"Your Home Away from Home"

Sunday sermon from October 13, 2013
Text: Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

The inside of my car is always a pretty messy place. You may know that already. You may have noticed. They say a messy desk is the sign of a creative mind. I hope the same goes for my car. Anyway, with such a mess in mind, I want you to imagine what it must have been like to spend two months in the car with me at one stretch. Just after college, that's what my best friend and I did, across the highways and lonely country roads of America. Our project was to go to a game at every Major League Baseball stadium -- a goal which we accomplished, and I'm glad to talk about it, but this isn't the time. This is the moment to describe to you what it is like to effectively live in one car for two months. Now, I don't want for a minute to compare our life in a car with the plight of real people who are forced to live in their cars for reasons of poverty and warmth. Ours was a choice. But even as a choice, because we were just out of school and because we didn't have jobs or lives set up for us somewhere else, because this wasn't a break from the norm but rather the in-between-time before we both set out to figure out what normal was going to mean, the truth is that we didn't really have homes. We had stuff in storage in a few different locations, but we didn't have leases in our names or deeds in our names. We just had this car, a 2001 Honda Accord, and for fifty days in the summer of 2002, that car was our home, and we filled it with garbage.

Yes, it was partly personality and disposition -- we were never going to keep that car clean, it's just not a skill set either one of us was born with -- but also in our defense I don't think you can make your home in a car for very long without trashing the place. There's no built-in garbage can. There's no built-in recycling. It's meant to be a temporary spot, a place you hang out while you're going from one thing to the other. And while in some ways we settled in -- a cigarette-lighter-to-AC-adapter, hooked to a laptop, hooked to a cell phone long before there were smartphones, gave us the first mobile internet either of us had ever seen. But mostly we treated that vehicle like the temporary home it seemed to be, with every empty Fritos bag and soft drink bottle, every cheap plastic novelty helmet from some forgotten stadium, every scorecard or tourist brochure or parking pass, all of them heaped in a pile no one in right possession of their faculties would ever want to catalog. I remember more than once simply pulling the car up to a dumpster and doing a purge. I remember it never entirely helping. How do you make yourself at home without the basic comforts of home at your disposal? How do you settle in when you're just passing through?

Last week we read from the prophet Jeremiah as he grieved the coming exile of the citizens of Jerusalem at the hands of the invading Babylonian army. This week, we jump ahead, and we find the newly-exiled Israelites in Babylon having no interest whatsoever in settling in, no interest in unpacking their boxes, no interest in even keeping the place tidy, because, and you can hear the chorus in every word of this scripture, because they say Babylon is not our home. We didn't ask to be here; this isn't the place God promised for us; and, you know, more to the point, we're not going to be here for very long. Why unpack? Besides, Real Israel is still happening, back in Jerusalem; there's still a remnant of people there, left behind after the invasion, left behind after the city fell and the temple was destroyed. That's where God is, in that city, with those people, and so we're going to fight our way back.

And then they get this letter from Jeremiah. Oh, man, you would have thought they would have had it just about up to here with Jeremiah by this point; he's the only one who saw this whole thing coming, and you know how history loves a know-it-all, and then of course Jeremiah got to stay behind in Jerusalem with the rest of the remnant and so he doesn't really know what we're going through and so he doesn't know what it's like and where does he get off telling us to build houses and live in them and plant gardens and eat from them and get married and have children and do all the things you would do if you were going to stay here in Babylon for a long time, like if Babylon was going to be our home now, like if we're going to live here, second-class exiles from Jerusalem, second-class children of God. And Jeremiah says, well, you're gonna be there for a while, you might might as well settle in.

And the letter doesn't even stop there. It just gets worse. "Seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." Seek the welfare of the city? This city? You know we're in Babylon, right? I mean, okay, you tell us we're gonna be here for a while, so we might as well unpack, and I can get that on a kind of practical level; eventually, even if you don't want to be on this particular trip, nobody likes living directly out of a suitcase. But seek the welfare of the city? This city? The people who just invaded and captured us? No, I don't think so. We're going to fight back! Every chance we get, we're looking for a way out. We're tunneling under the fences. We're storming the gates. We're hiding in the laundry truck. We're busting out of this joint, because this is Babylon, and God is back there in His temple in Jerusalem with the rest of Real Israel, waiting us to come back, waiting for this whole thing to be over with. The whole thing screams "temporary"! Who wants to unpack?

There's an old joke by a comedian named Mitch Hedberg that goes something like: "Hey, if you find yourself lost in the woods, suck it up! Build a house! Say 'I used to be lost, but now I live here! I have severely improved my predicament!" Which is not entirely different than what Jeremiah is insisting on: Hey, guys, I know it's not exactly home, but at least you'll be there for a really long time! It's all enough to make him sound like the punch line. The whole thing prompts the question of whether home is truly and only where the heart is, or whether it can instead simply be the place where we build and plant and sweat and grow and live. What happens when we get stuck between the two? I know it sounds like an abstract question. But I think for this particular congregation, in this particular stage in our life, few questions could be more concrete. It was a bit more than a year ago that I first met with the search committee from this church. We were meeting in Lovingston, but I decided that I would first drive down and see Amherst and see the church for myself. I got off there at highway 60 and came up to 2nd street and saw this building, and then after a while I circled around through town up towards business 29, at which point, much to my surprise, I passed a piece of property with a sign in front of it that said "Future Home of Amherst Presbyterian Church."

