Monday, December 11, 2006

Coming Home

A sermon for Advent 2.

“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God . . . For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and justice that come from him.” Amen. (Baruch 5:1, 9)

Both the reading from Baruch and the reading from Luke that we heard this morning refer to yet another text: the Word of the Lord spoken to the prophet Isaiah.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain shall be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)

Isaiah speaks these words of comfort to a people suffering in exile in Babylon, longing to return home to Israel. They were bereft of hope, their Temple in ruins, certain that God was punishing them for their sins, when along comes the prophet to proclaim forgiveness and a vision of homecoming. This is good news indeed! Then, in 539 the Persian King, Cyrus, conquered Babylon and a year later declared that the exiled Jews were free to return home and rebuild their Temple.

This vision of homecoming is appropriated by Baruch more than three hundred years later, after the return of the exiles to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple. Even when we are home we can feel alienated and unsafe. Israel was home again, but now under the rule of a Syrian king, Antiochus, who profaned the Temple and executed Jews who refused to forsake their religion. When home becomes an occupied territory, when one’s culture and identity is being suppressed, it doesn’t feel much like home anymore.

Thus, the promise of homecoming must be renewed: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory of God!” This promise was fulfilled, in part, by the Maccabean revolt against Syria that restored the Temple and re-established Judean independence.

Then, along came the Roman Empire. Judea and all of Palestine became an occupied territory again, leading to further revolts in opposition to Roman oppression. Some two hundred years after Baruch’s writing the Temple was destroyed again; Jerusalem became a wasteland. Many Jews went into exile again, fleeing their homeland.

Not long afterward, Luke’s Gospel appeared conveying the message of yet another prophet, John the Baptizer, who once again appropriates Isaiah’s promise of homecoming for his own time and place. John begins to gather a new community that is preparing for the renewal of Israel. God will once again make a way for the return of the exiles, a true homecoming in which all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Do you see a pattern here? Exile and return, occupation and liberation, alienation and homecoming: this seems to be the way of the world. It isn’t merely a long ago and far away story. It is our story. It is the story of millions of refugees around the world: Palestinians, Sudanese, Iraqis, Afghanis, fleeing occupied territories they long to reclaim as home. It is the story of brave U.S. servicemen and women serving abroad in a tragic exile not of their own choosing. It is past time for them to come home.

It is the story of a young transgender woman with whom I met recently, in exile here from her homeland in the Southern United States, alienated from her family and afraid that they will attempt to have her institutionalized. She grieves the home she has lost even as she wonders if it is possible to make a home here. It is the story of an anonymous meth addict, who locked himself in our garden bathroom last Sunday afternoon and refused to leave, all the while trying to inject himself, leaving behind a broken needle, a blood splattered room, and a hole in the door that matched the hole in his soul; a God-shaped hole that no amount of drugs can fill. How many exiles like him wander our neighborhood?

We are all characters in the story of exile and return. Sometimes the home for which we long is a place on a map; sometimes find ourselves exiled from the landscape of our own heart. Too often, we live in exile from both. We long to come home to our people, to our family, to our self. Even more, we long to come home to God, in whom we find our true and lasting rest.

Thus, we find ourselves here again in the season of Advent, listening to the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “O God, make a way for us to come home again. Let us, all of us, see your salvation. We’re tired of wrapping ourselves in threadbare garments of sorrow and affliction. Dress us instead in the beauty of your presence, in the warmth of your peace and justice, in the splendor of your compassion and forgiveness. Please, please, dear God, bring us home again.”

We will continue to play out the pattern of exile and return, until all of us accept that our liberation, our homecoming, our national and personal security, can not be established by Cyrus, or Caesar, or whoever the current emperor may be; it can not be secured by Maccabees or American revolutionaries, or religious terrorists (not all of whom are Muslim; indeed, some wear purple); it can only be secured by the Messiah who practiced nonviolent love, the Compassionate One who is coming again, and again, and again, for as long as it takes until we all come home.

We have seen this Messiah, the Christ, in Jesus, who came not as emperor or terrorist, not as executioner or victim, but simply as a human being. His presence continues in the new community of those seeking to follow his way of becoming fully human, so that the fullness of God may dwell among us as it did in him. He has come to show us the way home by making his home in us, that no matter where we are, we may be clothed with the glory of God and the robe of justice.

It is time to take off the garment of sorrow and affliction. It is time for us to repent of our clinging to the false security offered by the world and its continuous cycle of exile and return. It is time for us to renounce our identification with powerlessness and with privilege. It is time to come home to our full humanity in Christ, who has made his home with us.

This is the renunciation, the repentance, to which John the Baptizer calls us. It was symbolized this week by our bishop, Marc, who called us to walk with him on the path of peace that leads us home. On Thursday, a couple hundred of us marched with him down from the privilege of Nob Hill, through the powerlessness of the Tenderloin, to embrace our humanity and protest the injustice of the War on Terror in the courtyard of the Empire.

In celebrating the Eucharist in the plaza of the Federal Building, we renounced our complicity in the violent dynamic of exile and return and embraced instead our citizenship in the kingdom of God, where true homeland security is found. The War on Terror, which has created hundreds of thousands of refugees and countless dead, is yet another expression of the condition of spiritual exile in which humanity finds itself. Bishop Marc’s willingness to practice civil disobedience and undergo arrest provided a small but significant witness to the freedom and joy of true homecoming.

When we are at home in the Christ who makes his home in us, the fear and greed and revenge that drive the cycle of exile and return loses its hold on us. We then discover the creativity to resist evil through nonviolent love, the capacity to be at home even in a foreign land, and the passion to welcome others home too. This is the good news of the Gospel, that we who are in exile can return home once and for all.

The cycle of continual exile has been broken. We no longer have to participate in its destructive and divisive power. The welcome feast has been prepared and a place at the table has been set for you. It’s time to come home. Amen.

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