A Theology of Home   (Ruth 1: 15-18)

by | Nov 20, 2022 | Sermon Text | 0 comments

To begin forming a theology of home, one must begin by acknowledging a biological fact, that human beings share a kinship with much of the natural order when it comes to creating a functional home. A home must enjoy genuine stability for a creature to function within it. But this stability must be measured by an interplay of structure and chaos. Every stable home needs a measure of chaos, a measure of tension, uncertainty, challenge and stress. But this chaos must be balanced by a structure that allows one to manage that chaos. We have a squirrel who lives here on the church campus. His name is Theodore. Theodore has constructed a wonderfully solid nest that the evil cats cannot reach. Theodore has ready access to a pecan tree that provides him with ample food. He enjoys a stable, structured life, able to manage the normal chaos that afflicts his life. But if a hurricane swept through the area and destroyed his nest, making him vulnerable to the evil cats, and blew down his pecan tree, that is more chaos than Theodore can handle. He will probably not survive. Those of us who have worked with families beset by a family member who is an alcoholic live in a perpetual state of anxiety, fearful that this loved one’s chemical dependency will wreak more chaos in their family’s life than their structure can accommodate. To create a functional home we must create a balance able to handle structure and chaos.

This leads us to our first Biblical understanding of home. Home is not an address or location. Home is a series of associations that give us a sense of refuge. That is particularly true for those of us who have moved around frequently. If you ask me, ‘Is Alabama your home?,’ I would say yes, but only certain places. I cherish the memory of my parents’ den, where I watched many a football game with them while cracking pecans – that’s home. There is a high rock ledge on Smith Lake from which you can stand and look out on a vast panorama of vivid green, a high ledge from which one can leap into refreshing water on a hot day – that’s home. I think back years ago to sitting on the white sands of Gulf Shores, Alabama, watching my children chase sand crabs the same way I did a generation before, that‘s home. Home is no particular address or location, but rather a series of associations that give us a sense of refuge. Jesus, for example, did not consider Bethlehem his home. He did not consider Nazareth his home. In fact, he said bluntly, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Yet our Lord believed that this world was truly his Father’s world, a world in which he felt fully at home because he was attuned to the subtle wonders of creation that gave him a sense of association with God, associations such as the fact birds neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet his heavenly Father provided for them – that gave him a sense of home. He registered the splendiferous color of the lilies of the field, a beauty that surpassed the grandeur of Solomon – that was a sign of God’s providence for this world. The fact that God made ordinary grass so resplendent, even though that grass was here today and cut down tomorrow to be used as fuel – that subtle beauty was a sign of God’s providence for the world, and Jesus’ awareness of such wonders conveyed to him a sense of home – he knew, ‘This is my Father’s world.’ Home is whatever conveys to us a sense of refuge.

I remember vividly the moment that conveyed to me my clearest sense of home. It was my freshman year in college, and I had been away from my parents’ home for four months, four hard months. I had studied harder than I had ever studied before, I had endured harder workouts that I had ever experienced before, met a myriad of people that I didn’t know at the beginning of the semester. My whole life had been a chaotic swirl of new experiences. But finally, on Thanksgiving morning, I was home. I awakened in my room, seeing my curtains, looking into my front yard where I had played football since I was twelve, savoring the smell of my mom’s bacon. I had a very clear sense in that moment that home was a refuge from all the academic, athletic and social pressures that had defined my life. Likewise, when Jesus retreated into the wilderness and sequestered himself among the caves and craggy rocks, he used that solitude to drink in the splendor of God’s world that gave him a sense of belonging, a refuge that allowed him to replenish his soul, to recuperate from the press of people, to heal and reenergize and equip himself afresh to be the Christ. Home is, at one level, a refuge from the press of the world.

However, home cannot simply remain a refuge. Home must become a springboard that propels us toward the new. I remember another aspect of that vivid Thanksgiving trip home. I realized that after four months away from my parents’ household, in the crucible of collegiate freedom, I had developed habits that clashed with my parents’ ordinary and established routines. After you have been on your own for four months, you don’t take kindly to your mother asking if you had remembered to brush your teeth. I learned the hard way that Thomas Wolfe was right, you can’t truly go home again, each day brings a change of circumstances. You realize the painful truth that every generation has to create the features of home in a new way, in a new iteration. Home is a refuge, yes, but it is meant to be a springboard from which we move from the familiar to establish conditions of home in a new context.

This fundamental fact is not merely your pastor’s opinion. It is the second fundamental Biblical insight about home, that one’s true home can often only be found by leaving what you know and striking out for somewhere new. That’s exactly the experience of Abraham, whom God summons to leave all that he knows and journey toward his true home, a place he has never been. What is the whole story of Exodus but a journey of God’s people home to a place they had never been? It is not nostalgia that calls them to leave Egypt in search of some old home place, but an irresistible urge to answer God’s summons to find a promised land in a place completely new. Home in the Bible is often discovered not by clinging to the familiar, but in venturing forth to some new vista. Even the Prodigal Son who returns home after his journey to the far country knows that home will never be the same – his relationship with his father and his elder brother will never be the same. The constellation of circumstances that might have defined home for us at one point time are forever altered by the passage of time and unfolding history. One of the most memorable Biblical journeys home is Judah’s return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. But when they returned to their homeland, did they try to recreate the old? No! Ezra and Nehemiah led them to reconfigure their understanding of home away from notions of national boundaries or political identity. They moved the Hebrew people to reorient their understanding of home in terms of fidelity to the Mosaic Law. Home for these exiled Jews was not found in recovering the old, but in endeavoring to find a sense of home by creating a new configuration of obedience to God. Home in the Biblical narrative is often found in having the courage to strike out toward new places and new vistas of understanding.

