They say, whoever they are, that “you can’t go home again.” You can’t go back to a place you once called home because in your absence that place will have changed. I remember, travelling across the world and needing desperately to return home. I’d been travelling for several months and I had intended to stay away for many more months. I was in England when doctors informed me that there was a tumor lodged between two of the bones in my foot that needed to be removed. I can still remember the doctor telling me that there was a distinct possibility that the tumor was a malignant cancer. Suddenly, home seemed like the only place in the world I wanted to be. Even though I was already in the city of my birth, I knew without a doubt that Birmingham was not my home. The only trouble was, that during my travels my parents had moved from the one town to another. Even though the place where my family was living was familiar to me, it was not the home which I had left behind. So, when I arrived at my parents’ new home, everything felt very different. Perhaps the most important change was in me. I was not the starry-eyed young woman that I once was. The future was suddenly very uncertain. Fears that I had never ever had to deal with, were suddenly part of who I had become. But I was home and even though home was the last place I expected to be, home was the only place I wanted to be. So, I set about trying to feel at home in what was for all intents and purposes a very different home than I had hoped to come home to.
When I think about Jesus’ parable of the lost on this Homecoming Sunday, I can’t help wondering how many of us here at Holy Cross feel like we have come home to a different church. Now, I know that many of us haven’t really been away but bear with me for a moment so that we can explore the contours of the metaphor of coming home. All of us carry with us, all sorts of images of what we want and need the church to be. Some of us long to return to an image of the church as it was at a particular time in our lives when we felt at home in the church. Some of us long to come home to a church that was full of particular people, or to a church that sang certain songs, or worshipped in certain ways, or comforted us with particular ideas, or inspired us with certain hopes. Others of us, long to come home to the church of our dreams, a church that never really was, but a church that we are convinced we would feel very at home in. You know the kind of church home I’m talking about, a place full of people who are exceptional, a place filled with inspirational activities, a church that accomplishes stuff, important stuff, vital stuff, a church that has absolutely no financial worries at all.
There’s an old gospel song that comes to mind:
There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood
No lovelier spot in the dale
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale
Whatever the contours of the church of your longing, I suspect that the most important ingredients that make up the church of your longing revolve around the people. A church is not a church without the people and one thing I’ve learned about people, is that people are complex creatures. Take that lost child, the one who is known as the prodigal, no matter how you look at this parable, one thing is clear, the child that returned to his home, was not the same child that left his home.
Think about the other lost child, the one who can’t quite seem to share his father’s enthusiasm for his brother’s return. That lost child, is not the same person as the one who went out into the fields in the morning, the child who thought his future was secure, is no longer the same child as the one who returned to find his Dad throwing a lavish party for his wastrel of a brother, whom he believed he’d never have to contend with again.
Then there’s the Dad, who certainly isn’t the same person that he was before his youngest child left him behind. He’s not even the same person that his older child left that very morning. Nothing stays the same. We are all changing, all the time. Is it any wonder that it is so very easy to get lost? Looking in on this parable, I can see myself in each of these three lost souls. I’ve certainly messed up in ways that make me want to tell the younger child, “Been there. Done that. Bought the T-shirt.”
I’ve also lost people, for all sorts of reasons that have left me miserably longing for their return. So, I can see exactly why the lost father, who let’s face it played a pivotal role in both his children’s angst. I mean, that child would have never left if the Father hadn’t acted the way he did and as for the older child, well how could the Father forget about him? Why didn’t he even bother to invite his eldest child to the party? We’ve all messed up in our dealings with people, enough to cause us to lose them. We can all relate to the kind of longing for the lost that would cause us to throw a party if they ever returned.
Then there’s the eldest lost child. How often have we played the responsible role only to discover some irresponsible so-and-so being praised for doing what you’ve been doing all along. Been there. Done that. Bought the T-shirt. No wonder we get lost. Wouldn’t it be nice to just go home to the place of our dreams, the place where we can really feel at home? O give me a home where everyone behaves exactly the way that I need them to behave so that I can feel at home.
Really? I don’t think so. As nice as such a place may seem, it’s not a place where any of us would be content to call home for very long. At the end of this parable of the lost, there’s a party going on. The best thing about parties is their unpredictability. There’s nothing worse than a party where nothing much happens. We’ve all been there. A party where nothing out of the ordinary happens isn’t really a party at all, it’s a meeting. A party, a real party is unpredictable because parties, real parties are places where people let their hair down, and when people let their hair down, we catch glimpses of who they are.
People are always changing and discovering the changes in people is what life is all about. Being lost is an adventure. Being lost is an adventure that is served best when we get lost in the company of people who are willing help us find ways of being in the world that create homes for us all; people who are willing to create homes knowing all the while that even homes change.
This is not the church we long for, but it is a church in which we can create together a home that will provide sanctuary as we engage in this grand adventure of life. So, welcome home. Things have changed. Things are changing. So, let’s do what people do in the midst of change, let’s have a party. Let’s break some bread, pour some wine, and let’s celebrate coming home.
We’ve all changed. We are all changing. We can celebrate what once was. Shed a tear for what is lost. Embrace what is. Look forward to what is to come. Remember who we are and whose we are as we find ourselves and give thanks to the ONE who is now and ever shall be the LOVE in whom we live and move and have our being. Welcome home, to the LOVE that IS God.