A young man decided to plant a church in a southern suburb of Seattle. The neighborhood was marked by lower income and lower educational attainment than the suburbs to the north. His plan was simple: gather, share, explore.
Gathered around a table, around a hearth, his small band of friends and neighborhood acquaintances shared their experiences of faith, God, and church, and they explored their common longing. In the absence of a building, they discovered what kind of a home they desired. In the absence of a clergyperson they raised up a leader they could respect. And in the absence of the Eucharist they explored what it was they hungered for. They were on a quest to discover the question to which their faith was the answer.
We are a people of the question. We celebrate this as Episcopalians, our ability and space to question, to doubt, to wrestle and rest in the tensions. But as Christians, we are also the faith descendants of people of the question.
Todayâs reading from the letter to the Hebrews refers to the ancient Israelites wandering in the desert: âThey confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.â In the writerâs interpretation, the Israelitesâ very identity becomes a question, a longing.
Like our faith ancestors, our identity is stated as a question, a hope, an unfulfilled and always fulfilling prophecy: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We, by our identity as Christians, choose to live in a liminal place of hope. Is hope not always liminal, marginal? Is hope not always searching, traveling, and restless? To be hopeful and to be Christian is akin to and descended from a long line of nomadic peoples.
A nomad by definition is a person who travels according to the seasons but has a place to call home. Is it then inaccurate to call the Israelites ânomadsâ? For their home was not known to them. And yet, they resided spiritually in the home that had been promised to them, to their ancestors by their God. Is a home hoped for not a home? Can we claim a home of faith and yet be wanderers in a foreign land?
Every Sunday, Christians gather in just that hope. We come to this table with our umbrellas in hand, our keys burning holes in our pockets, and our watches ticking away the minutes until brunch. We do not see this as a place we come to stay, and yet it is the central table around which we, as Christians, live our lives. Away from here we are strangers and wanderers; but if we resided here full time, our faith would be dead. The life of the nomad is the life to which we are called.
Two words spring to mind around the identity of a nomad: readiness and detachment. He who is always traveling in lands he does not own is detached from the world. Nowhere is this Christian vocation more clearly articulated than in the writings of Paul. But Jesus states it differently in todayâs scripture. The readiness to which Jesus calls us is not detached but springs from a profound attachment to both the master and, by extension, the masterâs property. The ready servant waits for the coming of the Lord and guards that which belongs to the master out of reverence.
By extension, we cannot truly be devoted to Christ without being also devoted to that which Christ loves: Godâs people and Godâs beloved creation.
And yet we live in a world of ever-increasing homelessness and placelessness. In our own country we might consider the rates of homelessness, unemployment, and underemployment in the wake of wave after wave of layoffs, downsizing, and outsourcing. Thousands of people are losing their homes, moving to cities, moving outward, westward, homeward.
Placelessness also affects business. Consider the fleets of jets that carry business women and men hundreds of miles each week, each day, rewarding them with silver, gold, platinum, and diamond elite status for a more comfortable home amid the clouds. Consider the young adults without clear career trajectories, facing the uncertainty of the seemingly daily rise and fall of entire industries: one year an intern in San Francisco; the next, back in school in Minneapolis; a few years later, moving to Boston for a job.
Also consider the larger displacement of people due to climate change. As glaciers melt and rivers dry, entire countries are without place. Bangladesh, a largely underdeveloped, agrarian nation that has contributed only minimally to greenhouse gas emissions is soon to be one of the hardest hit by climate change. Not only are they facing a less abundant Ganges river as the Himalayan glaciers disappear, but rising sea levels are forcing more salt into the heart of their agricultural heartland. With 150 million people to feed in a nation the size of Wisconsin, they will soon find themselves among the growing number of climate refugees, placeless in the world.
What is the Christian call in a world of such placelessness? Is it to erect fences, fortify borders, and protect our own sense of place? Is it to sit idly by while ethnic tensions erupt into religious warfare because people are so afraid of being without a place? In a world such as this, the call to placelessness, to the life of a nomad, to care for place while exerting no ownership, is increasingly necessary, increasingly desperate.
Hospitality is not merely coffee hour and greeters, but it is a radical welcoming of the stranger into a home we ourselves do not own. It is a readiness, always, to welcome the master home, in whatever form he or she takes.
As a church, we currently sit on some of the most beautiful architectural assets of our communities. We occupy spaces, places, that are not our own. How might we make these spaces available to the communities that surround us? How do we open our doors wide enough, inviting others into a mutual responsibility for that over which none of us hold ownership, so that we all might have a place? And how also do we open the inner doors of our faith to invite others into that city âwhose architect and builder is Godâ?
Our calling is one of courage. The nomads, the placeless, must have courage, must rely on hospitality just as readily as we provide it, if we are to have a place at all in this world of wanderers.
This is the call of the hope in which we reside â forever placeless and yet always home.