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Homecoming. There is something so special about HOME.
Mid pleasures and palaces, though we may roam
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.(1)
I read of one pastor who was invited back to his old church to preach for the annual Homecoming event. He was welcomed by a dear little old lady who said, "Preacher, since I last saw you, I had all my teeth pulled and a new refrigerator put in." Hard to imagine how they got that refrigerator in there, even without all the teeth.
Lots of you are old enough to remember the Leininger sojourn here. But there are lots of you as well who are too young to remember much of us. The only Leininger you know is Erin, whom you have gotten to know over the past several years when she visits from her home in Charlotte.
I presume you kids today are just as much fun as the kids were back in the day. One little girl came home from Sunday School and heard her father ask, “What did you learn today?”
She responded, “All I heard was that the children of Israel did this and the children of Israel did that. Didn't the grown ups ever do anything?"
Another one. The new baby came home from the hospital. The three-year-old met her new brother at the door and tagged along like a shadow as he was carried in and placed in the basinet. Big sister stood and watched in fascination and noticed that the new arrival was still wearing his ID bracelet. She asked, “Mommy, when are you going to take off his price tag?"
Homecoming at Oakdale, and it is a delight for us to be here. The Bible is full of homecoming stories that would be perfect for a day like today. There is the classic one for the whole nation of Israel. Six centuries before Christ, the worst thing that could happen to a nation happened to God’s people. Engaged in a war with the most powerful nation in the world, their armies were defeated and pushed all the way back to the capital city of Jerusalem by the overwhelming superiority and sophistication of Babylon. A long siege took place and finally collapse. The city’s walls were breached, the city overrun. And then, as always happens, the looting, pillaging, killing.
Curiously, the Babylonians called a halt to that: leveled the city to be sure, paying particular attention to see that every single wall of the precious Temple of Solomon — Judah’s heart and soul— was destroyed. Then the Babylonians assembled all the leaders, the politicians, priests, lawyers, businesspeople and marched them across the desert to Babylon, where they were kept in captivity for seventy years. As you Bible scholars know, it is called "The Exile," and during those long years, when a whole generation died and another came of age, the people longed for home, told stores about how it used to be in sweet home Jerusalem, sang songs about home, told the children every night at bedtime about how it used to be in our home.
Most difficult of all for them was that in their separation from home, they sensed that they had lost their God, or worse, that God had lost them, had forgotten about them. In terms of biblical literature, it was a time of "great silence," during which the exiled community experienced abandonment, grief at the end of the world as they had known it, the end of all the old certainties and assumptions. It was a time of deep sadness, and the only thing that kept those people from despair was the thought of home and the hope, faint and remote as it might be, that God had not abandoned them, that God would act to save and redeem them and bring them home. They began to see their redemption in terms of going home. But for seventy years there was a great silence and loneliness.
And then a voice is heard. A prophet, a man of exquisite poetic gifts, arises back in Jerusalem and writes a letter to the exiled community in Babylon. We know his words. We listen to them every Advent season. We heard them a few moments ago. We hear them in the opening tenor aria of Handel’s Messiah: "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem...Make straight in the desert a highway for our God."
It is homecoming music. God has not forgotten them. God knows exactly where they are, remembers each of their names, and now they are going home. It is an exuberant message. God will lead them home through the dry, arid desert, like a powerful king, with his servants out in front of the great, triumphant homecoming parade, leveling off the hills, smoothing the rough places.(2)
The more familiar homecoming story is the one we read from the gospel of Luke, the return of the Prodigal Son. It has been called the greatest short story ever written.
“Father, I want RIGHT NOW what’s coming to me.” My inheritance!!! It was an outrageous request - it said in effect, “Dad, drop dead!”
Dr. Kenneth Bailey, who taught for years at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, writes of knowing of only one case in modern village life where this kind of request was made. An older son asked his father to divide the family inheritance. And the father, in great anger, took a stick and drove his son from the house, never to permit him to return again. All the neighbors in the village applauded.(3)
But not the father in our story. He actually accedes to his younger son’s wishes. The boy loads up the loot, heads for greener pastures, squanders all he has, and ends up in a pig sty, not the place for a nice Jewish boy who is not allowed the pleasures of pork.
He comes to his senses, realizes what an idiot he is, and maps out his classic confession: “Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned against you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.” Sounds a little contrived, like the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar (or, in this case, the bank vault), but we all know parents can be pushovers, and this dad has already been noteworthy in that category.
