The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
Keywords: refugees, gun violence, climate change, racism, Confederate flag, domestic violence
Recall the words of the prophet Zephaniah, the words he spoke on behalf of God to the people of Israel: “I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you.” (Zephaniah 3:19-20).
I will bring you home.
A father carries his brand new baby son out of the hospital in the carrier they received at the shower just last month, now 7 pounds and 6 ounces heavier than when he brought it into the birthing suite. He opens the door to the car and places the carrier into the seat, fumbling with the harness and strap, making sure that everything is secured just right. He helps his partner climb into the passenger side, and they both look back at the seat. They have a moment of paralyzing reflection, realizing how fragile is the life wrapped in those blankets, and how dangerous is the journey they are about to begin. More carefully than the day he took the test for his driver’s license, he pulls out of the parking space and cautiously drives into their new life as a family. I will bring you home.
Across the sea, another father wraps his daughter in her warmest winter coat. At thirteen, the top of her head just reaches his neck line, and she looks up at him, her smooth olive skin and soft brown eyes framed by her favorite orange and green hijab, the head-covering her mother made for her last month. His wife opens the door of their house onto the street strewn with rubble, empty shell casings, and traces of blood. He tucks his worn copy of the Koran into his backpack and pulls the straps, making sure everything is secured just right. He helps his daughter and wife climb over the broken concrete as the ratatata sound of gunfire in the distance rattles their nerves. He looks back at his house, the roof partially collapsed from a mortar shell from last night. He has a moment of paralyzing reflection, realizing how fragile is the life wrapped in that coat, and how dangerous is the journey they are about to begin. More carefully than when he used to climb rocks in the foothills as a boy, he leads his family down the street into their new life. I will bring you to a new home.
What a comforting word Zephaniah proclaims to a people who knew what it meant to be forced from their homes in a time of brutal war and a series of relentless military conquering. “I will deal with all your oppressors . . . I will save the lame and gather the outcast . . . I will bring you home.”
Home is where the aroma of a warm drink and the light of a kitchen table surrounds those who embrace you, gently tease you, worry about you, and make sure that the door is unlocked for you when you arrive.
Home is the town where you can walk the street and gather smiles from passers-by, exchange jokes and friendly words with acquaintances, and travel to work and shopping and recreation with only the baggage of your day, rather than the baggage of your skin color, or your religion, or your gender and sexuality.
Home is the planet where the water is clean, the air is fresh, the seasons change with comfortable predictability, and other lifeforms can enjoy the same.
I daresay that in the last two months, many of us have not felt at home. Forsythia bushes and cherry trees are being tricked by the consistently high temperatures into blooming in December. This season is out of season, and while we may enjoy the spring-like weather, deep in our bones we know – this is not right. This does not feel like our home.
In the last two months, many of us have not felt at home.
Across the continent, the Native American town of Quinault Village of Taholah on the Pacific Coast is having to relocate because of sea level rise due to melting glaciers. “Five years ago, the Anderson Glacier, which contributes cool water to the Quinault River at critical times of year, disappeared for good. It had been receding for as long as locals had been photographing it, but one woman still remembers the day when she saw that it was completely gone. ‘In that moment I could feel my heart sinking, thinking that the glacier that feeds the mighty Quinault River has now disappeared,’ she says. Without the glacier, the Quinault River was lower than ever recorded. So low that while walking through a newly exposed stretch of riverbed, one tribal member stubbed his toe on what turned out to be a mastodon jaw that may have been submerged since the last ice age.” (https://climatestew.com/an-ancient-village-must-relocate-climate-displacement-in-north-america/) This does not feel like home.
Have you felt things shift in your home? In your home planet? In your hometown?
Just thirty minutes south of this church, a woman sat on the porch of her hometown one October Saturday watching the annual Halloween parade. This is the town where she had grown up as one of the only black families in the community, but had always felt accepted and safe – that this town was her home. But on this day she watched as a float featuring a Confederate flag moved down the street, and her blood ran cold as she heard shouts of “light ‘em up” from some in the crowd - a phrase used to give the order to shoot at one’s enemy. Add this to the many other red and blue-x flags she has seen displayed in increasing numbers around the Valley in the last six months. Add this to the pick-up truck with the flag that drove past her on the street where she lives, and the words hurled at her: “Nigger – go back to Africa where you belong!” This does not feel like home.
