"Maybe you had to leave in order to miss a place; maybe you had to travel to figure out how beloved your starting point was."-- Jodi Picoult
Yesterday, I returned to a congregation I pastored fifteen to twenty or so years ago. I retired from serving another congregation this past June, and when my earlier church received the news, they invited my family and me to return to celebrate my retirement. My entire family came-- children, sons-in-law, and grandchildren. My wife and I were thrilled everyone could be there. We worshiped with people we hadn't seen in years and with new faces who connected with the church after we left. It felt good to stand in a familiar pulpit in a familiar sanctuary. Afterward, the church hosted a reception for us in the Fellowship Hall. It was good to reconnect with some great and faithful saints.
During our time of greeting, one person said to me that our presence there felt like having us home again. I spent some time thinking about that yesterday afternoon. There was some truth in what he said. I spent nine years in ministry there. I served churches before and after that time and all my appointments have been a blessing to me; but this congregation and its community was a formative time in our life as family. Our children grew up there and with their involvement in the schools and our involvement in the community, that place has taken on a meaning for me as a pastor, husband, and a father that is embedded in my life and how I understand its progression. It was good to see my now adult children interacting with their now adult and former classmates who also have children as well. And it is always a joy for people to meet my grandchildren! It seemed almost as if we picked up where we left off. While it was necessary at the right time for us to move on, it was clear that all of us have missed this important-- shall I say-- sacred place?
Place matters. Perhaps it is better to say that places matter--hometowns, churches, schools, houses, and even fields-- farms that have been in a family for generations. We dare not dismiss the hold that place has for us; for it is in spaces where the most significant moments of our lives take place, the memorable occasions, and the even the tragedies that bring us together. Place matters not so much for the space itself, but what happens in that space; and while the memories can never be relived, those places can be visited. The walls contain the memories that are released even years later. Time has moved on and the past cannot return, but the walls... they give testimony to the best that life has to offer.
In John 4, Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a sacred place, the well of Jacob the Patriarch. In verses 19-21 we read,
The woman said to him, 'Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.' Jesus said to her, 'Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
Jesus is not saying that a day is coming when places of worship will no longer matter. He is telling her instead that any place God is worshiped will be important-- Gerazim, Jerusalem, Peoria, and Cairo. "Where two or three are gathered," says Jesus, "I am there" (Matthew 18:20). It is not the mountain itself that makes the place sacred; it is the worship of God that makes the mountain holy.
Yesterday, I was reminded of the special sacredness of a particular building at the crossroads of a small town. The worship, the fellowship, the community, and the ministry which inhabited that place over many years is what makes the brick and mortar sacred. I was blessed to be touched by that space. It will never cease to be holy for me.
Moses on Mount Sinai knew there were places and spaces that were sacred; Jesus on the Temple Mount knew it too. So did the prodigal son who, as Jesus said, "came to his senses" in deciding to return home (Luke 15:17). It should not be missed that at the end of the Book of Revelation when God's renews creation, and humanity is once and for with God forever, it is said that we are home (Revelation 21:3).
And one day, when we are fully in the presence of God will we be fully home, dwelling in that eternal sacred space.