My daughters are captivated by the Wizard of Oz. The book by Frank L. Baum, the MGM movie version--they LOVE it. Our stuffed animal dog is named Toto. And we have Dorothy Halloween costumes. There's something riveting for them--and for me--about this story of a girl who starts to run away from home, who then gets seriously separated from home by the twister and spends the rest of the story trying to find a way home. Home where she belongs. There's no place like home. There's no place like home.
That scratches at an itch that we all have. There's no place like home. Home where you belong. Home where you are not a stranger, but where you find your deepest comforts and satisfactions.
In Hebrews, we read of Abraham's faith and of Abraham's true home. We learn in the book of Genesis that Abraham's home was originally in Ur of the Chaldees, far to the east of Palestine. And God called Abram and Sarah, this older couple who had never had children, to a new home, a promised land, a land flowing with children and countless descendants, a land very different from where he started. Abraham's sojourn was not a nostalgic quest. He pressed on, forward, to a heavenly country, to a heavenly city.
I think there's nothing to help you learn about yourself quite like living in a foreign country. I had the opportunity to spend over a year in Japan as the Assistant Pastor at Tokyo Union Church, and since I'm a Japanese-American person with a face that looks very Japanese, I could be a spy there. I could blend in. I could sneak up next to people conversing in Japanese. Even more I could sneak up next to Americans speaking in English, and I could eavesdrop on their conversation. It was a great year, full of adventure. And one Saturday afternoon, as the naive Californian that I am, I took off on a bike ride. I was wearing short pants, and I didn't have my passport. Riding around in a maze that is Tokyo, I got lost. Lost on my bicycle--lost with no identification. But I could speak enough Japanese to get around and so at the Meguro police box at the Meguro station, I stopped in to talk with the officer. He was friendly enough for a while. I told him where I was trying to go, and he tried to give me instructions and I said, "I tried that and I got stuck. I keep ending up here." So he said, "Come on in and look at this map." I looked at the map on his wall and came in his box and soon I hit the end of my Japanese ability. I was stuck. At that point, he cocked his head to the side and looked at me and asked me (in Japanese), "Are you Japanese?"
Now so far, this entire conversation happened in Japanese. And I was doing okay. But next he asked the question-Nihonkata degozaimasuka?, "Are you Japanese?"-and I'm thinking, "Alright, home boy, here we go! I'm kinda Japanese." And I say boku wa, nikkei amerikajin no sansei desu, "I'm a Japanese-American, third generation." And with a steely gaze, he thrust his hand in my face and said, "Pasupoto." I didn't have my passport. And he began to threaten me and berate me, threatening me with deportation, taking me straight to the airport. Don't ever do this again, and I bowed and I shamed myself, and I apologized and I backed out of that police box and I made my way home.
Telling this story to a friend after I'd returned to the United States, he remarked, laughing at me, "Yamaguchi, you don't belong anywhere. You don't belong in Japan. People hassle you here." And then we both paused and said together in unison, "Except in the Kingdom of God!" That's where we belong.
Where is your citizenship? Where is your home where you belong? We have responsibilities here--things to render to Caesar, but our ultimate allegiance is not to the emperor. And when the empire seems to turn against us, to no longer support school prayer or blue laws on Sundays protecting church time or unique privilege to Christians in public places--when those things are taken away by the empire--we ought not be surprised. The New Testament is full of writings to followers of Jesus who are living under pressure from the society around him. The New Testament writings do not assume a post-Constantinian established church, blessed by the emperor where the government supports the things that the Christian church does. That is not the world of the New Testament.
"Count it all joy when you encounter these trials." And count on trials. Expect them. That's what I hear when I've listened to the words of the New Testament. This world is not your home if you follow Jesus Christ. It ought not be too cozy a place. It's a place that we work on as a part of God's saving intention, but this place is not our home.
Listen again to these things that Hebrews tell us about Abraham, about the faithful ones. "All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. For people who speak in this way make it clear they are seeking a homeland."
The year that I was in Japan I had the opportunity to witness a miracle on Christmas Eve. December 24th in Japan is just another very dark, very cold winter evening. Christmas Eve elsewhere, but it's just another late workday in Tokyo. But as the evening went on, by the hundreds, people streamed into our church--by subway and taxis--the church that usually worshipped with 400 or so on Sunday had four services. Over 1,500 in worship experiencing Christmas Eve in a non-Christian land. From all over the world people came--Lutherans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians. Multi-national corporate executives, military attaches, college students with backpacks surviving as freelance English teachers, ambassadors and diplomats--all together, all seeking something that would remind them of home on Christmas Eve in a foreign land.
Well, it's a wonderful service, it's a beautiful evening, and at the end of the evening's service, the pastors take a light from the Christ candle and then pass it to the front pew. One-by-one the light is passed through the sanctuary from worshiper-to-worshiper, pew-to-pew, which in effect is from nation-to-nation, denomination-to-denomination, and together we sing "Silent Night." One-by-one the light passes through so many different nations to their neighbors, looking ahead to a promised land, finding home in a place that points them toward their heavenly destination, reminding them of where they are going, who they are, and where they belong. The light passes through the pews, through the packed sanctuary, an orange glow throbs in the sanctuary, and we sing together, "Christ the Savior is born."
And then we, the people away from home, on a cold night in a world that doesn't recognize our Savior, remember our real home--a home where we belong--a home where you belong.
Let us pray.
O God, you are our home.
You are the beginning and the ending.
In you we move and have our being.
Lead us step-by-step, day-by-day
to the eternal home that we wait for,
to the city you have prepared for us.
And we wait in faith and hope,
trusting in Jesus,
and praying in his Name. Amen.