Texts: Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35
Augustine of Hippo wrote in his Confessions that ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You’. This suggests that there is a longing in the human heart that is forever searching and striving until it finds its home, its resting-place, in God. Today I want to steal just a little of your time reflecting on this idea of home. Is home a building or a country, or is it a person? Is home something that can be had in this life, or must we wait for the next? Is there any Christian virtue in being home-LESS? Can any of us really thrive without a home?
Augustine’s definition of home as a resting-place in God summarizes a great deal of biblical material. The story of Abram as we have it in Genesis, for example, is essentially about a wandering Aramean who is uprooted from Ur (in modern-day Iraq) and promised a new home. At the simplest level of understanding, that home is nothing other than blood and soil. For what Abram seems to desire most is a family of his own flesh and blood who will inherit the land he is being given, gain a stable and rooted place within it, and so prosper from its cultivation.
Now this desire is surely familiar to all of us. One may interpret the traditional Australian dream for the quarter-acre block and the four-bedroom house in precisely these terms. For what does the possession of such a thing signify if not a home in which our family may prosper, a solid base from which prosperity may be obtained for oneself and one’s family? And is this not why many thousands of asylum seekers risk their lives in leaky boats to come to our shores? Is it not because their homelands have become unliveable? Is it not because they seek new homes in which they may find shelter from the storms of life, a place of stability in which their families may put down roots, work hard, and prosper? Whether we live here already, or come to Australia from afar, this desire for a home of blood and soil seems deeply embedded in the human heart. We will risk a great deal to obtain it, very often everything that we are and everything that we own. In Australia we will even borrow our net worth many times over in order to obtain at least the illusion that we have a home, so basic is our hunger for such things.
Now, I am the last person in the world who is qualified to condemn such desires, such needs, for I myself am subject to them. I believe all people are. If we are to live in this world, then there are some basic things that make the world habitable: food and drink, stable housing, and the care and regard of family and community. We all need them because we have, and are, bodies. And yet . . . obtaining of such things is clearly not enough to satiate the driving need in us. Even the most wealthy, those who have secured a stable and prosperous home and family life - not just once, but many times over - seem restless for something more. The magazines one reads in the doctor’s surgery seem to confirm this one truth (even if truth is the last thing on their collective agenda!) Why is this the case? Why is it that desire continues to trouble us even when we already possess everything that we could possibly need to satisfy the needs of both body and soul?
Well. The Psalmist is one such person, a person of great wealth, a king probably: King David of Israel, most likely. He is someone who has obtained more by way of blood and soil than almost any of his contemporaries could have imagined. And yet he is troubled by many fears, particularly the fear of his enemies. Here’s the rub, you see. Human beings get greedy. Even if we are quite comfortable and secure, we look over our neighbour’s fence and see something that we do not have or (more accurately, I suspect) imagine we do not have, and we begin to covet, to desire that which belongs to our neighbour. And that, my friends, creates the phenomenon of the enemy. The enemy is someone whom we believe (rightly or wrongly) wants to take away what we have obtained by our virtue and by the sweat of our brow, namely our blood and our soil. The enemy is the one who envies us, or whom we ourselves envy. The enemy is the one who has what we covet, or else covets what we have. And if we have enemies, we feel the need to defend what we have. For we fear that the enemy is somehow stronger than us, and will one day steal away what we treasure most.