Just a few blocks away, a 10-year-old boy scuffs his feet along the sidewalk as he reluctantly makes his way to the place where he lives. He had tucked the test with the D-grade into his backpack before leaving school, making sure the strap was secured tight. He prayed his father would not ask to see it as he walked up the steps of the porch with paint peeling off the banister and the recycling can of empty bottles and cans of alcohol sitting beneath the window sill. He could hear his father in the house yelling, screaming. And he had a moment of paralyzing reflection, realizing how fragile his life was, and how dangerous was the world inside of that door. More carefully than when he used to sneak down in the middle of the night to lift a cookie from the canister, he crept through the kitchen, hoping to escape to his bedroom without being noticed. I wish this was not my home.
It is very difficult to feel at home when the threat of violence seems ready to erupt from any car, in any school, in any building, in any home.
It is hard to feel at home when so many angry voices scream at refugees and Muslims and blacks to stay away, go away.
It has become increasingly depressing to look at the home of this fragile orb spinning in space, its climate and its cities and its towns and its homes spinning out of control.
And it is precisely into this spinning whirlwind of chaos and fear and hatred that the prophet’s voice calls out: “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you.”
Those words echoed down through the centuries and landed at the feet of a man standing at the Jordan River two thousand years ago. He picked up those words and added his own unique invitation: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Turn your lives around. Be washed clean of all this nasty, selfish, greedy arrogance and complacency. Repent – turn around. Come back home.
Are you ready to return home? What might it look like – this homecoming?
It might look like people wading into that river and actually changing their ways, actually listening and responding. It might look like people sharing what they have – their extra coat, their extra food, their extra room, their hometown, their country – sharing with people who may not look like them or worship the same God as them, or have the same skin color as them. But they do it because they want to help someone feel at home.
It might look like the very rich, and the comfortably well-off, and the modestly privileged making the deliberate decision to live within their means, and establish just and equal pay, and repent of their sinful accumulation of wealth. And they do it because they want to help others be able to afford to live and survive and be at home.
It might look like soldiers and police restoring trust and adhering to justice for themselves and those they are charged with protecting. It might look like a place where firearms and weapons are so few and far between that people finally feel safe to walk into their school, their workplace, their local movie theatre, their shopping store, their home, and not worry about who might channel their rage and insanity and evil thoughts into the barrel of a gun. And they will feel like they can safely be at home.
It might look like a father carrying his brand new baby son out of the stable in the swaddling clothes they had received from the innkeeper’s wife – that bundle now 7 pounds and 6 ounces heavier than when he brought it into the manger. He opens the stable door and helps his wife onto the donkey, strapping on their meager bundle of clothes and supplies, fumbling with the harness, making sure that everything is secured just right. He had been warned to escape this place – because the troops were coming. The weapons would soon be spraying blood. He and his beloved gaze at the smooth olive skin and soft brown eyes looking up at them. They have a moment of paralyzing reflection, realizing how fragile is this life wrapped in those blankets, and how dangerous is the journey they are about to begin. More carefully than the day he helped guide that donkey into the stable with his pregnant wife balanced between contractions, he pulls the reigns of the animal and cautiously begins the journey south, hoping and praying to find a place and a people who will welcome him and make a safe place for his new family. I will bring you home.
The One who was born into the spinning whirlwind of extreme violence and racial hatred, of extreme poverty in the midst of extreme wealth, of extreme darkness in a fearful world – this One, the Messiah, was born for peace and equity, for hope and generosity. This One stands with those most vulnerable and invites us to do the same – to respond with compassion and courage and just plain old decent courtesy. He is calling us to come home – and to open our home, and to cherish and clean up and protect our planetary home, and to make our home free of violence so that it is safe and welcoming.
“At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you.” We are being gathered – we are being called. It’s time to return home. Amen.