Homecoming (a sermon for my childhood church)

**This sermon was originally preached at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church (Dunwoody, GA) on October 25, 2015 for the final Sunday of their stewardship season.**

1 Corinthians 3:9-11

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.


I want to tell you a story. It takes place in this very sanctuary, on Christmas Eve, 23 years ago. My family had just joined St. Luke’s a few months earlier, and we found ourselves quickly recruited to be a part of the 5:00 Christmas service for families. So my mom and stepdad and brother and stepsisters and I all dressed up as shepherds and acted out the journey to go and see the newborn baby Jesus.

On this particular Christmas Eve, Jesus was played by a baby girl appropriately named Grace, and Mary and Joseph were played by her parents. They sat huddled together on the chancel steps. From the side balcony, an angel appeared to us and instructed us to go and find this newborn savior. In response, we gave our best impressions of awe and wonder. And my stepdad—as chief shepherd—in the role of lifetime, spoke his crucial line, ”Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened!”

And so we set out on our long trek around and around the sanctuary, guided by hope, and finally made our way down the center aisle, drawn toward the promise of this small, new life like we were coming home.

That might have been the first time in my life that I walked through this building and felt like I was coming home, but it wouldn’t be the last. Over the years that followed, this place became a home, a community, a refuge for me like no place else in the world. By third grade I was sending letters to the pastors with suggestions for how to make things better. I spent weeknights sneaking around these hallways and climbing up into the crook of that stained glass window back there. Sundays as an acolyte or goofing off in youth group, and summers encountering Christ all over this wide world while on mission trips with friends who became family.

It’s probably no surprise then, that, years later, when the time came for me to leave home and venture out to Texas, I called Shannon and confessed to her that I was terrified to leave because I was afraid that there wouldn’t be another church out there that felt so much like home. She told me two things back then: First, that there would be other good churches and communities of faith – that I would be surprised. And second, that even if there wasn’t, I had a responsibility to go out and share the kind of home and community I found here with the world. When I followed that advice right into ordination, I told the story of this church and how I felt called to work for a world where every child of God could feel the sense of home and belovedness that I felt growing up in this place.

The story of that Christmas Eve, that journey to hope and home within these walls, is part of the story of this place. That story doesn’t just belong to me. It belongs to all of you who I suspect and hope have had your own such moments. It’s a story that belongs to everyone who has been a part of this community and everyone who one day will be. We all know that there is something special here.

But the story is even bigger than that. It is the story of every community of faithful believers on down the long centuries. It is the story of the ancient Israelites in exile as they lamented the home they had lost and dreamed of the home God would bring them to in time. It is the story of those first faithful few who gathered together with Jesus in an upper room to share in hope for a better world and faith in something bigger than themselves. This story—of community, and relationship, and belonging—this is our inheritance from the one who first created us—the one to whom we all belong.

My own experience here has convinced me that church at its very best feels like home. I believe this is what the Christians in Corinth found too. It’s what they were learning to build together on the foundation of Christ. Paul was instructing them to understand that they were building something bigger than themselves. They were created a space for people to encounter the love of God. Paul wanted them to understand that their work was part of a bigger story, just as we know the story of this place is part of the larger story of our faith.

In the early days of Christianity, this idea of church as home was literal, as believers gathered in each other’s houses to worship and break bread together. Today, we build that sense of home in a multitude of ways that respond to our modern context.

Here at St. Lukes’s, you come together weekly for faithful, heartfelt worship. You have Christian education programming for children, youth, and adults to gather together and grow each week. You foster opportunities for community and fellowship that extend beyond just Sunday morning. And you seek out and commit to opportunities to serve others in your own city and around the world, finding new family in every corner of this earth. You share meals and prayers; you visit one another in sickness and in loss and in joy. You learn with each other and from each other.

In this way, for the many years that this church has flourished on the corner of Mt. Vernon and Manhasset, it has joined in the same work of many other communities of faith both now and throughout history. It has built a sense of belonging and comfort for so many beloved children of God who have walked through its doors. Nurtured in this place, faithful Christians have gone out into the world, sharing the spirit of love that they encountered here in new and even unexpected places.

When I look at the lives of my peers who grew up with me in this church, I am struck by the impact that our faith formation has had on the people who we have become. Nonprofit workers and pastors, parents and world travelers, people who love and do good for others because we were first loved here by so many who committed and invested their lives in making this church a reflection of the love of God. People like you.

Of course, we all know that all of the good programs and work done in this church—all the tangible ways that the money and time and talents of church members get put to use—those tangible things are not ultimately the point. They are the means. The point of every effort by this church and its members, by all churches at best, is—as y’all say in your mission statement—to know, serve, and share in Jesus Christ. It is to know what grace looks and feels like, and to know that you and everyone are beloved children of God—to know it so deep down in your bones that none of the sin and brokenness of this world can ever take that knowing away from you or stop you from sharing it with others. The point is to help people know whose they are and where they belong.