It is a speech the boy never gets to deliver. Dad sees him coming and does something that is completely out of character for a dignified village patriarch - he sprints down the road to meet him, his long robes flapping behind him. This is actually shameful, and Dad KNOWS it. He directs the shame and embarrassment to himself instead of to the boy where it rightly belonged. The servants are instructed to bring good clothes, a token of position, the signet ring that empowers the holder to transact business in the family name, sandals for the feet so no one would mistake him for an unshod peasant. Finally, grain-fed beef for a party fit for a king. Amazing! The poet has written that “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,”(4) but I doubt that our young man ever envisioned anything like this.
Someone has said that "Justice is getting what we deserve, mercy is not getting what we deserve, and grace is getting what we don't deserve." This is a story of wonderful grace. The greatest short story ever written.
Have you ever placed very young children in front of a mirror? They enjoy seeing a face looking back at them as they enjoy seeing all faces but they don't realize that the face they see is them. Then, all of a sudden, the expression changes. They begin to note the connection between their motions and the motions reflected in the mirror. “Hey, that's me!" The same thing happens to us when we read this story. We hear it at first as an interesting tale with wonderfully drawn characters, but the more we listen the more we realize, “Hey, that’s me.”(5) It describes us and God, and the glorious homecoming that can await us as well. As I said at the beginning of this, the Bible is full of wonderful homecoming stories, and, truth be told, the whole panorama of scripture is a homecoming story - it starts with the first three chapters of Genesis and our departure from paradise; it ends with the last three chapters of Revelation and our restoration to paradise. Homecoming.
And now, it is Homecoming Sunday at Oakdale. It is a wonderful excuse for some of us who live far away to come back here to a church that holds a special place in our hearts. It is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with people who have been special to us over so many years. It is a time for reminiscence, remembering good times and laughter, remembering sad times and tears.
Perhaps there are some of you who have been away from this place for reasons other than distance. Perhaps there is something else that has been keeping you away from home? What is your homecoming story? It could be that that old bumper sticker is apropos here: “Feeling far away from God? Who moved?”
Some of you have heard preachers (perhaps even me) refer to a favorite preacher of many of us, Dr. Fred Craddock. Fred tells the story of the first time he ever went to talk to a pastor about something that was personal.(6) It was very difficult, he said, to do that.
He and some fellows were working at a box factory, and one day they went downtown to get a hot dog or hamburger for lunch. He still had on his nail apron and they had on theirs, because that’s what they did - they drove nails to make those boxes.
As they were walking down the street, they passed a blind man on the sidewalk with a guitar and a sign that read, “I’m blind, please help me.” He had a little tin cup taped to the neck of his guitar. Well, the three of them decided they were going to play a trick on this man, so they reached into their apron and took out several nails, and each of them very noisily deposited them in that tin cup. The blind man said, “Thank you, thank you very much. May God bless you. Thank you very much.”
Craddock said that that incident began to eat at him - it had been an ugly and a terrible thing to do, and he simply could not get rid of it. So he did what people do in desperation. He went to see his pastor. He confessed what he had done, and the pastor sat behind his desk and said, “Are you aware that this country is at war?” because this was during the last days of the Second World War. “People are dying by the hundreds every day; soldiers have been away from their families for years. We don’t know how this whole thing is going, people dying, starving. And you are worried about nails in a blind man’s cup?” And the pastor sent him away.
But Fred’s problem would not go away. Finally, he went to see his youth pastor, a very wise woman by the name of Mignonne. He told her what he had done, and she told him that it was, indeed, a terrible, terrible thing to do, and that she felt the pain of it even as he did. And then she said, “God forgives you for that, but why don’t you, next week when you have your lunch hour, why don’t you go to that same blind man and tell him what you did, and ask him to forgive you, and then, if you have a nickel or a dime or a quarter, give it to him.” And Craddock says that is exactly what he did, and the poor man forgave him. “I know how it is,” the man said. “Lots of boys are full of mischief.” Craddock finishes that story by saying, “It may not seem like really such a big deal, but think about what you are carrying around right now. What would you like to get rid of?”
Today can be the day. YOUR day. Homecoming day.
Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, "O sinner, come home!”(7)
1. J. Howard Payne, “Home, Sweet Home,” from the opera “Clari, the Maid of Milan.”