Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics; Director, Center for Theology & Public Life, Mercer University; Immediate Past President, American Academy of Religion & Society of Christian Ethics for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service on the second weekend of Lent. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27: Philippians 3:20-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
We live in a time in which many report that they do not feel at home in their own country; indeed, they do not recognize what their country has become.
This might be hard enough if it were only one-sided. For example, if liberals felt that the country had been snatched away from them by conservatives, and conservatives were riding high and feeling very much at home, at least part of America would be happy.
But conservatives are not feeling comfortable. They too report that they do not feel at home in their own country. Social conservatives do not feel at home in a country with legalized abortion. Many traditional political conservatives do not feel at home in a country where GOP voters preferred Donald Trump.
Independents and moderates do not feel at home in a country so desperately polarized and filled with political hatred.
Immigrants, documented and undocumented, definitely do not feel at home in a country in which they are being targeted relentlessly by government policy and rhetoric.
Muslims do not feel at home in a country in which a travel ban clearly motivated by anti-Muslim bias is now government policy with Supreme Court approval.
Many women do not feel at home in a country where a serial sexual predator is president, and many men do not feel at home in a country where the old rules for male-female interaction are changing.
Many queer people do not feel at home in a country where their legal rights are always under negotiation, and many straight people do not feel at home in a country where queer people can legally marry.
Many conservative Catholics do not feel at home in a church led by Pope Francis, while many liberal Catholics did not feel at home in a church led by Pope Benedict. Both men reside at the Vatican, and one wonders if either feels very much at home.
I personally cannot feel at home in a society in which the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots routinely win their championships. I mean, really, where is the justice?
Our texts this morning all, in one way or another, speak to the question of home and homelessness, of citizenship and exile.
Genesis 15 finds Abram in the land God has promised but without the heirs God also promised. Abram fears not that his descendants shall have no home, but that he will have no descendants. God assures Abram that he will indeed have descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky; that they will be “aliens in a land that is not theirs,” that they will suffer greatly but that one day they shall find their long-promised home in the promised land. Abram will have to live by faith in these promises, and he (sometimes) does.
In Philippians 3:17-4:1, Paul exhorts his young Christian community to stand apart from their neighbors in their way of life and in their very sense of citizenship. “Our citizenship (commonwealth) is in heaven; and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” In this passage, for sure, Paul does not offer his readers any earthly sense of home. Home is in heaven. Heaven will come to earth in Jesus in the future as in the recent past. Until then, we wait, and stand firm, and live differently from those whose home is here.
In Luke 9:28-36, Jesus takes his inner Three up the mountain to pray. Quite unexpectedly, heaven does come to earth, in the form of Moses and Elijah. Peter wants to build some tents to make Moses and Elijah feel at home, but the text simply dismisses his idea with a line about Peter “not knowing what he said.” There will be no home for Moses and Elijah here, and their visit really is to prepare Jesus for the departure, “which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem,” on a cross. Jerusalem, once understood to be God’s home, for Jesus would only be his point of departure.
Somehow on this reading, and in this assembly of texts, Psalm 27 speaks to me most acutely. It looks like one of those crisis psalms. David speaks vividly of evildoers who assail him and want to ‘devour my flesh.’ We are not talking about angry conversation here; we are talking about people seeking David’s death. David asks, and trusts, that the God who has protected him before will do it again.
Then he can return home: “One thing I ask of the Lord, that will I seek after; to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”
This sounds like a Temple psalm, a Jerusalem psalm, but it takes an unexpected turn:
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
He will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
He will set me high on a rock.
These are not geographical references; they are promises of divine protection. Then later:
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
So, where is our citizenship?
Genesis 15 envisions an ancient Israelite citizenship in a specific plot of promised land. But only after hundreds of years of suffering in a strange land. And, we know, only before hundreds of years of exile, briefly broken by a return, followed by centuries more of exile. The land was promised, and cherished, and home. But Israel’s faith did not ultimately depend on residence in the Land, or it could not have survived millennia of exile.
Philippians 4 says home is in heaven, while here Christ-followers are a people waiting; if there is home here, it is the tentative home of community, community in exile. Many Christians have found great comfort in that hope of heaven and in the joys of church community. Today, many find neither terribly comforting.
Luke 9 shows that for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah home is not here, not even in a place of holy encounter. Many of us find we want to mark a spot of dramatic encounter with God and make a shrine out of it. Can you think of holy places in your own life story? And yet the Transfiguration story suggests that there is no home to be found in such places. What matters is the divine encounter, not the place.
Psalm 27, I think, adds to this by showing that for David, in this psalm, home is where God’s beauty and care can be discovered and experienced. Home is where God is. Home is where God’s mercy is encountered. Home is any place where God acts to save, in “the land of the living,” in a world filled with danger and death.
Everyone seems to want to feel at home, and we already saw how very many do not feel at home right now in this troubled land.
American politics is very deeply affected, and distorted, by a desire to ensure ‘homeland security’ against threats real and imagined.
These texts remind us that there is no absolutized vision of a this-worldly home in the entire Bible. The closest thing to it is in the Hebrew Bible’s land promises, but these turn out to be more complex and less central than one might expect.
Displacement, transit, exile, diaspora, homelessness — these realities are everywhere in scripture as they are in our world today. It may well be that there are more people on the way, between homes, not quite at home, than there are those who are well and truly settled. And given the attitude of so many seemingly settled people toward those who are on the way, being at home, or believing oneself to be at home, may be spiritually and morally dangerous.
For Paul, for David, as for Jesus, home turns out to be wherever God is encountered in love and in mercy. And that can happen anywhere. Especially where we most need it.
This is not a counsel of indifference to the problems of this nation or any other place that people call home. It is, however, a call away from absolutizing any particular earthly home. And as such, it may offer a subtle but profound contribution to peace and justice in this particular earthly place. Maybe a loosening of our loyalty to this particular home can make us more hospitable to those who have no home. Maybe at that intersection is where God is to be found.