Rev. Dr. Eric Elnes
April 3, 2016
A Place To Call Home Part 1: Home Is A Journey
A Place To Call Home
Part 1: Home Is A Journey
Countryside Community Church
Rev. Eric Elnes, Ph.D.
April 3, 2016
I. Hagia Sophia
It has been observed that “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spirit beings having a human experience.” (Teilhard de Chardin) If this is true, then our origin is beyond this world and our home here is a temporary one. We are “in but not of this world.”
I always find it sad when someone decides that our time spent in this material, temporal realm doesn’t really matter since we come from someplace else and presumably are headed elsewhere once we leave this earth. I find it sad because, even if our true home may lie elsewhere, Jesus tells us that we are here for a reason. Namely, we have been sent here. In the Gospel of John Jesus prays,
“I do not ask that you take them out of the world … Just as you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they may also be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:15)
We are in this world for a reason. According to Jesus, God sent us here in order to be “sanctified in truth.”
So, what exactly does “sanctify” mean? It sounds rather important if that is the purpose of our being sent here. In Greek the word is hagiazo, which means “to make holy.” Does hagiazo sound like any word you’ve heard before? Perhaps you’ve heard, for instance, of the Hagia Sophia? The Hagia Sophia is that great basilica in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) that served as Christianity’s most famous worship space for centuries before it was eclipsed by St. Peter’s in Rome. Hagia comes from hagiazo. Hagia Sophia literally means “holy wisdom.”
I think the original builders of the Hagia Sophia were inspired by the apostle Paul and by Jesus when they named the basilica. Paul says that the human body is “a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you” and Jesus says we are sent into this physical, material world for the purpose of being “made holy” through coming to know the truth, that is, through attaining wisdom. It’s like the entire basilica is a physical expression of our spiritual mission here on earth: we are sent here to become basilicas made of flesh and blood – living embodiments of Holy Wisdom.
Given that we will be kicking off a capital campaign next week to build our own Hagia Sophia on the Tri-Faith campus, the series that starts today and will continue for the next six weeks should be a particularly interesting one. Through this series we will explore how we make a “home” in this world as both physical and spiritual beings. The physical and spiritual realms are more profoundly bound up in one another than many people suspect. Each influences the other so intimately that we must pay careful attention to both if we are to fulfill our mission to become living Hagia Sophias.
II. Leaving Home to Find It
We begin our series with a look at two biblical stories that are separated in time by well over a thousand years, and are quite different on the surface, yet betray a strikingly similar understanding of where we find our home in this world.
In order to properly understand the lesson of both stories, we had best take the advice taped to the wall outside Rev. Alexander’s office concerning a common mistake people make when reading scripture. The quote is from biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan who says, “My point … is not that these ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
When we consider the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt – how they were led out of Egypt, across a great sea that parted before their eyes, and through the wilderness of Sinai by a “pillar of cloud” by day and a “pillar of fire” by night, we make a great mistake if we take these events literally. As Crossan reminds us, this is a mistake the ancients did not make, but we make regularly. The ancient Hebrews spoke about parted seas and pillars of cloud and fire because they were trying to use visual images to convey invisible truths. If you see a drawing of a person with a light bulb above her head, you don’t jump to the conclusion that the one who drew the picture wants you to believe that a light bulb was magically floating above the person’s head! You know the person is trying to visually represent something that is invisible to the eye: the person has an illuminating idea! Imagine, scores of people a thousand years from now talking about how naïve we were to think that light bulbs magically floated above people’s heads – all the while patting themselves on the back for being so much more sophisticated than we are!
When we read of the Red Sea parting just at the moment when Israel lost all hope of escaping the Egyptians who were in hot pursuit and finding freedom, those who wrote the story were trying to tell us something so important that they were practically screaming it with their use of visual imagery. What they were trying to say is that the God of our experience is One who liberates you from bondage, and is capable of liberating you even when the path of your liberation is utterly blocked. The beginning of holy wisdom (Hagia Sophia) is trusting in God more than yourself; trusting that God wants you to live in freedom more than you yourself want to be free; and trusting that God is both willing and able to make this happen if you will but follow where you are led.
So how do you know where God is leading you? According to the story, you look for a pillar of fire to lead the way! Not a literal pillar of fire, but that which the pillar of fire symbolizes.
Today, we don’t talk much about “pillars of fire,” but we do speak of “fire in the belly.” “Fire in the belly” isn’t literal fire, is it? If someone displays “fire in the belly,” they are not spontaneously combusting! Rather, they are acting with passion and personal conviction. People who act with “fire in the belly” often will tell you that it feels like they were “born to do” whatever they were doing. In the old language, they feel “called.”
What the story of the Exodus is telling us is that when you sense God’s call to let go of the chains that bind you and follow freedom’s path, don’t expect the world to sit idly by, cheering you on the sidelines. Rather, you can expect to encounter significant conflict from the very powers that benefit most from your bondage. Those powers will try to corner you, or block your way forward in any way they can. When this happens, our story advises us to keep our eyes focused on the “pillar of fire” – trusting God’s call to freedom over any physical, material obstacle the world may throw at us.