This leads us to our third Biblical understanding of home: home is not so much a place as it is a constellation of relationships. We see this truth most clearly in the famous response of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi. Ruth has lost her husband, as has her sister-in-law Orpah. Orpah goes home to her original family, because that’s how she responds to the loss of spouse. But Ruth defines home differently. Naomi says to Ruth, “I’m returning to my home place, you had better do the same.” Ruth responds, “You are my home. Where you go, I go; where you lodge, I lodge; your people are my people, your God, my God. Where you die, I will die.” Ruth is saying to Naomi, ‘My relationship with you is my true home. I may have lost my husband, may have lost my familiar community, may have lost my status in this community. But these things wlil not affect the core of my being. But I cannot lose my relationship with you. Because you are my home.’

This third key Biblical insight into a Christian understanding of home dovetails nearly with the fourth. Home in the Christian understanding is a constellation of faith commitments and faith relationships that define our lives as we find within these relationships acceptance, affirmation, support, and encouragement. Let me repeat this truth: the Christian understanding of home is defined by a complex constellation of faith relationships that provide us with acceptance, affirmation, encouragement, and support. When many people see a sermon entitled, “A Theology of Home,” they instinctively cringe, because they think, ‘I don’t qualify. I’m not married. I don’t have children. My life has been messy. Nothing about my life comports with a Norman Rockwell depiction of the Christian family.’ You know what? The Christian understanding of home is radically different from the Ozzie and Harriet depiction of a so-called ‘normal household.’ What does our Lord say? He says, “My Gospel will cause social upheaval. My Gospel will divide father from mother and brother from sister.” Even when Jesus’ so-called biological family was in his presence he declared, “Father and mother have I none, brother and sister have I none, except those who follow me.” Jesus defined home and family as a constellation of believers bound by the kinship of faith who provided each other support, affirmation, acceptance, and encouragement. Likewise, the early church radically challenged and completely redefined what family was in their culture: they defined home in terms of an overall collective faith identity. They sold their possessions and property and pooled their resources in order to look after each other as family. They defined home as a constellation of faith relationships. The very office of deacon was developed by the early church in order to become a more effective family and create a more loving and comprehensive home. They defined home in terms of communal identity, a word they defined as koinonia.

So, you might be 42, single and childless, living alone, yet you may enjoy a more Christian home life than some family with two spouses, two children, and two dogs. It might be that the depth of your faith relationships, the support of your friends, the encouragement forged in your service to others, and the depth of affirmation provided by all those activities give you a profound sense of home. Indeed, our Lord uses a striking phrase when he talks of his sense of home. He says, “I abide in you. You abide in me.” That is simply a more profound restatement of Ruth’s statement to Naomi, ‘My relationship with you is my home. Where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God. Christ says to us, “I abide in you, and you abide in me, so we are family together.”

The great Psalm 90 is entitled “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.” It begins, “Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.” Lord, you have been our dwelling place for generations! This prayer echoes Moses’ observation in Deuteronomy 33:27: “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath you are the everlasting arms.” Moses, whose whole life was a journey toward one destination or another, retained his sense of home because God was his omnipresent tabernacle, always with him as friend with friend. And if you and I retain the assurance that Christ abides in us and we abide in Christ, then we can never feel lonely or abandoned, for we know that God is always underneath us, supporting us with everlasting arms and forming the very dwelling place in which we live.

Moses is a good subject to end this discourse on home, for the manner of his burial serves as an apt parable on the subject. One of my favorite Vacation Bible School questions is, “Where was Moses buried?” The children and youth in the congregation who had me as their Vacation Bible School teacher know the vague answer and the true answer. The vague answer is, “In the land of Moab, opposite Bethpeor.” But the real answer is the next phrase: “No one knows the place of his burial to this day.” No one knows where Moses is buried. Like Mozart, like John Calvin, Moses was buried in an unmarked grave. Why? Because God summoned God’s people to claim a new home, a promised land. But that home lay across the Jordan. God didn’t want Israel making a shrine of the Lawgiver’s grave. They weren’t going to find their true home looking backward. They were only going to find home by going forward. The Lord wanted his people to understand, “I am your dwelling place, and underneath you are my everlasting arms.” Likewise, we will only find our true home by looking forward, not back. On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I encourage you to give thanks to God for your home and family, however you have configured them. For if you have surrounded yourself with a constellation of faith relationships that give you affirmation, acceptance, support and encouragement, then, you, my friends, are home, and underneath you can feel the everlasting arms of God.