September 13, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Isaiah 43:1-7, 18-21 Ezra 1:1-6

Coming Home: The People and the Place, First in a Series

“Name and Address, please.” Think of all the times and places that information gets demanded of you. It’s how we register for an event, or make a purchase online. It’s what we write on the clipboard form in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, what we teach our four and five year olds to memorize even before they can read. And if you have ever moved, you know the hours of your life that get spent contacting organizations, and companies, and friends, to update their systems with your name and address.

I invite you to consider your relationship with your current address. Maybe your address is temporary, or maybe your address announces a lifetime at this particular spot on earth. Maybe your address is where you are home, or maybe not.

Usually, we don’t have a lot of choice about our address. And yet, like our appearance, our address says something to the world about who we are. There’s a legend about my college that rings of the truth. See the campus is primarily situated on the edge of the city of Yonkers in New York. But the college Post Office is positioned just over the border in the more upperclass town of Bronxville. By strategy or by chance, this arrangement gives my college a more prestigious —or pretentious—mailing address. It’s like, “Don’t let the people know we’re actually in Yonkers!” (Of course, they’re going to find out when they show up.)

Our culture’s fervent commitment to keep track of names and addresses presents a particular problem for our sisters and brothers who are homeless. How do you apply for veterans’ benefits, or SNAP, or WIC if you don’t have an address? How do you fill out a job application if you don’t have an address? Some Day Centers, like the one at Back Bay Mission, allow homeless clients to use the organization’s address as their own, so it won’t raise a red flag on their applications.

So it seems, our society operates with a privileged and pushy assumption: You always better know who you are and where you live. Name and Address, please.

Now maybe your current address is where you are home, or maybe it’s not. But you can be sure, one thing that makes home home, is it’s the place where you know who you are. You can be sure, the other people there will remind you. At home, you can be yourself with no inhibition. You can take off your shoes, and sprawl out on the furniture, and speak the language of your parents. You can listen to your music as loud as you want. You don’t have to impress your boss or your teacher. You don’t have to prove your talent or your worth. You’re home. You can be broken at home. You can be sad, or sick, or silly. At home, you know who you are, and so does everybody else.

It reminds me of that old theme song from Cheers, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”[1] Sometimes we just want to go home. Watch the news these days, and see this longing —or this loss— in the faces of the Syrian refugees. Finding a safe place to stay is the immediate challenge. Finding home, that is the work of our lives.

Today we hear two scriptures that speak to the people who lived through the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century before Christ. During this period, there were several deportations when Jewish people in the southern kingdom of Judah were displaced and taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The people lost their homes. They saw their Temple in Jerusalem get ransacked and destroyed. And as we can understand, they were made to wrestle with the relentless question: Who are we here? At home, we know who we are. But here?… Here we could be forgotten by God!

And so the people sang. They sang songs to remember the songs that remember the LORD. Because the LORD remembers them. Our scripture from Isaiah arose as one of these songs the people would sing to each other:

“Do not fear, I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you and …the rivers shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God.”

It’s not the promise of being plucked up out of the water by the angels. It’s not saying, “Don’t worry. There will be no fire on your path.” That’s certainly more appealing, but it’s not true. Later God doesn’t promise to rescue the people from the wilderness, to tuck them safe in their houses away from the wild animals. God says, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me —jackals and ostriches for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.”

Even in the wilderness, we can call on the name of the LORD. Even in the wilderness, we can hear God call us by name. Even out here with the wild animals, we’ll find a way to come home.

Now our second scripture comes from the book of Ezra. We’re actually beginning a new worship series on the books of Ezra-Nehemiah, and today we hear the story of the refugees who survived the Babylonian Exile. They have come back home. Right away, the LORD stirs up the spirit of King Cyrus, and the king commissions the people to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple that had been destroyed and plundered by the Babylonians fifty years earlier.

The Holy One stirred the spirit of the people and they went up together. They gathered up silver and gold. Someone had rescued items that King Nebuchadnezzar had looted. Knives, and silvers basins, and golden bowls… Talk about a collection of housewarming gifts!

Now the people came back to Jerusalem to build the Temple, the place where God will hear her name and be home, where the people will hear their names and be home. In fact, nearly the whole second chapter of the book of Ezra is a long list of names of the people who came back.

Whether home is in the wilderness or home is the Temple of the LORD or the church where you spent your childhood Christmas Eves singing Stille Nacht and passing around the candle light, home is where we remember who we are, where we affirm each other’s truth.

Whether you have lived through exile or not, there isn’t anybody here who doesn’t need your truth affirmed. It only takes a crisis. Something happens. Your world gets turns upside down. Then you’re walking down the hall, when out of the corner of your eye, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the bathroom mirror. You look and realize, I don’t even know who I am right now.

Or maybe this happens. Here you are telling a story of something terrible that happened or something hilarious that happened, only this time the people around you don’t look at you with judging incredulity. The people around you nod and love you with the look that says, “Yeah, I totally get that. I’ve been there too.”  One of the most loving things we can do for each other is listen, and nod, and admit if it’s true, “Yeah, I get that. I know exactly what you mean.” Friends, that’s how you know you’re home.

Coming home again is holy work. It’s the work of listening to the love of God call us by name, hearing God say, “I know exactly what you mean and what you’re going through.” You know if we can hear this, we can be home anywhere, in the wilderness or the Temple, at rehab, or college, or assisted living, or even at the corner of Twelfth and Twelfth.

Forty years ago, in nineteen seventy-five, this congregation explored the possibility of moving to a different neighborhood.  This was not an uncommon practice for mainline congregations. Many churches were moving out of the cities and into the suburbs. And we noticed here that many of our members did not live in this neighborhood.

If Church of Peace had relocated in the seventies, that would not have seemed like a strange decision. That would not have raised any eyebrows of church growth consultants. But you know that is not what the people of Church of Peace decided to do. We decided to stay here. Even during the riots thirty years ago. Even now as we are facing new challenges with continued racism, and poverty, and gun violence.

See our church address is not just where we happen to be located, it is a central part of who we are. It is named in our Statement of Identity and Purpose. Name and Address, please. Which means the people who live here alongside us are our neighbors. They have our back, and we have theirs. And when they don’t and when we don’t, there’s a violation of trust. Now what if this community is not our liability, not a point of embarrassment as we try to attract young families… What if this neighborhood is our home? We find our home in the love of God.

Which means you don’t have to have grown up in this church to claim it as your home. You might be visiting Church of Peace for the first time today. You might not know anybody’s name, yet. What if coming home is not an experience that happens to us like a heavy sigh that pours through our weary bones… What if coming home is a spiritual practice we’re working on together?

Here in this place we call on the name of the LORD, and we hear ourselves called by name. Here we learn the names of the people who live across the street, who work in that glorious garden on Twelfth Avenue, who walk to school at the Academy. Here at Twelfth and Twelfth God is about to do a new thing! Don’t you see…

Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, welcome home. Amen.

[1] composed by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo

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