It’s okay to feel homesick.
I’ve been working on a sermon for Sermons That Work. The assigned date is May 10, 2020, the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The Scripture readings for the day are here. Writing a sermon for a future Sunday always feels like a bit of a stab in the dark, but with the Covid-19 pandemic going on, the middle of May feels like an especially long time in the future.
But in preparing for this faraway future sermon, it seems to me that the Scripture passages (especially Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 and 1 Peter 2:2-10) say a lot that may be a word to us today. At least, it was for me. Maybe you will find a word of hope and encouragement here for you too, especially if you are currently unable to worship with your congregation in person.
The sign outside the church building says, “Church has left the building. Worship with us online during this epidemic.” The Church has left the building.
We have long known that the church is not the building in which we gather for worship, even though that’s the shorthand way we describe what we do. “I’m going to church,” we say. “Church starts at 9 am.” “My church is St. Paul’s, you know, the pretty one downtown.” It’s shorthand for the place we go when we gather together in a particular place and time to do the central thing church does that informs all the other aspects of our life as followers of Jesus. It all starts with this: worship and pray, hear God’s holy Word, receive communion.
So, in some ways this new reality we’re living into with this pandemic simply reminds us of something we already know: the church—the body of believers, the brothers and sisters of Christ, the priesthood of all the baptized, the church—has known since the beginning: the church is not the building. Church never was the building. As the martyr Stephen says, just before the part of Acts appointed for today, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands” (Acts 7:48). No building contains God. St. Stephen quotes Isaiah, “Heaven is my throne and earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest?” (Acts 7:49) God doesn’t need our buildings in order for God to be present to us. We don’t need to be in our church buildings to be the Church. This part of what’s new with this pandemic is not new.
But our buildings, our places where significant things have happened, are important, special, meaningful to us. We may find ourselves wondering who are we, can we hold together, can we be who we are called to be if we can’t gather together, if we can’t be together in person in a place, a building where we have loved and been loved?
Perhaps, during these early days of new restrictions, of not gathering together in person, in church, you find yourselves feeling like I do—a little homesick. I find myself remembering the particular and peculiar details of the church buildings in which I have worshipped: the quiet of my childhood church, Christ the King, hushed because of the faded red shag carpeting throughout the nave, and how the smell of coffee would start wafting up the stairs from the fellowship hall in the basement, the scent accompanying the closing hymn, the gleaming catering sized urns switched on by an usher just after receiving communion. The little crayon drawing of a rainbow, inscribed by a child on the back of a pillar in St. Anne’s Church, the vibrant squiggly colors dancing on the stately grey stone. The feel of the cards on which intercessions were written for use in the Prayers of the People, softened by use and the touch of many hands at St. Andrew’s Church, especially those cards holding the names of people who weren’t getting better, who had been prayed for morning after morning after morning. The wild and surprising whump! of the heating system coming on at St. Paul’s Church, punctuating sermons, announcements, and hymns at sometimes humorous moments.
Especially when we are told, do not go there. You cannot go there. Even when we know it’s for the best for everyone, are you missing that place? Your pew, the way the light comes through the windows, the memorial plaque you sit near to honor the memory of a departed one, the people you look for there, the baby you like to sit behind and wave to, the kneeling cushion that holds the indentations of your knees just right, the hugs—maybe the best place you get hugs all week, a place you know you belong, with all its particularities and peculiarities—the clicking radiator, the misbehaving sound system, the tiles, the smooth wood of the communion rail, the person who remembers your name and says it out loud during the peace, the acolyte who always holds the processional cross a little askew, the child who dances and leaps all the way up the aisle to take communion and twirls and gallops all the way back.
It’s all right to feel homesick. Even if our home isn’t really the building, never was. Even if neither our God nor our community is contained by, limited to that space. It’s all right to feel homesick.