So often a person will finally determine to quit a job or a lifestyle that has been suffocating them, or a relationship. And when they do, they expect to reach the Promised Land right away. But more often than not, the world doesn’t just let a person leave their slavery unopposed. It throws us all kinds of obstacles, making life harder than before, at least initially. If a person isn’t highly self-aware (and spiritually aware), they will often turn back, thinking they had made a big mistake, or that “the Universe” hadn’t intended their escape to happen. It isn’t “the Universe” that throws up roadblocks but something far less mystical. The powers that benefit from our bondage never want us to leave without putting up a fight. That’s what’s really going on – at least when it’s God calling us to freedom.
The key to our spiritual survival when faced with the inevitable conflict that results from our attempt to escape to freedom is to stay connected to our spiritual home in this world even as we may be leaving some aspect of our physical home (e.g., a job, a lifestyle, a relationship). Here again, the story of the Exodus from Egypt uses symbolic language to help us find that spiritual home.
When the Israelites originally fled Egypt, one version of the story tells us that they had just moments to pack whatever they could carry and leave. They couldn’t take much. Just what they could carry. So they had to make some quick choices, carrying with them only those few things that absolutely could not be left behind. What would these have been?
I have heard that when most people are faced with having to flee a burning home, the items they tend to grab on their way out are photographs. Personal photographs have very little if any monetary value. Yet our personal photos are supremely valuable to us. Why? They remind us of people and experiences that have more to do with our home in this world than our physical houses do.
If it is photographs that we grab when our houses are burning, then this gives us an excellent idea of what we are to stay close to when we experience “heavy fire” from powers and principalities of the world that seek to block our path to freedom. We stay close to the people and experiences that have made us most “at home” in the world. They keep us grounded. When we realize that our path to freedom is about moving closer to these precious people and experiences that make us feel most at home in this world, then we gain the confidence and determination to move forward. The “fire in our belly” burns hotter and brighter than the fire being tossed at us by the powers of the world, helping us stay true to our call.
Where is your “fire in the belly” located? Where is “home” for you? Try this exercise: Imagine that when you leave church today you will be stripped of all your memories except your most precious seven. What seven memories would you choose to help guide you through the rest of your life? What people and experiences are most important to you? Chances are, when God calls you to move into a greater state of freedom in this world, your freedom is connected in some deep and important way to these seven precious memories.
III. Home Is A Journey
It’s rather interesting, isn’t it, that we tend to find clarity with respect to those things that constitute our deepest sense of “home” in this world when we are forced to strip what we have down to the barest essentials – like when the Israelites had to leave their houses quickly, or when we had to choose only seven of our most important memories?
Indeed, throughout the Jewish and Christian traditions, there is a strong sense that whatever constitutes our true “home” in this world is best found when we are on the move. As Bob Dylan’s grandmother is said to have told her grandson when he was young, “Heaven ain’t on the road to nowhere. Heaven is the road!” (paraphrased)
In our passage from Matthew’s gospel today this theme echoes strongly. Matthew’s version of Easter and its aftermath is different from Luke’s – which we read from last week. In Luke’s version, Jesus’ twelve disciples meet the resurrected Jesus while they are still in Jerusalem and are told to proclaim God’s message of “repentance and forgiveness of sin” starting in Jerusalem. But in Matthew’s version, the disciples don’t even see Jesus on Easter Sunday, much less in Jerusalem. Instead, they are told that Christ has risen and is waiting for them in Galilee, roughly 100 miles away!
Why are the stories so different? Because each gospel writer has a different take on why the resurrection is so important. To Luke, the primary message of the resurrection is that it proves that God’s unbelievable love and grace are real and trustworthy – for everyone. Everyone includes even those who have committed the worst sin imaginable – rejecting and crucifying God’s Messiah. So Jesus meets the disciples in Jerusalem and tells them to proclaim God’s message of repentance and forgiveness of sins starting with Jerusalem. If the worst of sinners experience God’s grace, love, and forgiveness, after all, then how can anyone doubt that God’s grace, love and forgiveness is there for them too?
Matthew’s message, while not unrelated to Luke’s, is focused differently. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is continually portrayed as the New Moses. He is the one who leads people from bondage to freedom – not just physical bondage and freedom, but spiritual bondage and freedom. What keeps us in bondage when we know that freedom lies elsewhere? It’s our fear of what may happen if we make a bold move. We’re afraid of what the world will throw at us; we’re afraid that we’ll no longer have a roof over our heads, or people won’t like us anymore. We’re afraid for our survival – physically and even spiritually – if we throw off our chains and move. So when the world throws at Jesus exactly what we fear the world will throw at us, and Jesus, though crucified, actually survives the assault … what reason are we left with for not following that “fire in the belly” that moves us from bondage to freedom?
Matthew’s version of Easter also reminds us of where our true home in this world is to be found. It is to be found wherever the Spirit of the Living Christ is. If Jesus is waiting for us in Galilee, we leave Jerusalem and move in the direction of Galilee. If Jesus is waiting fur us at an AA meeting, we leave our addictions behind and start attending AA. If Jesus is waiting for us in a new career, we leave our old one take up that career. If Jesus is waiting for us on the Tri-Faith campus at 132n and Pacific, we pack up whatever is too precious in our present church to leave behind and build a new one there. Wherever Jesus waits for us, that is the direction in which we move. He is our “pillar of fire,” our “fire in the belly,” our home in this world. It is with Christ that we build our Hagia Sophia; and it is with Christ that we fulfill the mission we were sent into this world to fulfill, becoming ourselves living, breathing temples of Holy Wisdom.