Where is home for you?
It’s a common question, one that helps us place people and learn a bit about them. “Where is home for you?” -- For some of us here this morning there is an easy answer: Perhaps we have lived most of our lives in one place. That fairly easily becomes home. For some of us its more complicated. Perhaps what we called home is gone: lost in a fire or sold for a variety of reasons. But we then still have memories of home. –But others of us don’t even have that. We are modern nomads with not place to call home. Born in one place, childhood in several, moving around in our adult years – home doesn’t exist them as a place. It’s not where we were born – we don’t remember that at all. Our memories of childhood have as much to do with being “the new kid” in other people’s places as sense of belonging. If our parents have moved around, or no longer live in whatever was their home, there is no “home” to go back to for Christmas. All that stuff about SING “There’s no place like home for the holidays…” just seems to leave us left out again.
Welcome: steadfast love and faithfulness will meet.
The Psalm reading this morning presents a different idea than place for home. Its context is after the return from the exile – think during the rebuilding of the walls in Ezra and Nehemiah. The community was in crisis and this is a prayer that comes out of their troubles. Fighting within and fighting without, national insecurity, food shortages and leadership struggles – they had it all. So they pray for God’s presence in the midst of IT ALL.
The community wants God to “restore us again,” to forgive – again. "Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation" (verse 7).
Verses 8-13, in the third section of the Psalm, are the preacher’s announcement. GOD WILL come again among the community. These are words of hope for a struggling people. Peace will come. Salvation – wellness and relationship with God – will be restored. God will be present with them again to bless them and encourage them towards life. This is God’s gift for the faithful – those who center their lives in God.
These images of what that looks like are compelling. God’s unchanging love and trustworthiness draw the community into right relationships with God and each other – which brings peace. "Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other."
Everything comes together in this image: just as steadfast love and faithfulness meet, so do faithfulness (which springs up from the ground) and righteousness (which comes down from heaven.) They meet in the middle by the actions and purposes of God. When God is in the center, things come together – too simplistic an understanding of this psalm, I know, but still perhaps it is a place to start. Psalm 85 encourages the community to place their focus on God, trusting in God to help bring them together, to bring about their salvation.[i]
Consider…steadfast love and faithfulness will meet. Have you ever had a welcome that began, “You’re here! You’re FINALLY here!” With arms wrapped around you, of course, and perhaps tears of joy and kisses on your cheeks. The most genuine welcome you have ever received – that is where steadfast (or stubborn) love, love that never gives up on us, and faithfulness meet. And add prayers – because the one who so longed for your return has prayed for you every day. Perhaps even written letters regularly, whether or not they were returned. Steadfast love that poured all over us whether or not we appreciated it or returned it. That kind of love has a welcome all its own – a holy one.
It was a family activity planned for a special season in the year. Families experienced parts of the faith story together. At the communion station, as the bread and sup were shared within the family, each family member shared their personal need for prayer, and then the family prayed for each person in turn. It has a holy moment. Every family emerged with wet eyes and close hugs. Steadfast love and faithfulness met there. God was in the center – and hope was born again in each family.
It’s a different idea of home – where God is the center and we meet in steadfast love. Perhaps it is offers a home for us all.
Home is far from perfect. Our families are far from perfect.
For many of us, the homes we live in are far from perfect. We have conflict in our families. Relationships seems more broken than not. Far from being able to pray for each other – sometimes we aren’t even on speaking terms. Walking in darkness, stumbling over past hurts and arguments regularly, describes us better than steadfast love and faithfulness.
We may still feel like we are at the first part of Psalm 85 praying for God’s salvation to come. Maybe we aren’t even praying for actual peace and well-being – even a cease-fire would help. We LONG for PEACE to come into our lives, into our families, into our homes.
The Last Straw: Paul Pulangi McDonald has written a story called “The Last Straw” that may offer us hope. It is a true story about the McDonald family one year when, kept inside by the cold, the children were squabbling: bickering, teasing, fighting, over their toys, and two of them seemed to go out of their way to make each other miserable. “Gimme that! It’s mine!” “Is not, creep! I had it first!” Mother sighed. Christmas was a month away and the Christmas spirit was noticeably lacking in their home. She decided to try an old custom that helped people discover the meaning of Christmas, calling her children together to tell them about this game that could only be done in secret. After the ensuing argument about who was the best secret keeper, she explained. They would make a bed for baby Jesus, with the straw they put in the manger representing kind things they would do for each other before Christmas. To be a comfortable bed, they needed to do kind things in secret – lots of them. Each week they would each draw a name and do kind things for each other in secret – without getting caught. As many as possible.
For the next week, it seemed like invisible elves had invaded their house and good things were happening everywhere. Even the two oldest, Eric and Kelly, only a year apart, squabbled less. Kelly would walk into her room at bedtime and find her bed turned down and her nightgown laid out. Jelly blobs were whisked off the counter when Mother went to get the mail. Eric’s bed was made every morning when he brushed his teeth. And the straws filled the manger. The next week and the next they chose names, and the pile of straw kept growing. The last week before Christmas, when they chose names for the last time, Eric looked like he was about to cry when we looked at his paper and he suddenly ran out of the room. Mother left to speak with him, but just as she got to the top of the stairs, Eric’s door opened and she saw him putting on his coat with one hand while carrying a small cardboard box in the other. “I have to leave,” he said, with tears leaking. “If I don’t, I’ll spoil Christmas for everyone.” Eric went out to his snow fort and Mother let him have a few minutes before going out to speak with him. When Mother asked him what was wrong he burst into tears and said that he had been trying really hard but he couldn’t do it anymore. He had drawn Kelly’s name all four weeks. He couldn’t do one more nice thing for her. Mother told him that she was very proud of him for doing so many nice things when it wasn’t easy – they exchanged names for the last week. That last night before Christmas, when Mother tiptoed into Kelly’s room to lay out her nightgown and turn down the bed, she stopped. It had already been done. Eric had placed the last straw after all.[ii]
Far from perfect. And yet offering opportunities for grace.