And part of me, as someone entrusted with leadership in the church, is actually hoping that we will all feel more than a little homesick for the time we can worship together, in person, receiving real bread and wine, from real human hands, while we lean on that communion rail and look for that galloping, carefree child in the aisle. Part of me hopes that feeling of homesickness will hold people close even while we’re apart, will keep some people from slipping away, falling out of the habit of worship, from switching to a spiffier broadcast, tuning into a priest with a more sparkly video presence, or just not bothering to go online this week for worship.
Church has left the building. And for all the ways this time calls us to learn to be church in new ways, it’s okay to yearn for the familiar. And, here’s more good news, it’s really okay to learn from the Word of God how to be the church, especially in times of uncertainty and peril—to hear afresh timeless and eternal wisdom about being God’s holy people, the body of Christ, the church, for a new time, especially in light of the old-new lesson of the church not being the building.
But, actually, in our reading from 1 Peter, the writer says, be a building, but a different kind of building. Listen with me to what we hear in 1 Peter: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Living stones, chosen and precious in God’s sight, built into a spiritual house, built on Jesus, the chief cornerstone.
Living stones may sound like a strange metaphor, but what the writer is trying to find words for is the dynamic nature of life with God and yet the stability of it, the rock solidness of our values, the life-giving permanence and power of our identity and belovedness to God, even in times when everything seems like shifting sand, where from one week to the next we can go from life as usual to feeling uprooted even as we hunker down in place, where we can suddenly find ourselves homesick for a place and people we may have even been taking for granted.
The recipients of the first letter of Peter knew suffering and disruption. These early Christians knew what dislocation felt like. They were resident aliens, non-citizens where they were living. And because they wouldn’t worship the gods of the Roman Empire, they were viewed with suspicion, as dangerous to the status quo, as causing affront to their neighbors, who wished they would just go with the flow, try to fit in, bow to the emperor, say “Caesar is Lord,” it’s not so hard. Their way of life, these followers of Jesus, marked them as different from the Roman building project of expanding Empire. Their way of life marked them as part of God’s building project.
What way of life? Putting others before self, not insisting on one’s own security first, treating others with respect and forbearance no matter how they’re treating you, being willing to give or go without so someone else can have what they need, staying true to the values of Christ no matter the cost—values like mercy, patience, forgiveness, self-sacrificial love, to do what’s right, living in the reality of the now, while knowing there is a much bigger, eternal reality that we are all a part of, letting one’s whole life be a witness to God’s unconditional love for all people, everywhere, always. A hymn by WH Vanstone, describes this way of life, this love of Christ, which is to be our love too, in this way: “Love that gives, gives ever more, gives with zeal, with eager hands, spares not, keeps not, all outpours, ventures all, its all expends. Drained is love in making full, bound in setting others free, poor in making many rich, weak in giving power to be.”
I don’t know what sacrifices you are being asked to make right now, besides not worshipping together in person in your church building. Maybe you are staying home, caring for others, exercising patience with people you are not used to spending so much time with. Maybe you are needing to use your creativity in new ways, finding new ways to show care in your community. Maybe you are needing to go without something, resisting the urge to stockpile, or maybe you are unable to get what you need and having to ask for help. Maybe you are having to go out for your work and having to put your health at risk, so you can give and give and give and then come home. I do know that you are part of this temple made of living stones, that extends beyond all time and space, that includes not only Christians of this time, but includes the faithful of all generations, built together on Christ the chief cornerstone, a firm foundation; God’s gorgeous, precious, and everlasting building project, that will never be subject to decay, disuse, or the wrecking ball; God’s “grand structure” that, as Karen Jobes says, “will be completed only when the scaffolding of human history comes down and the kingdom of Christ is revealed in all its glory.”
Homesickness is best treated by resting in the One who is our home, no matter where we are. Our strong rock, a castle to keep us safe, our crag and our stronghold, no matter what troubles befall us, what challenges we face. Together, even while physically apart, we are built into God’s dwelling place, a temple built of living stones, built on a firm foundation, unshakeable, with a permanence we can, for now, only imagine, but which Christ has already guaranteed.