“Welcome Home!”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 8, 2013

Scriptures:  Psalm 139:1-18; Luke 15:1-10

 

It was a cold, dark, December night about ten years ago.  One of those classic New England winter nights, when the air is so crisp that it sparkles, and the stars shine bright in the velvety, dark sky.  I was in an airplane, flying through that star-studded expanse on my way home from a study abroad semester in Costa Rica.  I had risen very early that morning to get to the airport, and boarded my plane, and made it through customs with my bags full to overflowing with laundry and school supplies and souvenirs, and waited out a layover in Houston, and now we were coming in to land at Bradley Airport in Hartford.  It was late at night, and the terminals were quiet and empty as my fellow passengers and I made our way down the jetway and walked along those interminable beige-walled, neutral-carpeted corridors.  It seemed like we walked for miles, following sign after sign for baggage claim and ground transportation.  Finally, as we came down yet another flight of stairs, I caught sight of my dad, waiting for me.

Of course I teared up immediately, and it’s a miracle I made it down the rest of those stairs, because I could barely see them, my eyes were so blurry.  My dad’s eyes were shining, too, and we were both too choked up to speak, so we just hugged and hugged and hugged.  My head found its familiar spot on his shoulder, and I smelled the familiar scent of my parents’ house—wood smoke and pine trees and fresh bread and Ivory soap—and it was a long time before we let go.

 

On that same night, in that same terminal, there was a group of military families waiting for their soldiers to arrive from a tour in Afghanistan.  When my dad and I finally stopped hugging each other, we wiped our eyes and looked across the room and saw a little boy running to meet his camouflage-clad daddy and leaping into his arms with a shout of joy.  Another returning soldier dropped his duffel on the floor and practically flew across the room to embrace his wife.  A middle-aged couple sandwiched their son between them in a giant bear hug.  His mom reached up to rub his crew-cut hair and stroke his freshly-shaved cheek, and his dad put one arm around his wife and one around his son, and turned his own tear-streaked face toward heaven and closed his eyes and held on tight.

It was a cold, dark, December night, and moments before, that baggage claim area had been silent and deserted, but now it was filled with warmth and joyful noise as families were reunited.  People laughed and cried and tried to talk all at once, and said the same words over and over again:

“It’s so good to see you.”

“I missed you.”

“I love you.”

“Welcome home.”

 

In a way, that’s the sort of scene we have here this morning on this Homecoming Sunday.  You have come home from vacations and summer travels, from visits with new grandchildren and time with ailing parents, from business trips and honeymoons and lazy summer weekends.  And in a way, this whole community is coming home—home from a long and sometimes difficult journey through a pastoral transition.

Our homecoming this morning is a joyful thing for me, and it sure seems like it’s a joyful thing for you.  And if the scripture that Graham read for us a moment ago is true, and I believe that it is, then our homecoming this morning is a joyful thing for God as well.  Can’t you just hear the angels and the heavenly hosts singing with us?

 

                        Open the doors and let the light shine in,

                        Open the windows, let the air move,

                        Open your hearts and let the love shine out,

                        Welcome home, welcome home!

 

In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus says that God is like a shepherd who is so overjoyed to find his lost sheep that he throws a party and invites all his friends, because the one who had been missing has returned and the flock is whole again.  Or, Jesus says, God is like a peasant woman whose joy is so great on finding a coin that she had lost, that she invites all her neighbors to a feast, a great celebration that probably cost more than the coin was worth to begin with.  Jesus describes a God who rejoices whenever a member of God’s family is restored to the fold, whenever one who had been away comes home again.

No matter how far we might wander or how long we might be gone… no matter who we are or what wrongs we might have done… no matter how many times we stray or how many bridges we burn… when we return, God pulls us into a giant bear hug and holds on tight—and then God throws a huge party and invites the whole town to celebrate.  Jesus says that even heaven itself is full of tears and laughter and joyful noise whenever one of God’s children comes home.

Friends, God is surely rejoicing today.

 

But there’s more to it than that.  Because as joyful as it is to come home, and as much as I believe that God celebrates our return, our scriptures also teach us that no matter where we go, God goes with us.

When Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, he describes God as a shepherd who doesn’t just sit at home waiting for that wandering sheep to return, but goes out into the wilderness to find her.  Jesus speaks of a God who wades through pricker-bushes and brambles, who fords streams and clambers over rocks, who shines a torch into the shadows of every hill and holler to find the one who has gone astray.

When Jesus tells the parable of the lost coin, he describes God as a woman who doesn’t just throw up her hands and hope that coin turns up sometime.  Jesus speaks of a God who pulls out the broom to sweep the cobwebs from behind the radiator, who gets down on her hands and knees to look under the couch, who checks the cracks between the floorboards and lifts up the seat cushions of the armchairs and does not stop searching until she has found the one that was lost.

Jesus tells us that there is no thicket too thorny, no corner too dusty, for God to go there with us.  Jesus tells us that no matter how far we stray, God will keep on looking until we are found.

And then there’s this morning’s Psalm, a powerful ode to God’s ever-present love.  This is one of my favorite texts—it’s pure poetry, isn’t it?  The Psalmist sings of a God who has searched us and known us, who is acquainted with all our ways, who goes with us whether we ascend to heaven, or descend into the underworld, or take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea—a God for whom even the darkness is not dark, for the night is as bright as the day.  The Psalmist sings of a God who has known us since before the beginning, a God who formed our inward parts and knit us together in our mothers’ wombs.

 

And don’t you think that those inward parts remember the touch of God’s fingers?  Just as God longs to greet us with open arms, to rub our crew-cut hair and stroke our freshly-shaved cheeks, don’t you think that our very souls long to nestle their heads into that familiar spot on God’s shoulder and smell those familiar smells of home?

Saint Augustine, an early Christian theologian from North Africa, had something to say about this.  In his book entitled Confessions, an autobiographical account of his early life and his conversion to Christianity, he wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.”  Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.  Our very souls cry out to be sought, and found, and brought home to the One who is our Source and our End.

 

But here’s the thing.  The home to which God brings us is an adventure all its own.  Home with God does not mean that everything will always be comfortable.  It does not mean that everything will always be easy.  The home to which God brings us is a place that calls us to be part of something larger than ourselves—to work for peace in a world at war, to work for justice in the face of systems of oppression, to focus our concern on the welfare of those who are most vulnerable, to spend our lives for something that will outlast us.  The home to which God brings us is a place that calls us to love as God loves, to forgive as God forgives, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  The home to which God brings us is a journey toward healing, toward reconciliation, toward wholeness for ourselves and for our world.

It’s a tall order, to live with God in this home which is a journey—and that’s why we need one another.  The Christian life is not meant to be lived alone, but in community with others who will pick us up when we fall, who will bind up our wounds when we are hurt, who will challenge us when we become complacent, who will teach us when we do not know, who will bless us when our spirits falter, who will love us through it all, no matter what, because our hearts we have tasted the love of God and cannot remain the same.

If that sounds like a life to which you might be called… if that sounds like a community you might like to be part of… then I have good news for you, because that is exactly what you walked into when you came to church this morning.  That is exactly the journey we are beginning together here, on this Homecoming Sunday and beyond.

Sisters and brothers, it’s so good to see you.

Welcome home.