30th January 2022
Where is home for you?
A sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor
Sunday 30 January 2022, The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
(1 Chronicles 29:6-19, Acts 7:44-50)
Please scroll to the bottom of this page for a video of this sermon
Where is home for you? Seeing as the clergy is one profession where you tend to move around from time to time, often moving to a different part of the country- and moving house every time you move post- this is question I’ve become quite used to being asked over the years each time I’ve started a new job. To be honest, I don’t really feel that much of a sense of connection with Kent anymore, where I moved when I was 6 and lived until I went to university at the age of 18, seeing as none of my friends and family live there now and haven’t for a long time. But the question “where is home” is an interesting one.
For many people, of course, this is a question that’s highly charged and complex, and not easy to answer. Over Christmas, I read a book called “The Ungrateful Refugee” by the Iranian novelist and writer and activist, Dina Nayeri. Her family fled Iran, due to persecution for converting to Christianity, when she was 10, living for 2 years in refugee hostels in Dubai and Rome, before settling finally in the US. She talks a lot in that book about the pressure, as a refugee, to give up her previous identity and to be grateful to be in her new country- even though she desperately missed the beautiful décor of her old house in Iran and her cousins and grandparents and best friends.
Eventually, the teenage Dina and her family assimilate and are accepted. They’ve found a place where they can feel safe, perhaps even feel “at home”. “But there were unspoken conditions to our acceptance,” she writes, “we had to be grateful… As refugees, we owed them our previous identity. We had to lay it at their door like an offering, and gleefully deny it to earn our place in this new country. There would be no straddling. No third culture here.” (Guardian long read, Tuesday 4 April 2017).
On Thursday last week it was Holocaust Memorial Day, an important day to mark, especially as now- with the passing of time- there are fewer survivors of the Holocaust still alive to tell their story. It’s also to give expression to other events in recent world history where innocent people have suffered at the hands of tyrants, such as the massacre of the Armenians and the attempted genocide of the Tutsi population in Rwanda. Earlier in the week, one Holocaust survivor, 91 year old Vera Shaufeld, who left what is now the Czech Republic on Sir Nicholas Winton’s Kindertransport in 1939, said that finding sanctuary in Bury St Edmunds as a nine-year-old helped save her life. She went on to draw a parallel between her own experience of making her home in this country and that of migrants crossing the English Channel, of whom there were record numbers in 2021, urging the British people to show the same compassion afforded to people like her, and arguing that there are similarities between the plight of children fleeing the Nazi regime and those seeking a place of safety in the UK today.
She said: “I would very much like England to show the really amazing kindness that it showed to me and to other refugee children and to go on showing that today in a very troubled world…Nobody wants to leave their home country, unless things are so bad that even such a perilous journey seems to them to be a better undertaking than starvation or other awful things that are happening… No-one puts themselves in danger on the sea unless the land is more dangerous for them.”
Where is home for you? Our Old Testament reading today describes the offerings made for the building of the Temple, which will be the home of God. Solomon, David’s son, who will soon start building it, prays later in Chronicles at the Temple’s dedication, “will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Have regard to your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God… Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive”. God’s home isn’t limited to one place- not even the heavens- yet his presence is in the Temple. The Temple is the place where the people- through the sacrifices that will be offered there- are reconciled to God.
In Christian theology, human beings have no home on earth. We are all “aliens and transients”, as the Chronicler puts it, “a people without hope”. Our days on the earth are limited, and our true citizenship, as Paul writes, is in heaven. But the Temple is the House of God and the place where heaven and earth meet, where humans are brought back to God. It was designed, just like the medieval architecture of this cathedral with its harmonious proportions and filled with light, to draw human beings into the beauty of God’s presence and help them find their way home to Him.
As Chronicles makes clear, it’s not just the priests or the holy people who are welcome in God’s House. The old King David, before handing over the project to his young, inexperienced son, exhorts the whole assembly who are gathered to give generously to this enterprise, giving thanks to God for the abundance of gifts- whether of silver or gold, bronze, iron or precious stones- that follows. Priests were still very much considered to be separate, set apart for sacred duties. But the Temple is a place where all God’s people are to feel at home and contribute to its building and upkeep, where lay people as well as priests must “consecrate themselves” for this work in the service of God’s house (v.5).
Our New Testament reading, from the book of Acts, picks up on this theme of the Temple. Stephen, a Jewish convert to Christianity and the first Christian martyr, in a polemical speech passionately condemns the Jewish people who are his audience. For him, the Temple is no longer God’s house, or a place where God can be found. The idolatry of the Jewish people has meant that “the Most High” no longer “dwell[s] in houses made by human hands.” God’s home is not in buildings but in Jesus, and in the minds and hearts of Christians who accept him.
Especially in a week where we’ve observed Holocaust Memorial Day, it’s very important that we put this reading into context. This was a time of great conflict between those Jews who had converted to Christianity and those who hadn’t, the Jewish people who had expelled the Jewish Christians from the Temple and continued to ostracize and severely persecute them. Since then, in many places of the world, the Church has changed places with the Council that had Stephen stoned. The boldness and compassion of Stephen in proclaiming his Christian faith, that we rightly revere, has turned into a history that now contains stories of the Church’s silence and complicity in the Holocaust and the suffering and deaths of six million people in the camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
The Temple of Solomon’s time was God’s House, the place where God resides, a place of peace, where the people could come home to God, find him there and know his forgiveness. In this week when we have observed Holocaust Memorial Day, we ask for our forgiveness for our complicity with all that is evil in the world and not of God. We repent of the sin that has led us, like the Jews of Stephen’s time, and like many Christians since then, to exclude others. We renew our resolve to make our churches places of hospitality and welcome, safety and peace, where all can feel at home, and to preserve and defend the freedoms of the whole human family with compassion and generosity.