It’s the time of year when we celebrate homecoming. I am proud graduate of Iroquois High School in Erie, Pennsylvania, class of 1996, the Home of the Braves. Growing up, homecoming was scheduled around the football season. Sometime in late September to early October, the planners of homecoming would target the opponent that would most easily get buried by our football team in front of all the fans and the alumni who had come home to wear their black and gold and relive the golden days of high school. Homecoming is a chance to reconnect with old friends, to visit family, and to relive the glory days.
I think fall is my favorite season because of the fond memories I have associated with it. I always enjoyed the sports. I love the fall weather – the crisp evening air and the changing colors. The homecoming dance was always a highlight – a chance to go to dinner with friends dressed to the nines. After a summer where all our life’s rhythms changed, fall brought things back into a familiar pace. Fall feels like home.
But coming home isn’t always easy. Sometimes there is fear in coming home. I think that’s certainly the case with a class reunion. At graduation everyone goes their separate ways with their own reputation. Jock. Outsider. Nerd. Partyer. Unsurprisingly, people keep changing, and the person who looked like they’d never leave home has a great job and a nice family. The person who was so popular that the class voted him homecoming king had already peaked in high school and never found his footing in adulthood. I’m sure you can think of lots of people who have defied expectations. Perhaps you’re one of them. Coming home can be hard because you face your past while trying to stake the claim that “this is who I am now!”
Think about our story in Genesis about Jacob and Esau. They’re twins. Esau is the older, but Jacob has schemed his way into Esau’s birthright. Years earlier, their relationship was broken to the point that Jacob and Esau went their separate ways because Jacob feared his brother would kill him, should they ever see each other again. This homecoming is hard. Jacob had been gone for a long time. He had prospered apart from his family, making a family of his own. But his prosperity led to conflict with his in-laws. Fearing for his life in Laban’s house, Jacob and his family move out and head back towards the land where he was raised. Esau would be there waiting for him, and Jacob did not know how he would be received. It was not a question of “should he stay or should he go.” He had to flee Laban’s land, and he had to face the terrifying prospect of heading home, where he had stirred up so much trouble earlier in life. Coming home can be messy.
Our text for today gets right into the reunion. Jacob knows Esau and his men are near. He sends messengers to them, but also divides up his encampment, thinking that it’s likely that Esau is still angry and ready to harm anyone associated with Jacob. He tries bargaining with God. “Lord, if you just get me out of this mess!” He sends gifts to Esau to appease him and start afresh. But Jacob does not know what it will be like to come home. He’s afraid, but the time has come for the encounter. Jacob sees Esau and his 400 men. It looks like an army. Jacob throws himself on the ground to plead for mercy, but Esau doesn’t need the groveling. Time has healed the brokenness. Esau, the one hurt so much by Jacob, has forgiven him and welcomed him home.
The gracious welcome home interrupts the fear of rejection. Jacob has his plans for how to earn his way back into his brother’s favor, but Esau interrupts him. He ends the brokenness, full stop. It is unexpected, this welcome, but I think that interrupting grace is what God is all about. Let’s switch our focus to Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son. I suspect it’s a familiar tale to most of us. For today I will keep my attention on the son who ran from home and mustered up the courage to return. Like Jacob, the prodigal son has created his own trouble. He’s fed up with being in his father’s household. There’s a whole big world out there for him to explore, and he’s not going to let social conventions stand in his way. He demands his inheritance from his father while his father is very much alive. Could you imagine if you did that to your parents or if your children did that to you? It’s as though he said, “Drop dead, dad. I’m out. Give me what you have for me, and I’m gone. You’ll never lay eyes on me again.”
Stunningly, his father gives him his share of the estate, which is forty percent of the whole. The son packs his backs and heads off to Las Vegas. (Well, not really Vegas, but you get the metaphor.) He goes to the place where he is free from the restrictions of home, free to be his own person, free to do whatever he wants to do. And he lives it up. He goes to the best parties, flashing cash to get attention. He lays down staggering sums on the chariot races. He eats the finest food and drinks the finest drinks. Day by day his bank account goes lower; day by day he sinks lower. Instead of finding life through buying all that life has on offer, he finds himself bankrupt, both literally and spiritually. He has bottomed out. But what I find so interesting is that even with nothing, he is so fearful of returning home, he takes minimum wage work to stay away.