Which was, I have to admit, news to me. I think there had been some mention in some information form about a piece of property but I didn't know anything about a plan for construction and so I think I went to the committee and asked something along the lines of "So, I passed this sign..." and so I began to learn a story about this church, a story I'm still learning and so I hope you will forgive any misplaced details. The story goes that a generation ago this church began to dream of a home different than this home, began to wonder if God was calling it to a place different than this place, and so began to pray and listen and work and save and plan and soon enough there was land purchased and soon enough there were drawings and architectural renderings and soon enough there was money set aside - not enough, but some, a start - but then, soon enough, that's all there was, everything kind of stalled, and for a generation you've been here, we've been here, stuck in-between the home where our heart is and the home where Jeremiah nonetheless still calls us to build and plant and sweat and grow and live. It may be odd to consider that the way in which we intersect with this text is to realize that our time in a building that has been here for almost two hundred years is filed under the Biblical category of exile. But for these Israelites exile isn't about the length of stay, and it's not about where you started off; it's about longing for somewhere else, about feeling called to be somewhere else, about feeling like your theological identity is bound up in being somewhere other than you currently are. Like we were on God's path, and somehow we missed our turn, and now the path is somewhere over there, and now we're just lost in these woods.

So we've built a house. Or, rather, to our credit, Jeremiah, we've invested in this house. A place that was our home and then at some point, for some of us maybe stopped being our home; it started being the place that we gathered to dream about somewhere else; but nonetheless even in exile we've planted and built. And meanwhile, the dream has been on hold. Which is, of course, exactly what is at stake for Jeremiah. Israel, too, had a dream, a dream that was Jerusalem. It was a dream first kindled in the throes of slavery, first conceived on the tablets of Sinai, first realized in the foundations of the city, but now lies somewhere trampled under the boots of the invading armies. It is not dead; no, much to the contrary, it is something a bit more dangerous, a dream on hold, the kind of thing I think this congregation in its generation of dreaming knows more about than perhaps anybody would have ever wanted. But I want you to hear in the deferral of Israel's dream something more than a simple problem of lifestyle: actually, for Israel, the dream deferred is a theological crisis. Because the dream of Jerusalem had always been inescapably bound up with Israel's theological convictions: that is to say, it is the dream of living in the place where God is, the dream of being in the place God calls them to be, the dream of staying on the path as God's chosen people instead of now having somewhere missed the turn and wound up lost in these woods. Jeremiah says "Well, now, build a house -- make yourself at home." But who wants to be at home somewhere on the outside of where God calls us to be? And if God is truly calling this congregation to gather and worship somewhere different than this particular building, if we are truly called to that new promised land, if God is really waiting for us over there, then how much sorrow we all must feel at so many years of living and building and planting in the wrong place.

And yet. There's a remarkable turn in this text, because of course living and building and planting are the central acts of Israel's participation in the covenant in the first place, the very foundation of Israel's historic obligation to the land God had promised to them. And Jeremiah's next instruction: to take wives and have sons and daughters, to multiply and not decrease, calls to mind almost immediately the even more foundational history of God's promises to Abraham, that his offspring would multiply and cover the earth. Jeremiah's instructions to the exiles might first sound like accommodation, or worse, like the extinguishing of that theological dream, but in actuality the prophet is doing something much more revolutionary: he's exploding the promise of God's covenant far beyond the threshold of the city that was Jerusalem. To a people whose theological identity and theological dream had been for so long centered on the one place and the one temple and that one corner of God's creation, Jeremiah says: you know, even while you are in exile. Even while you are lost. Even while you are on the far corners of the earth. Even while you are still so far away from the home you once knew and the home of which you still dream, even then, you are still the children of God. You can defer the dream of Jerusalem but you cannot defer the power of God's covenant or the power of God's promises. Jeremiah says "Don't get fooled into thinking that God is over there somewhere else waiting for you or waiting for us." Even now, even in Babylon, even and especially now, God is with you.

So don't get fooled into thinking that God is over there somewhere else. I'm not here today to refine the dream that this congregation has held for so long. I'm not here to tell you that it's a bad dream or a good dream. Nor am I here to tell you how we make that dream a reality; one of the reasons it's called exile is because the dream isn't something Israel can work to accomplish; as frustrating and painful as it is, they have to wait on God. No, this morning, I just want you to remember this: we live in a world that is already, in and of itself, a dream deferred. It is a dream first kindled in the dawn of creation, first conceived on the lips of prophets and apostles, first realized in the life and witness of Jesus Christ, first sealed on the imagination of humanity at the foot of a wooden cross; it is the dream of justice; it is the dream of redemption; it is the dream of righteousness; it is the dream of communion with the one who created us and created all things. But in this imperfect world in which we work and plant and live it is very much a dream deferred. No wonder that exile is the defining story of Biblical Israel; it is just as much the defining story of humanity: to be in that place different than the one of which we dream, to dream of a home different than the one that greets our every morning. But even so, even in that gap between the dreams we share and the world we inhabit, even so, don't get fooled into thinking that God is over there somewhere else.

If you find yourself lost in the woods, suck it up! Build a house! But don't forget: God is in the woods, too.