Sermon for 5th Sunday after Trinity – based on Mark 6.1-13

8 07 2012

Heaven – or a Haven?

I wonder what the word ‘home’ means to you.

I hope it is a good word. Like the smell of fresh bread or the feel of a warm fire.

When I was regularly involved in funeral ministry one of the things I used to ask families to tell me was all the addresses where the deceased had lived.  Often it seemed that each new address was a new chapter. Some people’s lives only had one or two chapters: people dying in the street if not the house where they were born.

I met someone this week who had moved house every years for the last twenty – an army chaplain.  I wonder where he calls home.

Over the last quarter century I have lived in five different houses. For our (now grown-up) children, home is probably the one where they lived from middle primary to middle secondary school. It is now an abandoned, vandalised and burnt out shell, the garden an urban jungle. I saw it again recently. It is hard to reconcile that terrible mess with the idea or even the memory of home.

My mother still lives in the house that we moved to as a family in 1964.  It is too big for her but she is surrounded by memories and – notice the word – familiarity. She will stay there as long as she can.  The idea, the reality, the concept of home matters to her. That house will always be home because that’s where her kids grew up.

Homes are of course buildings but buildings do not become a home just by being there. Homes are made.  Some people are good at home making but the main work is not that of choosing making or hanging curtains, painting and decorating, or adding conservatories. Homemaking is heart work.

John O’Donohue has written this about home in his book ‘Benedictus’:

‘Humble or grand, home is where your heart belongs’. But more originally than that, he suggests that, ‘A home is a subtle, implicit laboratory of the spirit’. For, ‘It is here that human beings are made; here that their minds open to discover others and to come to know who they might be themselves.’

He has also written:

‘When it is place of shelter and love, there is no place like home. It is then one of the sweetest words in any language. It suggests a nest where intimacy and belonging foster identity and individuality. In a sense, the notion home is continuation of the human body that is after all our original and primary home on earth; it houses the mind, heart and spirit. To be, we need to be home. When a place to belong is assured, the adventure of growth can begin with great promise.’

Home is the place where we flourish or from which we originate.  It is where we can dwell easily – where we can be ourselves and become ourselves in safety.

Home is good. And family is vital.

Why then is Jesus so harsh about home and family?

Did he not foresee that they would be the theme of dozens of popular magazines? Did Jesus not foresee the rise of what you might call, in a very widely extended sense, ‘English civilization; where a man’s home is his castle?  That suburban dream in which everyone has their happy space, their comfort zone, assured? Where life’s major project is to pay the mortgage and enjoy private space; to cut the lawn and join Neighbourhood Watch?

Our gospel reading today is just two brief paragraphs. The first is about home and family and the second and mission and vulnerability.  And the story – the good news, is not that home is good and away is bad.  Nor that home has its limits but away is boundless. Rather the message is that home – and for that matter family – have the scope and the capacity to be spiritually inhibiting and limiting.

As far as Jesus is concerned, home is not the destination but the start of the story. And his point is that the story cannot continue, unfold, and develop within the confines of family and home.  He sent his disciples out and required them to step out vulnerably. Creature comforts were not to be packed. The limit was not fifteen kilos.  The rule was, ‘no bag, no bread, no money’.

The journey is just as important as the home in Christian faith and spirituality. If that were not so we might be excused for thinking that Christianity was not a very grown up religion. That it was for children and other dependents; that it was essentially an annexe to peaceful domestic living. I rather think that a lot of people hold that view – both within and outside the Church. But it is a difficult one to hold onto if you read the Bible – not least our gospel today.

Restlessness and rootlessness are part and parcel of the Christian spirit.  And the reason for this, as Augustine so significantly noticed, is that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God.

That’s the big point about God. It is God who is our true home, our ‘eternal home’, as the hymn puts it. And so any other home, any place which makes us feel that we can really rest and relax but which is not yet God is in fact deluding us and misleading us.

Children need good homes. Teenagers need very good homes. We all need good homes. But at some point in our life we need to realise that what we thought was home is not really home. That what we though was rest was not really rest; that there is really a massive difference between a haven and  heaven.

What a difference that little letter ‘e’ makes. A home is a haven. It can hint to us of the delights of heaven, the values of the kingdom, the peace which passes all understanding. But it is not yet, it never is the real deal, the full thing.

The story of Jesus changes gear and comes to life in a new way when we hear these words: ‘he went out’.  They are words of venture and adventure. And they are vital words.

As soon as Jesus goes out he sends others out. Out they go. They have been equipped by home; they have enjoyed being cared for, nurtured, and educated – up to a point.  It is time to move on and move out.

God’s grace is a subtle and delicate and vulnerable kind of power. It cannot reach the complacent soul, the conceited heart, the cocooned mind.  God’s grace can only be really effective when human beings are opened up by experience to its possibility. That is why it is the poor in spirit, who know their need of God, who are truly blessed.  It is a need which it is hard to make sense of when all your needs are supplied by your parents or your spouse or in later life your children. It is hard for the grace of God to surprise people who live in tight local traditional units where the future is an extension of the past; where everything is okay as long as it has happened before and nothing is possible if it is not already happening; where nostalgia is valued more highly than newness.

The spirit of God is a creative spirit. The walk of discipleship is a dynamic walk.  It is not about watching the telly with the curtains drawn in a centrally heated house. It is not even about watching Sings of Praise – even if the subtitles are running and the family is singing along in four-part harmony.

It’s a lovely thought – but of a haven, not of heaven.

Jesus demands of each one of us that we embrace our faith as a venture of vulnerability. That does not only mean that young people should have gap years or pop across to Taizé for a week. It means that we are perpetually challenged to move, to leave our defences behind, to step out of our comfort zones and into the territory of danger and grace, of pilgrimage and mission, of encounter and judgement.

Don’t get me wrong. Homes should be lovely.  Home towns are great and our families are far more important to us than we ever fully recognise until it is too late.

But they are not the whole thing. They are part of the thing.  Our loving God demands of us a direct relationship, and a response of commitment which means that we are spiritually formed not only by the hearth but also by the hedgerow; not only by the kitchen table but by the open road. A relationship which means that we learn not only to give hospitality (‘do come in’), but to receive hospitality (‘please can I come in’) and that we are able to discern, even when desperate and needy, whether to stay in the company of others – or whether to shake the dust from our feet and move on.

It is a challenging Gospel – they mostly are. And it warns us against the dangers of comfort and complacency. At the same time as it promises us real hope for the most astonishing and amazing fulfilment, if only we let go of the pleasures of partial fulfilment, domestic bliss and the spiritual suffocation that family members, even members of the family of faith, inevitably inflict upon each other.

Jesus wants us to be nurtured and healthy and to a degree comfortable – but not too comfortable.

And if that suggestion outrages you- well maybe it’s because you feel you have too much to lose by taking a slightly more risky step of faith than you ever have before.  And if that is right – well maybe you really do need to take that step.

Go on! You will be amazed by what happens next.




One response

8 07 2012
many words, but only one reality « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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