His plan isn’t working. The pigs he’s feeding have more to eat than he does. All the people who liked him when he could flash his cash have disappeared. He’s nothing to them. But where is he someone? Home. He knows the heart of his father. He knows how he cares for his household – how he treats even the servants like family. Still, coming home is hard. He’s stubborn and independent. How else could a person demand his inheritance while his father is still living? He’s humiliated too. He had made such a bad stance, how is it possible to come back home and admit his failure. He’s fearful too. What if his father rejects him? What if he is all alone in his mess?
The son develops a plan. He’s ready to come home, but he is unsure how he’ll be received at home. He gets a speech together. It’s a nice speech, telling the truth about his bad behavior. “Father,” he’s prepared to say. “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” It checks all the right boxes. It’s humble. It accepts that he has messed up. It doesn’t expect much of the one he hurt. He’s finally ready to come home.
As he approaches his father sees him. There’s not a doubt in his mind that his lost son is welcome home. From head to toe he is full of compassion. He runs to his son and embraces him. The son still has his speech ready. “Father,” he says. “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Before he can go any further, his father interrupts him with a gracious welcome. The father doesn’t need a speech. He welcomes his lost son home. He’s back where he belongs. He was lost and is found. He’s home! Like Esau to Jacob, the father’s gracious welcome of his son interrupts his fear of rejection. The brokenness ends. He’s home, and it’s worth a celebration.
What is home to us? It’s a place of welcome. It’s a place for family. It’s a place of love. No home is perfect, but I believe that all of us have a deep-soul craving for home. I believe the church is a home. Because of my calling as a pastor, how I define home is not geographical. Home has been Erie, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Princeton, St. Simons Island, Troy, and Grand Haven. Those places all have their special hold on my life, but the constant for me and my family has been the way the church is home. It’s the place of welcome. It’s the family of people who may not share bloodlines but share life and faith. It’s the place of love. That vision of the church as home is one of the things that deeply shapes how I approach ministry.
I think this is why this pandemic has been so difficult for how we are church in this time. I think we all have that sense that our church family provides a network of support, welcome, and love, but after all these months of not being together or of the fear that comes when we get together, there is a creeping suspicion that we’ve lost our sense of home.
Coming home can be hard, particularly after it’s been a long time between visits, particularly when you’re trying to figure out if you feel safe at home. Believe me. I get it. But I hope our two texts for today can offer a glimpse into what it’s like to come home. Sure, there is lots of fear in coming back after a while. Will people notice that I’m back? What will people think when I walk back in? Will I feel safe at home? I know I cannot answer those questions for you, particularly with this aggravating pandemic that seems to shift every time we get things figured out.
So, I’d like for you to imagine what it’s like to come home to the church. Perhaps for those of you in the building today, you can already describe how it feels. Everyone is going to receive it differently, but don’t let fear be a roadblock to you finding your way back to the community when you feel ready. The church is meant to imitate the love of the father in Jesus’ parable. It’s a love that interrupts our reasons. It’s a love that embraces before explanations. It’s a love that takes us as we are and says we’re a part of the family. I honestly think that’s one reason why, in normal times, the pews fill up on Christmas Eve. For those who only come to church on that night, there is a sense that they’ve been missing the warmth of home. They feel the pull to come and hear again about this God who loves us so much to send his Son to be the Savior of the world.
Friends, as we come back – in our own time – week by week into the life of the church, I pray that we can lay aside the fears that we have. I pray that we find the tug that says I miss my family. I pray that we find home among the people who make up this wonderful church – young, old, and everyone in between.
We’ve missed you. This fall, come home. We’ll be here with open arms. For there’s no place like home.