The risk though, in church feeling like home—is that we can come to believe that home is about the building, the specific programs, even the people around you. And those are so important. But that is not where our sense of home is truly rooted. We are not at home in church, we are at home in Christ. Church feels like home because it draws us closer to Christ. And so church, where we come together as community to travel that journey together—is not truly about “being home” so much as it is about coming home. Ever closer to the one who calls us beloved.

This communal work of drawing nearer to Christ does call us to commit and invest ourselves wholly into the good work of our community so that we and others may continue to grow in our understanding of God’s grace and love. But it calls us to more than that. It calls us to holy dreaming, to firm and certain hope, to prophetic imagination. It calls to trust and a willingness to be on the move. Because Christ is on the move in this world, and our home is wherever Christ is.

This can be uncomfortable. It requires us to show up boldly into unknown spaces, holding onto our faith that God knows even when we don’t. It sometimes requires us to let go of some things we had once been called to so that we might take hold of the new callings with which God graces us.

We are not alone in the daunting work of building something beyond our own imagining. It is also the hope and encouragement that God offers the exiled Israelites. This is the work with which Paul charges the Corinthians. The Chiristians in Corinth were struggling to hold on to the church they knew and loved, even as they opened themselves to God’s expansive vision for the future. This balance, as Paul tells them, is the very heart of faith. We are building onto what has been built before us. And others will build onto what we have built. What binds us is our common foundation, our home in Jesus Christ.

Even though this part of faith can indeed be uncomfortable, it is also amazing and transforming. Think of the first 12 so long ago. Jewish men who faithfully followed their rabbi into a new religion, a new world, a new and bigger promise than they ever could have conceived of. And on this Reformation Sunday, we would do well too to remember the faithful Christians who five centuries ago took bold risks in great love for their God and their church—never anticipating that they were midwives to the birth of Protestantism and a new incarnation of Christian faith. I’d wager that St. Luke’s founding pastor, Moss Robertson, would have opened his eyes wide with wonder and disbelief if he had been told all those years ago all that this community would one day come to be.

And certainly, I never imagined as I goofed off in these hallways and prayed in the nook of that stained glass window as a child that one day, God would call me to stand here and witness to all of y’all about the profound experience of love and grace this community gave me growing up.

Who knows what beautiful new thing is being born in this very place at this very moment? Who knows what seed is being planted or what holy thing is being raised up? We can only trust that our foundation—our home—is in Christ. We can only trust that the Spirit is at work and on the move and daring us all to come along. We can also trust that even though the work is bigger than us and our imaginations, it is also incomplete without us.

I want to tell you another story.

For nearly a century, there was a big, beautiful church that reigned prominently over Broad Street in downtown Philadelphia. It was called Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church and for decades, Philadelphia’s elite citizens would dress in the finest and gather in that cathedral for worship and community. For decades they would come to feel at home. But over time, people moved on and membership dwindled. The church fell into disrepair and the congregation petered out until—in the early 2000s—the old building seemed mostly hollow and empty of life.

But a young pastor and some other hopeful Christians felt the spark of a new dream. They created a new community in the old space and—though they originally thought it would be a church for young artists—it also drew many people who walked Philly’s downtown streets seeking shelter and refuge from their hunger. Broad Street Ministry—as it became called—began serving meals in their sanctuary and providing social services to those in their community who were experiencing homelessness and poverty. They called the meals “Breaking Bread” and hundreds of people came—and still come—every week to share food, to find community, and to know the grace of God.

A few years ago, I interned at Broad Street for a summer while in seminary. Every week at staff meeting, folks would share important stories from the week. One Wednesday, our head of Social Services shared that the day before at Breaking Bread, a man had sat down at a table to eat. This may not sound all that remarkable, but here’s why it matters:

That man had been coming to Broad Street for meals four times a week for years. He had been traumatized by experiences of hunger and poverty and violence on the streets, and he had eaten every meal in all those years, standing up with his back against a wall to protect himself. Until this one day, when—in the sanctuary of this old—and also new—church, he sat down at a table to eat with friends because he finally felt safe enough—home enough—to do so. Who could have imagined what a home Chambers-Wylie Memorial Church would become? Only God. And who can imagine what God will do—is already doing—with us?

Jesus Christ is at work and on the move in this world. In that church and in this church. And he is calling us. Calling us beloved. Calling us to show each other what grace and love feel like deep in our bones. Calling us to give all that we can of ourselves for that grace. He is calling us to hold fast to faith and to dream beyond our own imaginations. And he is calling us, always, to follow him and to come home.


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