Home is where we meet.
It happens on holidays. We gather together and our circles include people that we successfully manage to avoid for the rest of the year. People we dislike, don’t trust, hold grudges against. And most of the time they – and we – are our authentically true selves as we gather. We don’t dress up our personalities, shine up our best attributes for holiday gatherings with family.
And yet, it is possible to see in these moments some vestiges of Christmas magic. The brokenness, the wrong-doing is on all sides. If we see that, there is a hope for peace, reconciliation and renewal where we meet. It is our faith that makes forgiveness possible. Forgiveness means, in the words of Paul Tillich, “that the old is thrown into the past because the new has come. “Remember not” in the prophetic words does not mean to forget easily. If it meant that, forgiveness would not be necessary. Forgiveness means a throwing out of the old, as remembered and real at the same time, but the strength of the new which could never be the saving new if it did not carry with it the authority of forgiveness.”
Only with the awareness of God’s presence with us, felt perhaps most profoundly at Christmas, can we carry the sense of our own newness far enough to forgive. God with us, Emmanuel, allows us to break the power of past conflicts, resentments and grudges and find the PEACE that is the promise of the season.
“The Guest” by Nikolai S Lesskov is a story from Siberia. A young man named Timofai was sent to Siberia. He was orphaned as a child and his uncle had the care of him and the keeping of his inheritance. When he was 17 he discovered that his uncle had used or misused most of his inheritance and in a moment of anger, he fired a pistol at his uncle. He uncle was barely wounded, and Timofai was sent to Siberia. He made a new life for himself there, but carried a burden of resentment against his uncle. It was after he fell in love and married that his heart began to change. His brother-in-law was also a friend, and began to encourage him to let go of his anger towards his uncle so that there would be room for peace and joy in his life. One day, Timofai was reading his Bible in his garden. He read the story about the Pharisee who offered Jesus very little hospitality, and he said out loud, “Oh Lord, if you were to come to me, I would give you all that I have and am!” And he seemed to hear an answer as the wind passed over the roses, “I will come.” Day after day and month after month, Timofai waited for the Lord. As Christmas Eve approached, he was certain that they Lord would come then. His friend advised him to then invite many guests, particularly the kind the Lord would choose and prepare a feast. And so he did. He invited all the exiles far from their homes, and the poor, and the orphaned. Russians, Poles and Estonians – they all gathered at his home for a feast. Everyone was gathered except the honored guest, and so Timofai knelt and prayed the words of the Lord’s Prayer and then added, “Christ is born today! Let us praise the Lord our God! Christ has come down from heaven, let us all rejoice that the Most High has visited us, and is even now in our midst.” And then a great gust of wind shook the house, and a noise, like something falling against the door, and the door burst open. A very old man, dressed in rags and hardly able to stand leaned on the doorway – but behind him was a wonderful light and a delicate fragrance – perhaps roses- seemed to come in with him. Timofai gazed at the man and cried out, “Lord! I see him, and I receive him in thy Name! Do not come to me thyself, for I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof.” He knelt down and bowed his face to the ground. Then he cried out in a loud voice, “Let us rejoice, for Christ himself is among us!” And all the guests said, Amen.
Timofai peered at the man as he led him to the place of honor and was not surprised to find who he was: his old uncle, who had done him so much harm. The uncle told Timofai that he had been wandering around Siberia for a long time, hoping to find him to ask his forgiveness. He had gotten lost in the snow – and met a stranger who pointed him to the well-lit house and told him to take his place. And the old man remained in Timofai’s house, and love and forgiveness lived there. Steadfast love and faithfulness met. Peace and love kissed. And they both found home.[iii]
In stories we get the distilled endings. The years of estrangement, the burdens of grudges and anger…they melt away in the moments of reconciliation. For some of us, we aren’t to that point yet. The home where we meet is still full of conflict, unresolved issues and difficult people. But stop a minute – do you see a wonderful light? Is there a delicate fragrance in the air? Look for the presence of the Holy One and perhaps we will find peace and the home that is found only in relationship with God and with each other this Christmas. Where God is at the center and we meet in steadfast love – may we find THAT home this Christmas. AMEN.
[i] W.H Bellinger, “Commentary on Psalm 85” in Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=377
[ii] Paula Palangi McDonald, “The Last Straw,” in Christmas in My Heart: A Timeless Treasury of Heartwarming Stories. Ed Joe Wheeler. Copyright ©1979 by Paula Palangi McDonald. Published in Family Circle/Women’s Day, December 1979. Published as a separate book by David C. Cook, 1992.
[iii] Nikolai S Lesskov, “The Guest.” In Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002.