Jeremiah 29:1-14 & Matthew 25:1-13 Finding our way home
Reflection by Mart the Rev
I finished last week’s All Saints Day reflection with a couple of sentences about what I think All Saints is about… I said: ‘For me, the week began with views of Mt Manaia (my mountain on the Whangarei Heads) and Hatea, my river. Along the way, on All Hallows Day, Anne’s and my grandson Finn was born in Wellington. And then I came home to be where my home is and back to work.’ ‘That’s..the journey of All Saints,’ I said, ‘Remembering where you have come from, seeing that there is somewhere you are going, and then landing back to where you get to do your living. All, of course, in gratitude!’
It got me thinking about the idea and experience of home. When I say the word ‘home,’ what pictures come to mind for you? Here’s where my mind went: There is home in terms of where I live on Truman Rd. It isn’t my home as such – Anne and I live in it as if it is our home, but really it is a manse and we are transients in that home. But aren’t we all transients in the physical spaces we call home? Who here has lived in the same house all of their life? Home for all of us hasn’t been static or fixed. While the idea of home involves where we live now, actually, home is something more than the present physical address, for if we changed the address the new place would be home, even if it didn’t feel like it for a time.
I also thought of home as in where I have lived, but no longer live. Travelling to Whangarei and standing outside 14 Erin Street, Tikipunga, phone number 72063, kind of had a sense of home – in this case home as in where I have lived. Like 36 Rugby Street, Timaru, phone number 89982, and 95 Todman St, Brooklyn, Wellington phone number 844866, and Knox College, and a host of other places. Actually I think I am living in house number twenty four. Almost all of them have been home as in the place I have resided when someone might have heard me say ‘I’m heading home now.’
Then there is home as in ‘back home.’ The people who tended to say that were, I discovered, first, second, and even third generation New Zealanders, and home meant somewhere in Great Britain or Ireland. Where is ‘back home’ for you? Did you have relatives who talked that way even though they had lived all their lives over here?
I have noticed some people talk about church as home. Do they mean church as people or church as a particular building? I think of my home church as being St Paul’s in Timaru but it doesn’t exist anymore – not one part of that building stands, and that block of people as an identity does not exist either. Therefore does it exist? It does exist as memory, and it is strong memory for me, but really it is only strong memory for a period of about 11 years. In reality, my home church has always been where I am now, as it has been the only church that I engage with in a regular and deep kind of way. This is my church, and when I say that, it is mostly the people that make it home for me. There’s nothing like an earthquake to remind you about what is temporary and what is real – the building, though made of timber, bricks and mortar, is not what is real for me, the building is temporary, it is the community of people who make church home and who I carry in memory. It is the people who have endured in my memory of church in the past, not the buildings we were in for worship. Apart from the smell and one or two fixtures, the buildings have played a fairly minor part in my love for the church. It has been the people and their engagement with the Living God – their faces and names and voices and stories. It has been they who have made church home, just as it is my family who, through various manifestations, created home for me, rather than the physical address of where we actually made our home. Where is your home church? I hope you see that it is here and now. If you are looking for it from the past you will never find it, it no longer exists in any kind of place that you can engage in physically. We know that now through the earthquake sequence. Church and home has had to be defined by an experience of life together because many of the physical spaces where we met for church are gone forever.
When I talk of Manaia (Whangarei Heads) as my mountain and Hatea as my river, I do not mean them to dominate my idea of home. I only visit them from time to time in memory and very occasionally in reality. Their role is not to make me homesick, but to operate as a kind of spiritual backbone as I make my way forward. They are like grandparents. I cannot and do not live in the past. My home is now, that’s where I get to do my living.
Another dimension of home is home in terms of what you have created and home in terms of what you are trying to create. Here’s where I think the faith-life has a lot to inform us. Last week, and occasionally before that, I have mentioned that I have begun to think about God in terms of God being future-present. God speaking from ahead into now. We pray ‘your kingdom come’ in terms of the fullness of God coming into the present, from ahead, not behind. We talk about time as something experienced now but also being consummated or fulfilled:
‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ [Revelation 21]
But this new thing is not fully yet. So, as things are being made new, we pray, ‘Your kingdom come’ and we get about doing home as much as is possible with what we’ve got and where we are.
How to do this is curious. Our instinct is to try to recover what has been – I suspect that was what took place when our ancestors came to Aotearoa. They transplanted their styles of house and home and church in the new land. I was up in Kerikeri looking at the stone store and my sister claimed that those early people imported all of its stones from England. Can you imagine that – a large two-storied building’s worth of pre-cut stone loaded onto a ship and sailed to the other side of the world to be erected in Kerikeri as if it was still at home!
Home doesn’t work like that. You have to be where you are to make home. Home has a present and forward dynamism. We make and create home, we don’t recreate it as if it exists in some pure form in the past.
That’s what Israel was trying to do when they were exiled in Babylon. Psalm 137 has a bitter tone full of longing… ‘By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. 3 For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ 4 How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! 6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.’
Home was never going to be in Babylon! But Jeremiah had a different vision from God – a bold and surprising one: ‘Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’ [Jeremiah 29:5-7] The place you now find yourselves in is the place in which you are to make your home. That is where home is for you, until the door opens for a new home to arise. That is a radical shift. From ‘how can I sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land’ to ‘seek the peace or welfare of the city where you are.’ Why? Because there will be no home if you live in the past. The past does not exist in any form other than memory.
Even though the exile eventually ended, and there was a return to Israel, that was seventy years later. No one who was exiled would have lived long enough to see that day. Interestingly, the learnings from the Babylonian experienced proved to be essential for the Jewish identity and rhythms all the way to today. The synagogue as the centre for community life which included things like, the formation of the creation story of Genesis chapter one, the establishment of an effective education system, the beginning of the tradition of shifting from an oral tradition to a written tradition (eventually leading to the written word that would have been there in Jesus’ day) and the setting up of excellent community leadership systems. The exile proved so good for many people that when the time came that they could return some of them chose to stay on in Babylon. The place that seemed so strange and uncertain became home.
One of the things we have tried to do in The Village (our home church) is be future-facing or future-present. Deeper in the past, the instinct when a church building was being built was to recreate what others had done with a few modifications. Noticing that the way we had done church in the past wasn’t cutting it anymore, we decided to build adaptable spaces for community connection that was not purely centred on the Sunday worship hour. There are no raised platforms and fixed seats in our two buildings and our faith life is expressed seven days a week. At Bryndwr yesterday, there was a garage sale and the week before a music concert. At Papanui in the New Year there will be artistic expressions and contemplative experiences suited to whatever it is that those groups need the space to be. We will build the church as home in a different way because this is the world we now find ourselves in. That’s the job isn’t it?
And by the way, if you are wanting to understand the parable of the 10 bridesmaids, I think it might be saying that we’re to have a foot in two worlds simultaneously, the present, and the future. Not the past where things were done in the same old way and you could predict how much oil you would need in your lamps. No, we need to be cannier than that to do church these days. The kingdom of God invites us into a new framework for making our way ahead as we seek and make a place to call home.