Can’t Go Home Again: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on March 7, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 2:13-22, an account of Jesus clearing out the Temple in Jerusalem.

Just before I started serving at Trinity, Fort Wayne, nearly two years ago now, I took a drive up north, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my grandparents and my father lived before they died, where I spent much of my youth. The old family home, a place that had been an anchor throughout my entire life, was no longer occupied, and my aunt and uncles were planning on selling it, so I wanted to see it at least one more time before that happened. 

And you know that old saying, “you can’t go home again”? Well, sometimes you can, technically, but the problem is that either the home has changed so much—or you have—that you feel disoriented, like a stranger wandering into the story that used to be your own, but that doesn’t quite fit anymore. 

The house was quiet, too quiet, cleared of most of its familiar clutter, though some of the furniture remained—the kitchen table right where it had always been, the same curtains in the window, the old parlor organ in its usual spot, the armchair where my grandmother read her books before bed. The outlines of a thousand memories, still rich and resonant, but hollow, too, a monument to an era of our family history that had passed away.

And as strange as it might sound, I kept thinking about that empty house in Michigan as I was sitting with this week’s gospel passage from John, where Jesus clears out the Temple in that dramatic scene.

Because although we often focus on the intensely prophetic nature of his actions—turning over the tables, critiquing the economics of the sacrificial system—I think there is a also a deep poignancy to be found here. This is a personal moment as much as it is a public one, because we must remember that, for Jesus, this is not just a religious power center, a building filled with strangers whom he wants to knock down a peg or two. It is, as he plainly says, his Father’s house. He has, after much time away, come back home.

Remember the story early in Luke’s gospel, when Mary and Joseph lose track of Jesus in Jerusalem when he is a young boy? And they search for him for three days…and then they finally find him…where? In the Temple, yes, still himself but also unfamiliar—a bearer of wisdom, engaging in dialogue with the teachers assembled there. And what does twelve year-old Jesus say to Mary and Joseph?

“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

It is a homecoming scene. A memory deeper than memory, a familial instinct has drawn him there, to the dwelling place of his Father, to the place where his own story, just beginning to take shape, finds its larger context. 

And so now, as he arrives again in today’s reading as an adult–a bit older, a bit more knowing–what is Jesus thinking, as he enters the Temple for this very different homecoming? Does he remember how he once sat, just over there, as a young prodigy, amazing the onlookers with his insight? Does he remember, perhaps, that certain slant of light across the stones on that long ago day, or the sound of his mother’s voice calling out to him in relief from across the courtyard, when life was newer, when there was still so much to be discovered? Does he now feel that disconcerting pang of regret when you return to a place after you’ve grown a bit too much to be comfortable there, that swirl of familiarity and estrangement when a Father’s house no longer feels like home? 

You can’t go home again, no. Not even Jesus. Not in the exact same way as before. Too much has changed. But also, there is too much that must still be done. No time to wallow in what is lost. Life persists. And so our histories must be reckoned with, not recaptured. 

In his own way, that is exactly what Jesus is doing, as he braids the whip, as he releases the doves into the sky: he is clearing out the past, because he knows that this story—his family’s story, his nation’s story, creation’s ancient and unfolding story—must now go in a new direction. So out go the sacrificial animals, and the money-changers—out go the old systems, the old patterns, the old and familiar ways of interacting with God, of satisfying our never-ending longing for heaven. 

For a new thing is about to be done: a definitive sacrifice is about to be made, in the confines of a drastically different Temple—the Temple of God’s own body, on the altar of Calvary. Jesus, in clearing out the Jerusalem Temple, is clearing the path towards the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city; he is taking upon himself all the memories, all the hopes, all the sorrows that have been held and offered here through the millennia, in the halls and holy places of his Father’s house, and he is carrying them with him, into the next chapter, into his own life and death–and beyond.

What has been is not always what can continue to be. This is as true for us now as it was then. This is true for you and for me in our own lives, and it is true for us as a community, as a society, as a planet. 

