. I remembered the joy and passion that the church’s rector, Dave Hamilton, brought to his priesthood, even when times were not so good.

My homecoming at St. Paul’s was emotional and unsettling. Of course, we were there for a sad reason. But it was also sad and emotional because Frank and Dave, and Sue and I for that matter, are no longer there. But that homecoming was also a time of grace and clarity – a reminder of the excitement and sense of call I felt, a reminder of the kind of priest I want to be.

Homecomings are powerful experiences. Today’s lessons are about two very powerful, very emotional homecomings. Both of these homecomings are also times of great grace and clarity.

The setting of the lesson from the Book of Nehemiah is Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile. Many Jews had spent much of the Sixth Century exiled to Babylon, where it had been a great challenge to maintain their distinctive identity living as a minority in a foreign land.

Some, of course, completely lost their way, and were absorbed into the larger Babylonian culture. Others made all sorts of compromises in order to survive, but tried their best to remain faithful to God.

After the Persians defeated Babylon, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland. Some chose to stay while others made the trek back to their largely ruined home. It’s an understatement to say that this homecoming was emotional and unsettling. The biblical account tells us that Jerusalem, including the Temple, was in ruins. This homecoming was the beginning of the painful and difficult task of rebuilding Jerusalem, the Temple and, most of all, rebuilding their Jewish identity.
The homecoming of the Jewish people after the Babylonian exile was emotional and unsettling, but it was also a time of grace and clarity. It’s during this homecoming that Jewish people rediscover, or maybe really discover, themselves and their relationship with God.

The passage we heard from Nehemiah tells of the celebration in Jerusalem at the culmination of the homecoming and reconstruction. At the celebration Ezra the priest reads from the Torah – reads from the Law of Moses. No surprise, there was great emotion in the crowd that day – we’re told “For all the people wept when they heard the words of the Law.”

Homecomings are emotional and unsettling and are also times of grace and clarity. The Jewish people had returned home and rediscovered who they were and rediscovered their relationship with God.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus has a powerful homecoming of his own. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke places this incident in the Nazareth synagogue right at the start of Jesus’ ministry. By putting it first, Luke is letting us know that he thinks this is a very important moment in Jesus’ life and work. It’s almost as if he can’t wait to get Jesus back to his hometown.

At this homecoming in Nazareth we have the next in our series of epiphanies. So far this Epiphany season we’ve seen Jesus revealed as king and as God’s beloved Son. Last week at the wedding at Cana, Jesus is revealed as a sign of God’s overflowing abundance. And now in this emotional and unsettling homecoming, Jesus reveals both his identity and his mission.

Imagine the scene. The synagogue was probably just a large room in someone’s house, but at this homecoming maybe the room seemed smaller than Jesus remembered it. Maybe he noticed how people had aged or the absence of those who had died since he had last been there.

For their part, the people may have noticed many changes in Jesus since the last they had seen him. Luke tells us that Jesus had heard the voice from heaven at his baptism say “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And then Jesus had been tested for 40 days in the wilderness. Jesus must have seemed very different, making this homecoming emotional and unsettling for everyone present.

But, this homecoming to Nazareth was also a time of grace and clarity. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and reveals both his identity and his mission.

At his homecoming Jesus reveals that he is God’s anointed, chosen to bring good news, freedom and healing to the least and the poorest.

Homecomings are emotional and unsettling and are also times of grace and clarity. But, there’s something else about homecomings – they don’t last. In my case there will always be times when I feel like I’ve lost my way or that my work has grown stale – but I can always remember my times of homecoming.

We know that after their return from Babylon the Jewish people will face many more trials, yet the memory of that homecoming celebration in Jerusalem continues to echo down through Scripture and Jewish memory right to the present day.

We also know what lies ahead for Jesus. Be sure to come back next week for the dramatic conclusion of Jesus’ homecoming. (Hint: they want to throw Jesus off a cliff.) But even though it was a brief experience and didn’t end as well as Jesus must have hoped, Luke recognizes how important this homecoming was for Jesus – a moment of grace and clarity when Jesus reveals both his identity and his mission.

So today, let’s give thanks for the homecoming of Jesus and our own homecomings. Let’s give thanks for these emotional and unsettling experiences that are also times of clarity and grace. Let’s look back at them, remembering where we come from, remembering the people and places that have shaped our lives, and especially remembering the God who loves us, the God who is our true home.