This sermon concludes my series on the different places we can find God around us.
SCRIPTURE – Rev. 21:1-4 – Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
Finding God…at Home
September 18, 2016
You all probably know I’m a huge baseball fan. While on sabbatical this summer, I was able to see games in four different stadiums, including the opportunity to go on the field after the game in the home of my beloved Cincinnati Reds. I was reflecting on my love of baseball this week as I was thinking about the meaning of home. Almost every sport has as its goal the conquest of the enemy’s territory, penetrating their controlled area in order to deposit a football, a basketball, or a puck in the other team’s goal or end zone. But not baseball. There’s no time limit, no “us vs. them” territory, and the goal is not conquest. The goal of baseball is to get to home. After all my travels this summer, that resonated deeply with me. But I also realize home can become so familiar that we forget its spiritual dimension. Where is God in our homes?
We conclude our sermon series today called “Finding God,” in which we’ve searched for God in some of the most taken-for-granted places, like the ground under our feet, the water, and the neighbor. As I reflect on the ways I experienced God on my travels during my three-month sabbatical this summer, I have been exploring with where to find the God I met out there now that I’m back here.
Maybe the easiest place to take this for granted is in our own homes. These places become so familiar to us, and their uses so utilitarian, that it’s easy to forget that our homes are meant to be sanctuaries, both in terms of safety and in terms of God’s presence. Home is the place where we can unwind, let our guard down, be ourselves, but do we see our homes as God’s dwelling places as well as ours? The Revelation passage reminds us that, “The home of God is among mortals” and that God dwells with us. When we cross the threshold of our homes, do we remember that we’re standing on holy ground?
I posted a question on Facebook this week asking people to define what “home” meant. I received 35 comments, which included everything from warm, heartfelt responses about comfort and safety to this pithy answer: “It’s where my laundry gets done.” Most of the comments could be separated into two categories: home as defined by family, the other people who shared that space, and home as related to feelings or emotions like love and comfort.
One definition I didn’t hear in those responses was that home was a building. That makes more sense for younger generations, who’ve most likely moved more than their elders. I would bet that gone are the days were people will live in one house for 40 or 50 years, which was not uncommon just a few decades ago. I was adding it up this week, and by the time I was 18 I had lived in seven different homes, and I’ve lived in nine more since then. So for me and many others, the definition of home is not tied to a particular physical location.
The most popular response to the meaning of “home” was tied to family. Home is wherever our loved ones are. Of course, the definition of family has changed a lot recently. It used to be that a family, at least as society defined it, was a husband, wife, 2.5 kids and a dog named Rover. Folks who fit that definition were families, and those who didn’t were pitied, because they were somehow missing out on the benefits of being a family.
That’s ironic, because I’ve read the Bible a few times and have yet to find this prototypical nuclear family. In fact, the word “nuclear” isn’t even in the Bible! Instead, I’ve found a lot of other kinds of families. Let’s see, there’s a naked, childless couple living in a garden (their kids come later); a tribal patriarch with several wives and handmaidens who bear his children; a very popular king with a harem of women; several arranged or coerced marriages; and an unmarried man who hung around with 12 other guys. Oh, and by the way, he was the product of an unwed teenage mother. No sign of Rover anywhere. The modern definition of “family” is messy these days, almost as messy as the Bible’s definition
And yet, whether it’s a single person, a Brady Bunch menage of step- and half-kids, an empty nest, a same-sex couple, a rainbow of adopted or foster kids, or a widow or widower, all the ingredients are there to make a home, because as many of my respondents said, home is as much a disposition or feeling as it is a building. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “It is a sacred location, a place of aspiration and dreams, of learning and habit, or relationships and heart. It’s a place where we can be truly ourselves.”
When Sydney was about two years old, we lived in Columbus, Ind., while I was in seminary. It wasn’t easy being cooped up in our small apartment with an energetic toddler, so Leigh would often take Syd out into the community to let her burn off some steam. One day, they pulled into the parking lot of Target, one of our favorite destinations in Columbus. When Syd looked over and saw the familiar red Target sign, she exclaimed, “We’re home!” Homes come in many different forms.
Home is also the place where we learn how to be in this world. As the location of our primary influences, home is not only where we CAN be who we are, but it’s where we LEARN to be who we are – fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, friends, family. Home is the habitat where we learn the habits we use when we leave that place.
