By Mark Michael
“But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Heb. 11:16)
“So how long will you be home this time?” one of my cousins asked me on Monday night. As some of you know, I was away all of the past week, visiting my family in Clear Spring, the little town in Maryland where I grew up. My visit happened to coincide with the Clear Spring Fireman’s Carnival, the major social event of the year, and my cousin and I were standing in line to buy the justly famous carnival fries when he asked me the question. It wasn’t the only time I was asked the question that night, and throughout the rest of the week. And every time, I didn’t quite know what to say.
In a sense Clear Spring will always be my home. My family has lived there for many generations, and the place is full of relatives and old friends. I could give a decent historical walking tour of the downtown, I know what to order in the restaurants, I can figure out the fastest way from one point to another as quickly as the best of them. I’m proud of what my little town has accomplished over the years, and I’m grateful for the traditions and habits I learned there.
But I’m just not sure that it’s my home anymore. I haven’t spent a whole year there since 1996. I can’t really follow my mother’s conversations about the local news. I saw an awful lot more unfamiliar faces at the carnival than ones I knew. It’s not like my wife’s hometown, where so many new roads and housing developments have been built that she can’t find her way from place to place anymore. But it’s not the same.
Small towns like to say that nothing changes in them, but we know that things do. Most of my best friends from high school have long since moved away. I felt my grandmother’s absence and the absence of so many of her generation very powerfully and painfully over the past week. Clear Spring is not the town I grew up in anymore, and it never will be that place again. Thomas Wolfe said that once you leave home, you can never go back again, and this week, for me, at least, I found that to be true.
Some people never really expect to have a hometown. They grow up in an army family or in a big place where the pace of things means that you never expect anything to stay the same. But small towns, in my experience, invest a lot of energy in this idea of being a home place, a place with roots. Small-town people expect to always belong to their communities, to have some sort of mystical connection to them that doesn’t fade with the passing of time. That makes it hard when they can’t really deliver on that promise.
Beneath the argument in this morning’s Epistle lesson lays this issue of what it means to have a hometown. All of us, the author seems to assume, have a kind of built-in longing for being at home. We want to belong to a community that fits us just right, a place where all is familiar, where we are known and valued for who we are in ourselves. We want to belong to a place we can be proud of, a place whose rules and customs and traditions bring joy and purpose to our lives. But somehow our own hometowns never quite seem to match up. They all have their sordid sides, given the role of sin in human life, and we never quite seem to belong to them in the way it seems that we should.
And so, the author tells us, God has made a better country for us, the hometown of the kingdom of heaven. All of the faithful belong to this hometown, all who have trusted in God’s promises and have kept his laws, nurtured the customs of that place. Though none of us here has ever seen it, we know that when we come to it, we will find the purpose and familiarity and rest that we have sought for so long.
The author explains this place and its ways by giving a kind of hometown family tree. When you come there, he means, these will be your neighbors. These are the people that have lived here according to the hometown’s laws and customs. When you review the list, what stands out is how many of the people were misfits in their own native times and places. People like Abel, Enoch, Noah, they lived according to a different standard, in ways not understood or appreciated by their family members and neighbors. Some of those mentioned later in the chapter were attacked by their fellow citizens, executed by their governments. Their faithfulness to God marked them out for hostility and rejection.
The central figure in the chapter, as so often in the New Testament, is Abraham, the father of the faithful. He was the pioneer in this matter of seeking a new hometown. He did something quite unimaginable for most ancient people when he responded to God’s call by leaving Ur of the Chaldees to set out for a new home that God had promised. He never really inhabited that land. He was only a renter, pitching his tent year by year but never digging a foundation or building a wall.
His descendents would occupy that land, possessing it as God had said they would. But being owners instead of renters wouldn’t exhaust God’s promise. The ideal homeland was never really the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. That land, throughout the Old Testament, is a consistent disappointment. Even in it, the faithful remained like strangers and pilgrims. With Abraham, they looked forward to a greater kind of stability, a deeper peace.
The true promise of a homeland has been fulfilled in Jesus. In his ministry he was opening up a kingdom, a new way of relating to God. By his death and Resurrection, he has reconciled us to God, offering the kind of forgiveness and peace that helps us know that we really belong. He has sent upon us his Spirit, equipping us with insight and strength to live according to the laws and customs of the kingdom. He promises a perfect and complete fulfillment of what has begun already. At the proper time, all will be made new, and God himself will be with his people, all evil and sorrow banished in the home of the blessed.
That life of that hometown, the one God promised and brought to life in Jesus, begins for each of us in Holy Baptism. In it we are united to Christ, and become sharers in that new world that he has come to create.
Today, we are delighted to celebrate the making of a new citizen of our common hometown. Tess Hennigan’s current address is thousands of miles from here. Her parents have brought her from England here to Christ Church to be baptized because this place is important to them. Kirsten grew up in this church, and she cherishes the memories of so many dear people and happy days here. She wants her daughter to understand this place and its people, to love it as she loves it. This is a good and beautiful thing, and it’s part of what I was trying to do last week as I took my little son to be among the people and places of the town where I grew up.
But this baptism will not really make Tess a Cooperstonian. On paper, it will make her a member of this parish, but she will really come to know and follow Christ at Saint Margaret’s Church, Putney, among people most of us have never met, in a culture that only a few of us have ever inhabited and understood. And that’s just fine.
Because no matter where Tess lives, we will share a hometown. The promises she makes today are a way of life we share together, and with God’s help, we will all end up in the same place, sharing together in the vision of God. The same is true for Emily, to whom we bid farewell today as she returns to her studies at Duke Divinity School. It has been a great blessing to know her and to grow with her over the last few months. She is a part of us now, and she will be a part of us when she lives hundreds of miles away. Because we really all belong to the same place, and it’s not Cooperstown or Clear Spring or Putney or Durham, North Carolina. We belong with God, and the hometown that He has prepared.
The Rev. Mark Michael is rector of St. Francis, Potomac, Maryland, and editor of The Living Word.