It is interesting to me that the Psalmist seeks refuge from his enemies in the temple, the ‘house’ or dwelling-place of the Lord. What is it about this place that eases the Psalmist’s suffering? Apparently it is the Lord himself, the Lord’s face. Let me quote:
One thing I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek:Apparently the Psalmist finds in the temple - its liturgy and music, its proportions and it architecture – the very face of God. By worshipping there, one in a whole company of worshippers, the Psalmist apparently feels that he is being faced by God in that peculiarly biblical sense of having being caught in God’s gaze as the focus of God’s interest and attention, and so drawn into relationship with God as if by a meeting of the eyes, the first exchange of lovers. Apparently the Psalmist finds in all the story-telling of the liturgy - the recounting of God’s relations with Israel from Abram, through the Patriarchs, the exodus, the Judges, and on into his own time – a God who provides a surer and more deeply interfused sense of home than even blood and soil can do. For in the end, it seems – at least for the spirituality of the bible – blood and soil cannot be regarded as end in themselves. They are most properly understood as symbols that point elsewhere: to God, and to the home that God can provide as the end of both our fear and our desiring.
To dwell in the house of the Lord all my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord.
For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling,
he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle
and set me high on a rock.
My heart says: ‘Seek his face!’
Your face, Lord, will I seek.
For that is what is finally promised in the story of Abram, if you read the story carefully. In amongst all of the praying and promising about land and family, there is this priceless line from the lips of the Lord:
‘Do not be afraid, Abram. For I am your refuge, your very great reward.’Here we discover that it is God himself who promises to be Abram’s blood and soil, his land and his family. God himself is promising to be Abram’s home. The land of Canaan and the family from Abram’s loins give body to this promise, to be sure. They give the promise a legitimate place to dwell in the world. Yet they should never be mistaken for the fullness of God himself, any more than an icon or image of God should be mistaken for the divine.
There is a sense, therefore, in which the people of God will always be homeless. Yes, in God’s grace, we may well be given homes and families. But these should never be mistaken for the home and family which God himself is for us. For there is a city yet to come, whose architect and builder is God, and until we look for our citizenship in that ‘heavenly’ city, our hearts will continue to experience the restlessness of which Augustine speaks. In the story of Abram that we read from Genesis, this ‘gap’ between the home we have and the home we long for is told in that strange ritual where a heifer, a ram and a lamb are cut in half and laid opposite each other, while a burning torch passes between them. The ‘gap’ which separates the halves of the bodies signifies the gap between the promise and the fulfilment - the covenant made before the enslavement of Israel in Egypt and its fulfilment when the people have crossed the River Jordan to take up possession of the land. The burning torch, and the birds that are not so dismembered, are a sign that the gap will eventually be removed, that a final reconciliation will take place between the promise and its fulfilment. In the meantime, Abram and his descendants can expect to be somewhat homeless, living here and living there, but never really belonging.
That ritual is repeated, in a way, when Jesus comes to the city of God on earth, the city of Jerusalem, and is utterly rejected in his own home. He comes as the one who, like the God of the Psalms, longs to gather his scattered and homeless people into the shelter of his love, as a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings. He comes, in other words, to provide a home for God’s people in fulfilment of the promise to Abram. But he is rejected and spurned and killed, as all prophets are. God would provide a home for us, but we are inclined to cast God out from the homes we design for ourselves. Sadly, this very often means that we are left with a feeling of desolation as we sit in our own homes and amidst our own families, the self-produced experience of a gap or rupture between the promise of home and its fulfilment. For blood and soil on their own, apart from the home-making presence of God, are indeed desolate. That is the tragic emptiness at the heart of the Nazi motto from the 1930s and 40s: ‘Blood and Soil!’!
So, there remains for the people of God a promise of home, and of Sabbath rest in God, a rest that was recently represented (albeit imperfectly) by Leonard Cohen like this:
Going home without my sorrowAs we continue into the Lenten pilgrimage, this is the lesson God would have a learn: that it is only by a deliberate forgetting that we have homes and families that we shall find them more truly – not as the result of our labour and hard work – but as the gift and promise of a true home with God. Let us never mistake the former for the latter, but let us give thanks that God is kind and let us wait for the arrival of God’s promise with joy and with praise. And let us find compassion in our hearts for all who are as homeless as we.
Going home sometime tomorrow
Going home to where it’s better than before
Going home without my burden
Going home behind the curtain
Going home without this costume that I wore.