Isaiah 51:1-3, 10-11
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
By now, I hope those of you here in the sanctuary have been able to begin to take in and reconnect to the details, memories and meaning of this space for you—everything from the 150-year-old horsehair pew cushions to your favorite pew, from the music at your wedding to the pastor who baptized your children and that life-changing day when you could finally believe that God made you and loves you exactly as you are.
I hope you’ve noted the significant additions to this space: Two fancy cameras at the back of the sanctuary and a high-tech video screen that helps Henry and Sam frame and monitor their shots for the livestream on YouTube.
I hope those of you who are worshipping online can sense even more clearly than during those 16 months of pandemic live-streamed worship from our chapel how important you are to us, and how central you are to our church community.
Whether you are here in the sanctuary or sitting at home in front of a computer or a smart phone, I hope you’ve taken some time to drink in the beauty of the faces and names you haven’t seen for so long. I hope you’re allowing yourself to feel whatever those faces and names stir up within you—joy or sadness, tears or tingles, emotional somersaults, or a raw aching in your heart. I hope you feel, or are at least open to feeling, all but overwhelmed by a renewed awareness of what an immeasurable gift this beloved community is.
And I hope that by now the word or the feeling of home has crossed your mind or moved your heart.
I hope and pray that all of us, wherever we are, realize that our gathering and regathering today is more than just a worship service, more even than our first-ever hybrid service.
Our regathering is also a returning, a coming home, a new start—and in that sense we at First Church Amherst take our place today in the archetypal literature and lived experience of return.
It is a literature that is both ancient and modern, mythological, scriptural, and popular. It is a lived experience that is as old and universal as time itself—but also personal and communal, brand new, never-ending and ever-evolving.
Granted, in some of the literature the actual return home is little more than a footnote to the epic journey required to get there—think the Odyssey, Lord of the Rings, and the “Wizard of Oz”—or a necessary pitstop on the way to new life and another destination—think Harry Potter and his return to the house where his parents were killed by the Dark Lord.
In our scriptures, we have several stories in which return—how it happens and what it represents—is central not only to the particular stories but also to the Grand Story of God’s transforming and redeeming love, God’s mercy and grace, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
Think about Moses, who runs away from Egypt the murderer of a single man and then, after being called by God, returns to liberate an entire people from slavery.
Think about Jacob, who has to run for his life because of his lying and cheating ways and then is commanded by God to return to the scene, and the victim, of his crimes.
Think about Naomi, who leaves Bethlehem with her husband to escape a famine, and then, after the deaths of her husband and sons, is accompanied on her return home by a determined daughter-in-law.
Think about the Jewish exiles in Babylon: forcibly removed from their homeland, strangers in a strange land, feeling punished and abandoned by God. But God cannot abandon them or forget them, God cannot stop loving them, and so God comforts them and promises they will return to Jerusalem with everlasting joy—and that even the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Think about Joseph and Mary and the little baby Jesus, who flee to Egypt to escape the massacre of the infants by King Herod, and then, after Herod dies, return to find yet another oppressive ruler in place.
Think, too, of the Prodigal Son, returning to his disgraced father starving, humiliated, and maybe a little bit sorry, hoping for nothing more than to get a menial job in his father’s house.
Think, beloveds, of yourselves. Think of yourself, your loved ones, and your neighbors—separated from one another, from work and travel, from dear ones in nursing homes and hospitals. Remember how the pandemic robbed us of a sense of safety and security, robbed us even of the opportunity to mourn together, to hold memorial services, mark graduations, and celebrate weddings and holidays.
Think of our church: Separated from this building and from the shared, in-person experience of worship, separated from those who couldn’t or didn’t want to do online worship, separated from many aspects of the life-giving love and comfort of community.
Think of our nation: Of the families and friends of more than 606,000 children of God who lost their lives to Covid-19. Think of the jobs lost, the businesses closed, the families facing eviction.
Think of our interconnected yet unequal community of nations: the more than 4 million dead, and the many places where the pandemic remains unchecked.
So much loss and grief. So much change and uncertainty. So much fear and anxiety. So much needless death.
And: So much mercy and grace. So much creativity and adaptability. So much strength and perseverance. So many people and communities coming together. So many opportunities to reconsider what is important, to reset our priorities, to make something new and better of our lives, our church, our communities, our nation, and the earth.
And today we regather as a church community—no longer all together in the sanctuary but here and in homes across the country and maybe the world. Today we take another significant step on the journey of return.
And, just like Odysseus returning to his wife Penelope, and Frodo returning to the Shire, the exiles returning to a devastated Jerusalem, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph returning to Judea, we have returned to worship to find things not at all the same.
And just like Moses, Jacob, Naomi, and that prodigal son, we have returned to find that we are not the same. We, too, have been changed.
Some of us are still grieving loved ones lost and not yet memorialized. Some of us are less interested in in-person church, and others of us are less interested in any kind of church. Some of us are afraid to admit that we wish things could be the way they were before, and others of us are afraid that we’ll go back to being the way we were before: too busy to make room in our hearts for others, too proud to admit that we need help, too comfortable with the old ways of doing things to consider how we might grow in love, understanding, and faith.
To return to a beloved place or practice and find it different is to encounter uncertainty and vulnerability when we want something known and predictable. To return to what once was home and discover that we and others have changed is to be met with mixed feelings when we want the purity of joy.
But the stories of return in our scriptures also tell us that God is forever with us, that God’s love for us has not changed.
By God’s strength, Moses finds his voice and leads his people through the sea and into the wilderness, where they become God’s chosen ones. By God’s deliverance, Jacob discovers that the brother he betrayed has forgiven him. Naomi discovers in her foreign daughter-in-law Ruth a stubborn love truer than anything her husband or her own culture had ever given her. Joseph and Mary discover that the God who has given them a child is with them still. The prodigal son gets not a job but the extravagant welcome and unconditional love of the parent he had rejected.
As for the exiles, they discover that God has not abandoned them after all, that God’s promise is sure, that God’s love is in the midst of them still.
Wherever we are this morning—in the sanctuary or online—whatever we are feeling—joy or grief, disappointment or hope or something we can’t even name—I hope and pray that we will know that our return is not the end of the journey. I hope we will know that, even if the way forward seems uncertain, God is with us. I pray that we will learn to trust the words of God as spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Beloveds,the most important return is not to a building. The most important return is not to normal. The most important return is not even to what we thought was home.
The most important return is to the heart of God.
And if we return to God with all our heart—all that we are, all that we have, and all that we hope for—we will find more life and love than we could ever ask for or even imagine. We will know healing and wholeness, caring community, solidarity in the struggle for justice, love and peace, and a future with hope.
May this day of regathering and return produce nothing less.
Thanks be to God.