When I do premarital counseling with a couple, one of the things we spend time on is their family of origin. We look at the environment they grew up in, because that is usually a major determining factor in the kind of home they will create as husband and wife. If their home life growing up was contentious or detached or chaotic, I guarantee their new home will mirror that. What we learn at home becomes a part of who we are. If we learn kindness at home, it’s easier to practice kindness in the world. If we learn violence at home, it’s harder to resist doing the same in the world. If we hug our kids, they will learn to hug others. If we yell at our kids, they’ll learn to yell at others.
Butler Bass calls our homes “incubators” for our first habits, which are the repeated actions that form our characters. It’s the place where we are formed and transformed. The TV channel that plays most prevalently at our house is HGTV. I’m not big on the arrangement of furniture and arguments over paint color, so I jokingly nicknamed it “Hoochy Goochy TV.” But I recognize that there’s power in what HGTV shows offer. It’s not cut-throat reality TV or toxic 24-hour news. It’s a channel full of shows about making a home, and that brings us comfort because it reminds us of the refreshing possibility that broken things can be fixed and run-down things can be restored. That’s so down-right spiritual, I think we should call it “Home with God TV.”
As I think about our homes, I think there are two places in them where we learn our habits and that embody most powerfully the presence of our comforting, transforming God. The first place is the doorway. The door is what lets us keep our families safe, the location where we can control who does and doesn’t enter our safe places. But a door is not just about keeping people out; it’s also about letting people in.
On my sabbatical, three different times I used AirBnB to book lodging. AirBnB lets people with extra room in their homes advertise it as a place for travelers to stay. We stayed in the guest house of a home in LA; the finished basement of a house in DC; and the extra room in an apartment in New York City. In each place, the home owner extended hospitality to us, opening up their homes for these strangers to use for rest and renewal. We were welcomed in like Abraham welcomed the three travelers, and the invitation to pass through those doors made those spaces home for us, if just for a few days. How do we practice hospitality at our doors? Who do we invite in? Who do we keep out?
The other location in the home that embodies the transformative presence of God is the kitchen table. As I write this, I’m looking at our kitchen table, which has seen better days. It has lots of dents and scratches, there are crayon and marker stains from various craft projects, and at least one of the legs wobbles. But it is our table, the place we commune together to share a meal and much more.
I was having lunch with Virginia Long in her home earlier this year, and she was telling me about the table at which we were sitting. Over some delicious cheese biscuits, she told me the story of how the table was a gift from her husband’s co-worker, and how she restored that table to usefulness. That table became the centerpiece of their home. Virginia writes in her blog, “A surprising number of snapshots that span half a century represent good times spent around our table. I can’t think of a single memory that isn’t a pleasant one. We’ve all heard the expression, ‚If these walls could talk…’ and one of my daughters laughingly remarked recently that if our table could speak, ‚Oh, the stories it could tell.’ It is indeed a table of contents.”
Our tables are our personal altars, places of sacrifices and blessings, locations of conversations about school or lost loves, the bearer of stories about heart-to-heart talks and epic games of Monopoly. Our tables are the places where we are fed and nourished, and that has nothing to do with food. The table reminds us that at the center of our lives is a feast in which we celebrate the gifts of food and community, and remember those who came before us and those who made this meal possible, and give thanks to the One who is the true Giver of all our gifts. It’s the place we live out the economy of love we’ve been taught, the place where we practice gratitude and hospitality, the place where we remember how blessed we are to have enough.
When we pass through our doorway, when we sit down at our table, let us remember that the overarching theme of the Bible is that of God’s people searching for a home. And still today, in our world there are many, many people in our world who are out of place – immigrants, people dislocated by war, famine, conflict, religious persecution, economic hardship. How are we extending hospitality to those who are wandering? How are we cooking a feast to share with those who don’t have a table?
I found God this summer in all the places we traveled, and the God I met there was so much bigger, more majestic, more mysterious than I could have ever imagined. But my biggest surprise was returning to Lexington to find that same God was here, too. My prayer is that we see that God in the most common places around us, and realize that God’s presence transforms them into sanctuaries, into holy ground. The promise of the Bible is that, ultimately, we will find our home in God, who has come to dwell among us in the form of Jesus Christ. And in Christ, in the grace and forgiveness and acceptance he offers, we are truly home.