We cannot go back to what was, even if we have loved it more than anything, because things have changed, and we have changed, and the world needs something different from us now. 

And if Jesus fashioning a whip of cords and turning over tables seems drastic, that’s because surrendering to change always is—it requires a certain lack of sentimentality on our parts, a certain fury and fire in the heart, a startled emergence from slumber, to get up, to live, to look forward, to do what must be done now, to say goodbye to what no longer serves us and what no longer serves emerging God’s purpose. 

So the question for us today, here, at the edge of whatever awaits us next, is this: What is it that we need to clear out of our lives? What is it that we need to let go of, in order to make space for what will be? What is holding us back from the next chapter in our story, in Trinity’s story, in America’s story, in the human story–what is holding us back from the chapter of the story where we go out once more and meet the world in its pain and its promise and rediscover the beauty and the healing and the freedom that Jesus can offer? What must be put to rest in order to do that? What are we waiting for?

Nostalgia will not save us. It will not save us in the church, it will not save us in this country; it will not save your life or mine. Try as we might (and God knows I often try) we cannot live on memories or longings for what used to be, for the ways things were, even the way things were a year ago. The pre-pandemic world is gone. The “before” time—the time when we did not know all that we know now—that time is gone. We have seen too much now. We can’t go home again. 

And yes, we can and we should honor the past for all that it has done for us, for its beautiful gifts, for its lessons, and we can preserve the wisdom of our ancestors and the life-giving pieces of the traditions we have been given, and then….we have to let the rest go.

The old mindsets. The old assumptions. The old prejudices. The old fears. The old lies. They don’t serve anymore. We have to be strong enough, together, to figure out how to be the Christians that the world needs now. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what Jesus has driven us out into this present moment to do.

So let’s do it. With some trepdiation, perhaps, maybe even a tear or two, but also with hope, and determination, and curiosity, and above all, a trust in the Lord, our Lord, who knows what he is doing, even when that thing seems dramatic and strange and hard to us.

You know, when I left my family’s house for the last time, I cried as I pulled out of the driveway. And I knew as I drove out of town that the love that I experienced there, in that place, would be lodged deep in my soul for the rest of my life.

But it was time to go, whether I was ready or not. It was time.

And so I did. And I kept going, down through the forests, through the sleepy old towns, down past the shimmering city lights, and across the wide open fields, back down here. Back to you. To this place and time, the one that I had to live into now. 

And I thought: it’s true, you can’t go home again. 

But you can make a new home, wherever it is you have to go. Wherever it is that Jesus leads. You can make a new life there, with gratitude for what came before, and with hope for what is coming next.

Not in your Father’s house, perhaps, but on holy ground, nonetheless. The ground upon which we are standing.

My family’s old home in Iron River, Michigan

Former Glory: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 9th, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Haggai 1:15-2:9 and Luke 20:27-38.

Before the weather took a cold turn and we all started buttoning up a bit more, some of you might have noticed when the sleeves of my shirt were rolled up that I have tattoos on both of my forearms.

I got them at different times in my life and they each have a different personal story behind them, but as I was reflecting on the scripture this week, my eyes kept straying to the tattoo on my left arm. It is the very last line of the poem “Ulysses” by the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which has been a favorite of mine since I was young. That poem speaks in the voice of Ulysses (or Odysseus), the legendary explorer-king of Greek mythology, and it concludes with this reflection from him, speaking as an elderly man nearing the end of his life:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 

We are not now that strength which in old days 

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 

One equal temper of heroic hearts, 

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses offers these words as encouragement to his beloved, now-aged companions as they recall their former glories and wonder how they might still live a purposeful life.

Something ere the end,” Ulysses urges a bit earlier, with fervent hope in his voice,

Something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done.

Come, my friends, tis’ not too late to seek a newer world.”

Poetic words from a mythical king, and yet, I can’t help but imagine something similar being uttered by the prophet Haggai as he called out to the people of Israel amid the rubble of King Solomon’s temple, encouraging them to rebuild the House of God. 

“Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord. Work, for I am with you…according the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.” (Haggai 2:4-5)

We can actually date this particular prophetic statement with startling precision: according the to the information contained within the text, Haggai spoke these words on October 17th in the year 520 BCE, shortly after the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon. The original, grand temple of the Israelite monarchy had been destroyed by their conquerors over 60 years prior, and the primary focus of Haggai’s prophetic work was ensuring that the temple was rebuilt. 

But this was easier said than done. Those who had returned from Babylon, most of whom had been born in exile, were attempting to rebuild their society in a devastated land with few resources, and the initial attempts at temple construction proved less than inspiring.

Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?” Haggai asks, well aware that those who have lived long enough to remember the original temple are thus far underwhelmed by the progress on replacement. “Is it not in your sight as nothing?” he inquires, but the question is rhetorical. This new temple, built on a shoestring budget in the ruins of a fallen monarchy, pales in comparison to its predecessor.

Like Ulysses and his friends, the people of Judah have been “made weak by time and fate” and Haggai is aware that their nostalgia for the glory that once was threatens to undermine the necessity to do what can be done with the resources of the present moment.

And thus the prophet reminds them that even if the new temple is not yet as grand as the former, they must persist in their task anyway, because God remains with them. “My spirit abides among you. Do not fear. The latter splendor of this house will be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:5,9).

In other words: do what you can now, work with what you have now, and God will take the hollowed out crater of your disillusionment, the rubble of your broken dreams and will refashion them into something so glorious that you cannot yet imagine it. Do not forget this Divine Promise! For this is our God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the Living God—the one who knows us. The one who has preserved us. The one who calls us His children. 

“That which we are, we are.”

Now, this tension between the lure of nostalgia and the urgency of the present is still with us in contemporary societies, in the Church, and perhaps for each of us in our private histories. There are days and seasons where it seems that everything good has been lost. Some will claim that the glory days are over, never to return. The wind has blown in from the north and the bleak midwinter beckons. The world looks like a threatening place. 

And in these moments, we might be tempted, like the Judeans, to be paralyzed by longing, to be consumed by a remembrance of past greatness (or at least by our imagined version of that past) and thus find the present moment intolerable. 

Now, when the pain of loss is especially great, whether personal or collective, this is an understandable impulse.  Lament and longing have their place in the language of our hearts. But we cannot succumb to them forever. Because God is always calling us forward into an unfolding story—God’s unfolding story. God has never left our side, and never will. So remember the past, yes, celebrate its joys, learn from its trials, but live now. Work now. Minister now, in the bleak pre-winter chill, in the rubble, in your brokenness. Let that brokenness open up your heart to the world’s present needs and present possibilities.

“Though much is taken, much abides.”

And just as Haggai proclaimed the Lord’s promise that the Temple would be rebuilt with an even greater splendor than they had known before, so it is that what is yet to come for us, for the Church, and for all of God’s people, is greater than we can possibly envision. 

What is yet to come is the resurrected life of which Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel: a new Jerusalem, a renewed creation, a radiant and unending Life that is so deep and true and free that even our greatest human conceptions of love and union are a mere glimpse, a prelude, to the Love awaits us when we fall to our knees before the throne of the Triune God. 

This promise of new Life, unfolding and enduring, is the context of our missional life together. We are knit together by the Holy Spirit with all who have come before us, and all who will follow us, rebuilding the ruined temples of our age–perhaps with tearstained faces and cracking voices–but doing so in hope, in trust, and in joy. Striving, seeking, finding, and never yielding because God will never yield in His love for us. 

He has proven that this is so through His Son, and we are here in this place and in this time and in this very moment to say YES; to say, Lord, we are ready;  to say together that we are indeed “one equal temper of heroic hearts” and we will walk together, cherishing our past but moving forward into the future that God has prepared for us, toward the Holy Temple, toward the Holy Dwelling Place that can never be destroyed.

“Take courage, says the Lord; work; for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts.”

May we believe it to be true, and live accordingly.