You can’t go home again… but you can come to Church as much as you’d like

Older Homilies (2009-2013)

Preaching with St. David of Wales Episcopal Church for the 17th Proper of Year A.

I didn’t mention this on Sunday, but this passage from Romans is one of my absolute favorites in scripture, so much so that I did a big honking exegesis on it last semester.  I’m even including it here for you to read if you’d like because I’m sure that you are probably (A), VERY EAGER for a taste of what fancy seminary life is like, (B) DEEPLY CURIOUS about my religious-academic cred, or (C) SLIGHTLY suspicious that I totally glossed over this past Sunday’s exegetical work.  Again, thank you, thank you, thank you St. David’s folk for making me a part of your family this Summer.  It’s meant the world to me.  Love, James.

It is a particular grace in this life if we are for any time or season privileged enough to call a church family a home. Many of us are used to being a people on the move, frequently uprooted for the sake of work or restlessness. If you’ve had to move a lot, you probably have a short list of items that signify home to you- the things you pack last and open first. When I moved to New York for school two years ago, I had to reduce the contents of a three-bedroom house to fit into a two-hundred square foot dorm room. My short list became my only list. I remember being very preoccupied with where to fit my spring-form cake pan amid the boxes.  For the person of faith on the move- for the pilgrim- the short list becomes a little more complicated; because for us, home is not entirely ours to make alone. We become well acquainted with “church-shopping”, we roam from one parish to the next with a vision in our heart of what we want a church to be, a short-list of necessities from childhood and beyond, a bell we’re sure will ring when we finally come through the right pair of bright red doors. You would think that for an Episcopalian it would be easy enough: if you can find a prayer book in the pew that falls open to page 355 at the touch, you can be pretty sure you know what you’re going to get. Yet many of us have wandered far within even the reach of this familiarity. Many of us have looked hard enough for home that we know it as a grace when we finally come to call church one. And if there is no spring-form cake pan in the kitchen of the building that it comes with, most of us have also learned that we can probably bring our own.

The reading from Romans this morning is Paul’s own short list: the absolute necessities for community in Christ. The very last things he would ever want to part with before setting out along the way, and the very first he looks for in a community to know whether or not the Spirit of Christ is upon them. Paul, of course, is not shopping for a church; he is an Apostle, he is a midwife to God’s birthing of one- crying out to all who care to hear the sure signs of what God is bringing into life. He has a vision in his heart of what Church looks like: he praises it in those communities where he finds it alive and healthy, and admonishes them when they have strayed from its ideal.  By the time he writes to the Romans, this vision is a mature one; it has been seasoned by the numerous households and the cities that Paul has passed through on his journey. He knows well what it looks like for a household to take up its cross and follow Jesus, for a community to have lost its life for the sake of God’s new thing, only to find it renewed again as living members of the risen Christ. So even though he has never been to Rome, he can tell them what it probably looks like if they truly are transformed by God’s Holy Spirit into the body of his Son upon the earth. Their love will be genuine, he says, unfeigned, undisguised. They will go out of their way to lift one another up in honor, their affection for one another will be like that of a family, brothers and sisters to one another. Strangers will not merely be welcome at their common table, but sought after; even enemies of the community will be blessed with this same fellowship. Those rejoicing will be rejoiced with, even when that joy is hard to bare; and those in sorrow will find company within in it. They will have an active share, literally an investment in the needs of those who labor far and near with God’s labor. In short- the love of their community will reach out far beyond it, nearly everyone around them will recognize its goodness, strangers will marvel at its peace, and inquire after its peculiarity.

This is how Paul has come to recognize Church when he sees it. In part, he has come to learn what God has done through Christ by the very witness of Christ’s followers; he has come to know the way of Jesus by the cross that his fellow travelers have taken up and shown him, and he has come to imagine the shape of God’s future home on Earth by the homes of church which they have made in his wake.

In my own journey along the way, it has been a particular grace to know St. David’s as this same kind of home, for at least a season. There is so much about this place that rings true for me about what Church should be like. In the short time that I have spent with you this Summer I have seen the way you listen to one another, the way you carry your burdens with one another. I have seen and been the recipient even of the warm welcome you give to the newcomers who visit here.  I want to tell you how many times this Summer I have left St. David’s after a Wednesday Peace Mass or a meeting of the Gratitude Experiment feeling totally renewed by the sincerity and depth and willingness with which so many of you have shared your faith. I want to tell you how exciting it is to walk the halls of a parish like this one and feel the buzz of energy around groups like City Repair and Food Not Bombs who use its space for the betterment of the broader community. I want to tell you what a joy it is to sing with you on Sunday mornings, to break bread together, to offer prayers together on behalf of God’s world. You are all making such an incredible home out of this place with God- and I commend it to your fullest living. For as much as you have moved into it already, I commend it to your deeper comfort, and your heartiest use; I commend you to the strangers you will meet within your own open doors, I commend you to the labor God is working here on Harrison Hill among you. It is such a gift, and as it grows I know that your goodness will be a beacon to those around you: they will marvel at your peace, and inquire after your peculiarity.

Our true home is in a God who welcomes strangers, who lifts us up with the most intimate familial love, who takes a full share in our joy and in our pain and in our greatest labors, a God who blesses us with his presence even when we have made the most dire enemies our of ourselves. In our earthly dwellings we are blessed enough to never really be at home until we can extend this same abundant hospitality of God to those who live among and with us. You have certainly extended it to me for a time, and I will return to school this week having learned from you not only a little bit about how Church works, but about who God is among you. I go deeply grateful that you have made me a part of your home here for a season, and I will pray that you will all continue to move more fully into this great household God is making out of you, both now and in the time to come.  Amen.

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