Sunday, September 11, 2016

Returning Home

17th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 19 (Year C)
Exodus 32.7-14; Psalm 51.1-11; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10
Sunday, September 11, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

It was a Tuesday. Tuesdays had a special rhythm all their own. On any other weekday, I would get up, get ready for work, eat breakfast, and then go to the office. But on Tuesdays, I would skip breakfast, and instead of going to work, I would drive right past my office and on to St. George’s Episcopal Church, where I was doing my internship prior to going to seminary. This particular Tuesday was different still. Normally while I’m getting ready for work I listen to the news on the radio. On the drive to work I also listen to the radio. This particular Tuesday, for some reason, I did not turn on the radio while I was getting ready for work. When I got into my car the radio was turned off. I did not turn it on. I enjoyed a quiet, peaceful drive to St. George’s. I got to the church and walked into Coleman House, which served as the parish offices and meeting space, where we had our Tuesday morning Eucharist, followed by breakfast.

As soon as I walked into Coleman House I could feel a strange tension in the air. Without anybody even saying anything, I could tell something was wrong. Something was very wrong. One of the regulars had just gotten a call from her husband, a Marine. His unit at Camp Pendleton had just been put on alert. It looked like something was happening, but the governments still wasn’t sure exactly what it was. Two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and it didn’t look like accidents. It looked like it may have been terrorists. It was uncertain if other parts of the country would be next. The rector had a radio in her office and we tried to find more information but at that point it was still too early for any meaningful details or analysis. In the shock of the news, in trying to find out what was going, in trying to make sense of such an unbelievable event, the start of our Eucharist was delayed.

We finally decided to go ahead with the Eucharist. We could not make sense out of these unknown events, so we needed to turn to a greater unknown, to our God, to help us in the unknowing. To be with us in the unknowing. Somehow, even in the uncertainty of what was going on 3,000 miles away and what that might mean for us, we found a moment of comfort in the presence of our God. In the presence of one another. This was where we needed to be. With God. With each other.

The following Sunday and for several Sundays after, we would see people having similar reactions – trying to make sense of the horrific events of that terrible, surreal, day, even as more details became available. People flocking to churches trying to make sense out that which cannot make sense to the rational human mind. They came, looking for something. An answer? A word of hope? A moment of peace? A feeling of security? A sense of not being alone?

One thing was certain. The events of September 11, 2001 forever changed our nation and the world. And we – those of us who were members of St. George’s and many more who were unknown to us, yet who felt compelled to be in our midst – needed to be in the presence of God. To try to make sense of the tragic events. To grieve the loss of 2,996 souls. To seek a sign of hope in the midst of chaos.

One of the reasons the church exists is to provide a safe haven in times of trouble, in times of uncertainty. A place where we can seek to make sense out of what is going on in the uncertainty around us, even when no sense is to be had. To seek a place of refuge when we feel vulnerable. To seek comfort and consolation from our God when there does not seem to be comfort available anywhere else. To seek companionship with others who are going through the same things.

Today we celebrate “Welcome Back Sunday.” Many churches are having similar celebrations today or sometime this month. A time to mark the passing of summer. A time to formally recognize our return from a period of summer travels. A time to celebrate the beginning of a new program year in the church calendar. But this day falling on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, and the scripture readings that just happen to be appointed for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary, points to a more poignant meaning of such customary celebrations. One that is better indicated in other names used for this celebration. “Welcome Home Sunday” or “Homecoming Sunday.” This celebration is about a return home.

The traditional meaning of “home” is a place where we feel loved, where we feel safe, where we feel protected, regardless of what rages outside the walls of this haven. Home is a place where we are welcomed just as we are, were we are cherished and valued, regardless of what others may think. Home is a place to which we are continually drawn. If not physically, at least in our hearts. In the words of poet Maya Angelou, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

This is the image our scripture lessons for today seek to portray. The sense of home. Of returning home. It may not be initially evident. But in a broader sense, when you drill down to get at the underlying message that is being conveyed, you will find it. The path home.

In our Old Testament reading from Exodus, the Israelites are in the wilderness, having fled Egypt. In this particular scene, Moses is up on Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments. He has been gone a long time – 40 days. The people fear they have been abandoned. Abandoned by Moses and by God himself. Seeking something to hold onto, something to place their faith in, Aaron casts the image of the Golden Calf. And the people worship it. The people are disobedient and blasphemous in even asking for such an image. Aaron is disobedient and blasphemous for casting the image. The people are certainly disobedient and blasphemous for worshiping it. And God is furious! He is all set to unleash his wrath. But in today’s reading, Moses intercedes on behalf of the people. Moses reminds God that these are God’s Chosen People. They are basically good people. Flawed, yes, but basically good. And that rather than punishment, they are in need of a loving and merciful God who will welcome them back, even though they blew it. Even though they broke two of the Ten Commandments. And God relents. God forgives the people. God welcomes them back into his good graces. God welcomes them home.

In our Epistle lesson, Paul writes to his protégé Timothy. In speaking of the power of Christ and of God’s grace, Paul alludes to his own story. To how God through Christ has worked in his own life. That even though Paul had originally been a zealous persecutor of the followers of Jesus, he had been given a second chance. He had acted in ignorance of the true message of God as conveyed through Jesus. But God revealed the truth to Paul, resulting in him repenting and even becoming a follower of Jesus. And not just any follower, but one of his most ardent and devout apostle. As he tells Timothy, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 1.14). He had been shown mercy and welcomed back into the household of God.

And then in our Gospel lesson, Jesus gives two well-known parables. The parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the 99 to go in search of the one that has gone astray. And the parable of the woman and the lost coin, where she turns the house upside down looking for it. These parables speak of separation from God, be it intentional or unintentional. These parables speak of those who are separated being returned to their rightful place. Most significant in both parables is the image that God does not sit around and passively wait for the return of those who are lost or separated. Rather, God, as with the shepherd who seeks the one lost sheep, as with the woman searching for the one lost coin, drops everything to go in search mode. God actively seeks us out, seeks our return, when we are lost or separated.

The overarching theme of all these scripture passages is a returning home to God. They demonstrate that we all have value in God’s eyes. They remind us that each of us has a place here in God’s house, a place in God’s kingdom. That God desires all of us to be a part of his family – to be in relationship with us, to be reconciled with us. He continually reaches out to us make this a reality.

In response, as we see in the Gospel lesson, when those who are separated do return, when those who are lost are found, there is cause for rejoicing. We rejoice in recognition of what God has done for us. That we are sought out when we are lost or go astray. That we are welcomed with open arms by a God who desires that we be reconciled with him.

This is what our “Welcome Back Sunday” is about. This is what this place is about. This place and this day of celebration are both icons, sacred images, of the broader truth of who we are as God’s beloved people. Of our need to repent of the ways that have we separated ourselves from God. Of our fervent desire to return home. And of God’s mercy and grace, in seeking us out, in beckoning us home, to the place where we are most loved.

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